Review & Reflection: Martin Luther

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I’ve been itching to get my hands on a copy of one of the books in Simonetta Carr’s acclaimed “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series for years now.  So when I had the opportunity to write a review for her book on Martin Luther (which is her latest addition to the series) I jumped at the chance!  I’m a church history buff (I’ve been both studying and teaching on the subject for years now) so I’m always fascinated to read more about Luther and the Reformation.

Of course one of the great challenges in a work like this is to present the basic outlines and significance of Luther’s life in a way that does justice to both the man and his times.  Too many  accounts of his life (particularly ones intended for young readers) fall into hagiography or stop the story just as it’s beginning.  Simonetta Carr does neither of those things.  Instead she offers her readers an informative and engaging introduction to Luther’s life from birth to death.  She hits the high points of his dramatic story (his abrupt decision to become a monk, dramatic conversion, and stirring courage in the face of Papal displeasure) without painting him as a spotless saint (she talks about the horrors of the Peasant’s War, the troubles he faced in the work of Reformation, and his unfortunate tirades against the Jews later in his life).  The prose is steadily written and easily read.  The illustrations are lavish and the visual material arresting.  The book is beautifully produced and well-made.

One of the things that most surprised and delighted me about the book was how many facts and tid-bits were new to me.  Even though I’ve been learning about Luther for years she had a wonderful way of weaving striking new insights into this introductory text.  She managed to write a book that is both accessible to new readers and engaging for those who are already familiar with her subject.  I give this book high marks on all counts and now I’m itching to get my hands on the rest of the series!

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.


Review & Reflection: What Men Live By and other Tales

what-men-live-by-other-tales-leo-tolstoy-paperback-cover-artLike everyone else I read Leo Tolstoy’s little book The Death of Ivan Ilyich in my college Literature class.  I enjoyed it, but was far more impressed by that other Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Recently, however, I dipped back into Tolstoy and was pleasantly surprised.  I read his excellent little book of short stories called What Men Live by and Other Tales (this is just one of many titles available in public domain over at Librivox).

What Men Live By is made up of four short stories written in the aftermath of Tolstoy’s conversion from the self-absorbed life of his aristocratic youth to the radical Christianity which would shape his later life.  The book was published in 1885 and contains some of his most famous short stories including the title work “What Men Live By” and the acclaimed story “How Much Land Does a Man Need”  James Joyce once claimed that “How Much Land Does a Man Need” was: “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”.  Each story takes the form of a parable or a fable by using a simple setting and story to communicate moral and religious truth.  All four stories were well written and engaging and all were short enough to be read in a single sitting (which is, of course, the proper way to enjoy any short story).  I was most impressed by “How Much Land Does a Man Need” and I was least impressed by “The Coffee House of Surat” (which argues for a sort of religious relativism).  This little volume has definitely whet my appetite to read more Tolstoy and I found these short stories (with the possible exception of “The Coffee House of Surat”) to be both delightful and profound.  I look forward to reading them to my kids and re-reading them as an adult.


Review & Reflection – William Farel

Fuk_william_farel_cover_1024x1024__03909-1461257079-1280-1280or the past several years Evangelical Press has been putting out a truly wonderful little series of books they call “Bitesize Biographies” which offer brief and helpful introductions to some of the great heroes of the faith.  Jason Zuidema has added to this collection with his short survey of the life and work of the great Reformer William Farel.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about this series in general, and perhaps about this little volume in particular, is how well it navigates the waters between the danger of hagiography on the one hand and deconstruction on the other.  Most have probably only heard of Farel in connection with his famous encounter which led Calvin to come to Geneva.  As the popular story goes, the fiery Farel challenged the scholar Calvin with threats of God’s judgment if Calvin did not give up his journey to Strasbourg to aid in the reform of Geneva.

But there is much more to Farel than one anecdote.  Zuidema traces his early life and upbringing in France and shows how the idolatry and superstition of his childhood drove him to embrace the Reformation with a zeal and conviction that would be characteristic of his ministry.  Farel was a flawed man in many respects (and Zuidema does not shy away from exposing his faults – whether his quick temper or imprudent marriage late in life that left his friends shocked), but he was clearly a significant figure in the establishment of the Reformed churches of Switzerland and France.  This book grabbed my attention from the beginning and left me with a better understanding not only of Farel, but also of his own age.  Studying the biographies of these Reformers can often bring refreshing revelations of just how difficult and tenuous the work of Reformation often was.  Students of church history and struggling Christians alike will be encouraged and educated by this helpful little biography.


