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

10 Theses on Union With Christ

unionI finished Letham’s work on union with Christ last week, but I wanted to return to it one last time. Letham has a fascinating chapter entitled “Union with Christ and Transformation”  in which he examines the relationship between union with Christ and Eastern and Reformed conceptions of deification. At the end of the chapter, he lists and expounds 10 theses on union which summarize much of his findings with respect to the transformative aspect of union:

  1. The union we enjoy with Christ is more real and more fundamental that the union we have with members of our own body” (pg. 123) By this he means that our union with Christ is of such a nature that any analogy ultimately falls short of the reality. Legal, organic, familial, and structural metaphors all convey some of the truth, but none fully captures the fullness of the saving union with our savior.
  2. This is not a union of essence–we do not cease to be human and become God or get merged into God like ingredients in an ontological soup. This is is not apotheosis.” (pg. 123) This union is not to be taken pantheistically. Even the patristic dictum, “God became man so that we might become god” must be taken within the context of a strong acknowledgment of the Creator/creature distinction. If anything, the point is that we become more fully human than we ever were before.
  3. We do not lose our personal individual identities in some universal generic humanity.” (pg. 123) Just as the one God is distinctly three from all of eternity, and the humanity of the Son is not destroyed, but elevated in the incarnation, so in our union with Christ, our identity is not destroyed or collapsed into his. We are one by the power of the Holy Spirit, but we remain who we are.
  4. Union with Christ comes to expression in, and is cultivated by, the Word and the sacraments.” (pg. 124) Through the efficacious preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit calls us to life and faith (1 Pet. 1:23; Jas. 1:18; Rom. 10:9-17).  Those brought to life through the Word are sustained through feeding, by the mysterious activity of the Spirit, on Christ’s flesh and blood (John 6:63).
  5. The body and blood of Christ are not materially, corporeally, or physically present in the Lord’s Supper.” (pg. 125) Unlike Roman Catholic, and to some extent Lutheran, accounts. We truly are given Christ, united with Christ, not physically but by the action of the Holy Spirit who mediates his presence truly.
  6. In the Lord’s Supper we are lifted up by the Holy Spirit to feed on Christ.” (pg. 126) Here Letham builds on Calvin’s spatial language with reference to the Ascension. The Holy Spirit joins us to Christ’s person in the Supper by way of faith receiving his promises. Horton has suggested elsewhere that the spatial language be replaced by eschatological language. In the Supper, the Spirit makes present Christ’s resurrection life of the New Age in the life of the believer.
  7. We are not hypostatically united to the Son.” (pg. 126) The incarnation is unique; the Son takes on humanity only once. The Spirit indwells many, united them to Christ and bringing them into the fullness of life in Christ. We are not to confuse the types of unions involved.
  8. We are united with Christ’s person.” (pg. 126) At the same time, union is not only indwelling, but is rooted in the incarnation of the Son who thereby makes himself one with us according to our humanity. This is a tricky that I’m not quite sure I’ve grasped (not that I have the others). but it’s not only that we are in fellowship with God, communing with him, but are actually united with him, the Godman. It’s a mystical, metaphysical, transformative reality that ought not be downplayed.
  9. It is effected and developed by the Holy Spirit through faith, in and through the means of grace…” (pg. 127) Union with Christ isn’t an individualistic thing, but “churchly.” It happens through the everyday stuff of the life of the church: the breaking of bread, the scriptures, the community, and prayer by which the Spirit has promised to meet us.
  10. “It will eventually lead to our being ‘like Christ’ (1 John 3:1-2).” (pg.128)  God wants to make us more like himself. For right now we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), by being set free from sin and the inevitable curse of death. When Christ returns though, we will be glorified like him. United with him, how can the body not eventually be made like the head?

