Review & Reflection: Baptist Roots in America

The strength of this book is also its greatest weakness: it’s short. That’s good, in that it allows the reader to get a quick survey of Baptist history (specifically Particular, or “Reformed”, Baptist history) in America. But it’s bad in that it is also a highly selective (and 1567792._SY475_[1]somewhat arbitrary) tour of that history. Entire Baptist groups and figures are left unmentioned or are covered in one sentence. There is minimal discussion of the impact of Baptists on American cultural or church life (aside from a few mentions of the role of Colonial Baptists in the emergence of freedom of religion in early America). In fact, most of the book is not really an historical account of Baptists in America as much as it is an apologetic against modern Baptist commitments (Arminianism, Revivalism, and Fundamentalism) with a pastoral plea for a recovery of the Reformed roots of Baptist theology and church life.

Still, this book does give some historical account of where Baptists have been and of the rich heritage which modern American Baptists can learn from. As a Presbyterian, I found it a helpful 30,000 foot overview. It whet my appetite to learn more about the history of Reformed Baptists – both in America and around the world.

Review & Reflection: The Priority of Preaching

31RwrjZcw3L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_[1]This little book by Christopher Ash is a wonderfully biblical and pastorally helpful explanation and defense of preaching in general and of expository preaching in particular.  The core of the book are three chapters which are adapted from conference addresses he gave on the subject some years ago.  Each chapter is rooted in the book of Deuteronomy, a fact which gives a wonderful focus and richness to his discussion of the authority, purpose, and fruit of preaching.

This book would be particularly useful to one of two audiences: either for those who are skeptical (or unfamiliar) with expository preaching or for those who are familiar with it, but are tempted to discouragement.  For the first group, Ash offers a biblical and compelling case for the power and priority of preaching.  For the second group, Ash offers pastoral reminders and encouragements that God delights (and ordains) to use the foolishness of these means to communicate with His people, establish the church, and influence the world.  Short and simple, yet deep and profound, this book is well worth any preacher’s time.

Review & Reflection: The Green Ember Series

This is my review for the whole Green Ember series (or at least for the four main books – I haven’t yet read the shorter stories which have been released).

Green Ember

The Green Ember series is the first major offering of author S.D. Smith.  Set in a fantasy world inhabited by rabbits, wolves, and raptors – the books draw us into a story of resistance, recovery, and redemption as beleaguered bands of rabbits fight against the powers of darkness.  Importantly, the powers of darkness are not just the wolves and prey-lords who torment them, but the temptations towards evil, cowardice, and betrayal which lurk in their own hearts.  As is true of many fantasy series today, the first book can move a bit slowly but once the reader has been drawn into the characters and the story, the books pick up pace.  These make for a quick read – even for the younger audience for which they are written.  For a young adult fantasy, these are a good read.  The characters are relatable and accessible and the story isn’t overly complex.  The world is familiar enough to ring true, but foreign enough to have the smell of adventure.  For Christian readers, the overarching themes of struggle against evil (both within and without) and the call to sacrifice and service for others are fleshed out beautifully.  The longing for redemption and restoration throbs through all four books and feeds our own hunger for eternity.

This isn’t Tolkien or Lewis, but few works are.  Taken as what it is (a light young adult fantasy series ideal for middle and high school readers) this is a solid series and worth reading.  Unfortunately, there are times when the dialogue slips into inconsistency.  One minute a character will be giving a speech with exalted language and the next minute the very same character will slip into a juvenile joking tone.  The sudden shifts in tone can be a bit jarring and leave the characters feeling a bit inconsistent.  I’m also not a fan of portraying female and male characters in warrior roles, but Smith does offer some well expressed explorations of how diversity in gifts and calling are things of good and beauty in the final book.

Despite these flaws, I enjoyed the series.  For readers who have read series like The Wingfeather Saga, the 100 Cupboards Series, or the Redwall books, these books will hold an undeniable charm.

Review & Reflection: One Hour With the Bible

T43069739._SX318_[1]he people behind the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) have done the church a great service in putting together this little book. In less than 50 pages, you can now read through the entire story line of the Bible from the words of Scripture itself. Using carefully selected portions of Scripture, this volume walks the reader through the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. While there is a lot left out (obviously!) I think they did a phenomenal job of choosing Scriptures which highlight the central themes of the Scriptures.