Review & Reflection: Scripture and Worship

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I recently finished reading the book Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Worship by Richard Muller and Rowland S. Ward.  The book is a small collection of essays that were adapted from addresses given at Westminster Seminary as part of their ongoing work on the Westminster Standards for the Craig Center.  Most people who would find the book interesting will be familiar with the game-changing work of Richard Muller in Historical Theology.  I found his essays exactly what you would expect: precise, pointed, & thorough.  His essays make up the first part of the book and tackle the issue of the Westminster Standards and Biblical Interpretation.  In the background of his essays was the polemical point that undergirds so many of his contributions to the field of post-Reformation historical studies: while developing a degree of diversity, the Reformed tradition represents a basic continuity from the magisterial Reformers to the later Reformed Scholastics.  This point stands in contrast to the claims of some who wish to drive a wedge between early and later Reformed thought.

His first essay underscores the diversity of the Reformed tradition by showing how the exegetical work of the Westminster Assembly built on the tradition exemplified by the English Annotations without being slavishly (or even primarily) influenced by that particular work.  He lays to rest the common misunderstanding that the English Annotations are somehow part and parcel of the Westminster Assembly’s project.  Instead he shows how they are distinct, if still somewhat related, works.  His second essay underscores the continuity of the Reformed tradition by showing how the exegetical work of the Westminster Assembly did not simply engage in simplistic proof-texting as their modern critics often claim.  Instead, the proof-texts they provide serve as sign-posts which connect their exegetical work with the broader Christian tradition of Biblical interpretation – often connecting back to the work of both the early Reformed tradition and even the Medieval and Patristic writers before them.

Like other reviewers, I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent contributions which Rowland S. Ward makes to this volume.  Ward is an Australian Presbyterian scholar and pastor and his two essays consider the Directory for Public Worship.  Ward’s essays are more accessible than Muller’s – but no less significant.  While he provides helpful historical background and fascinating facts to flesh out our understanding of the Directory, he also builds on Muller’s basic argument for continuity within the Reformed tradition.  Ward demonstrates that no wedge can be driven between Continental and British views on worship and that the framers of the Directory were largely following in the tradition of Calvin, Bucer, and Knox in their own work.  The book concludes with a full re-printing of the Directory for Public Worship.

I enjoyed this book immensely.  While Muller’s essays can be a bit dense (and no doubt daunting to the unfamiliar reader) they are solid in content and delivery.  Ward’s contributions are more accessible without sacrificing scholarly substance.  All in all, this is a fine start to what looks to be a promising series and a valuable little book that underscores the basic continuity of the Reformed tradition.

 

 


Serving in Sardis

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It’s been more than a year since I returned to the US from the UK.  The year I spent living, working, and ministering in the heart of England will always exert a strong influence on my life (and I hope that year will only have marked the beginning of my relationship with old Blighty and not the end of it).  One of the things that particularly struck me during my time in the UK was the sense of decline which seemed to permeate the church culture.  There was none of the naive optimism that pulling the lever for the right candidate or passing the right law would somehow transform the culture.  There was little of the bravado and swagger which has too often characterized the American church.  Perhaps this has something to do with the deeper-set character differences between the stereotypical “brash/optimistic” Americans and the “stiff-upper-lip” Brits.  I don’t know.  But part of the story was that Britain knew that she had, in some profound sense, fallen.  Fallen from a place of influence and strength within the Christian world to a place of reproach.  The British church has been pushed to the margins by an increasingly aggressive secular culture.

Now the good news is that there are wonderful stories of God’s grace in Britain that need to be told.  There are reservoirs of resolve and stockpiles of strength which reside in the spirit of British believers.  I was blessed to see first-hand churches being planted, people being baptized, the gospel being preached, and the faithful being built up in my short time in the British church.

All of this however, prompted me to contrast the UK with the US.  Many of my British friends seemed to think that the church in America was strong.  After all, don’t statistics show that 70% of Americans identify as believers?  Aren’t there hundreds of solid Christian schools and colleges?  Aren’t there dozens of Reformed seminaries?  Aren’t there publishing houses, and ministries all over the country that are working for the spread of the gospel?  Aren’t there faithful Christians in all levels of influence and in every field of work?  Aren’t there churches with thousands of members?  Aren’t there more missionaries coming from America than there are from any other country in the world?  Isn’t the American church strong?

