The 10 (?) Best Books of 2016
I typically post an article every Monday on ten things all Christians should know about a particular topic. Although my focus today is again on ten things, the ten things are the best books of 2016. With so many excellent volumes released this year, I have decided to include an extended list of Honorable Mention books that could easily have been included in the Top Ten. So here they are, in descending order.
(10) Tenth on the list is a tie between two books by the same author. Although both books officially came out in 2015, I didn't read them until this year. The author is Michael S. Heiser and the two books are The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Lexham Press), and Supernatural: What the Bible teaches about the unseen world - and why it matters (Lexham Press). The former volume came first and is a more technical, somewhat academic presentation of Heiser's thesis (413 pages). The latter is a popularized version of the larger volume and is designed for a lay audience (167 pages).
Heiser was initially alerted to the supernatural realm by his study of Psalm 82:1. The Good News Translation puts it this way: "God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the gods he gives his decision." These "gods" (elohim), says Heiser, "aren't just idols of stone and wood" but are "spirits" and constitute "God's supernatural task force" that he employs in the pursuit of his purposes on earth. Aside from his material on divine sovereignty (which is weak), Heiser makes a solid case for a far more supernatural dynamic in the affairs of heaven and earth than what many evangelicals are accustomed to. Both of these books are a fascinating and enlightening read!
(9) D. A. Carson, editor, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans). It's difficult to describe this massive volume of 1,240 pages. Carson has brought together an amazing cast of biblical scholars who address in considerable detail virtually every issue related to the origin, inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible. This is the sort of book that one returns to again and again to find solid evangelical responses to more liberal and critical interpretations of the nature of Scripture. Don't be put off by its size or depth. I'm confident this volume will endure for generations to come as the go-to text for a comprehensive defense of the authority of the Bible.
(8) We have a three-way tie for eighth, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the common theme they address. In eighth place are The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years (Zondervan), by Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo; Why the Reformation Matters (Crossway) by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester; and Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals, by Chris Castaldo (Zondervan).
In view, next year, of the 500th anniversary celebration of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, books such as these will be in plentiful supply. The dialogue between Protestants and Catholics shows no signs of subsiding, and these three volumes are especially helpful in identifying areas of agreement and continuing disagreement between the two.
(7) Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking). Keller describes this excellent book as a "prequel" to his best-selling The Reason for God. Here is Keller's description of its focus:
"The material in this book is a way of offering to readers - especially the most skeptical who may think the 'good news' lacks cultural relevance - the same food for thought. We will compare the beliefs and claims of Christianity with the beliefs and claims of the secular view, asking which one makes more sense of a complex world and human experience" (2).
If you know someone who isn't open to a consideration of Christianity and thinks the biblical worldview is irrelevant to modern life, this is a great book to give them. Keller writes with clarity and charity and, most important of all, is altogether persuasive in his reasoning.
(6) We have another tie. In sixth place I am compelled to pair up Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, edited by Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (B & H Academic), and God's Kingdom through God's Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology, edited by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum (Crossway). Although the latter of these two books was released in 2015, it should be included with a recommendation of the former. If you are still baffled by eschatology, in particular the never-ending debate between dispensationalism and covenant theology, these two excellent volumes will go a long way in helping you understand how the Bible is structured and the manner in which God is pursuing his ultimate purposes in Christ.
(5) Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press).
Rodney Stark is not Roman Catholic (and needless to say, neither am I). I say this as a reminder that he has written this book not out of religious fervor but with a view to historical accuracy. Stark has become well known in recent years for his many books that address misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations of so-called "historical" facts that most people have naively accepted as true. One of those, God's Battalions (HarperOne), successfully overturned distortions as to the nature, cause, and course of the Crusades. This current book draws extensively on Stark's previously published research in such volumes as The Triumph of Christianity (HarperOne) and his best book to date, How the West Won (ISI Books).
It would take too long to list the many misconceptions about the Roman Catholic Church that Stark discloses in this volume, so I'll provide you with a quick summary as found in the Introduction to the book. Of course, as an unashamed and passionate Protestant, I believe there is much error in the Roman Catholic Church, but that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the many ways in which so-called "historians" have been guilty of "bearing false witness" against it.
Stark asks whether or not you believe any of the following statements:
"The Catholic Church motivated and actively participated in nearly two millennia of anti-Semitic violence, justifying it on grounds that the Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion, until the Vatican II Council was shamed into retracting that doctrine in 1965. But, the Church still has not made amends for the fact that Pope Pius XII is rightfully known as 'Hitler's Pope.'
Only recently have we become aware of remarkably enlightened Christian gospels, long ago suppressed by narrow-minded Catholic prelates.
Once in power as the official church of Rome, Christians quickly and brutally persecuted paganism out of existence.
The fall of Rome and the ascendancy of the Church precipitated Europe's decline into a millennium of ignorance and backwardness. These Dark Ages lasted until the Renaissance/Enlightenment, when secular scholars burst through the centuries of Catholic barriers against reason.
Initiated by the pope, the Crusades were but the first bloody chapter in the history of unprovoked and brutal European colonialism.
The Spanish Inquisition tortured and murdered huge numbers of innocent people for 'imaginary' crimes, such as witchcraft and blasphemy.
The Catholic Church feared and persecuted scientists, as the case of Galileo makes clear. Therefore, the Scientific 'Revolution' occurred mainly in Protestant societies because only there could the Catholic Church not suppress independent thought.
Being entirely comfortable with slavery, the Catholic Church did nothing to oppose its introduction in the New World nor to make it more humane.
