Sunday, April 19, 2020

Ten books that have influenced me the most

Someone asked me the other day which books have influenced me the most, and I thought for old times' sake I would write a blog post with a list.

Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the best books I've read; some of them happened to be in the right place at the right time of my life. I have restricted myself to theology books; there are fiction books that have also influenced me profoundly, but that influence is usually subtler.

I have arranged the books in order of author. Five of these books are written by Americans; the other authors include one Australian, one Canadian, one Dutchman, one Englishman, and one Scot. Three of these books are available as pdf downloads: I have put a link in their titles.

Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981)

Interestingly, the first book on this list is by a (non-Christian) Jew, and so "biblical" here means "Old Testament". Alter fundamentally misunderstands the Old Testament since he doesn't read it in the light of Jesus. And yet he has helped and encouraged me to read the text closely, discerning the importance of details, and asking why one word is used rather than another.

D. A. Carson, A Call To Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Inter-Varsity Press, 1992)

This book, first published in 1992, was reissued in 2015 under the much better title, Praying with Paul: A Call To Spiritual Reformation. The book is actually an exposition of the prayers in Paul's epistles. This book transformed my prayer life (though not as thoroughly as I might wish) by challenging me regarding the things I pray for, and helping me to pray through passages of the Bible.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane, 1908)

This is a whimsical account of how Chesterton became a Christian: "I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.... I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy." This book gave me a vision of how grand orthodox Christian theology is: "There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad."

Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Paternoster Press, 1994)

There are many good books on how to read and understand the Old Testament, but this was the book that most clearly showed me how to read OT stories in the light of Christ. I had always been convinced of covenant as a unifying OT theme; this book encouraged me to place kingdom as a companion theme alongside it.

Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth (Canon Press, 1998)

This book does for evangelical Protestantism what Chesterton's Orthodoxy does for catholic Christianity: provide a vision of how exciting believing the Bible and following Jesus can be. (In fact, while the authors call their approach "medieval Protestantism", Douglas Wilson has used the label "Chestertonian Calvinism" to describe his beliefs.) Needless to say, I caught the vision, and as a result this book is one of the clearest statements of my worldview, and the sort of things I wish to encourage in my home.

James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988)

This book helped me to see how the Bible fit together: the connections between different passages, and how certain themes and motifs run right through God's Word. It also helped me to understand the created order in the light of Scripture.

J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord Our Shepherd (Bryntiron Press, 1983)

This exposition of Psalm 23 was one of the first theological books I read as a teenager, and it showed me how personal and pastoral biblical exposition can be. This is experiential Free Church piety at its warmest.

Vern Poythress, Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976)

It was Poythress who guided me from an interest in mathematics to an interest in theology. This book helped me get straight in my mind how everything fits together.

Klaas Schilder, Christ in his Suffering (Eerdmans 1938)

This is the first volume of a trilogy in which Schilder covers every aspect of Christ's Passion. I had the feeling while reading it that I was on holy ground. Schilder often breaks out into prayer and doxology.

R. C. Sproul, Jr., When You Rise Up: A Covenantal Approach to Homeschooling (P&R, 2004)

This was the book that convinced me of the value of homeschooling, and led me to adopt a perspective that sees homeschooling as first and foremost discipleship.

Concluding postscript:

Growing up in a Reformed Christian home, being a Calvinist was never going to be a problem. These books helped me work out the sort of Calvinism I wanted to pursue: a deeply biblical, warm, thoughtful and catholic Calvinism.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Helpful but with some dubious assertions

Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray

This book is an accessible summary of the way the Old Testament points to Jesus. Murray notes that there are many connections to draw to Jesus, and attempts to provide a reasonably complete survey of these connections.

Murray is basically correct in his approach. He sees Jesus on every page, though not necessarily, it seems, in every verse. That is, every story can be connected to Jesus even if we have to be careful not to press the analogy in every detail. Murray makes a lot of 1 Peter 1:12 (" It was revealed to them [the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been reported to you") in arguing that the Old Testament prophets knew about the New Testament era that was coming. The Old Testament "things" is the same as the New Testament "reports".

Murray is spot on at many points. For example, he correctly points out, on the basis of Acts 2:30-31, that in Psalm 16 David was a "believing Christian speaking of Christ as his only hope" (p. 194). I also appreciate Murray's alliteration in arranging his subpoints: his chapter on Jesus and Creation has the headings "The Arrangement of Redemption," "The Arena of Redemption," "The Aim of Redemption," "The Accessories of Redemption," "The Assistants of Redemption," "The Advance of Redemption," "The Analogy of Redemption," "The Advantages of Redemption," "The Apex of Redemption," "The Author of Redemption," and "The Application of Redemption".

There are, however, numerous points at which I disagree with Murray, either because he makes a dubious assertion or because he omits a critical point. I will restrict myself to three examples.

