Book Review: Young, Restless, Reformed

In August of 2006 Christianity Today ran a cover story on the rising influence of Calvinism among young evangelicals. Collin Hansen, the author of the article, has now expanded his treatment of this trend into a 150-page book: Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Think Blue Like Jazz, but about Calvinism. Hansen travels around the country interviewing people who are influencing the “New Calvinists,” from John Piper to Mark Driscoll to leaders and students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

This book is interesting if you take it for what it is: not a high-level sociological study, but more a collection of anecdotal evidence for and explanation of the recent surge in Reformed theology. Hansen is right in the middle of the movement, with a story similar to many of us who identify with the New Calvinists: he grew up in a broadly evangelical context, was confronted by a more robust version of Christianity in college, and that led him eventually to embrace Calvinism (after initially rejecting it). So this is a sympathetic presentation of the movement with some good analysis from several of its leaders.

Hansen doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the weaknesses of the New Calvinists, including the tendency toward hero-worship (anybody ever hear of a guy named Piper?) and the arrogance that frequently appears especially in young Calvinists. He quotes Michael Horton distinguishing between five-point Calvinism and the broader contours of Reformed theology, and gives attention to some prominent critics of Calvinism. In other words, this book is sympathetic but not a blind endorsement of everything that goes on under the name of Calvinism.

If there’s a flaw to Young, Restless, Reformed, I would call it a lack of depth. But as I said before, the book doesn’t claim to be a historical or sociological masterpiece. It’s a series of stories chronicling a movement that’s still growing in maturity and influence, and as such it’s excellent. If you’re sympathetic to Calvinism it will encourage you. If you’re not a fan, or have no idea what a “New Calvinist” is, this is a quick and interesting read.


Book Review: A Theology for the Church

A Theology for the Church is a unique book. It’s a systematic theology by multiple authors, written on an academic level but with the goal of impacting the church as a whole. It is written by Southern Baptists but is applicable to all thinking Christians. The contributors disagree on some points, although they are united by their “passion for a revival of theological knowledge and understanding in the church.”

The goal of the book is to present to the church a guide to the major headings of theology that will help pastors and laypeople both to learn sound doctrine and to see the importance, the relevance, of that doctrine. Toward that end, each chapter asks four questions about the doctrine at hand:

  1. What does the Bible say?
  2. What has the church believed?
  3. How does it all fit together?
  4. What is the significance of the doctrine for the church today?

This is a great approach, integrating exegesis, history, systematic theology, and application. This last section was especially great in most of the chapters I read. It’s true that the study of theology involves the danger of divorcing the knowledge of God from “real life,” but it’s also true that the true knowledge of God, the ground of all reality, is invaluable in living in the real world.The application sections are dead-on in showing how our theology, good or bad, shapes our behavior, whether we admit it or not.

Because this book was written by a variety of authors and covers a vast amount of material, it’s inevitable that everyone will disagree at some point. That was the case for me, although at most points I thought the treatments were fair even when I disagreed with the author. The chapter on salvation, for example, contained some misunderstandings of the doctrine of predestination (including an out-of-line comment that R.C. Sproul’s doctrine of God is similar to that of Islam!). But it avoided many of the common errors, and was a pretty good treatment of the Reformed view of predestination, considering that the author doesn’t hold that view.

A second criticism is that the book is not really written on quite the popular level you might expect from the title. I still think Grudem’s Systematic Theology is the best reference for most churchgoers (without sacrificing academic rigor). Of course many laypeople will read Theology for the Church and profit from it, but it will probably be more useful to pastors with some theological training.

Criticisms aside, though, this book really is a gift to the church. The chapter “Introduction to the Task of Theology” is great; other standouts are “Special Revelation” and “Human Sinfulness.” The contributors are a who’s-who of bigshots in the SBC, but they quote extensively from outside that tradition, so the relevance isn’t limited. The historical overviews are a great resource, and the general zeal for the importance of theology in the life of the church is catching. A Theology for the Church deserves a spot on the thinking Christian’s shelf.

Book Review: The Reason for God

Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is one of the bigger names in the church planting world. Having planted a thriving, reproducing, solidly evangelical church in one of the capitals of post-Christian America, he is also a well-respected voice on reaching secular culture with the Gospel. It’s in this vein that he’s written his new book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

The Reason for God is being hyped as a Mere Christianity for the 21st century, although Keller quickly protests, “I don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as a writer like C.S. Lewis.” It’s also a sane, intelligent response to recent anti-religion books like God is Not Great and The God Delusion (which at many points are neither sane nor intelligent). The book is structured in two halves, the first addressing seven objections to Christianity (such as “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”) and the second putting forward a positive argument for central tenets of the Christian faith (e.g. the knowledge of God, sin, the cross, the resurrection).