This was my first sustained exposure to the CSB. You can find lots of discussions about their translation approach and philosophy online, but the short version is that they aim for a middle path between dynamic equivalence (found in more thought for thought translations like the NIV/NLT) and formal equivalence (found in more word for word translations like the ESV/NASB). They try to combine the strengths of both positions into their own approach – what they call “optimal equivalence.” The outcome is a translation that is both readable and reliable. That’s not to say that they always get the balance right. I find their rendering of the Psalms to be a bit clunky and some of their attempts to rephrase things seem distracting to me. But the translation really shines in historical narratives and in the Gospels.

9781535940436_03-1024x1024[1]The book is cheap in price, but not in quality. For $5 or less, you get a hardcover book that’s beautifully formatted and well printed. While references are included before each selection, all chapter headings and verse divisions are removed from the text itself. This really helps to draw the reader into the passage and to follow the progress of the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation. I noticed two places where there was a missing space, but I didn’t see any other typos in my initial read-through.

The end result is a very effective resource for the church. I read this in my last semester of seminary in preparation for my exams for licensure and ordination. But it could be read with equal profit by an unbeliever who had never cracked the pages of a Bible. I love that (aside from a scattering of – very helpful – explanatory paragraphs) this book just lets the Bible speak for itself. For that reason, I think this will be my go-to resource to give to people interested in Christianity. Unbelievers, young believers, and mature Christians alike would all profit from reading through this book – ideally in one sitting!

Review & Reflection: Gamechangers – Key Figures of the Christian Church

51GLDXMzs4L[1]I always enjoy reading Letham. He has a depth and breadth of knowledge about the history and theology of the church that is truly stunning. His knowledge is put to good use in this little book as Letham gives us a guided tour of some of the greatest minds in the history of the church. Many of the chapters were originally given as talks for interested laypeople, and while some chapters are better than others, all of them give a basic overview of the life, thought, and impact of a key figure from church history. Each chapter closes with a brief bibliography to guide those who want to push further.

Letham is an able communicator and does a fair job of jumping between the broad sweep of biography and the nitty-gritty of theology as he considers each figure. And while this is probably not the best starting place for church history (Bruce Shelley’s, “Church History in Plain Language” remains a good introductory overview), those with a grasp of the basic timeline will enjoy the chance to dig deeper into the names which pop up in general surveys of the subject. Letham is also not afraid to push into theology and a familiarity with the various discussions and distinctions of the field are necessary to follow his writing. However, the intermediate student of church history and theology will find much material to stimulate his thinking.

Letham delights in sacrificing sacred cows and often gives interesting tidbits about these thinkers that are glossed over in other works. At its best, this tendency provides some helpful balance and guards against the ever present danger of hagiography. At its worst, however, Letham seems to be so concerned to undermine hero-worship that he runs the risk of undermining having heroes at all (see his treatment of Luther). This tendency to balance also leads to some strange choices and emphases (such as the inclusion of John Williamson Nevin as the lone representative of the 19th century or the puzzlingly positive portrayal of Karl Barth).

These quibbles aside, I found the book to be tremendously enjoyable and stretching. It is always edifying to see a great mind at work and Letham walks us through the contributions of many of the best minds the church has produced. This is a worthy addition to any historical or theological library.

Review & Reflection: Bioethics – a Primer for Christians

This is a beautifully written book on the complex world of bioethics from the pen of a thinker who is deeply immersed in the Christian tradition. Gilbert Meilaender writes as a conservative Lutheran (LCMS) ethicist but he grounds his ethical 41WG1KV3J6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]reflections in the broad sweep of Christian thought. I don’t agree with all of his judgment calls (I think he’s a bit too broad on abortion and a bit too narrow on organ donation and prenatal screening, amongst other things) but getting his “take” on the issues is hardly the point. The purpose of the book is to provide a Christian framework for making ethical decisions and then to tease out the implications of that framework in light of the various ethical issues of the day.

In that sense, the first chapter “Christian Vision” is the most important and helpful part of the whole book. In it, Meilaender carefully shows how the assumptions that the Christian brings to the world stand in such stark contrast to the views of modern culture. While contemporary Westerners build many of their ethical decisions on the pillars of individualist autonomy and a conviction that suffering it to be avoided at all costs, Meilaender reminds us that the Bible takes a very different view. While individuality is cherished, individualism is rejected. Man is never autonomous or independent. Indeed, dependence and need are integral aspects of the human experience and so alongside of our stress on freedom must come a corresponding embrace of our creaturely finitude. Perhaps most counter-culturally of all, the Bible views suffering as both lamentable (as a result of the fall) yet also redeemable (through the gift of God’s grace). Because God delights to sanctify our suffering we do not accept the idea that suffering is an evil which must be resisted at any cost. These core assumptions have huge implications for how we deal with ethical issues and quandaries – from issues of fertility and conception to questions about organ donation and euthanasia.

