Top 10 Books Read in 2019
Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena. Vol. 1. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation. Vol. 2. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.
The best systematic theology written. Bavinck’s method is wonderful: he gathers all of the biblical data, traces the doctrine’s development through history (always with an eye to philosophy as well as theology), and draws together a dogmatic conclusion. He is writing late enough for the historical survey to capture most of church history. And even if one disagrees with a given conclusion, the biblical material he draws together is invaluable.
Leeman, Jonathan. The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).
This is not a book about the nuts and bolts of church discipline (Leeman has authored one of those as well). This is a profound study of the love of God, ecclesiology, and how the two relate. This really is one of the best books I’ve read.
Adams, Edward. The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and its World. Library of New Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark, 2007.
This book is a study of whether or not the New Testament presents an eschatology in which the cosmos is destroyed and recreated. Adams argues, primarily against N.T. Wright, that the cosmos is destroyed (though not annihilated) and then re-created. He further argues that this does not entail a gnostic rejection of material creation. I think that Adams establishes this final point, but he fails to establish his thesis.
The most compelling part of this monograph is Adams’s argument that the cosmic catastrophe language of the Old Testament, which is picked up by the New Testament is not the language of socio-political changes, as Wright maintains. An examination of the language in its Old Testament context and in light of parallels in Jewish apocalyptic literature clearly demonstrates that this language is used to describe actual cosmic catastrophes at the end of the age. He clarifies (here speaking of this imagery as it appears in Mark 13), “”This is not, of course, to say that the language … is mean ‘literally.’ My claim is that like the writers of 1 Enoch 1, etc., the evangelist very probably expects the stereotypical images of catastrophe to translate into actual cosmological events of a calamitous nature” (160).
However, Adams was less successful in maintaining his thesis. He failed to recognize how many of his texts referred to the day of the Lord period that precedes the return of Christ to earth. No premillennialist can accept that those passages are talking about the dissolution of the world. Adams only recognizes that this is a problem when he discusses Revelation 6:12-27, and he does not wish to take a millennial position. He simply notes that if one is a premillennialist this passage anticipates the final dissolution of the world while if one is an amillennialists it refers to the actual dissolution. However, if he were to be consistent with this logic, then all of the other passages he looked at would similarly only be anticipations of a final dissolution. This leaves him with Revelation 21:1. However, he gives no extended treatment to this passage. While acknowledging that many interpreters do not understand this passage to refer to the dissolution of the material world, he simply asserts his position with regard to this passage.
Adams also does not interact with texts which would contradict his thesis (Romans 8:1-25 being the most notable). Rather, Adams notes in his conclusion that the New Testament, like intertestamental Judaism, presents two different views of the cosmos at the end of the age. This is, of course, not a position that can be adopted by those who hold to the inspiration and theological unity of Scripture.
While disagreeing with the book’s thesis, I found many of the exegetical discussion illuminating and worthy of detailed note-taking.
Sanders, Fred. The Triune God. New Studies in Dogmatics. Edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
Compton, Jared and Andrew David Naselli, eds. Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018.
Vlach contributed a decent essay arguing for the future, national conversion of Israel and against the claim that Israel was a type. This is the position I began the book holding. Vlach makes many good points, but he mars his argument by making claims that are tangential to the main issues under discussion (e.g., arguing for sacrifices in a millennial temple).
Hamilton and Zaspel contributed an excellent essay arguing for the future national conversion of Israel and for the claim that Israel was a type. Hamilton and Zaspel convinced me of the latter point. However, this left them with a problem. They had demonstrated exegetically both of their points, and they granted the position that in most cases the anti-type replaces the type. However, all three of these assertions cannot be true. They suggest, “It may be that covenantally constrained institutions, such as the levitical system, fall away after the sacrifice of Christ, but we are not sure the same holds for people or events.” This may be the case, but a better approach is to recognize a time element. It is not Israel in the abstract that is a type of the church. It is Israel under the Mosaic covenant and at a given period of history.