The Mere Christianity comparison is not an unfair one at all. In fact, in some ways Keller’s book is better. His theology is both more robust and more sound (no one, including C. S. Lewis, ever accused C. S. Lewis of being a great theologian). Also, Lewis defends a sort of “lowest common denominator” Christianity, and while Keller does try to distill the most important doctrines, he deliberately centers the faith in the historic creeds without diminishing the importance of other doctrines. His approach is not vastly different, but better explained.

Keller has a gift for putting forth absolutely devastating arguments without being argumentative. He has some great game-set-match observations here, but he never sounds like he’s angry at nonbelievers for being nonbelievers; he never sits back with arms folded and waits for them to crumble. He shows, for example, that statements like “All religious claims to have a better view of things are arrogant and wrong” are, on their own terms, arrogant and wrong (11). People’s claims that religious beliefs are historically conditioned are themselves historically conditioned (10). But this was one of my favorite observations:

Today many of the skeptics I talk to say, as I once did, they can’t believe in the God of the Bible, who punishes and judges people, because they “believe in a God of Love.” I now ask, what makes them think God is Love? Can they look at life in the world today and say, “This proves that the God of the world is a God of love”? Can they look at history and say, “This all shows that the God of history is a God of love”? Can they look at the religious texts of the world and conclude that God is a God of love? By no means is that the dominant, ruling attribute of God as understood in any of the major faiths. I must conclude that the source of the idea that God is Love is the Bible itself. And the Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment who will put all things in the world to rights in the end. (82-83)

This book is effective because it understands the fact that all true human knowledge is grounded in the God of the Bible and what he chooses to reveal to people. The Christian view of the world is not only reasonable; it is the only reasonable way of looking at the world. Other worldviews succeed only to the extent that they operate on “borrowed capital” from the Christian worldview. The book does have a couple of weaknesses—the chapter on Christianity and science is weakened by Keller’s view of creation, which caves somewhat to the prevailing scientific view—but it presents a great challenge to non-Christian views, and a great argument for the truth of the Gospel. I highly recommend it, especially if you have skeptical friends who are willing to engage in real conversation.

Book Review: Vintage Jesus

I’ve commented on Mark Driscoll before: planting pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, leads a church planting network called Acts 29, all-around provocateur. His new book is Vintage Jesus: Timeless Answers to Timely Questions, and it’s intended to be the first in a series introducing core Christian doctrines to the postmodern crowd. If this volume is any indication, the series should be great.

The book, as I said, is written with younger people in mind, especially people with little church background who are interested in the answer to the question who is Jesus? Each chapter asks and answers a related question, things like Is Jesus the only god? How human was Jesus? What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Why should we worship Jesus? There are 12 chapters total, each of which is followed by a brief “Answers to Common Questions” section.

There are two things I especially appreciate about this book: First, it is thoroughly biblical. Not just in the sense of not containing things that contradict the Bible—I mean that the book itself is saturated with Scripture. Nearly every fact Driscoll puts forward about Jesus is backed up with a Scripture reference (although I wish this weren’t just done with footnotes), and he is always appealing to the Bible as the basis for the book’s arguments. The authority here is clearly with the Bible, not with Driscoll-the-author and certainly not with Driscoll-the-celebrity-Christian. Second, the book is theologically solid. Again, I don’t just mean the lack of bad theology, but good, careful explanation of important truths. Driscoll explains why it’s significant that Jesus calls himself the Son of Man (and it wasn’t to emphasize his humanity!), what it does and doesn’t mean that Jesus “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7), and why the Virgin Birth really is vital to true Christianity. This is a good book on Christology that’s written in an easy style—not one that’s dumbed down its content.