While thoughtful Christians will apply these principles differently, it is important to ground our discussion in the basic paradigm of the Bible. Meilaender does a helpful job of reminding us of that foundation and of showing us at least some of the ways it can be worked out in life and death.

Review & Reflection: The Trellis and the Vine

7303048[1]An excellent book to get you thinking about the culture of your church. The authors write in a readable way and do a good job of drawing our attention to what should be core in our ministries. As they articulate in the book, much of the activity that takes place in the American church is centered on structural support and institutional development (what they call “trellis work”) instead of practical discipleship and spiritual growth (“vine work”). While they recognize that both are essential (and indeed, are overlapping and interdependent) a church with little to no vine-work is falling short of the call of Christ.

For some this book will be “the ministry mind-shift that changes everything” (as the publisher somewhat grandiosely puts it) while for others it will be a convicting reminder of the biblical priorities which should shape our churches. But for all readers, the Trellis and the Vine offers a refreshing opportunity to refocus on what really matters in ministry. The authors write as Gospel-Coalition style Anglicans (hailing from the evangelical and Reformed diocese of Sydney, Australia) and so some issue of polity and practice will be done differently if you are a Baptist or Presbyterian Pastor. But for Western church leaders, this book can be a welcome influence to push us back to the Bible as we think about what we do and why we do it as a church.

Review & Reflection: The Case for Byzantine Priority

This little book is basically the preface and appendix to the Robinson & Pierpont edition of the Greek New Testament (which can be found publicly available online). This material explains their approach to textual criticism and makes a case for (as the title of the book says) the Byzantine Priority. 50279291._SY475_[1]

I’m giving this high marks because I believe it’s the best scholarly case that can be made for the priority of the Byzantine text. Robinson is meticulous in his scholarship, rigorous in his reasoning, and even-handed in his conclusions. While I remain unconvinced of certain aspects of his program (primarily his insistence that transmission be the determining factor prior to taking into view other external and internal concerns) it is impossible to deny his claim that Byzantine Priority should be recognized and received as an acceptable scholarly school of thought in the field of New Testament Textual Criticism.

Review & Reflection: The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Criticism

This is a simply phenomenal book. Sturz’s work (which is the publication of his thesis together with extensive supplementary material) is a reasoned and reasonable argument that modern New Testament t51be9sB4LKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]extual critics have been too quick to relegate the Byzantine text-form to the status of second class citizen.

Sturz avoids the temptation to simplistically pick sides and argues against the view that the Byzantine text must be secondary and thus generally rejected (the view of Westcott & Hort, and the majority of modern critical scholars) as well as the view that the Byzantine text must be primary and thus generally received (Dean Burgon, Zane Hodges, and Maurice Robinson, et al). Instead, Sturz argues that the kind of reasoned eclectic method advocated by the first group should be pursued but that the Byzantine text should be recognized as an independent and valuable witness to early readings. He supports this contention by providing a helpful overview to the debate, an evenhanded critique of both schools, and a rigorous argument for his own position. He draws heavily on the papyri discoveries of the last century and gives careful responses to the common arguments raised against the Byzantine text. Each chapter is short and focused. His argument is exceptionally easy to follow while being undeniably well researched and well documented.

Out of the 300 pages of the book, only the first 130 or so pages are actually used to state his argument. The rest of the book is carefully compiled data designed to prove it. This book (now out of print, sadly, and hard to find) is a gem and offers a nuanced and helpful way forward through the gridlock between the advocates of the Alexandrian and Byzantine texts.

Review & Reflection: Behind the Bible – A Primer on Textual Criticism

In this little book (just over 100 pages), Pastor Jeff Johnson seeks to introduce the reader to the complex and fascinating field of textual criticism.  While most laypeople will never have the 51JX2Bqc5fL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_[1]time, skill, or motivation to work through the intricacies of textual criticism, every Christian should be interested in answering the question: where did we get our Bibles?

This book helps to answer that question.  It is exactly what a primer should be. Nothing earth shattering (and people who are familiar with the field will no doubt quibble over certain points), but it does a good job of introducing the major features of the field. Johnson succeeds in orienting the student to key figures and terminology, and points towards further resources in the footnotes. Importantly, it’s not a dry read. I read the whole thing in one sitting. This will probably be my go-to recommendation for a good starting place on the subject.

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