Everyone’s a Theologian

Here is a new, wonderfully readable, introduction to Christian doctrine by an experienced theologian, and gifted teacher, which will benefit a variety of readers: EVERYONE’S A THEOLOGIAN, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 
by R. C. Sproul (Reformation Trust, 2014, 357 pages, 978-1-56769-365-2).*Sproul.theologianBk

In 60 concise chapters (averaging about five pages each), Dr. R. C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Ministries** surveys all the primary topics of systematic theology in a most engaging manner.

The eight divisions of the book cover these topics in an orderly manner, using traditional terminology: Introduction (which includes revelation, inerrancy, canonicity and authority), Theology Proper, Anthropology and Creation, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. In the first chapter, Sproul shares four assumptions about systematic theology: the first, that God has revealed Himself in nature and in the Word; second, God reveals Himself “according to His own character and nature … in an intelligent way that is meant to be understood”; third, there is a unity and coherence to the Word of God; and fourth, there is a consistency to His revelation since “He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Those familiar with the teaching style of R. C. Sproul from his many previous books or video presentations, will readily hear his voice on every page — especially in the various personal anecdotes and ubiquitous Latin terms he employs (and defines) along the way. References to the Westminster standards are included, and Reformed theologians (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards) are amply quoted. Other theologians and historical viewpoints are mentioned along the way — and heresies are clearly named.

One weakness of this volume might be seen in one-too-many uses of formal logic to illustrate a point (he twice refers to reducio ad absurdum arguments; helpful on page 300, unhelpful on page 256).

While comparable in size and scope to Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (IVP, 3rd Ed., 2009), Sproul’s Everyone’s A Theologian feels less like a textbook, and more like an easy-to-read survey. Indeed, several chapters can be read in one sitting, and the whole book straight through in a few day’s time. There are very few footnotes used, and the majority of those are pointers to Sproul’s other books. Given the brevity of these chapters, the book would be more valuable if it included a list of recommended reading by topics or a bibliography at the end. Scripture and subject indices are included.

The strength of this volume is found in its accessibility to modern readers, its consistent Reformed views and its passion for making truth known. For instance, at the end of chapter 19 on the nature of sin (one of the best chapters), Sproul writes,

“We must never conclude that sin is an illusion. Sin is real. Sin is mysterious, but there is a reality to the evil in which we participate. It does not simply intrude upon us from outside. It is something with which we are deeply, intimately, and personally involved in our hearts and souls” (107).

And this sample, from the chapter on providence, shows the pastoral passion of Sproul which is found throughout:

“Knowledge of divine providence brings comfort in our suffering. God is in control not only of the universe and its operations but also of history. …Our lives are in His hands, our vocations are in His hands, as are our prosperity or our poverty — He governs all these things in His wisdom and goodness” (81).

This is a helpful, biblically faithful book which will help its readers become better, biblical theologians.

~ p d b

*NOTE: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for doing a review; this did not influence my opinion. My book review is being published in the forthcoming April edition of The Banner of Truth magazine — which I highly commend to you.

**OFFER: Now through April 30th, Ligonier Ministries is offering a free copy of this book if you make a donation of any amount. That’s a fantastic offer; don’t miss it.

Some Thoughts on the Reading of Books

Today Dr Al Mohler, one of the brightest men around, put these thoughts up on his website. As an avid reader myself, I can confirm his strategy is a good one — reading books in several categories, tackling large sets bit by bit, etc. May God bless your resolve to grow your mind — and your life — through reading in the coming year! pdb

I cannot really remember when I did not love to read books. I do know that I was very eager to learn to read, and that I quickly found myself immersed in the world of books and literature. It may have been a seduction of sorts, and the Christian disciple must always be on guard to guide the eyes to books worthy of a disciple’s attention—and there are so many.
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As Solomon warned, “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecc 12:12). There is no way to read everything, and not everything deserves to be read. I say that in order to confront the notion that anyone, anywhere, can master all that could be read with profit. I read a great deal, and a large portion of my waking hours are devoted to reading. Devotional reading for spiritual profit is an important part of the day, and that begins with the reading of Scripture. In terms of timing, I am somewhat unorthodox. My best time for spending time in the Word is late at night, when all is calm and quiet and I am mentally alert and awake. That is not the case when I first get up in the mornings, when I struggle to find each word on the page (or anything else, for that matter).

