Foundations: No.77 Spring 2017

Book Reviews

The History of Scottish Theology Volume 1, From Celtic Origins to Reformed Orthodoxy

David Fergusson and Mark W. Elliott (Editors), Oxford University Press, 2019, 416pp, £95

This first of a three-volume set on the history of Scottish theology is timely. It has been too long since the last reliable systematic account of theological developments in Scotland, John MacLeod’s Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974). However, while advancing the understanding of Scottish theology in many ways, in other respects this volume falls short of the usefulness of works like MacLeod’s.

To begin with the negatives, the introduction paints a depressing (but realistic) portrait of the editor’s vision for Scottish theology, no longer proclaiming and advancing the truths of Scripture codified in the long Scottish Reformation, but uncertain and adrift in a pluralistic and secularising world. The volume is also academic, which brings the benefits of rigour (mostly) and a certain detachment but which leaves no real space for evaluation. As a multi-author work the chapters are inevitably uneven in their interest and quality. A chapter which should be a highlight, “Federal Theology from the Reformation to c.1677” is a particular disappointment in its lack of under-standing of the federal theology it seeks to articulate.

However, with these caveats, the volume is successful in its aims. While each reader will no doubt have wanted more in certain sections (for myself, ecclesiology and the Westminster Confession needed more space) there is a broad coverage of the pre-Reformation, Reformation and post-Reformation church. It is impossible to discuss every chapter that merits attention, but there are a few that stand out for their significance.

Richard Cross on Duns Scotus is magisterial. To capture simply and accurately the dense and convoluted thought of Scotus is no small achievement. Of particular note is how Cross outline his views on Divine simplicity, drawing out in the process differences with Aquinas. In short, Scotus has a less rigid view of simplicity than Aquinas which reminds us that “classical theism”, while an appropriate term, is variegated rather than monolithic. 

Euan Cameron on “John Knox and Andrew Melville” provides a faithful view of these men in context. It is correct to conclude that “these men were in fact theologians of stark, simple principle, too often at sea in the foreign environment of courts and politics”. Ian Hazlett’s “Reformed Theology in Confessions and Catechism to c.1620” is a wonderful, punchy chapter. Not all of its suggestions should be accepted, but it does capture the vibrancy of early Reformed theology.

The stand out chapter is Guy M. Richard’s “The Covenant Idea in Mid-Seventeenth Century Scotland”. Richard outlines the common terminology of the covenants of grace, works and redemption which were used at the time in Scotland. Particularly helpful is the discussion of the covenant of grace. Richard guides readers carefully through the flexibility of language used to describe the covenant of grace in terms of external and internal participation. Speaking externally, the covenant was between “God and men”, “God and the visible church”, “God and sinners”. Speaking internally and savingly, the covenant was between “God and the redeemed”, “God… [and] The Mediator Christ, and the children that the Lord gave him”. Thus, Richard notes “the covenant… had a universal aspect corresponding to the free offer of the gospel”. But additionally, “God actually fulfils the conditions of the covenant on behalf of the elect”. As such, the covenant of grace is “bilateral in its presentation to humankind but unilateral in its administration on behalf of the elect”. For anyone wanting to understand Reformed (not just Scottish) covenant theology, this chapter is a must read.

This links to another chapter in the volume which deals with covenant theology, this time in the context of the early eighteenth century “Marrow controversy” which touched on legalism, antinomianism, the free offer of the gospel and may other vital topics. At the end of his chapter Stephen Myers rightly concludes that supporters of the Marrow proposed “from within a robustly Westminsterian system, a federal theology structurally resistant to the legalising tendencies so often alleged against federal thought” and that their “evangelical federalism is warmly evangelistic not in spite of, but because of, its adherence to a thoroughly Westminsterian federalism”. However, the chapter as a whole is deeply disappointing. Its fundamental thesis is that while supporters of the Marrow were “orthodox”, so were their opponents. As such there was no “legalism” present in the Scottish church, just two differing outworkings of tensions inherent in earlier Scottish covenant theology. But Haddow’s covenant theology, as (rightly) presented here, is not the covenant theology of Rutherford, Gillespie, Durham and Dickson.

