The Best Books In 2014 / Part Two

By James.B

 

In the previous post (The Best Books In 2014 / Part One) we looked at numbers 14-8. We now turn to numbers 7-2.

 

Number 7

Paul Ryan, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea (New York: Twelve / Hachette Book Group, 290 pp.).

This is the only book on my list this year that directly argues for a particular political position. I am a huge fan of Paul Ryan and I hope that he enters the presidential race for 2016. If he does, I'll probably vote for him. This volume is an easy-to-read account of Ryan's life and rise to the top of the Republican Party, his analysis of the 2012 election, an examination of the current status of the GOP, and a road map for how Ryan believes our country should move forward in the days and years ahead. Needless to say, Ryan is highly critical of the Obama administration and its policies, especially Obamacare. He charts for us a clear path of how conservative policies and values are essential for the well-being of our country.

Number 6

Jonathan Menn, Biblical Eschatology (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2013, 578 pp.).

Menn, a practicing lawyer, received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2007 and is currently the Director of Equipping Church Leaders - East Africa. Menn's volume is cast in the form of a textbook and is highly structured and often over-burdened by excessive citation of secondary sources. But that is not necessarily a liability, if one makes use of the book for scholarly purposes.

Menn provides extensive data on the strengths and weaknesses of virtually every eschatological system and is especially critical of classical dispensational and premillennial schemes. As for his hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament, Menn rightly emphasizes what he calls "prophetic idiom," by which he means that "the OT prophets spoke within the framework, and used terms, they were familiar with and that made sense to their hearers" (9). That is to say, "the OT prophets spoke of Messiah's eternal kingdom using the language and limited frame of reference of their own physical, Israelite context" (9). The result of this is that "the form in which OT prophecies are fulfilled in the New Covenant era are likely to be different from the Old Covenant form in which the prophecies themselves were originally given" (13). One example is the way in which "the new Zion, the restored Israel, is not identified with a place or a nation but with the person of Christ and his people" (27).

In his lengthy chapter on the various millennial views he identifies the primary problem with premillennialism: its failure to reckon sufficiently with the finality that comes with the Second Coming of Christ: in terms of a single final judgment, a single final resurrection, the end of all physical death, the removal of the curse from the natural creation, the termination of all hope for personal conversion, etc. Amillennialists, on the other hand, with whom Menn identifies himself,

"look for one cluster of end-time events: the second coming entails a complex of events involving the resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous, the judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous, the renewal of the earth and the cosmos, and the inauguration of the eternal state. There will be no thousand year interregnum of Christ between the second coming and the eternal state. The basic amillennial view of the 'first resurrection' (Rev 20:6) is that it is a symbolic term for the believers' regeneration and new life on earth (i.e., their spiritual resurrection in Christ) or [Menn's personal view] the death of the believer which translates him to the intermediate state to 'live and reign with Christ' (Rev. 20:4)" (87).

On the book of Revelation (this chapter is easily the longest in the book, coming out at some 128 pages), Menn generally follows the scheme outlined in G. K. Beale's New International Greek Testament Commentary. Thus, he endorses progressive parallelism as the only way to properly read the book and generally embraces Beale's eclectic (idealistic-futuristic) approach to its interpretation. As for the latter,

"The themes and imagery of Revelation are not merely references to particular events but have ongoing relevance for the church. The principles of idealism, utilized in the eclectic approach, provide practicality for the faith and life of the church from the first century to the parousia. On the other hand, the eclectic approach recognizes that Revelation does more than set forth ongoing principles. The book not only describes first-century events but also the consummation of the ages. Consequently, this approach provides ultimate hope for believers, whatever trials they may be experiencing now" (196).

Menn has made an excellent contribution to the study of eschatology. Although, as noted earlier, its textbook format and style make it less readable for the average Christian, its near exhaustive treatment of every issue imaginable and his fair-handed and always biblically grounded interaction with views that he ultimately is led to reject make it an extremely valuable resource for anyone wanting to dig deeply into the swirl of debate regarding the end times.

Number 5

Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones, Proof: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 224 pp.).

Here is what I wrote as an endorsement for this book: "If predestination has often felt stodgy and stifling, this book's for you. PROOF is not your standard portrayal of Reformed theology. It's unlike anything I've come across before. The style is engaging, the stories are captivating, the logic is compelling, and best of all the theology is rock solid and biblically faithful. Trust me, you'll love this book (even if you don't agree with it!)."

Number 4

Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 136 pp.).

Don't be misled by the brevity of this book (only 136 pages). It's a gem! So what is the gospel? Says Ortlund:

"God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever - all to the praise of the glory of his grace" (16).

