A Feast from John 4, Courtesy of Lloyd-Jones

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was, by any fair measure, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century.  His ministry at Westminster Chapel in London ranks among the most influential in Christian history.  “The Doctor,” as he was known, was a master expositor and a most effective communicator.  He was also firmly grounded in historic Christian orthodoxy, with a clear commitment to Reformation doctrine and a deep concern for the vitality and integrity of evangelical Christianity.

Now, more than a quarter-century after his death, fifty-six previously unpublished sermons on John 4.  The sermons, preached in 1967 and 1968, represent Lloyd-Jones at his best.  Living Water: Studies in John 4 [Crossway] is a gift to us today.  If you have not started your collection of writings by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, start now.  Living Water is a good place to start.

An excerpt:

Now I want to add a few words here as an aside.  I am speaking to people who in name, I have no doubt, are evangelical people and evangelically minded.  I think the greatest charge that can be brought against evangelicals in the last ninety years or so, since the 1870s, is that we have grievously failed at this point.  We have tended to reduce this glorious gospel, and the life that it gives, to just a question of forgiveness, as if everything happens when a person makes a decision, as though that is the beginning and the end of the gospel.  The glory, the bigness, the greatness, the complete intellectual satisfaction, has not been preached and expounded as it should have been.  Indeed, evangelical people have often been charged, and I am afraid it has been a true charge, of being afraid of the intellect.

A Writer’s Life, Not Pretty

John Cheever never gained the recognition he so desperately craved, even though he won many awards, including the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Born in 1912, Cheever got himself thrown out of prep school and soon set his sights on being a writer.  His life had many twists and turns, but he eventually achieved literary success, preceding John Updike as the chronicler of American suburban life.  Though a novelist, Cheever was best known to most Americans as a writer of short stories (a fact that caused him some embarrassment).

Cheever was also a man of great sadness and tremendous insecurities.  In Cheever: A Life, biographer Blake Bailey provides a 700-page account of Cheever’s life and work.  What emerges from this biography is a portrait of a deeply troubled man whose consuming goal of literary recognition looks nothing less than pathetic.  He was also a man tortured by his ambiguous sexuality and demons from his childhood and adolescence.  Readers of Cheever’s fiction will find the book fascinating and troubling.  Christians will find in this biography ample reminder of the way that all art is compromised by sin, seen and unseen.  Cheever: A Life also offers a portrait of the American literary establishment of the twentieth century.

An excerpt:

Cheever was at once the most reticent and candid of men.  “Life is melancholy,” he said, “which isn’t allowed in New England.”  Mortality and bodily functions and so forth were not big topics of conversation in Cheever’s childhood home, nor was anything else that adverted to human frailty or might lead to a quarrel:  “Feel that refreshing breeze,” his mother would say when the mood turned tense, or perhaps she’d call attention to the evening star.  “If you are raised in this atmosphere,” remarks the narrator of “Goodbye, My Brother,” “I think it is a trial of the spirit to reject its habits of guilt, self-denial, taciturnity, and penitence, and it seemed a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence [the narrator’s brother’ had succumbed.”  A part of Cheever had succumbed as well, while another part roared its defiance to the world.  On sexual matters especially, Cheever was almost insistently forward.  He would answer fan mail with ribald anecdotes of the most intimate nature, and rarely hesitated to discuss a mistress or some other indiscretion with his children.

The Evolution of Catholicism

One cannot understand the theology of the Reformers without first understanding the theology of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.  Similarly, an understanding of contemporary Catholicism is necessary for any comprehensive understanding of evangelical identity.  While Catholic identity is a contested issue among Roman Catholic theologians and historians (as is true also within evangelicalism), the issues and controversies of modern Catholicism are extremely instructive.

In The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism [HarperOne] Professor Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame offers a very helpful guide to these controversies and to the evolution of Catholicism in the modern era.  He directs his primary attention to issues of ecclesiology with his church, and he offers a well-written guide that should be of interest to evangelicals seeking to understand what the Roman Catholic Church now teaches on a number of crucial issues.