Well, yes.  And yet, no.  The American church has a reputation (and even an appearance) of great strength and vitality, but as I’ve reflected on the differences between the church in the US and the church in the UK it’s helped me to realize something: as an American, I serve in Sardis.

Now what do I mean by that?  In Revelation 1-3 Jesus gives his famous “Greeting to the Seven Churches”.  These “greetings” often contain rebukes as well.  Corrections for sins committed and warnings of pitfalls to be avoided.  Here’s what Jesus says to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.  I know your works.  You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.  Remember, then, what you received and heard.  Keep it, and repent.  If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.  Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.  The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.  I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

These words deserve a full exposition, but I simply want to use them to draw our attention to a simple idea: America is Sardis.  We have a reputation for being alive, but we are dead.  Those familiar with the state of American Evangelicalism will know the cancers which seems to eat us away from the inside.  We are not as healthy as we appear.  But Jesus is calling us to both repentance and hope.  Repentance for our dead deeds and incomplete works yes, but also hope that we are to remember what we have received and heard, we are to strengthen that which remains, and we are to keep God’s words in repentance.  As Jesus said: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Reformed Rituals and the Benedict Option

bloggable-ben-op-cover1As some of you will know, much of my thought and reflection over the past year or so has been shaped by Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of what he terms the “Benedict Option”. If you’re new to the term don’t read another word until you’ve had the time to digest this helpful introduction to the topic here.

I’ve found Dreher’s contributions to be very stimulating personally. While much (probably most) of what he calls for is simply a faithful expression of historic Christianity the perspectives and practices he calls for are things that we vitally need to recover and explore if Christianity in the West is itself to remain vital. There are many things I appreciate about the Benedict Option (and I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of his book on the subject in March, 2017) but in this article I want to consider a more specific issue that has arisen in the conversation surrounding the Benedict Option – namely the role of ritual.

Drawing on the writing of Patristics scholar Robert Louis Wilken, Dreher has repeatedly highlighted the central role of ritual in the formation and transmission of the Christian faith and life. While Dreher (who is Eastern Orthodox) goes out of his way to cast the Benedict Option in Ecumenical terms, he himself openly wonders if, “The lack of ritual in most Protestantism and much of modern Catholicism — [impedes] our ability to remember?” While I would share Mr. Dreher’s concern that much of modern Protestantism (especially in its non-denominational and broadly evangelical expression) lacks the thick practices and habits which form Christian character and preserve Christian culture, I think it’s important to recognize that this hasn’t always been the case, and as someone who is writing out of the Reformed tradition I think Dreher’s concerns can serve to push us to reflect on our own Reformed rituals.

Now it may strike you that the term “Reformed ritual” is nothing more than an oxymoron.  Certainly, the language of ritual has traditionally been avoided in most of the Reformed tradition (often out of a well founded distaste for ritualism) but defined correctly, Reformed piety and practice has rituals because “ritual” is just another term for that piety and practice. So what, then, are the practices which constitute Reformed Ritualism?  Here are a few that came to my mind:

I.  Family Worship

The Reformed tradition has long preserved and promoted the practice of family worship.  Building on the biblical commands which God gave to His covenant people in the Old Testament, the Reformation argued that the family is to be a “school of Christ” and a “little church”.  Without in any way undermining the unique priority and role of God’s corporate people groups such as the Westminster Assembly encouraged families to cultivate the daily practice of family worship.  In addition to the more famous Westminster Confession of Faith with Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Westminster Assembly also produced several additional documents for the benefit of the church.  Among these was a document entitled The Directory for Family-WorshipThe main features of family worship are well outlined in the second paragraph of the Directory:

II. The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety which should be in families, when they are convened to that effect, are these: First, Prayer and praises performed with a special reference, as well to the publick condition of the kirk [church] of God and this kingdom, as to the present case of the family, and every member thereof. Next, Reading of the scriptures, with catechising in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be the better enabled to profit under the publick ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the scriptures when they are read; together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.

II. Catechizing

The paragraph quoted above already points to the next Reformed ritual worth considering: the practice of catechesis.  In a very helpful article (which contains links to a number of solid resources on the subject), Camden Bucey offers some sound reflections on the Importance of Catechesis:

Reformed catechesis in the home, especially, grounds a child in the reformed doctrines and solidifies them by building a foundational structure.  Whenever a catechized child encounters a new doctrine, its claims pass through a reformed grid.  Catechesis, then is not simply instruction, but foundational and provides guidance and counsel to children when parents are not directly available to provide instruction – even as they grow up and move out on their own.