Merkle contributed a well-written essay arguing against the future national conversion of Israel and for the claim that Israel was a type. Merkle may have been the best writer, and this may give his essay more plausibility than his arguments warranted. In fact, the greatest weakness of this essay is that Merkle did not so much argue as assert his position. I think Hamilton and Zaspel were correct to counter, “In our judgment this position depends on too many improbable interpretations of critical points of Paul’s discussion, and so, in the end, fails.”
Horton, Michael S. Lord & Servant: A Covenant Christology. Louisville: WJK, 2005.
Despite the subtitle, this book is more than a Christology. The first part deals with the first term of the title: “Lord.” Horton begins by contrasting Tillich’s hyper-immanent approach to God and Kant and Derrida’s hyper-transcendent view of God with God’s covenantal revelation of himself. Horton argues that theology should not be a study of God’s being, and that salvation is not a matter of ontological union with God. Rather, theology is a study of God’s self-revelation. From this starting point, Horton provides a brief doctrine of God (covering issues such as aseity, impassibility, immutability, the omni’s, goodness, grace, holiness, glory, righteousness, wrath, and more). This is followed by a brief study of creation (in which Horton affirms the Creator-creature distinction and denies dualism).
Part two focuses on the second term in the title: “Servant.” In this part, Horton provides a theological anthropology that covers issues such as the imago dei, personhood, and human nature and a harmartiology that deals with original sin, Adamic headship, the historical Adam, and more.
Part three makes the case that Christ is both Lord and Servant (hence the title). Here Horton deals with the person of Christ in two natures. He critiques Barth, Robert Jenson, and Kenotic Christologies. He defends the extra calvinisticum and the importance of Christ’s humanity as the Second Adam. He also defends the threefold office of Christ and penal, substitutionary atonement.
Hixon, Elijah and Peter J. Gurry. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. InterVarsity, 2019.
Excellent set of essays on textual criticism. I found most helpful Mitchell’s chapter on how long the autographs may have lasted, Peterson’s chapter about how many NT manuscripts exist (and why it is so hard to come to a definitive number), Prothro’s chapter on how to more accurately compare the number of NT and Classical manuscripts, Lanier on why later manuscripts can be better, Cole about how the scribes who copied the NT were not mere amateurs, Gurry about the significance of variants (some are doctrinally significant of themselves, but Scripture is redundnat; no doctrine hangs on a variant).
White, Ronald C. American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. Random House, 2016.
A superb biography that gives a sense of the importance of Grant to the nation. He also probes Grant’s religious views and his moral sense in facing issues such as the Mexican-American War, slavery, civil rights for black Americans, treatment of the American Indian, and more. While not in any way falling into hagiography, White dismantles myths such as the idea that Grant was a drunkard or the claim that his military victories were simply due to numerical superiority. He also deals well with Grant’s presidency, noting both his achievements and recognizing how his shortcomings allowed for some of his subordinates to taint his administration with scandal. A must-read biography.
Caro, Robert A. Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. New York: Knopf, 2019.
Caro is a fascinating writer, and this book about how he came to write his biographies is filled with fascinating anecdotes.
Other Books Read in 2019
Victorinus of Petovium, Apringius of Beja, Caesarius of Arles, and Bede the Venerable. Latin Commentaries on Revelation. Edited by Thomas C. Oden, and Gerald L. Bray. Translated by William C. Weinrich. Ancient Christian Texts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011.
This is a fascinating collection of patristic commentaries. The first is the earliest extant commentary on Revelation. Notably, it is both premillennial and futurist. The other commentaries were amillennial and used a fourfold sense approach to interpretation (see below). Of the other commentaries after Victorinus, I found Caesarius of Arles most insightful.
Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea. Greek Commentaries on Revelation. Edited by Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray. Translated by William C. Weinrich. Ancient Christian Texts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011.
Both of these early Greek commentaries were very interesting. They adopted a fourfold sense approach. Interestingly, Oecumenius seemed to be futurist in the literal sense and akin to modern idealism in the allegorical sense. Though not adopting their approach, I found both commentators regularly insightful.
Burr, David, trans. and ed. The Book of Revelation. The Bible in Medieval Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.
