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Archive for December, 2018


It’s that time of year to root thru the archives and put together the list of the best book I read in 2018. Yes, the focus is on those I read not those that were released. Perhaps you will find a book worth reading, one that strikes your fancy. I’m not including the commentaries I read. I seemed to have less time for additional reading this year, but maybe that was just my distorted viewpoint.

Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty. This is a short book about the importance of singing. My interest was congregational singing. I’m grateful to be part of a congregation that loves to sing. Many don’t have this blessing. This book wants to help such congregations understand the importance of congregational singing.

Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey. This was a great and challenging book to help Christians think through the many changes taking place in our society. Some might question some of the philosophical presuppositions, but I found her analysis helpful. I was prompted to preach about some of these topics in the summer.

Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop M.D. is written at a everyday person level to help people understand the process of patients with various forms of dementia. He looks at it in terms of medicine as well as faith. He helps people walk through this from both perspectives. He includes end of life issues. As one who has a parent with Alzheimer’s I found this helpful.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield. In this volume Rosaria focuses on intentional hospitality. She ties this in with the gospel. It is well worth reading.

God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker takes on a difficult subject from a biblical perspective. He balances truth and compassion which (sadly) seems to be a rare combination. Due to the fall we are sinners and broken. He addresses both the rebellious and those who are struggling with unwanted feelings thanks to the fall. There was plenty of wisdom in this book.

Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew Rueger examines the claim that Christian sexuality is regressive. He looks at the context for Christian sexual morality and how it confronted Greek, Roman and Jewish sexual mores. He then examines, briefly the biblical view of homosexuality and same sex marriage. As a Lutheran pastor, he often bring the law and gospel distinctive to bear on these matters. As confusing as our days might be, this book will make you glad you weren’t born then.

Hit By Friendly Fire by Michael Milton is about how to cope with the damage done by other Christians. It is short and to the point. It is also helpful for all who’ve been hurt by other members of the family.

Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice is an honest book about the challenges of evangelism. Much of this focuses on the painline. Like a guy trying to decide whether to ask a girl out, we must decide to cross the pain line. This is one of the main reasons we don’t engage in evangelism: a refusal to cross the painline.

The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and Mystery of God’s Mercy by Tim Keller. He uses Jonah to expose us all. This is another great book by Keller that applies the gospel in winsome fashion to both our younger brother waywardness and older brother bitterness. Yes, he connects Jonah’s ministry to the parable of the two sons at times. This book poked and prodded me in a difficult time.

Puritans:

Christian Love by Hugh Binning. This is part of the Pocket Puritan series. This was a challenging little book focused on how God loved us and how we are then to love one another. There was plenty here about self-denial. This is not about emotions but the responsibilities of love.

The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith by George Swinnock came at a good time for me. I’m struggling with getting older and those realities pressing in. The flesh will fade, but will faith flourish? The foundation of the book is a funeral sermon he preached. Good and encouraging material from the Puritan.

History:

The Last Battle is about the final battle in the European theater of WWII. It actually took place after Germany had surrendered. A group of Allied soldiers, resistance fighters and German soldiers joined forces to free some French political prisoners before the SS executed them. This is a very interesting story that could be well served by a movie.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power by Nick Needham. This is a great 4-volume (so far?) church history set. In the first volume he includes the African church, which is often overlooked. Each volume includes substantial material on the Eastern church. A result you have a more balanced church history instead of a Europe-centered history. Some of the themes that run thru the volumes are: the doctrine of the Eucharist, the state-church relationship or struggle for power, and how the different branches of the Church related to one another. I was generally encouraged by this set.

The First Heroes by Craig Nelson is about the Doolittle Raid. This is a great piece of history. He spends time giving the background of the raid including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the training, how participants escaped the Japanese or endured their capture as well as how they fared after the war. Their is personal history as well as world history. It made for very interesting reading.

 

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The fourth, and currently last volume, in Nick Needham’s history of the church (2000 Years of Christ’s Power) is entitled The Age of Religious Conflict. This volume covers the 16th to 18th centuries. Just as the early church struggled with conflict within, so the post-reformational church struggled with conflict within. This book still includes some conflict between the branches of the church (particularly in the section on Eastern Orthodoxy).

This volume acknowledges the help of old friend Keith Mathison. It does change the format slightly which threw me off when approaching it. The major sections of chapters are numbered and start on new pages as if they were themselves chapters. This briefly messed with my reading schedule. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

He addresses these conflicts in Lutheranism, the Reformed Church (continental), England, Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church (centered on France) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (centered on Russia). The focus is on England which occupies two chapters in the volume. Throw in Scotland and you have 3 chapters on the British Isles. He does have 2 chapters on Roman Catholicism as well. We see the book is heavily weighted toward Protestantism and particularly light on Eastern Orthodoxy. Thankfully he does cover EO, which so many histories seem to neglect after 1054.