McBrien is himself no stranger to controversy, and he is often criticized by more conservative Catholics.  His more liberal reading of recent Catholic history (see especially his analysis of Vatican II) is most interesting.  On several points of his analysis, I found him to be very insightful and helpful in summarizing.  As is so often the case, understanding the Catholic arguments helps in the task of sharpening evangelical arguments.  As in the sixteenth century, the issue of the Gospel remains central.

This excerpt serves to illustrate:

Ecclesiology has already begun to respond to this new situation.  There is a greater effort now to relate Christianity to the other great religions of the world and to develop new understandings of the availability of salvation, not only outside the Catholic Church, but outside the Body of Christ as a whole.  Ecclesiology has begun to assume an interfaith as well as an ecumenical character.  This development, of course, has not been without controversy thus far, as the many debates about Dominus Iesus, the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in September 2000, dramatically illustrate.  But this is the way the world and the Church are moving–in a global and multicultural direction–and so inevitably are the Church’s ecclesiologies.

The Modern Age vs. The Bible?

The very essence of the age we call modern represents a challenge to authority.  Ultimately, the greatest authority an anti-authoritarian age must topple is the authority of the Bible as the Word of God.  In Ancient Word, Changing Worlds: The Doctrine of Scripture in a Modern Age, authors Stephen J. Nichols and Eric T. Brandt offer an unprecedented combination of analysis and collected primary readings.

Nichols and Brandt have done the church a great service with this book.  I especially appreciate the combination of source readings and evaluation found in the book.  It is accessible to students at any college or seminary level, and will help interested laypersons to understand what is really at stake in terms of modern challenges to biblical authority.  Finally, I appreciate the fact that Nichols and Brandt draw conclusions, rather than to simply trace patterns and make vague suggestions.  They, too, understand what is at stake.  Their coverage, we should note, continues into the postmodern era.  The readings are chosen very carefully and make for fascinating reading, even when the texts have been read before.  This is a truly important book.  Ancient Word, Changing Worlds should find its way to every pastor, seminarian, and educated layperson’s book list.

An excerpt:

Whichever approach, higher criticism starts with the presupposition that the Bible or even particular books of the Bible are composites, made up of various strands.  From the perspective of higher criticism, authors of biblical books function more like editors who cleverly and creatively weave the strands, coming from a variety of sources, together.  Advocates of higher criticism see their task as teasing the strands apart.

John Calvin at 500: A Good Resource

The 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin has prompted numerous conferences, special observances, and books — and rightly so.  For some, the anniversary offers a first opportunity for an introduction to the great Genevan Reformer and his legacy.

Among the books released in honor of the Calvin anniversary is John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons [Reformation Trust].  The book is a compilation of essays by well-known pastors and theologians.  Contributors include Sinclair Ferguson, John MacArthur, Philip Ryken, Steven Lawson, Jerry Bridges, and Eric Alexander, among others.  The essays are insightful, and will be particularly helpful to those who need a good introduction to Calvin the man, the preacher, the Reformer, the theologian, and the follower of Christ.

This is among the best introductory volumes on Calvin yet released for the 500th anniversary celebration. Multi-author works can be ungainly, but this work allows each of the contributors to write with his own style and on a subject that makes sense for his expertise.  John Calvin:  A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology is a good place to start an anniversary reading project.

An exerpt:

On September 16, 1541, Calvin returned to the pulpit of St. Peter’s after his three-year exile in Strasbourg.  An expectant and overflowing congregation assembled.  What would he say?  How would he address through this first sermon the injustices that had been perpetrated upon him, the lessons God had taught him, and the contemporary issues of Geneva?  Ascending the newly constructed high pulpit, he opened the Word of God and began expounding the next verse in the text he had been preaching prior to his banishment.  This extraordinary action clearly announced to all assembled that the church was to forget what lay in the past and press ahead.  But it simultaneously affirmed Calvin’s pastoral commitment to the primacy of preaching in general and the importance of expository preaching in particular.