Until very recently, the Catholic view of the ideal state was summed up in the phrase, 'The divine right of kings.' Consequently, the Church has bitterly resisted all efforts to establish more liberal governments, eagerly supporting dictators.
It was the Protestant Reformation that broke the repressive Catholic grip on progress and ushered in capitalism, religious freedom, and the modern world" (pp. 4-5).
Well, did you find yourself in agreement with some or all of these statements? Stark responds at length to each in this book and insists, with considerable evidence on his side, that "each is false and many are the exact opposite of the truth" (5). Whether you are Catholic or Protestant (or neither), this book is a fascinating and enlightening (and disturbing) read.
(4) John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Crossway). So much has already been said about this book in various blogs, reviews, and articles that I need not say much here. Simply put, Piper has set for himself in this book the task of answering the question: "What warrant - what good foundation - in the Christian Scriptures provides a well-grounded trust? What basis of belief in the Scriptures as the word of God will, in fact, honor God?" (15). Piper points us to the objective, self-authenticating reality of God's "peculiar glory" that shines in and through the Scriptures themselves.
In other words, "the power of Scripture to warrant well-grounded trust is not by generic glory. Not, as it were, by mere dazzling. Not by simply boggling the mind with supernatural otherness. Rather, what we see as inescapably divine is a peculiar glory. And at the center of this peculiar glory is the utterly unique glory of Jesus Christ" (284).
(3) David Bowden, When God Isn't There (Thomas Nelson)
I may be a little prejudiced here, given the fact that David is on our staff at Bridgeway Church where he serves as Artist-in-Residence. But I'm convinced that even if he weren't I would have his book on my list. This is David's first book, and I'm quite confident it won't be his last. Here is what I wrote in my endorsement of it:
"I struggle to describe this book, not because it is incoherent (far from it) but because it is so richly diverse. It is saturated with Scripture, personal experience, analogies and metaphors drawn from every sphere of life, outrageously funny stories, illustrations that make complex truths meaningful, and, on top of it all, really good theology. David's book has breathed new life into my favorite biblical text: 'In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (Ps. 16:11). Trust me, it's a page-turner. And a life changer. Highly recommended!"
If you've ever struggled with a sense of the "absence" of God when you most needed him to be perceptibly present, this book is for you.
(2) Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press)
Last year Richard Hays was also on my best books of the year list. His volume, Reading Backwards, is simply wonderful. This year he has released a far more substantive sequel in which he takes the principles from that first volume and applies them to an interpretation of the four gospels that is rich and beyond rewarding. Here is what I wrote about Reading Backwards. Take it and expand it by four times (that is approximately the size of Echoes) and you'll get a sense for what is found in this excellent volume.
So, what does Hays mean by "reading backwards"? Here is a simple definition, but it is only by working through the book and observing how he re-reads the gospel narratives with an eye "backwards" to Israel's Scriptures that you will appreciate fully what Hays has done. This is a book, says Hays,
"that offers an account of the narrative representation of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel's Scripture, as well as the ways in which Israel's Scripture prefigures and illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories" (x).
You may not be familiar with his use of the word "figural" in the sub-title. Figural reading refers to "the discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondence between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream" (93). This is more than simply a book on how the NT authors cite, refer to, or allude to OT texts and individuals. Says Hays, "from the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets [of the OT] as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story" (94).
Again, in summary:
"A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic necessarily entails reading backwards, reinterpreting Israel's Scripture in light of the story of Jesus. Such a reading is necessarily a figural reading, a reading that grasps patterns of correspondence between temporally distinct events, so that these events freshly illuminate each other. This means that for the Evangelists the 'meaning' of the OT texts was not confined to the human author's original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. Rather, Scripture was a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it has multiple senses. Some of these senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively" (104).
Trust me. You will never read (or preach/teach) the gospels again in quite the same way after reading Hays. This is a remarkable book that I will turn to again and again as I ponder the meaning of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the intertextual relationship between Old and New Testaments.
On a brief personal note, Hays wondered if he would even be able to finish this volume, as he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Thank God he was given the time and energy to give us this wonderful book. Pray for his complete healing.
(1) Scott Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling our Choices with God's Sovereignty (Presbyterian & Reformed)
Once again, let me cite my endorsement of this excellent book:
"'Compatibilism' is not a word with which most Christians are familiar, but it represents a truth apart from which neither the Bible nor the Christian life can be properly understood. Can God be sovereign and man still be free? Can God foreknow our choices without undermining our accountability to him? These sorts of questions have troubled souls for centuries. Scott Christenson's treatment of compatibilism, the notion that divine determinism and human freedom are harmonious, speaks to this issue with biblical clarity and practical wisdom. I am thoroughly persuaded that God knew infallibly from eternity past that I would freely and without reservation endorse this excellent book!"
People often wonder if anything more can possibly be written on this thorny topic that will add to the massive amount of biblical, theological, and philosophical information already available. Christenson doesn't claim to have made any new and heretofore unknown insights on this subject. What he does that makes the book so important is to put into clear and persuasive language a topic that has for too long been inaccessible to the average adult-educated Christian layperson. Christenson writes with remarkable clarity and is thoroughly biblical in his approach. I have no hesitation in recommending that all Christians read this book, and I hope and pray that they do!
Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Crossway)
Nabeel Qureshi, No God But One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity (Zondervan)
Bruce Gordon, John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography (Princeton University Press)
Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Brazos Press).
Matthew Barrett, God's Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture - What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Zondervan).
Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Crossway).