One conflict that runs throughout the book is the relationship between church and state. We’ve seen this conflict before, particularly between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Now it unfolds in a number of nations as various kings and tsars want to control the church and various popes, patriarchs and archbishops want to either be free from state control or control the state. It seems that no good equilibrium could ever and can ever be achieved. The conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will always be played out on this field of battle until King Jesus returns to set all things right. To those willing to listen, there is much that applies to their particular situation. The quest for power and control exacts a great toll.

A second conflict that runs through much of the book is the place of Augustinian theology in the life of the church. The questions of human depravity and election rise in each of these church bodies. I think this illustrates for us the importance of this question as one that should captivate the church.

In Lutheranism, the death of Luther meant it lost its earthly center, the figure who drew all the strands together. The theological tensions, understandably, began to pull the church apart. Such a focus on theological controversies led many to view them as falling into dead orthodoxy. Pietism rose to call people to faith and sound practice, not the pursuit of theological subtleties. In the midst of this was the Thirty Years’ War which ravaged northern Europe. The root of the war was state control of the church. In one of those ironies of real life, Catholic France supported the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor in order to weaken him and gain power for France. War can create strange bedfellows and alliances.

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Synod of Dort

In the Reformed church there were two theological controversies that occupied most of the energy: Arminianism and Amyraldianism. Surprisingly he didn’t trace the shifts in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper very much. I say surprising because it was a frequent topic in the 3 previous volumes. The first of these controversies had some sort of settlement at the Synod of Dort. This did not put an end to Arminianism, of course. Much of Protestantism is Arminian today.

The lesser known and understood conflict was a result of the teaching of Moise Amyraut: Amyraldianism. He was the son of Huguenots. He was no stranger to controversy. Some political (refusing to kneel before King Louis XIII since Roman clergy didn’t have to) and some theological. At a time when the Huguenots were an oppressed minority, the battle over his theology split them as a kind of civil war. This civil war spread to England and other branches of the Reformed church.

Since this controversy is less known I will try to briefly summarize. Amyraut was distressed that many in Reformed theology held to double predestination and the idea that God created much of humankind for the purpose of damnation. Being in France, he was sensitive to the (mis)characterizations of Calvinism by French Catholics. He saw himself as rescuing the Huguenots from this caricature of God as “capricious, unjust, and unloving.” He viewed election in light of the cross instead of the cross in light of election. Therefore, Jesus did not die to save the elect, but died for all humanity. Salvation was conditioned upon faith. Since faith is not possible for fallen sinners, God elected some to salvation. In some ways this is a quibble about the order of decrees (which in my opinion is part of the secret things referred to in Deut. 29:29). In my opinion he presents a very confused God. This view is sometimes called the hypothetical atonement. He’s trying to walk a mediating position between Augustinianism/Calvinism and Arminianism. To me it seems an untenable position- logically unstable and unable to stand long before lapsing into greater problems.

In England there would be a literal civil war as various kings sought to control the church. England has some who wanted an Episcopal church, whether of Arminian or Calvinist leanings, some who wanted a Presbyterian church of England with a solid Calvinist bent. The Independents wanted religious freedom so that England could have Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational churches who held to Arminian or Calvinist views. As mentioned, Needham spends two chapters laying out the groundwork for the civil war, the war itself, life under Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy which again ruled the Church of England too. In many ways this is a sad tale as so much blood was spilled to accomplish essentially nothing. Christians should be wary of taking up arms for the sake of faith (see the Thirty Years’ War as well).

Scotland had a similar struggle between the Crown Rights of Jesus (church over the state) and the will of a king who wanted to rule the Church of Scotland. We see the rise and fall of the Covenanters who pursued the rights of Jesus and desired a free church in Scotland. At times the Presbyterians won in Scotland. At times kings introduced an episcopal form of government which led to a watering down of the theology of the church. As you consider Scotland’s history of being occupied, any English influence was offensive to them.

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Blaise Pascal

Needham focuses on France for Roman Catholicism since at this point it had become the most powerful Catholic nation, supplanting Spain. Most of the movements within the Catholic church had their center in France. One of the main controversies was the Jansenist controversy. In a very Jesuit nation which was therefore not friendly toward the influence of Augustine’s view of salvation, a view that was dependent on Augustine would be controversial. The Jansenists were essentially Catholic Calvinists. They still submitted to the Pope and held to the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory. But they held to total depravity and election. The most famous Jansenist was French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The fortunes of Jansenism were often tied to politics. The more power the Jesuits had, the more the pressure on them. When a French king wanted to establish his own power the Jesuit influence waned and Jansenism was able to grow.