In the course of any given week, I will read several books. I know how much I thrive on this learning and the intellectual stimulation I get from reading. As my wife and family would be first to tell you, I can read almost anytime, anywhere, under almost any kind of conditions. I have a book with me virtually all the time, and have been known to snatch a few moments for reading at stop lights. No, I do not read while driving (though I must admit that it has been a temptation at times). I took books to high school athletic events when I played in the band. (Heap coals of scorn and nerdliness here). I remember the books; do you remember the games?

A few initial suggestions:

1. Maintain regular reading projects. I strategize my reading in six main categories: Theology, Biblical Studies, Church Life, History, Cultural Studies, and Literature. I have some project from each of these categories going at all times. I collect and gather books for each project and read them over a determined period of time. This helps to discipline my reading, and it also keeps me working across several disciplines.

2. Work through major sections of Scripture. I am just completing an expository series, preaching verse by verse through the book of Romans. I have preached and taught several books of the Bible in recent years, and I plan my reading to stay ahead. I am turning next to Matthew, so I am gathering and reading ahead—not yet planning specific messages, but reading to gain as much as possible from worthy works on the first gospel. I am constantly reading works in biblical theology as well as exegetical studies.

3. Read all the titles written by some authors. Choose carefully here, but identify some authors whose books demand your attention. Read all they have written and watch their minds at work and their thought in development. No author can complete his thoughts in one book, no matter how large.

4. Get some big sets and read them through. Yes, invest in the works of Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and others. Set a project for yourself to read through the entire set and give yourself time. You will be surprised how far you will get in less time than you think.

5. Allow yourself some fun reading, and learn how to enjoy reading by reading enjoyable books. I like books across the fields of literature, but I really love to read historical biographies and historical works in general. In addition, I really enjoy quality fiction and worthy works of literature. As a boy, I probably discovered my love for reading in these categories of books. I allow some time each day, when possible, for such reading. It doesn’t have to be much. Stay in touch with the thrill.

6. Write in your books; mark them up and make them yours. Books are to be read and used, not collected and coddled. (Make an exception here for those rare antiquarian books that are treasured for their antiquity. Mark not thy pen on the ancient page, and highlight not upon the manuscript.) Invent your own system or borrow from another, but learn to have a conversation with the book, pen in hand.

I would write more for this post, but I must go read. More later. For now: Tolle lege!

(by Dr Albert Mohler)

PS — I will post next week on the results of my reading in 2013. Did I reach my goal of 52 books in one year? Which books were favorites? Stay tuned…

Happy Birthday Library of Congress

On April 24, 1800, President John Adams signed the bill authorizing the creation of The Library of Congress in Washington D.C., which has become the world’s largest library. Bill Bennett, author of The American Patriot’s Almanac, says that it is “perhaps the greatest collection of stored knowledge in history.” Here’s the rest of his piece celebrating the LOC….
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It contains more than 140 million items, including maps, photographs, films, and recordings, on 650 miles of bookshelves. About 10,000 items are added every workday.

Congress established the library on April 24, 1800, when President John Adams signed a bill appropriating $5,000 for “the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” after it moved to Washington, the new capital city. The first books, ordered from London, arrived in 1801. The original collection consisted of 740 volumes and 3 maps.

The first collection was destroyed during the War of 1812 when the British burned the Capitol. Thomas Jefferson offered to replace it by selling Congress his personal library, one of the finest in the country. In 1815 Congress appropriated $23,950 to buy his 6,487 books. The Jefferson collection became the core of the Library of Congress.

The library serves as the research arm of Congress and the “storehouse of the national memory.” Unlike many other national libraries, its collection is not for scholars only. Anyone over high school age may use it. It also makes available, via the Internet, millions of files containing digitized versions of its collections. A library of the people, it has become a symbol of Americans’ faith in the power of learning.

“Puritans Portraits” by J.I. Packer (a review)

9781845507008Puritans Portraits, J.I. Packer on Selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics. Christian Focus (ebook edition), 2012.

J. I. Packer, one of the best Christian writers of many decades, has here written briefly about some of the best Christian pastors and authors of modern history — the puritans. As a devoted fan of the Puritans, I found this book to be a most valuable introduction (albeit brief) to these men and their ministries. Puritan Portraits will take many Christians who know little or nothing of these men or this wonderful era of history and tempt them to go and read more.

