Not counting books on ethics and commentaries on Galatians, these are the ten best books I read in 2021. Were I to count the books in the other categories Magnuson’s text on ethics, Udemans’s The Practice of Faith, Hope, and Love, and Moo’s commentary on Galatians would displace Pennington and Bartholomew.
Ussher, James. “Immanuel, Or The Mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.” In The Whole Works of the Most Rev. James Ussher. Vol. 4. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, and Co., 1631.
This work is Scripture-saturated, devotional in tone, and theologically deep. A rare work that combines all three elements. It makes me want to read more Ussher.
Leeman, Jonathan. One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models. Crossway, 2020.
I think Leeman achieves his goal of establishing that multiservice and multisite models are at variance from the ecclesiology of the New Testament. I think he effectively makes his case that ekklēsia refers to the assembly of God’s people. I’ve been reading the biography of William Tyndale concurrently with this book, and Tyndale translated ekklēsia as congregation. I think English Bible translations would benefit from reverting to Tyndale on this point. I’m not sure that the references to the universal church refer to the eschatological assembly of all God’s people, but I don’t think that claim is integral to the argument.
If I were teaching ecclesiology, I would use Greg Allison’s Sojourners and Strangers as my text with this book by Leeman as required reading.
Troxel, A. Craig. With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020.
This is an excellent, devotionally rich book that examines what it means to grow in sanctification with regards to knowing, loving, and choosing, all aspects of what is collectively understood in Scripture as the heart.
Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Taylor, Mrs. Howard. Borden of Yale. Bethany House, 1988.
Our son William Russell Collins, born this year, was named after both William Tyndale and William Borden of Yale, and I read these biographies as we awaited William’s birth. For a Yale University Press volume, David Daniell’s biography is not merely a detached, scholarly study of Tyndale but a stout defense of the Reformation that Tyndale promoted through his Bible translation and writings. Borden of Yale is a devotional biography that stirs the heart to be entirely devoted to Christ.
Gribben, Crawford. An Introduction to John Owen. Crossway, 2020.
This brief book combines a survey of Owen’s life with a survey of his theology. For instance, it begins with Owen’s birth and a consideration of his views of baptism and concludes with his death and a consideration of his views of eschatology. I understood Owen to be a preterist based on the sermons in volume 9 of his work, but Gribben indicates that Owen’s eschatology shifted to premillennialism at the end of his life. His discussion of this shift if fascinating.
Bartholomew, Craig G. The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.
Bartholomew uses the Sinai event to examine how various philosophers and theologians have viewed God’s action in history. Bartholomew surveys and critiques Maimonides perfect-being theology, which posited that God cannot speak. I think that Bartholomew rightly picks up on some of the recent formulations of immutability and simplicity, which would seem to preclude any interaction between God and his world. In contrast to this perfect-being theology, which Bartholomew also links with Aquinas and classical theism generally, he prefers the work of Colin Gunton. But as Gunton was a Barthian and a social trinitarian, and I’m not sure that is not best way forward.
Pennington, Jonathan T. Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020.
Pennington’s basic thesis is that the Bible is raising and answering the same questions raised by ancient philosophy. The opening chapters did a good job of sketching the concerns of ancient philosophy and demonstrating that the Old and New Testaments address these concerns. The next chapter, on emotions, had a helpful survey of Greco-Roman and biblical teaching about emotion. I found the next two chapters, on relationships and happiness, to be less satisfying. The chapter on happiness covered some of the same ground that Pennington has covered elsewhere in more detail. The chapter on relationships dealt with political philosophy/theology, and I thought the treatment fairly superficial.
Jesus the Great philosopher is pitched at the educated layman, with an easy-to-read style and pop culture references. The pop culture references often distracted from the message of the book; I doubt Jesus the Great Philosopher would approve recommending R-rated movies that feature nudity. In the chapter on emotions, Pennington spoke of God’s emotions without even nodding to the debates about impassibility. In a book that seeks to show the connections between ancient Greek philosophy and the Bible, the absence of discussion about Greek metaphysics and their relation to Christian theology was striking. Systematic theology in general does not make much of an appearance in this volume. Pennington seems most at home in the worlds of biblical studies, surveys of ancient philosophy, modern psychology, and middle-brow best sellers. A final weakness is a lack of attention to the antithesis. Pennington has such a positive view of Stoicism and positive psychology that he sometimes reads as though Christianity completes ancient philosophical systems that were basically headed in the right direction. Attention to Kavin Rowe’s work on Stoicism would have led to a greater appreciation of Christianity’s distinctiveness.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch.
Two major themes of this book are marriage and financial troubles.
The marriage of Dorothea to Mr. Casaubon exemplifies an idealistic wife, who desires to learn and aid her husband in his great work, and a husband who prioritizes a futile project over his wife. His jealousy and distrust of her leads to her misery, and even in death his jealousy causes him to dishonor her.
The marriage of Dr. Lydgate to Rosamond exemplifies a man who marries a beautiful wife whom he thinks adores him only to find that her inflexible self-centered pursuit of status, which led her to marry him, will be their ruin. It will bring them into financial straits that will cause him to violate his principles and in the end bring dishonor upon them both.
Fred Vincy and Mary Garth’s trajectory is the reverse of Lydgate and Rosamond’s. Fred starts off financially reckless, and his recklessness brings difficulty to Mary’s family because her father unwisely agreed to back Fred’s debts. Mary will not have Fred until he reforms his ways, which he happily does.
Religion also plays a significant role in the book. Dorothea is religiously zealous, and this seems to play a role in her unwise choice in marrying Mr. Casaubon. The less orthodox Mr. Fairbrother is presented in more favorable terms that the orthodox Mr. Tyke. And the seemingly pious Mr. Bulstrode is shown to be a hypocrite. This all matches Eliot’s own unbelief. However, it must be said that Eliot avoids making Bulstrode a caricature of a hypocrite. She presents him as a man who truly desires to be pious but who also desires to be wealthy and respected. When these desires clash, the rationalizations by which he seeks to continue to view himself as being the former while pursuing the latter are the kind of rationalizations that every Christian should beware of.
The one marriage that did not come off persuasively was Dorothea’s second marriage to Will Ladislaw. There are enough significant character flaws in Ladislaw that the happy marriage that is said to follow does not seem as convincing as the happy marriage of Fred and Mary.
Graff, Garrett M. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. Simon & Schuster, 2019.
This is an excellently composed oral history of September 11th, which weaves together, with minimal connective notes, the actual words of those who experienced September 11th in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, aboard Air Force One, and in other parts of the country.