The need of our churches, writes Ray, "is nothing less than the re-Christianization of our churches, according to the gospel alone, in both doctrine and culture, by Christ himself. Nothing less than the beauty of Christ will suffice today, though what a renewed church will look like might, at present, lie beyond our imaginations" (18-19).

This book, then, is "about how the gospel can shape the life and culture of our churches so that they portray Christ as he really is, according to his gospel" (19). In other words, "the gospel does not hang in midair as an abstraction. By the power of God, the gospel creates something new in the world today. It creates not just a new community, but a new kind of community. Gospel-centered churches are living proof that the good news is true, that Jesus is not a theory but is real, as he gives back to us our humanness. In its doctrine and culture, word and deeds, such a church makes visible the restored humanity only Christ can give" (65).

Number 3

Dane Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 207 pp.).

The son (Dane) barely outranked the dad (Ray) in my list of best books in 2014. Knowing Ray as I do, my hunch is that he couldn't be happier (or prouder).

Dane's volume on Edwards is part of the Theologians on the Christian Life series published by Crossway. Thus far we've been blessed with books on Bonhoeffer (by Stephen J. Nichols), Calvin (by Michael Horton), Francis Schaeffer (by William Edgar), B. B. Warfield (by Fred Zaspel), and John Wesley (by Fred Sanders). Some of the theologians yet to come include Augustine, Luther, John Newton, John Owen, and my own contribution to this series, due out in June of 2015, on J. I. Packer.

Ortlund explains the purpose of this book and Edwards's perspective on Christian living:

"To live as a Christian at its core is not to adhere to a set of morals, or to assent to right doctrine, or to champion a set of ethical causes, or to passively receive forgiveness of sins, or to attend church or give to the poor or say the right prayer or come from a godly family. All these have value. But for Edwards, none of them is definitive of Christian living. The Christian life, he says, is to enjoy and reflect the beauty of God. Everything Edwards wrote on Christian living funnels down into this. All the obedience and giving and generosity and kindness and praying and Bible reading in the world, without a heart-sense of divine beauty, is empty. Even damning" (16).

Notwithstanding his excellent exposition of Edwards and his obvious admiration for this giant of Christian spirituality, Ortlund does not hesitate to identify four areas where he believes Edwards falls short (there actually are five criticisms when all is taken into consideration).

First, "Jonathan Edwards's greatest weakness may have been a failure to adequately apply the gospel to the hearts of Christians" (178). I understand where Ortlund is coming from, but I doubt if this criticism would ever have surfaced twenty years ago. Make no mistake: Edwards believed and preached the gospel as rigorously and passionately as anyone ever has. But Ortlund appears to be judging his success in relation to the "gospel-centered" mentality of those who identify as the "young, restless, and reformed" (and to his credit, Ortlund acknowledges this; see p. 178).

Edwards may not have used the same terminology as we do today, he may not have been as conscientious in defining every Christian doctrine and ethical responsibility in terms of the gospel, but to suggest that he fails to adequately apply it to the hearts of Christians is, in my opinion, a bit of a stretch. I can only think of the massive corpus of Edwardsean sermons that speak extensively of the gospel and with great clarity and passion. So perhaps Ortlund's critique, though to some extent warranted, is overly conditioned and shaped by the gospel centrality of our own day and less by the actual content of Edwards's own writings.

Second, Edwards went beyond "occasional self-examination" into "an unhealthy preoccupation with his own spiritual state, encouraging the same preoccupation among his people" (181). Of the five criticisms of Edwards, this one is perhaps most accurate. However, when one takes into consideration the pastoral crisis provoked by the great outpouring of the Spirit, known as the First Great Awakening, it makes sense that Edwards would have devoted several treatises to this issue (Religious Affections, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, etc.).

Ortlund acknowledges that "there is a place for introspection. This is not an absolute either-or. It is a matter of degree and thus wisdom. But Edwards should have encouraged his people to look inside themselves less and to look outside to Christ more" (185). I agree. But again I fear that this criticism fails to take fully into account the unique spiritual and social circumstances stirred by the Awakening. Edwards was determined to expose the shallow professions of conversion on the part of people who could only point to their ecstatic experiences or physical manifestations or alleged visions and trances as evidence of having come to know Christ. In other words, if Edwards went too far in his emphasis on careful introspective analysis of the state of one's soul, it was due more to his urgent pastoral response to the immediate crisis at hand than to any fundamental theological error on his part.

Third, Ortlund believes that "Edwards did a poor job of fully appreciating the doctrine of creation and everyday delights that are mediated through our five senses" (185). That is to say, "he pursued enjoyment of the Giver but at times neglected enjoyment of the gifts" (186). Edwards, he contends, "sometimes sounds like a latter-day Gnostic - implicitly commending the spiritual world to the neglect of the material world" (186). Well, yes and no.