What Jacobitism was to the churches in the British Isles, Gallicianism was to France. It was the view that the king of France, not the Pope was the head of the church in France. While there was not outright war, it saw political maneuvering and persecution.

Another controversy that can’t ultimately be separated from the political situation was the growth of Quietism, a form of mysticism that flourished in France for a time. It would fall in and out of favor with kings, surging and shrinking as a result.

In this section he also mentions Jesuit missions to eastern Asia. We see early versions of the Insider Movement as missionaries struggled to be all things to all men. Sometimes they allowed all men to remain in their paganism. Sometimes they required converts to become western. These are struggles that still take place in missions.

Cyril Lucaris 1632 Geneva.jpgAs Needham turns to Eastern Orthdoxy we see various splits form in the church. Some feared the power of the Pope and unification with Rome. They were haunted by the Union of Florence. Seeing the success of Protestants in separating from Rome, some like Cyril Lucaris began to use their methods and some theological distinctives. Cyril is controversial, to say the least. He clearly adopted “total depravity” which affected his view of salvation. His critics claimed he was corrupted by Reformed theology. A quite Protestant sounding confession that bears his name (whose authorship is questionable) was condemned and he was too, if he held to those views expressed that confession.

Others fearing the Protestant leanings or reform of men like Cyril, used the theology and methods of the Jesuits to reform the eastern church. So we find the main reformers in Eastern Orthodoxy at this time drawing on western methods and articulation of doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic. They weren’t trying to become either but trying to protect Orthodoxy from the corruption of the other.

Since Constantinople was now under the control of the Ottoman Empire and called Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople was under the control of muslims, Moscow grew in power as the “defender of the faith.” We see the same struggles there. Who would be in control: the tsar or the patriarch? With the rise of Peter the Great this was answered once and for all in favor of the state. Peter would also seek to westernize Russia, and the church. We also see a worship war that was far more bloody than ours since it got wrapped up in politics. With the advent of the printing press in Moscow, they discovered variants in liturgies. Their assumption was there was ONE way to worship. So, which was it? Some stuck with the way the Russian church worshiped while others argued they should be worship in accordance with the older Greek liturgies. Our sinful quest for power again corrupts the worship of God and splits the church.

In some ways this was the most difficult volume in the set for me to read. I was familiar with the material covered regarding England and Scotland, so I didn’t learn as much. Due to my existential realities, reading about all the conflict was less than pleasant. One thing is clear is that the Church desperately needs Christ. She so quickly lapses into conflict, splitting over points great and small. She is ceaselessly attracted to power.

This is not to say this wasn’t worth reading. It is an excellent series and this is a very good volume in this set. This is helpful reading for pastors and lay leaders. It is good reading for anyone with an interest in history. Written by a Protestant, this much more information about Eastern Orthodoxy than you are used to seeing. It helps balance our perspective on the Church, and that is a great thing.

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I’ve been slowly updating my officer training material after discovering some gaps in the material I covered. Unfortunately (?) this has been more of a side project which fills in open spots instead of a priority matter. I was hoping there would be a book that covered all this stuff to make my life more efficient.

I got an my monthly email offering copies of books to review. The New Elder’s Handbook by Greg R. Scharf and Arthur Kok caught my eye. I’m open to ideas about how to do this better, preparing men more fully for the task that God has called them to.

There are three main sections to the book, or possibly two depending on how you look at it. They break it up into Vision, Training and Two Additional Discipleship Resources. 2 and 3 are similar enough that they could be considered one part. But, that’s not really important.

Before we look at the content, we should consider the authors. I hadn’t heard of either man before and perhaps you are in the same boat. Greg Scharf is an Evangelical Free Church pastor and professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He focused on preaching and pastoral theology. This is right up his alley. Arthur Kok trains lay leaders, pastors, planters and missionaries through the Orchard Network. Both men have a tremendous amount of experience in training men for ministry.

Theologically they are at the very least open to Reformed Theology (this matters since I am writing and serving in a Reformed context). You pick this up from some statements, but most often from the books they recommend including Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, Robert Shaw’s The Reformed Faith and many others. They try not to drive people theologically. For instance, on the question of baptism they recommend both Grudem and Horton noting that the former is a credobaptist and the later a paedobaptist. They want you to sort it out rather than sort it out for you. The same is true for millennial views, though there was no representative for the postmillennial position. There were more references for the historic premillennial position in keeping with their theological context however.

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One Big Matzoh Ball

At times this is an issue. I’m not sure how much of Grudem’s eternal submission of the Son convictions show up in his systematic theology (one of the resources listed under the Trinity). They recommend Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism in a variety of places. It isn’t a bad book, meaning I don’t necessarily find error in it. For me it has the baggage of being connected with a number of authoritarian cults. I understand; they used and abused it. That is not Coleman’s fault, but … it hangs out there like a big matzoh ball for me.