As I mentioned recently, there’s been a lot of chatter about some of the content of this book, specifically the use of humor. The first thing to say is that Driscoll is a great writer. He’s engaging and entertaining without being silly. In fact, I laughed out loud several times while reading Vintage Jesus. It’s also true that sometimes his humor pushes the line, and sometimes jogs nonchalantly right over it. So there were a few times I raised my eyebrows reading this book, and two or three times when I just flat-out thought something was inappropriate. It’s not a question of whether Driscoll takes Jesus seriously; the book really proves that he does. It’s a matter of “filthiness and crude joking” (Eph 5:4), which we are told to avoid. I’m not saying I avoid this any better than Driscoll—I’m convicted even as I write this—but I’m saying those things are most definitely out of place in a book about our Lord.

But again, this was only a very small part of my reaction to the book. All the theology and most of the humor is great. Driscoll is an equal-opportunity offender as he challenges our culture’s images of Jesus. He puts Jesus in his rightful place, the place God the Father gives him, the place the Bible gives him: the very highest place, worthy of all honor and glory and worship. And he does this in a style that’s not only readable, but gripping and appealing as well.

Book Review: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

Readers of this site will probably recognize the name of Tim Challies, who I link to from time to time. He is one of the best-known figures in the Christian blogosphere, both for his blog and Discerning Reader, a book review site. He’s also been known to live-blog a conference or two. He is, in other words, one of a new breed: a somewhat famous blogger.

But read his site for a few days, and you’ll realize that Tim is not your ordinary average blogger. He’s not a kid sitting in his mom’s basement (although I do think he works from home)— he daily posts thought-provoking, biblically based articles, and he avoids pointless rants and fingerpointing. At any rate, he’s a thoughtful Christian and a good writer. So I was glad to see his first book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, and it did not disappoint. Challies is an “ordinary” Christian writing to other ordinary Christians about the importance of evaluating everything we see and hear by the standard of Scripture. This kind of discernment is the prerogative of all believers, not just the “experts.”

Challies defines discernment as “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.” His book unpacks both the need for Christians to hone and practice this skill and some ways to do so. Discernment seeks to obey Paul’s charge to “Test everything, hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” This involves the dreaded act of “judging,” but Challies explains in what sense Christians are to judge and in what sense we may not judge. Discernment is not just feeling out our own emotions or searching for some secret truth God has not revealed elsewhere; it is learning to apply the objective truth of God’s Word to any and every situation, sifting out the good from the bad. It is both a gift, something God imparts in a particular way to some believers, and a skill or discipline, something all believers should pursue and practice. And it is a skill that is critically needed in the church today.

There were only a couple of issues I had with this book. First, I think Challies goes too far in emphasizing the objective aspects of discernment over against the subjective. He rightly emphasizes discernment as being based on the standard of Scripture, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge any subjective element, as though every question we might face could be solved by solid biblical exegesis. Second, in his chapter “The Gift of Discernment,” he says: “What the church needs today is a class of believers who are identified as the experts in discernment and as those who have special ability in this area.” This and other comments in that chapter made me nervous—it almost seems like Challies is creating a new church office, that of “discerner,” which I thought detracted from his main idea, that discernment is the task of every Christian. But again, these were isolated incidents in the middle of a great book.

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a timely book. The church today is frighteningly emotion- and experience-based, and we need to learn to test everything by the Word of God. Challies doesn’t just sound the alarm, he offers help toward a solution. He does this with a high view of the Scriptures and the local church, so that the fruit of his encouragement is likely to be thoughtful believers who serve God and his Kingdom well.

This book gets bonus points because it has two ads I like:

(Challies is Canadian. Classic.)

Book Review: The Jesus Storybook Bible

If you grew up in the church—OK, even if you occasionally took in a Sunday School or VBS—chances are you heard the story of Jonah and the whale when you were a kid. But here’s a conclusion I bet you never heard (I didn’t):

Many years later, God was going to send another Messenger with the same wonderful message. Like Jonah, he would spend three days in utter darkness.

But this Messenger would be God’s own Son. He would be called “The Word” because he himself would be God’s Message. God’s Message translated into our own language. Everything God wanted to say to the whole world—in a Person.

This is what I love about The Jesus Storybook Bible: Each story is delightfully told, including some that don’t often make the Sunday School rotation, like Namaan and the servant girl from 2 Kings 5. But the stories are not just told, they’re interpreted. Throughout the stories, and especially in the last paragraph of each, Sally Lloyd-Jones (no relation) shows how each story is part of God carrying out his “Secret Rescue Plan,” a plan that culminates in the Gift of Jesus. This isn’t just a storybook for children; it’s good theology. It helps us to see Christ as the centerpiece of all of Scripture, and how he was the point of God’s plan from the beginning.