Of course, each of these points could be, and are in the book, expanded upon at length. For now they chart a course through the deep theological waters we enter in when considering the riches of our union with Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel–It’s a Union Thing

One more bit from Letham:

Indeed, the Christian faith can be summed up as, inter alia, a series of unions. There is the union of the three persons in the Trinity, the union of the Son of God with our human nature, the union of Christ with his church, the union established by the Holy Spirit with us as he indwells us. Each of these unions preserves the integrity of the constituent elements or members, being at once a real union and simultaneously not absorbing the one into the other.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pp. 37-38

You could spend the rest of your Christian life simply studying the various unions mentioned by Letham and still not come to the end of the grace and glory of the Gospel. The Triunity of God alone ought to, and will, delight us for all eternity, before we even get to the unions whereby God includes us in that life, becomes our brother, makes us part of the church, or sets us free from sin. Simply put: the Gospel is a union thing.

Soli Deo Gloria

Letham on Union with Christ and Salvation

unionRobert Letham briefly summarizes the connection between union with Christ and our justification, sanctification, and resurrection:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Each of those points could be expanded upon at length, but this brief summary gives us a glimpse into the way the biblical record places our union with Christ at the blazing center of our salvation through Christ. There is no Gospel without union.

Soli Delo Gloria

God is Creatively Creative

creationMost believers in God, if they’ve given our world more than a cursory glance, must come to the conclusion that we serve a creative God. The Maker of heaven and earth filled it with everything from aphids to the Aurora Borealis. Canvas after canvas is filled with the glory of our God’s infinitely fecund imagination. What we don’t often give thought to is the creative way in which God is creative. Let me rephrase that: God is not simply creative as to his works, but also in the way that he works.

Robert Letham notes at least three ways that God works to shape the our world in the creation account in Genesis 1:

In particular, he forms the earth in a threefold manner. First, he issues direct fiats. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light (v.3). So, too, he brings into being with seemingly effortless command the expanse (v. 6), the dry ground (v. 9), the stars (vv. 14-15), the birds and the fish (vv. 20-21). Each time it is enough for God to speak, and his edict is fulfilled.

Second, he works. He separates the light from the darkness (v. 4), he makes the expanse and separates the waters (v. 7), he makes the two great lights, the sun and the moon (v.16), and sets them in the expanse to give light on the earth (v. 17), he creates the great creatures of the seas and various kinds of birds (v. 21), he makes the beasts of the earth and the reptiles (v. 25), and finally he creates man–male and female–in his own image (v. 26-27) The thought is of focused, purposive action by God, of divine labor accomplishing his ends.

But there is also a third way of formation, in which God uses the activity of the creatures themselves. God commands the earth to produce vegetation, plants, and trees (vv. 11-12). He commands the lights to govern the day and the night (vv. 14-16). Here the creatures follow God’s instructions and contribute to the eventual outcome.

–Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pp. 10-11

God might be described as a king, a craftsman, and a delegator in his threefold creation. He issues decrees that are immediately fulfilled, gets his hands dirty by getting the job done himself, and giving creation itself tasks to accomplish. There are a number of observations that can be made on this basis, but I’ll limit myself to three.

For one, it begins to set the stage for understanding God in a more fully-personal fashion. We see the Father acting by what Ireneaus called his two hands, the Word and the Spirit, to bring about a varied-but-united order. “This God loves order and variety together” (pg. 11), because he himself is the Triune one who is One and yet Three.

We also see in this threefold activity an incipient theology of multiple-levels of causality. Sometimes God’s action is a direct, creative word which needs to mediation. Sometimes, God acts through creaturely means in ways that can be properly ascribed both to God as primary cause, and creature as a secondary, but no less real, cause. It gives God no glory to ascribe to him strict mono-causality in an effort to secure his sovereignty. (Which good Reformed theologians shouldn’t do.)

Finally, something of the nature of redemption is prefigured here. First, God speaks by fiat a declarative word in justification that brings to life those who were dead. God also separates out a people, making them holy by his Word and Spirit. Finally, he uses creaturely means such as the preaching of the Word, water, bread, and wine to save and recreate his people. 

Our Triune God is not only creative, he is creatively creative.

Soli Deo Gloria