Another big matzoh ball is The Bondage Breaker. I have grave theological concerns about Neil Anderson’s work. I also know of missions organizations in which this book became a big, divisive problem. I’ve discussed the book with people who like it and it has never gone well. They tend to be dogmatic and run counter to what I think is the sound Reformed & biblical heritage on sanctification. Ironically Scharf and Kok recommend Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices on the previous page. Later they refer, positively, to Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Four-fold State which is the book I used to express Anderson’s errors (perhaps I should blog this material). So this puzzles me.

One thing that may interest some is a confessional context. The EFC is not a confessional body like the PCA is, so I am looking for a confessional context. They do have a few quotes from the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. The resource by Shaw is a commentary on the Westminster Confession so men can read the pertinent chapters in the confession as they go along. We do need to be careful to communicate that the Standards are helpful in understanding the Scriptures, but do not have the same authority as the Scriptures.

I do think this is a very helpful book.

One of the strengths, as laid out in the first part, is the intentional community. This book can be used on your own, but they want to have men go through the questions together. They want iron to sharpen iron, and there to be a mentor (pastor or current elder) who works with them. This is a lengthy process. They anticipate this group meeting for 1-2 years as they work through the 75 questions (2nd part of the book).

One of the strengths of the 75 questions is that they are both theological and practical in nature. They want you to be able to apply your theology in the context of the local church. It is not merely an academic exercise.

“Doctrinal accuracy is indispensable for elders, but it is not enough to preserve the health of the church. Truth must shape life, and truth must be taught to others.”

The view of church elders they communicate is grounded in the pastoral epistles. There is a great concern for holding to the deep truths of the faith, living on the basis of those truths and teaching them while inviting imitation as well. Sound doctrine produces sound living. Both are necessary for a healthy church. And therefore healthy elders.

They also bring us back to Ezra to understand that the real power at work is God. They pick up on the oft used phrase in Ezra “the good hand of the Lord was upon him”. God was at work for Ezra to fulfill his calling to “study, do and teach” the Law to God’s people. They offer a God-centered approach to training (and being) elders.

In the chapter Making Progress, they offer seven foundational principles. You could boil them down to God produces growth in those He gave spiritual life through the appointed means as the Spirit works over time in the community of God.

They are also honest about the challenges and obstacles on will likely face, particularly the world, the flesh and the devil. Community is intended to help us by seeing in us what we can’t see in ourselves due to blind spots.

There is also a chapter on identifying potential elders. They affirm exclusively male eldership (later they mention deaconnesses as an option, not a mandate). They briefly cover the character of the men. They encourage current leaders to pray, watch potential officers and challenge them in growth and service (like studying the 75 questions). Not rocket science, but too often we forget to take our time. We can feel the burden of needing new elders (especially if you have a rotating Session, one that has time limits for terms).

The second section moves into the questions. Each question will have a series of biblical passages to look up, resources for further study and often a few questions to flesh out some aspects of it. I found no discernible pattern to the questions (like we see in the subject matter of a confession of faith). There are questions about the Scripture and how to use it in ministry to others, worship services, counseling others, resisting sexual temptation, legalism, prayer, the atonement, the person of Christ, the Trinity and more. The questions are similar to those we’ve begun to use in our presbytery.

In addition to the supplemental questions, sometimes they provide some instruction on a question. It is concise and typically good. For instance, knowing sound doctrine, the patterns to recognize in false doctrine and how to defend sound doctrine. They continue to focus on theology applied. They discuss same-sex practice to distinguish those who struggle with SSA and those who “embrace and actively engage in same-sex activity”. This, I believe, is how the Bible discusses the issue. They are not buying into the extra-biblical concept of orientation.

Image result for learning to crawlThe first additional resource for discipleship is a tool for a “basic introduction to the Christian life.” It is sort of a “now what” after a person believes. They offer some basics to bible study and then lay it out like how a child grows: eating, walking, talking (prayer), trusting etc. There are lots of verses to look up in each section but it does provide a good process for new believers similar to the old Navigator study guides I used after my own after my conversion.

The second one is a series of lessons from 2 Peter. This is helpful in teaching people the systematic, consecutive reading of Scripture. It helps provide balance.

I would envision using this as part of a small group to develop future leaders over the course of 2 years. This could be followed with the course I’ve been updating. These parts could balance each other out well and make for prepared and godly elders.

As a result, this is a book that pastors and sessions should definitely take a look at as they seek to train men. It could also be used for continuing “education” of elders. They¬† shouldn’t stop learning and growing and this and the books by Thune and Timmis could be helpful in that regard. While the book itself is not long or difficult to read, the Scripture references and resources make the material meaningful and as deep as time and energy permits.

[As noted above, I received a complimentary copy for the purposes of review.)

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