Guy Richard’s chapter shows how easily seventeenth-century theology viewed the covenant of grace as being “with sinners” but for Haddow in “the Covenant of Grace… the indefinite category of ‘sinner’ had already given way, logically, to the categories of ‘elect sinners’ and ‘reprobate sinners’”. That is also why Haddow’s doctrine of the gospel offer is different to that of Rutherford et al. He has fundamentally altered the outward administration of the covenant of grace. James Durham (1622-58), for one, unlike Haddow, was very comfortable with the idea of the gospel as a gift. Every one of the leading federal theologians of the mid-seventeenth century would have objected to the summary of Haddow’s teaching that “the Gospel was to be offered not to sinners indefinitely, but to sinners who, by their divinely-enabled obedience to the gospel commands to repent and believe, had manifested their identity among the definite group of the elect”. Sinclair Ferguson’s recent treatment of this controversy in The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance-Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016) is much, much better.

For those with an interest in Scottish church history this set will prove invaluable. For others, the prohibitive price is not worth the investment. But certain chapters are definitely worth reading, whatever your interests, if you come across the volume in a library.

Donald John MacLean
Elder, Cambridge Presbyterian Church

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts

James K. A. Smith (Brazos Press, 2019), 240pp, £16.99

Smith should need no introduction, though if you have not come across him, then this book is a good place to start. On the Road is a fascinating blend of biography, theology and spirituality, and Smith writes beautifully. Rather than repeating biography, of which there is much on Augustine – with Rowan Williams having most recently written an accessible but thorough introduction – Smith focuses on him as “the patron saint of restless heart”. Tracing through both Augustine’s life and work the theme of understanding the self, this is both a guide to reading Augustine and a framework for understanding ourselves.

Smith notes throughout that there is much in Augustine that makes him amusingly contemporary to readers like me, Westerners in the twenty-first century, in a way that is a surprise without the common language of the gospel. What ties us together, of course, is the eschatological reality that we find ourselves in the same time, the time between the times. Smith writes that “The graced soul gifted with freedom is still on the way, still sighing after an ultimate release from the parts of myself I hate and hide. This longing, for Augustine, is eschatological, a kingdom-come hunger”, echoing the great Pauline paradox of Romans 6-8.

One particular highlight, very relevant to our contemporary culture, is Smith’s chapter on ambition, which he names as “a many-splendored, much-maligned thing”. Smith shows us that for Augustine, one way of understanding it is as idolatry, which existentially speaking is “an exercise in futility… which is why it creates restless hearts. In idolatry we are enjoying what we are supposed to be using. We are treating as ultimate what is only penultimate… we are settling on some aspect of the creation rather than being referred by it to its creator”. Smith, although it could be Augustine, asks the question “what is our aim in life? What are we aiming for when we aim our lives at some aspiration?” In this, Smith demonstrates the benefits of a conversation around ambition for meaningful evangelism and discipleship in our culture. Ultimately, the solution is in recognising the truth of being in Christ, “When you’ve been found, you’re free to fail”.

The obligatory chapter on sex is less about rehabilitating Augustine’s influence, and more about naked honesty. This is a chapter that faces the complex reality of human sexuality, and does so beautifully, answering the deeper question behind all conversation around sex: “What do we want when we want to have sex?” As Smith writes, “The problem isn’t sex, it’s what I expect from sex”. Expecting the goodness of the creator from the inadequacy of created things is a reality with great resonance! Smith goes on, noting that “an ancient celibate bishop might have insight that speaks directly to our #MeToo moment, as the systemic monstrosities of male sexual desire are uncovered and named for what they are”. Smith closes this chapter in a way that offers a helpful corrective to both churchly concerns and cultural obsession: “Every saint has been born of lovemaking. It’s when we stop idolizing sex that we can finally sanctify it.” Amen!