Firstly, Murray tends to see Jesus as doing everything in the Old Testament. For example, he argues that "the Son of God is the usual way God appears to humanity" (p. 76). Yet this has the effect of diminishing the work of the Holy Spirit. If we are going to apportion divine deeds among the different members of the Trinity (and that in itself is fraught with peril), then many Old Testament acts must be seen as the work of the Spirit (e.g. Nehemiah 9:20).

Secondly, in looking at Jesus in the prophetic books, Murray omits the idea that Jesus is the one on whom the judgement falls. He talks about Jesus being the judge of the nations (p. 128) but we can also look at judgement the other way: when Nahum 1:2 says "The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful", we have to remember that this wrath against sin fell on Jesus. This is a glaring omission in what attempts to be a complete catalogue of connections between the Old and New Testaments.

Thirdly, in talking about covenant signs, Murray claims that "the crown on David's head reminded him and all Israel of God's promise of an everlasting king and kingdom" (p. 167). There is, however, no reference to David being crowned until he obtains the crown of the King of Rabbah in 2 Samuel 12:30. David was anointed with oil (2 Samuel 2:4) but the crown is not itself a Davidic symbol. It is used in the Psalms (89:39 and 132:18) to refer to the later monarchy, and perhaps this is where Murray gets the idea.

Thus, Jesus on Every Page is a rather annoying book. It is helpful in many ways, but it could have been so much better. The numerous points of disagreement I had prevent me from recommending it wholeheartedly.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

An intriguing blend of approaches

The Classical Unschooler: Education Without School by Purva Brown

This book presents an approach that blends two major, but seemingly inconsistent, approaches to home schooling: classical education and unschooling.

The classical approach sees home education as progressing through three stages: in the grammar stage (covering approximately grades 1 to 4) the emphasis is on learning facts, often with memorisation; the logic stage (grades 5 to 8) emphasises the connections between these facts; while the rhetoric stage (grades 9 to 12) emphasises the application and expression of the facts. The classical approach often uses history as a backbone, and covers the whole of world history a number of times (e.g. once in each stage).

Unschooling might seem to be the complete opposite to this. It emphasises a lack of "subjects", and focuses on topics that the student is interested in himself. Unschooling places a high value on nature study and field trips.

In this book, and also on her blog,, Purva Brown boldly presents an approach which combines the two. In doing so she has done a great service to the world of homeschooling, and her writings deserve to be more widely known. Classical unschooling manages to take the best of both worlds.

So how does it work? It means giving your children access to lots of books. It means reading lots of stories and getting them reading what they are interested in. It often means eschewing formal bookwork and engaging in creative play. Classical unschooling recognises that in young children memorisation is natural and exciting. It's classical schooling without being a slave to curriculum, and unschooling that is purposeful.

This is a slim volume that has been self-published. It does not even have page numbers. But it is still worth reading, and Purva Brown's audacious approach is definitely worth considering.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Almost persuaded me, but not quite

Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture by David VanDrunen

This book is a defence of the "Two Kingdoms" view of how Christians are to live in this world and relate to the surrounding culture.

VanDrunen argues against the idea that legitimate cultural activities are redeemed through the gospel. Whereas Al Wolters wrote a very helpful book called Creation Regained, VanDrunen sees his position as being "Re-Creation Gained": "Our cultural activities do not in any sense usher in the new creation. The new creation has been earned and attained once for all by Christ, the last Adam" (p. 28).

VanDrunen does not believe that the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 still applies to Christians today; instead, Jesus has fulfilled Adam's obligations on our behalf (p. 50). Christ "does not restore us to Adam's original task but takes us to where Adam was supposed to arrive" (p. 59).

VanDrunen sees Christians and living in two kingdoms, each ruled by God. The first he calls the "common kingdom", and includes every human being. This is regulated by the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, but not, for example, by the Ten Commandments. The second he calls the "redemptive kingdom", and is to be identified with the church: "the church is the only institution or community in the present world that can be identified with the kingdom proclaimed by Christ" (p. 101). This is virtually the Roman Catholic view, although VanDrunen later clarifies this by saying that the church is not identical to the kingdom (p. 116). "Identified with" but not "identical to" is, however, a rather subtle distinction.

VanDrunen concedes that "the New Testament does not say explicitly that God still rules the broader cultural life of this world through the Noahic covenant," (p. 118) but suggests that "it does not have to" since it was to be a perpetual covenant: "while earth remains" (Gen 8:22). VanDrunen labours under the disadvantage of being forced to invent terminology: the Bible never refers to the "common kingdom".

In practical terms, this means Christians should not try to "take over" or "take back" politics or education (p. 125). Instead, we should see ourselves as exiles, just like the Israelites in Babylon.

VanDrunen writes very well, and his writing is saturated with Scripture. I appreciate his emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ and his high view of the church. Were it not for some obvious drawbacks, I would have been convinced of his view.

Firstly, VanDrunen virtually ignores the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). There, Jesus instructs his disciples in a way that is reminiscent of God's words in Genesis 1:26-28. Now it's quite clear that VanDrunen doesn't view it as supplementing or expanding the creation mandate, but it's disappointing that he does not deal with the text at all. The clear link between creation mandate and Great Commission is a significant argument against VanDrunen's thesis.