From “The Churchman of the Reformation” by Harry L. Reeder.

The Kingdom of Our God and of His Christ

2009 marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective [Crossway] by Russell D. Moore.  Okay, so a fifth anniversary is not such a big deal, but I was grasping for an excuse to put this book where it belongs — on your reading list.  I recently had the opportunity to reread this book, and I was reminded how helpful it really is.  Russell D. Moore, Senior Vice President and Dean of the School of Theology (where, you ask?) at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, clarifies so many of the issues swirling about evangelicals as we discuss the Kingdom of God, eschatology, and Christian political engagement.  He offers a really helpful survey of these issues, and an even more helpful theological and biblical framework for understanding the Kingdom of Christ.

An excerpt:

It is impossible, however, to relate salvation to the Kingdom without addressing fissures within the reformist wing of evangelical theology over the definition of salvation.  The first has to do with the growing reluctance, especially within the reformist wing of evangelical theology, to articulate salvation in terms of the necessity of explicit faith in Christ.  The inclusivist position, which is held by theologians ranging from Clark Pinnock to John Sanders to Stanley Grenz, holds that salvation is universally available only through the atonement of Christ, but that this salvation may be apporpriated through general revelation.  When, however, inclusivist evangelicals argue that the salvation of the unevangelized can come about in the same manner as that of the Old Testament believers, they ignore the Kingdom orientation of biblical soteriology.

Hunting Eichmann — The Moral Burden of History

The arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann took place almost a half-century ago now, and though his name lives in infamy, the story of his capture and its significance is largely lost to the current generation.  Now arrives Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb, and the story comes alive again.

Bascomb has written the only full account of Eichmann’s capture and its aftermath. He tells the story with great skill, and he sets the record straight on a number of questions.  The most interesting fact about the search for Adolf Eichmann in the years after World War II is the fact that he was not even on the top list of wanted Nazi criminals at the war’s end.  Eichmann’s central role in administering the “Final Solution” and the murder of millions of Jews in Germany and central Europe became evident only in the years after the war.

Eichmann’s eventual capture and arrest owed much to a German prosecutor, who sent Israeli officials word that Eichmann was living in Argentina with his wife and sons.  From there, the Israelis took over the investigation and search.  Bascomb writes the story like a spy thriller — which it certainly is.  But this story is much more than a thriller, it is a much needed reminder of the necessity of moral judgment, legal justice, and personal accountability.  Bascomb’s account of Eichmann’s capture is an adrenalin-laced read.  His account of Eichmann’s trial in Israel is shorter, but very important.

Eichmann was executed in Israel on May 31, 1962.  He was the first and, so far, the last person executed after trial in Israel. Hunting Eichmann serves as a reminder of why the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann remains one of the most important events of the twentieth century.

An excerpt:

Nobody moved.  The members were rooted to their seats, either unsure whether they had heard the prime minister correctly or that what he had said was true.  Slowly, people realized the enormity of the statement, and it was as if the air had been knocked from their chests.  “When they had recovered from the staggering blow,” an Israeli journalist reported that night, “a wave of agitation engulfed the hearers, agitation so deep that its likes had never been known before in the Knesset.”  Many went pale.  One woman sobbed.  Others lept from their seats, needing to repeat aloud that Eichmann was in Israel in order to come to terms with the news.  The parliamentary reporters ran to their booths to transmit the sixty-two-word speech, which had been delivered in Hebrew. . . .

Eichmann. Captured.  That was all anyone in the chamber heard.  Eichmann.  Captured.  Within hours, all of Israel and the rest of the world would be as captivated by the dramatic announcement.  The stage was set for one of the century’s most important trials.