I know of no place in Edwards' writings where he condemns or even questions the goodness of material creation. In fact, if anything he extols the beauty and majesty of creation in making known the beauty and majesty of its Creator. One need only read his remarkable Personal Narrative and his treatise on The Beauty of the World. But perhaps Ortlund's concern is that Edwards failed to enjoy the simple pleasures of material life on earth: things such as "food, sex, sleep, play, laughter, and so on" (186).

It's difficult to believe that Edwards didn't appreciate the joys of sex: he and Sarah had eleven children! That he observed a strict diet is true: but this was to maximize his intellectual energy and service to the kingdom. Nowhere does he explicitly assert that food was not given to us for our joy; and nowhere does he rebuke others for failing to follow his example in terms of eating and sleeping. We know that he devoted time each day to his children. What they did in terms of play or sheer entertainment is not recorded for us, so it may be a bit unfair to judge him as a failure in this regard. Ortlund is certainly correct in pointing out that Edwards failed to rightly appreciate this earth as our eternal home (that is to say, the New Earth). But I don't think that in itself is sufficient grounds for questioning his appreciation of the material creation.

Fourth, Ortlund believes that "Edwards's use of Scripture leaves something to be desired. His sermonic strategy was to take a text, usually a single verse, and use it as a launching point for a sermon. The verse would provide a starting point for, but not the boundaries of, the sermon" (189). This approach "sometimes caused him to import meaning into rather than export meaning out of the text" (189). Yes, Ortlund is correct. But I have personally never failed to be greatly edified by Edwards's sermons. Given the pathetic state of preaching today, if contemporary pastors were to follow Edwards's example, I doubt if there would be too much criticism of their methodology. But Ortlund is right in pointing out that in every sermon the point of the message must be the point of the text and the point of the text should be the point of the message.

Edwards also embraced a "historicist" reading of Revelation which led him to line up "biblical prophecy with contemporary events in a way that now looks strained" (189). And "he tended toward allegory" (189) in his interpretation of Scripture. Ortlund cites as an example his reading of the Song of Solomon. However, we must remember that virtually every Christian until the 19th century viewed this book as a spiritual portrayal (whether "allegory" is the appropriate term is up for debate) of the love relationship between Christ and the Church.

Notwithstanding my concern for Ortlund's criticism in how Edwards handled Scripture, he rightly reminds us that "even today's most faithful expositors will nevertheless find much to learn from him for their own preaching" (190). In other words, while Edwards's methods ought not always to be emulated, "few of us will ever attain the encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible that Edwards had and, more importantly, the heart-instincts as to who God is as presented in the Bible" (190).

Fifth, and finally, Edwards "tended toward an overly negative view of the unregenerate and an overly positive view of the regenerate" (190). Ortlund rightly reminds us that "unbelievers are not as bad as they might be, and believers are not as good as they might be" (191). Although there is a measure of truth in this criticism, Edwards was not averse to acknowledging the on-going battle with sin in the hearts of the regenerate, as seen particularly in his own experience (see hisPersonal Narrative).

In the final analysis, no one should conclude from my concerns with Ortlund's criticisms that this book is anything less than wonderful. After all, I do get a bit defensive of Edwards. I owe more to him for my personal spiritual and theological development than to any author outside of those who penned the Scriptures.

Number 2

Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 430 pp.).

I've been waiting for a book like this for a lifetime. Let me say at the start: I'm neither a scientist nor an OT scholar. That doesn't mean you have to be one or the other to profit from this volume (although it would certainly help!). It simply means that I need all the aid and assistance I can get when it comes to deciphering the variety of issues related to creation and evolution.

This volume is part of a larger series published by Kregel that includes such excellent books as 40 Questions about the End Times, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, and40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (and numerous other volumes are shortly to be published). The material covered in this book is remarkable for its scope and the fair and objective manner in which all views are represented. The authors confess that they "lean" in different directions: Keathley to old-earth creationism and Rooker (who attended Dallas Seminary at the same time I did) to young-earth creationism.

Topics covered in this excellent book include: What are the "days" of creation in Genesis 1? What is the Gap theory? How old is the earth? Was the universe (including the earth) created with an appearance of age? Were Adam and Eve literal, historical figures? Was there animal death before the Fall? Was the flood of Noah local or universal? What is evolution? Can a Christian hold to theistic evolution? What is the Intelligent Design Movement? And this only scratches the surface.

If you are looking, as I had been for years, for a single book that fairly articulates the variety of answers to such questions, together with the pros and cons of each, look no further. This is it. It isn't always easy reading (except for scientists and OT scholars!), but patience and concentration will pay a rich dividend for your efforts.

To be continued . . .

 

originally posted at SamStorms.com / Enjoying God
used by permission: © 2014 Sam Storms: Oklahoma City, OK  

 

 

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best books in 2014, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, Biblical Eschatology, Proof: Find