III.  Christian Education

These first two rituals flow naturally into the next: Christian Education.  It is significant that part of the work of the Reformation was the promotion of learning and literacy.  Early American settlers (for example) would often form themselves in communities around the twin institutions of the church and the school.  The first great institutions of higher learning in this country (whether Harvard, Princeton, or Yale) all have, not only Christian, but specifically Reformed roots.  The emphasis on Christian education has in fact been a feature of almost every expression of the Reformed tradition (whether Dutch, Scottish, English or American).  Ben House delves into some of that history in our own country in his article: Classical Christian Education: A Look at some History

Typically the schools in early American history were Classical Christian schools. The instructors were usually ministers whose training was a combination of classical languages and literature and Protestant theology. In other words, they studied the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and they read Homer’s Iliad in Greek, Tacitus’ histories in Latin, as well as studying John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For example, Moses Waddell, a Southern Presbyterian preacher and teacher (1770-1840), began studying Latin at age eight, and after six years of school, he had finished courses in Greek, Latin, and mathematics.

IV. Psalm Singing

The Reformers were famous for their radical re-centering of the Christian life around the Word of God.  This found expression not only in the preaching of the church but also in the praise of the church.  Many early Reformers were in face exclusive Psalmists (they believed that the only acceptable source for singing in Christian worship was the inspired Book of Psalms).  While the Reformed tradition has often (though not always) moved away from the exclusive Psalmody position of these early Reformers, the Psalms have nevertheless played a central role in historic Reformed worship.  Psalm singing often shaped not only the praise but the practical piety of Reformed believers.

V. Lord’s Day Observance

This leads naturally to the final ritual I wish to highlight which is Lord’s Day observance.  Again, this is a practice which has experience too much of a decline in our own day despite the fact that it was central to our forefathers.  In fact, earlier Reformed believers saw Lord’s Day observance as so vital that they often made statements like this from J.C. Ryle:

The subject is one which is of immense importance. It is not too much to say that the prosperity or decay of organized Christianity depends on the maintenance of the Christian Sabbath. Break down the fence which now surrounds the Sunday, and our Sunday schools will soon come to an end. Let in the Hood of worldliness and pleasure-seeking on the Lord’s Day, without check or hindrance, and our congregations will soon dwindle away. There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there would soon be far less. Nothing in short, I believe, would so thoroughly advance the kingdom of Satan as to withdraw legal protection from the Lord’s Day. It would be a joy to the infidel; but it would be an insult and offence to God.

Concluding Thoughts:

I’ve only pointed towards some of these practice but each of them deserves (and have elsewhere received) a more thorough discussion.  Nevertheless, it is my hope that Dreher’s writings on the Benedict Option can help Reformed Christians to more intentionally and thoughtfully reengage with the practices and rituals which have formed our tradition through the centuries.  Many of these practices which were so vital to the preservation and propagation of the Reformed faith have fallen on hard times.  If we are to survive the dark days ahead we must work to revive practice such as these.


Review & Reflection: Pentecostal Outpourings

pentecostal__69435-1446558671-1280-1280“Pentecostal Outpourings” may not sound like the title of a Reformed book, but the collective authors of the new book, “Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition” show that such an assumption would be wrong.  As the writers make clear, Spirit-wrought revival has had a strong and ongoing presence in the history of Reformed churches.  The book is edited by Robert Davis Smart, Michael A.G. Haykin, and Ian Hugh Clary, and contains chapters from all three of these men together with contributions from Steve Lawson, Joel Beeke, Eifion Evans, Iain D. Campbell, Peter Beck, and Tom J. Nettles.  This is an expansive book, with a range of authors discussing an assortment of issues related to the various revivals which have taken place in numerous countries over many centuries.  The book is divided into two parts.  The first part deals with “Revival in the British Isles” looking at its impact and expression for the Welsh, the Irish, the English, and the Scottish in turn.  Part two shifts to a discussion of “Revival in America” with chapters on revivals among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and the American Dutch Reformed.

Through this thorough survey, the authors clearly show that revival is not foreign to the Reformed tradition.  Indeed, not only is it something that has happened in the past, it is also something the we should long to see happen again.  The final chapter of the book is aptly entitled: “A Concluding Word: A Call to Seek God for Revival Today”.  While Reformed believers have always rightly been wary of Revivalism (and the emotionalism it produces), God-honoring, biblical revival is something that should be close to all of our hearts.  This book goes a long way towards helping us understand what that has looked like over the centuries; and it points us towards what it might look like in our own day.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.


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