The book is divided into three major parts, first is a broad overview “Puritan Pastors at Work”, which provides many memorable statements. For instance, Packer captures much of the Puritan distinctive when he points out their “analytical thoroughness.” “This stemmed,” he continues, “from the Puritan understanding of the nature of Scripture on the one hand, and the condition of the members of their congregations on the other.” [location 298] Their thoroughness, in preaching and in writing, was balanced between clear exposition of biblical texts, and, systematic applications to several categories of hearers/readers.

The second division is “Puritan Pastors in Profile” featuring seven men in particular — Henry Scougal, Stephen Charnock, John Bunyan, Matthew Henry, John Owen, John Flavel, and Thomas Boston. These chapters were once published as introductions to other individual books by those men, previously written by Dr Packer. This is very openly noted in this present volume, and the reader is gently encouraged to look for those other Christian Focus publications. The fact that these chapters once stood separately is not noticeable; the fact that they were introductions to specific writings (out of the many by most of those Puritans) is evident, and perhaps a shortcoming.

The final section, on William Perkins and Richard Baxter, is called “Two Puritan Paragons.” This is followed by an Epilogue, where Packer’s passion for the church and her well-being is clearly evident. He desires his readers not to simply be students of Christian history, but disciples who faithfully serve Christ in the present day (and for the sake of future generations). Packer’s warmth in this regard is evident in most all of his writings — he is one author worthy of this pastor’s endorsement: read everything you can by this man. Another of Packer’s books specifically on the puritans, is very highly commended: The Quest For Godliness, Crossway Books, 1994.

I am so thankful that Christian Focus has produced this book (in multiple formats) — as well as those individual puritan works its discusses. [Disclaimer: I did receive a free copy of the book in exchange for doing a review.] In its e-book format this book was easy to navigate and read. Several graphics (images of other book covers) appear clearly. One typo was noticed (at the end of the table of contents). Dr. James I. Packer, Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, was named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals alive by Time Magazine.

From Wales to Westminster, the story of Martyn Lloyd-Jones

A book review of Christopher Catherwood’s Martyn Lloyd-Jones: From Wales to Westminster (Kindle edition). Christian Focus Publications Ltd.

With the opening line, ‘Fire! Fire!’ this biography of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones begins introducing a youth audience to the famous preacher. Written by Lloyd-Jones’ oldest grandson, Christopher Catherwood, in a simple, homespun-story fashion, it contains lots of wonderful, personal anecdotes and some eye-witness accounts not found in the more substantial biographies of the Doctor done by others. It follows young Martyn from his family and school days in Wales, through his education and work experiences in London, marking the major turning points of his conversion, his marriage and his call to preach the gospel.

The language is clearly aimed at younger readers, and the length of the chapters is just right. Although the overall writing style (or perhaps the editing) is sometimes rough or repetitive, the story-line and pace definitely engage the reader making it hard to put down. You cannot help but sense the warm, personal touch of a grandson writing about his beloved “Dacu” throughout the book.

The book clearly shares the hand of the Lord in the life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and makes the need for all boys and girls to likewise come to know Jesus Christ as savior and Lord. There are several passages which not only describe Martyn’s spiritual life, but which directly address the reader about their spiritual needs.

My review is based on the newly released e-reader edition which I read on my Kindle [NB: this was provided free in exchange for posting my review of the book]. I had first read this little book when I gave a printed copy to my own children years ago. Perhaps the formatting made me a bit more critical in this second read through? I love books and reading them in print, but have come to enjoy using my Kindle for reading history, biographies and the like. With many young readers gravitating to e-reading, the availability of this book, and the whole series, to these formats is most welcome news!

Additional material is included at the end of the book about the writings of Lloyd-Jones, as well as some brief subject driven comments under the title Thinking Further Topics.

Christian Focus Publications publishes books for adults and children under its four main imprints: Christian Focus, Christian Heritage, CF4K and Mentor. Their books clearly reflect that God’s word is reliable and Jesus is the way to know him, and live for ever with him. Their TRAILBLAZER SERIES, also includes books on Gladys Aylward, Corrie ten Boom, Bill Bright, Adoniram Judson, Amy Carmichael, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, Isobel Kuhn, C.S. Lewis, and George Müller.

Their web page is: http://www.christianfocus.com
The Kindle edition is available from Amazon.