I do need to point out that there are a few places where I found Lloyd-Jones’ paraphrase or summary of Scripture a little iffy. At the beginning of the Jonah story, for example, God tells Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and tell your worst enemies that I love them.” Now, this brings out something a lot of people don’t know, that Ninevah was the capital of Assyria and that Assyria was, in fact, the worst enemy of Israel. But the author of Jonah summarizes his call this way: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Now, in a derivative way, this does show God’s love for Ninevah (after all, he could have just destroyed them), but it was a little far off from the text for my taste. There are several similar examples, and that’s a weak point of the book.

Overall, though, this book’s strengths vastly outweigh the weaknesses. It’s regular reading at our house, and I’ve been brought to tears a time or two reading it to Sam. It powerfully communicates God’s relentless pursuit of his people, and helps us to read the whole Bible as a story about Christ. As a bonus, the illustrations are fun, and I especially like that the characters aren’t blond-headed and blue-eyed; they look more like the actual people probably would have. This is a great one to have on the shelf as you try to raise kids who treasure God’s Word.

Book Review: Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

If you stop to look for it, the number of times the NT quotes the OT is staggering. Roger Nicole finds at least 295 unquestionable quotations, and estimates of the number of allusions and references run from the 600s to over 4000. Nicole estimates that over 9% of the NT is made up of OT material.

We don’t always catch these allusions, and when we do sometimes they’re confusing. For example, doesn’t it look like Peter quotes contradictory passages in Acts 1:20? And what does Hosea talking about the Exodus in Hos 11:1 have to do with Jesus’ family returning from Egypt in Matt 2:15? There are lots of times when it looks like the NT authors are interpreting the OT in a way we would never feel comfortable doing.

Because of tough passages like this, and because of lots of other little details we’re likely to miss, I’m excited about a new reference book that came out this fall, Greg Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. This book is the product of about 20 years’ worth of research by the various authors, and it’s massive: over 1200 pages, covering almost every NT book (apparently Paul doesn’t quote the OT in Philemon), with a Who’s Who of NT scholars as the contributors.

For each quotation or allusion in a NT book, this work goes through the NT context, the OT context of the passage quoted, its use in Jewish sources prior to the NT, the textual background (including which version of the OT is probably followed), the type of interpretation the author uses (is it direct predictive prophecy, a double fulfillment, or a prooftext?), and the theological use. The amount of information is almost overwhelming, but for close study of a passage that references the OT this book is invaluable. For example, in the Matthew 2 passage I referred to earlier, Craig Blomberg clarifies that Matthew is probably not saying that Hosea in Hos 11:1 foresaw Jesus’ family going to Egypt and coming back to Nazareth, but that he’s pointing to Jesus’ return from Egypt as an example of his representing his people Israel. The whole passage makes more sense as a result.

This book is a great reference for preaching and teaching, and even for personal Bible study. Having it on your shelf will help you ask and answer hard questions of the Bible, and minimize the times when you shrug your shoulders and move on without understanding what you just read. It shows the organic way in which God inspired the Scriptures, and it helps us to be honest in our interpretation of both the OT and NT.

Book Review: The Future of Justification

John Piper’s book responding to the work of N. T. Wright has been one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I have no figures to back that up, but I think it’s true. And yet, in a summary on Piper’s web site, Piper’s assistant comes out of the gate with this sparkling endorsement: “Not everyone should read John Piper’s new book on justification.”

The reason for this is not because it’s not a good book, but because it’s a book written to respond to a specific theological development that has been influential in some circles and made no headway at all in others. So if you’re reading this review and you’ve never heard of N. T. Wright, or the “New Perspective on Paul,” then this book might not need to be on your Christmas list. But if you know of Wright and the influence of his ideas, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think it’s a model of serious, robust theological study in the service of God and his church. A few distinctives of this book make this true:

  • Piper’s goal is not to win a fight, but to serve the truth. I highlighted this in a post last week. His motivation for this book is concern over Wright’s teaching, not a personal need to beat up an opponent. Of course, anybody could just declare this at the beginning of a book, but the rest of this book actually bears the marks (it seems to me) of what Piper calls the “desire to be a faithful steward of the grace of truth.”
  • Related to this is the rigorous concern to be accurate in explaining and responding to Wright’s views. There are no straw men to be found in this book. In fact, Piper sent Wright a copy of the manuscript and asked for his comments, and Wright’s response more than doubled the length of the book. Piper has clearly taken the time to comprehend and process Wright’s ideas. The book quotes Wright extensively, and seeks to honestly unpack what Wright means. More than once Piper actually defends Wright against incorrect conclusions people could conceivably draw from his work.
  • The book places the focus where it always should be for the theologian: the Word of God. Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to use other sources, but Piper consistently does straightforward, careful exegesis of Scripture, and that is the backbone of the book. This is vital for theological discussion to do any good in the service of the church.
  • The fruit of reading a book like this, at least in my own heart, is rejoicing in the cross. I think N. T. Wright is badly mistaken on some points. But I didn’t walk away from the book thinking Wright was an idiot (far from it); I walked away from it humbled and thankful to God for giving me the gift of his own righteousness in place of my sin, counting his perfect record as mine. That the book led me to glory in Christ, not the intellect of John Piper, makes it an example of great Christian scholarship.

Piper, for my money, is the best living example we have of theology on fire: a rigorous mind and a passion for God, not balancing each other out or offsetting each other but informing each other. His love for the truth of the Word and the glory of Christ in the gospel are on full display here. I found his arguments compelling, of course, but I appreciated the book even more as an example of Christian scholarship.

Book Review: The Great Exchange

Jerry Bridges has a solid reputation for pointing believers to the cross, and this book is no exception. Built on the model of an older work called The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, The Great Exchange is a meaty exposition of the gospel: the death of Christ in the place of condemned sinners, and the gift of his righteousness imputed to their account.

I was only three pages in when I began to think, “this is a very good book,” and I never changed my mind. The book is written in two parts. Part I is an overview of the atonement, summarizing the NT’s teaching and giving a great explanation of the OT backgrounds. This first 75 pages or so could really stand alone as a teaching tool to give believers a better understanding of what the cross means. Part II goes through each book of the NT, shows that book’s unique contribution to the doctrine of the atonement, and closely examines the key passages of each book relating to the atonement.

The book has a few minor weaknesses. There is some repetition, which is understandable given the goal of addressing every major passage on the atonement. There were also places where I felt like I was reading true statements, but not true statements that were drawn from the Scripture at hand. Lastly, at a couple of points I felt Bridges and Bevington’s defense of limited atonement was weak. None of these, however, make me hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

In the foreword, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Here is spiritual food to be chewed and digested.” He is right. The Great Exchange is not a page-turner, one you plow through and then move on. If you read it that way, after a while you’ll burn out. It’s a great book to use as a guide to an extended study of the Bible’s teaching on the atonement– I think it would be great to use in a yearlong Bible study or even in personal devotions. However it’s used, it is a great presentation and explanation of the gospel, the truth to which we all need to keep returning every day: my sin for his righteousness.

Book Review: The Big Picture Story Bible

I know firsthand that it’s a great blessing to grow up hearing Bible stories. But too often, we can become so familiar with these stories, like David and Goliath, Noah and the ark, that we fail to see how the whole Bible fits together as one grand Story, the story of God creating and redeeming his people. When we don’t get this, the individual stories quickly become little morality tales, and we miss the forest for the trees.

Enter the Big Picture Story Bible. I bought three books the week my son was born, and this was one of them (the other two will wait for later reviews). He’s now heard most of it twice. Simply put, this book is a huge hit at our house, and I think it will be for years to come.

I have never seen such a theologically-minded children’s book– it’s just as edifying to Melissa and me as it is to Sam. It masterfully tells the story of creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the promises to Abraham. It traces the people of Israel from Canaan to Egypt to the Promised Land to the exile and back. It covers the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the spread of the church. Even the OT prophets get a chapter– something you don’t see in a lot of Bible storybooks! Through all these sections David Helm is careful to show how the story at hand fits into the larger context: the story of God, his people, and Jesus, “God’s Forever King.”

One of the coolest things about this book is the illustrations. More than just depicting the action in the stories, they actually underscore the book’s emphasis on the unity of Scripture. For example, when Israel enters the Promised Land, there’s an illustration that looks like an earlier one of Eden. The illustration for the Exile, when Israel has to leave the Promised Land, looks like the one where God sends Adam and Eve out of Eden. And there are many more parallels like this.

This book is probably on about a 7-8-year-old reading level, but it’s really designed to be read to children. I look forward to reading it over & over with our kids and watching them appreciate how God has woven together his great story of redemption.