Revisiting Christ and Culture

Here is a simple rule to keep in mind:  When D. A. Carson writes a book, buy it.  This is certainly the case with Carson’s recent book, Christ & Culture Revisited [Eerdmans].  Readers will immediately recognize the reference to the classic 1951 work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.  Those who desire a deeper understanding of this difficult question will welcome Carson’s very thoughtful look at the claims of Christ and culture.

Niebuhr famously set his analysis in the context of five different models of understanding the relationship between Christ and culture.  His approach represented the dominant position of the Protestant “mainline” of which Niebuhr was so much a part.  Carson takes a new look at Niebuhr’s five types, but he sets his own analysis upon a foundation of biblical theology.  This is very helpful and exceedingly healthy.

In the course of Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson takes on a host of issues, including the thorny issue of church and state and theological tensions within the Christian tradition.  Throughout the book he is rigorous and clear-headed.  Carson does not settle all the thorny issues, but he does settle the discussion into a much healthier framework. Christ & Culture Revisited is an important book for our times.

An excerpt:

These biblical realities make for a worldview that is sharply distinguishable from the worldviews around us, even where there are overlapping values.  We cannot embrace unrestrained secularism; democracy is not God; freedom can be another word for rebellion; the lust for power, universal as it is, must be viewed with more than a little suspicion.  This means that Christian communities honestly seeking to live under the Word of God will inevitably generate cultures that, to say the least, will in some sense counter or confront the values of the dominant culture.  But to say the least is not enough.

The Last European War

John Lukacs consistently writes some of the most interesting and informative work on the history of the twentieth century.  I recently turned to one of Lukacs’ older and larger works and I was not disappointed.  In The Last European War, Lukacs turns to the opening years of what became World War II — the years when Britain and the Soviet Union fought the war against the Third Reich virtually alone.

Lukacs explains that the Last European War began in September 1939, whereas the Second World War began in December 1941.  In this book, Lukacs (born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924) helps to explain how Europe found itself in this cataclysm just two decades after the end of World War I.  One fascinating aspect of Lukacs’ argument is his insight that Europe would be eclipsed by the United States as the Last European War would give way to the Second World War — and both the allies and the Axis powers saw this. This realization, Lukacs argues, largely explains Hitler’s timetable.

Along the way, Lukacs tells the story of the war’s early years with skill and style.  He reveals an uncanny understanding of the personalities and dynamics that led to the war, and he takes ideas seriously.  Lukacs is also quite ready to confront established theories about the war and settled opinions about its causes. The Last European War, first published in 1976, is now available in a new edition from Yale University Press.

An excerpt:

The French, unlike the English, feared death more than they feared defeat.  But this statement, so cruelly condemnatory at first sight, must be qualified to a certain extent.  The English, who had not been conquered by an invader for nearly one thousand years, knew in their bones that their defeat would mean a kind of death for England, that its effect would not be temporary.  The French, on the other hand, knew in their heads, if not in their bones, the memory of national defeats together with the memory of their national recoveries. Still, in 1940, they gave up too easily.

Five Who Changed the World — Heroism in Service to the Gospel

“Real heroes are in short supply in our day,” says Daniel L. Akin.  In a world fascinated with celebrities and disenchanted with greatness, true heroism is hard to define, much less to find.  But Dr. Akin is certain that true heroes do appear in this generation as missionaries, pastors, and church planters.  In Five Who Changed the World, he looks back to the lives of five Christian missionaries as guides to true greatness and heroism today.

This short book is filled with insight and inspiration.  Dr. Akin, who serves as President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, offers biographical portraits of William Carey, Adoniram (and Ann) Judson, Bill Wallace, Lottie Moon, and Jim Elliot.  Of these, Dr. Akin writes:  “All of them suffered and experienced trials and the testing of their faith.  Some were even martyred.  Yet they persevered.”

The world really was changed by the service and witness of these Christian missionaries, and readers will risk a changed perspective and a challenged heart by reading this book.  It’s a risk you ought to take — and to pass along.