Improve your mind

Isaac Watts, the famous hymn writer calls us to be intentional about improving our minds.

…every son and daughter of Adam has a most important concern in the affairs of the life to come, and therefore it is a matter of the highest moment, for everyone to understand, to judge, and to reason right about the things of religion. It is vain for any to say, we have no leisure time for it. The daily intervals of time, and vacancies from necessary labour, together with the one day in seven in the Christian world, allows sufficient time for this, if men would but apply themselves to it with half so much zeal and diligence as they do to the trifles and amusements of this life, and it would turn to infinitely better account.
 
Thus it appears to be the necessary duty and the interest of every person living, to improve his understanding, to inform his judgment, to treasure up useful knowledge, and to acquire the skill of good reasoning, as far as his station capacity and circumstances furnish him as his station, capacity, with proper means for it. Our mistakes in judgment may plunge us into much folly and guilt in practice. By acting without thought or reason, we dishonor the God that made us reasonable creatures, we often become injurious to our neighbors, kindred, or friends, and we bring sin and misery upon ourselves; for we are accountable to God, our judge, for every part of our irregular and mistaken conduct, where he hath given us sufficient advantages to guard against those mistakes.”

 
~ Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind, (1837).
[emphasis added]

Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference

I was privileged to attend my 21st annual Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference this past week in Pennsylvania with about 250 other men. Although it was held in a new venue (Elizabethtown College) the format was the same, and the majority of the faces were longtime friends. It did seem that a record number of “first time attenders” were present, and I thank God for the growing interest in historic, experiential Christianity.

The conference theme was “The Glory of Christ” and speakers included Dr Sinclair Ferguson (always worthlistening to), Fred Malone, Jonathan Master (professor at Philadelphia Bible Univ.), Ian Hamilton, Iain Murray (a co-founder of Banner, former pastor and superb author), and Dennis Prutrow (professor of homiletics at RPTS).

Highlights for me were Ferguson’s two addresses on the high-priesthood of Jesus Christ, and Iain Murray’s address on William Tyndale, very inspiring. Of course, my frequent visits to the Banner of Truth “book room” (and friends Rob Wiley, John Rawlinson, and the crew) were most enjoyable! My primary purchase was a long-awaited acquisition of the six volume Works of (puritan) John Flavel. I also profited from talks with author Jim Garretson and as a result picked-up his new “Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry” (in two-volumes).

These times of conference — with great worship, passionate preaching, fellowship, and time for reflection – are always useful in refreshing my spirit and strengthening my resolve for serving in the ministry. The long drive home was filled with much thanksgiving and praise to our Lord for His grace and blessing in my life, and for the opportunity to serve Him in Clifton Park, NY.

It is well with my soul.
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Read your Bibles more

“Don’t rest on past reading. Read your Bible more and more every year. Read it whether you feel like reading it or not. And pray without ceasing that the joy return and pleasures increase” said John Piper in a January blog post.

While some might feel this is arm-twisting, or hear this as mere duty, Piper goes on to give three reasons this is not legalism — and then quotes the helpful JC Ryle:

(1) You are confessing your lack of desire as sin, and pleading as a helpless child for the desire you long to have. Legalists don’t cry like that. They strut.

(2) You are reading out of desperation for the effects of this heavenly medicine. Bible-reading is not a cure for a bad conscience; it’s chemo for your cancer. Legalists feel better because the box is checked. Saints feel better when their blindness lifts, and they see Jesus in the word. Let’s get real. We are desperately sick with worldliness, and only the Holy Spirit, by the word of God, can cure this terminal disease.

(3) It is not legalism because only justified people can see the preciousness and power of the Word of God. Legalists trudge with their Bibles on the path toward justification. Saints sit down in the shade of the cross and plead for the blood-bought pleasures.

So lets give heed to Mr. Ryle and never grow weary of the slow, steady, growth that comes from the daily, disciplined, increasing, love affair with reading the Bible.

Do not think you are getting no good from the Bible, merely because you do not see that good day by day. The greatest effects are by no means those which make the most noise, and are most easily observed. The greatest effects are often silent, quiet, and hard to detect at the time they are being produced.

Think of the influence of the moon upon the earth, and of the air upon the human lungs. Remember how silently the dew falls, and how imperceptibly the grass grows. There may be far more doing than you think in your soul by your Bible-reading.
(J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 136)