This volume summarized medieval commentaries on Revelation and provided selected excerpts. It covered the time from Richard of Saint Victor to Nicholas of Lyra. The medieval commentators here were all decidedly historicist in their approach. The main difference between them was whether the history of the world was repeatedly recapitulated or whether it ran through the entire book sequentially. Commentators also differed in their assessment of how close the end they viewed their own day.
Edwards, Jonathan. Apocalyptic Writings: “Notes on the Apocalypse” An Humble Attempt. Edited by John E. Smith and Stephen J. Stein. Vol. 5. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1977.
This was a fascinating read, even though I did not find Edwards’s historicist interpretation of Revelation compelling.
Vlach, Michael J. Premillennialism: Why There Must Be a Future Earthly Kingdom of Jesus. Los Angeles: Theological Studies Press, 2015.
In addition to standard readings of Revelation 20 and the argument that certain OT texts fit neither the present age nor the eternal state, Vlach makes several compelling theological arguments for a Millennium. First, he argues that the Creation Blessing requires the Messiah and his people to successfully subdue the earth as God originally intended. This arguement is exegetically grounded and compelling. Second, Vlach argues that premillennialism in the early church was better at guarding the goodness of creation. Third, Vlach detects a pattern in which the Day of the Lord judgment is followed by the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
Joel R. White, “The 144,000 in Revelation 7 and 14: Old Testament and Intratextual Clues to Their Identity,” in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis, ed. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013.
A compelling argument for the Israelite identity of the 144,000 in Revelation.
Carson, D. A. “The Tripartite Division of the Law: A Review of Philip Ross, The Finger of God.” In From Creation to New Creation. Edited by Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013.
In this essay Carson reviews Ross’s defense of the tripartite division of the law into the categories of moral, ceremonial, and civil. Carson credits Ross with a careful historical survey of the issue, but he concludes that this survey actually undermines Ross’s case. A tripartite division of the law cannot be traced earlier than Aquinas. The bulk of the book seeks to demonstrate the tripartite division of the law from Scripture, and Carson finds that Ross struggles to make his case. For instance, Ross argues that within the Pentateuch, distinctions are made between the Decalogue, cultic laws, laws with punishments, and so forth. Carson observes,
Ross mounts a fine defense against the proposition that the laws of Moses are “one indivisible whole.” In fairness to his opponents, however, most who make such an affirmation are not saying that no distinctions can be made among the Mosaic laws. Rather, they are saying something slightly different: for those who are under the Mosaic covenant, the obligation to obey the entire array of stipulations under that covenant is sweeping and comprehensive. (226-27)
Carson is not opposed to finding distinctions among the laws, but he finds biblical evidence for a tripartite division lacking. He concludes that it is incorrect to claim the tripartite division of the law was something found in Scripture which should then serve as an a priori in discussions of the law. However, he grants that the division can serve as a “heuristic device if we grant it a posteriori status.” Casron explains:
In other words, we do not begin with a definition of moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law but observe (for example) what laws change least, across redemptive history, in the nature and details of their demands, and happily apply the category “moral” to them. (236)
Then, in light of our understanding of what laws are moral laws, we can discern which may fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial.
Carson’s approach commends itself. It allows the Mosaic covenant to stand as a unified covenant in distinction from the new covenant. The categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial are handy tags for identifying those laws which remain valid in both Old and New Covenants while identifying others as having passed away when the covenant to which they were attached passed away.
Jacobs, Alan. Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. New York: Currency, 2017.
Alan Jacobs is like C. S. Lewis, an Anglican layman who provides probing insights on the Christian life. As with Lewis there are points of theological disagreement (though I suspect Jacobs is closer to me theologically than Lewis was), but with both I find reading almost everything they write worth reading and thinking about. Highlights of among the essays in Wayfaring were the ones about commonplace books, Samuel Johnson, gardening and human dominion over the earth, and friendship.
Olinger, Danny E. Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian. Philadelphia: Reformed Forum, 2018.
An excellent biography of an outstanding theologian.
Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by Richard B. Gaffin. Translated by Annemie Godbehere, et al. Vol. 1–5. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016.
A helpful resource that is what the title says. It is great to have this alonside Vos’s Biblical Theology.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Volume 34. Edited by Helmut T. Lehmann and Lewis W. Spitz. Philadelphia: Fotress, 1960.