Secondly, in regards to education, VanDrunen argues that theology is the province of the redemptive kingdom, and all other areas of study belong to the common kingdom (p. 174). This does not account, however, for subjects on the borderline, such as church history. Is this something the church can teach, or not? It appears that VanDrunen's distinction between the two kingdoms may be rather artificial.

Individual parts of this book are, however, excellent, and I can endorse many of VanDrunen's conclusions while disagreeing with his thesis. For example, he rightly points out that "the church, acting officially through its deacons, has authority to do only the kind of diaconal work that Christ, speaking in Scripture, authorizes it to do" (p. 157). I can agree with that, precisely because I see a distinction between church and kingdom: there are works of service and cultural activities that constitute kingdom work but not church work. The church should focus on the ministry that Christ has specifically called her to do, but the work of Christians (both individually and in groups) goes far beyond that.

Living in God's Two Kingdoms almost persuaded me, but not quite.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Wodehouse had been a modern American Christian

Flags Out Front: A Contrarian's Daydream by Douglas Wilson

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It is funny and engaging all the way through.

It concerns a fictional fundamentalist Bible college in the American South (called Choctaw Valley Bible College), and its mild-mannered president, Dr Tom. One night a prankster switches the flags at the front of the college so that the Christian flag is higher than the American flag (see the cover illustration). Dr Tom decides to let it remain like that, and a controversy ensues.

Flags Out Front is all about what being a faithful Christian looks like in modern America. Wilson makes the point that faithful Christians will have enemies on both the left and the right of politics.

Wilson includes plenty of humorous asides, and has obviously been inspired by P. G. Wodehouse in both his plot and his choice of words. This book has instantly become one of my favourites.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Not your grandmother's theonomy

The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God's Law of Liberty by Joel McDurmon

Although it's not really clear from the title, this book is about theonomy, which McDurmon defines as "the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today" (p. 17).

The key phrase here is "including some civil laws". This is a reasonable definition: non-theonomic Reformed people would say that no civil laws remain obligatory for today (only, perhaps, the principles behind the laws). But in his discussion of which civil laws remain obligatory, McDurmon departs in a significant way from older Theonomic writers such as Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North.

In chapter 3, McDurmon argues that crimes relating to worship (e.g. idolatry and blasphemy) and sex (e.g. homosexuality and adultery) carried the death penalty in the Old Testament because of the concept of herem, in which things that could contaminate Israel needed to be destroyed. McDurmon argues that this no longer applies today. Although he isn't clear on this point, he seems to suggest that they should not even be crimes today (though of course, they are still sins). Later in the book he says that in a "properly theonomic society", the government "would have little to do with sex or marriage" (p. 94).

In chapter 4, McDurmon argues that all other Old Testament death penalties (e.g. for rape and kidnapping) still apply, on the basis that the penalties were an expression of God's perfect justice. Yet this does not sit easily with what was stated in the previous chapter: the death penalty for blasphemy was also a just one, yet McDurmon says it no longer applies. In any case, McDurmon's position represents a significant (and very conscious) departure from traditional theonomy.

Finally, with regards to practical application, McDurmon correctly notes that the Great Commission includes a command to disciple the nations, and teach God's law to entire societies rather than just individuals (p. 104). Yet it seems he has a defective view of discipleship. Discipleship, among other things, encourages inner conviction rather than just behaviour modification. That also applies in "teaching the nations". So when McDurmon says  that Christians "should always lead opposition to any and all taxation" (p. 112), one can't help but feel that he has misplaced priorities and is fighting the wrong battles.

The Bounds of Love is an interesting read but not really a book I would recommend.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A significant contribution to historical theology

The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

This is a book of historical theology. It looks at theological development among African-Americans from 1600 to the present day. There are not a lot of early African-American theological writers, but Anyabwile does a fine job of introducing the reader to men like Jupiter Hammon and Daniel Payne, as well as bringing out the theology present in slave songs and testimonies.

As the title indicates, Anyabwile argues that the history of African-American theology is a story of decline: from orthodox Calvinism through Arminianism and Pentecostalism to full-blown liberalism and prosperity theology. One interesting reason given for the rise of liberalism in African-American circles is that "most theologically conservative seminaries adopted the racist segregationist policies and attitudes of the time" (p. 205).

Each chapter of the book covers a different area of doctrine: revelation, theology proper, anthropology, christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. Ecclesiology and eschatology are glaring omissions: Anyabwile says only that outlines for these chapters were "left on the cutting room floor" (p. 241).

Perhaps the most striking thing I read was that in the era of slavery, black people were often stereotyped, but they did not respond by stereotyping white people themselves: "the folk theology of slaves proved resilient against tendencies to denigrate white people as a class or to make pejorative associations with white skin color" (p. 113).

The Decline of African American Theology is a helpful an interesting book, and makes a significant contribution to the discipline of historical theology.