This volume contains writings from later in Luther’s life, including writings that are related to the Diet of Augsburg.
Barker, William S. Puritan Profiles: 54 Influential Puritans at the Time When the Westminster Confession of Faith Was Written. Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1996.
This was a good collection of accessible Puritan biographies.
Moore, Jonathan D. English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
An excellent historical study of English Hypothetical Universalism. I found the exposition of the views of Ussher, Davenant, and Preston fascinating. I also think Moore demonstrates that English Hypoethical Universalism is distinct from Amyraldianism and that it is within the bounds of historic Reformed theology.
Manton, Thomas. “Sermon V: Mark 9:49.” In The Complete Works of Thomas Manton. Vol. 2. London: Nisbet, 1871.
Though there are textual variants in this verse that Manton did not know about, he interprets this verse in light of its context. Thus, though he may not have every exegetical detail right, everything he draws from this verse can be drawn from the passage.
The focus of the sermon is on mortification, and it is an excellent sermon on that topic.
Hays, J. Daniel. From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Edited by D. A. Carson. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
This is a helpful volume for drawing together biblical material concerning nations and people groups. Hays also gives good coverage to the Cushites and deals well with common mis-interpreations regarding them.
Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. New York: Doubleday, 2011.
This is an engaging history that intertwines the lives of James Garfield and Charles Guiteau with the development of medical technology. Readers come away with a high view of Garfield and the promise of his administration, and a sense of loss in the reality that he need not have died had he received proper medical attention.
Burrow, Rufus, Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians. Armchair Theologians Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
This is a very helpful volume for understanding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theology by an author who is sympathetic to it.
Reeves, Michael. Enjoy Your Prayer Life. 10Publishing, 2014.
This is a helpful, brief book on prayer. Its brevity makes it ideal for repeated reading and meditation.
Crouch, Andy. The Tech-Wise Family. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017.
This book contains a good bit of practical advice, but I was expecting it to be more theologically grounded than it was.
Rosner, Brian S. Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity. Biblical Theology for Life. Edited by Jonathan Lunde. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
Though not at the level of Rosner’s superb book on Paul and the law, I did gain insight from several chapters. I especially found helpful this insight:
As it turns out, the Bible confirms the legitimacy of the standard personal identity markers, but denies their ultimacy. Many of them are indispensable, but they are an insufficient foundation upon which to build your identity. (42)
Rosner concludes that if any of the following standard personal identity markers become the “foundations of personal identity,” one becomes an idolater. The Bible critiques idols by noting that they “are gods that fail” (Hab. 2:18-19; Jer. 16:19; Rom. 1:21-23; 1 Cor. 12:2) and they are “gods that degrade their worshippers” (Ps. 135:18; Rev. 9:20-21) (pp. 61-62).
I see connections here with Koyzis’s treatment of political ideologies Personal identity makers can also take something good in the created order and make it ultimate in a way that is idolatrous. Similarly, certain identity markers can become demonized as the ultimate evil or cause of the world’s problems.
Warfield, B. B. “Justification by Faith, Out of Date.” SSW 1:283-84.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “On Faith in Its Psychological Aspects.” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Studies in Theology, vol. 9. 1932; Reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Warfield, B. B. Inability and the Demand of Faith. SSW.
Warfield on faith.
Murray, Iain. Revival and Revivalism. Banner of Truth.
A compelling historical study that demonstrates the significant distinction between revival and revivalism. Without this distinction, the church is at risk of embracing counterfeits to the Spirit’s work or to adopting an overly rationalist approach to Christianity.
Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines.
An engaging history of the Philippines that especially emphasizes its complex relationship with the United States.
Ortlund, Dane C. Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
Like the other books in this serious, Ortlund seeks to mine Edwards for guidance for contemporary Christian living. He is largely appreciative of Edwards, but he does include a chapter of critique as well.
Williamson, H.G.M. Ezra and Nehemiah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
This book is overall too given to critical methodologies to be useful other than for getting a feel of the state of scholarship for those given to those methodologies. The chapter on the book’s theology and his defense of the authenticity of the letters in the book were useful.