Another thread woven throughout the whole book is that of the importance and reality of relationships. Whether it is the short but sweet chapter on Augustine and his mother Monica, or the similarly short chapter on fathers, Smith’s reflections on friendship and other ways of relating are sweet and rich. In the chapter on friendship Smith continues to draw in key voices from philosophical and theological conversations that are inspired by or antagonistic to Augustine, yet in a way that makes the book work well. Alongside interactions with thinkers such as Heidegger and Charles Taylor, however, Smith is also relentlessly realistic and practical: “The Augustinian embrace of community and friendship is not utopian or idealistic. It is unstintingly clear-eyed about the realities of being-with, identifying the sorts of grievances and annoyances that still infect even our best friendships.”

Throughout On The Road, Smith deploys pop culture references and good humour to keep things engaging, to relate this ancient monk to our strange new world. One major piece of overlap is the question of truth – something our society clearly struggles with (for more, see Mark Meynell’s A Wilderness of Mirrors, or Kristi Mair’s MORE: Truth). Smith channels Augustine in a way that is timeless, if bitingly close to being aimed at Oprah and similar voices: “If the actual truth disrupts my enjoyment, I resent the truth all the more. What I love in this case is my truth, not the truth.” In this, Smith rightly notes the complexity of coming to believe things, and that our claims to objectivity are as false as anyone else’s – we are not just brains in jars, but complex beings. For example, “it was Ambrose’s hospitality that prompted Augustine to reconsider the faith he’d rejected as unenlightened”. This resonates with the picture of Jesus we have in the Gospels: alongside clear teaching and masterful engagement with the ideas of his day, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt. 11:19).

One unexpected takeaway from On the Road was the humility of Augustine, or at least the intellectual and spiritual humility he aspired to and can teach us. In this humility, perhaps most famously seen in the “warts-and-all” reputation of his Confessions, is ultimately Augustine’s search for identity, within which we share. Smith observes that “Our longing for an identity is bound up with finding a story”, and “The book that would finally arrest this search for a story was the Bible”. A key aspect of this story is justice, and Smith’s treatment of this topic in/and Augustine is very helpful. Interestingly, Smith notes that “There isn’t really an ‘answer’ for evil, according to Augustine; there is a response, a divine action-plan rooted in solidarity and compassion. That action, first and fundamentally, is grace.” And herein we come back to the start, and an alternative title for this book: this is all of grace.

This book is steeped in the stories of Scripture. Chief among these is the parable of the prodigal. Smith’s closing words give a real taste of the book, and sketch a vision of a community in the way of Jesus, “a pilgrim people who will walk alongside you, listen, and share their stories of the God who doesn’t just send a raft but climbs on to the cross that brings us back”. Amen! This is a beautifully written book that wears its author’s deep learning lightly, is a pleasure to read, and demonstrates the relevance of Augustine for our contemporary problems. I would commend it warmly to those in pastoral ministry, as being filled with grace and engaging in all sorts of complex conversations for which those who serve God’s people must constantly be equipped.

Thomas Creedy
Theologian at Large, South West London Vineyard Church

Matthew Henry: Pastoral Liturgy in Challenging Times

Jong Hun Joo (Pickwick Publications, 2017), 207pp, £23.00 (Amazon)

Although not an easy read this book is certainly a valuable one. I believe that it would prove useful, in whole or in part, to three different groups of people: the scholar, the minister and the head of the family. Jong Hun Joo has done a great service by shining new light on Matthew Henry and his thought beyond just the commentaries with which most of us would engage. 

The covering of the history of nonconformist liturgy was most enlightening and provides a useful contribution to intra-Reformed debates about the validity and place of liturgy in the wider Reformed tradition. It also demonstrated the complex practical and theological reasons behind its wider abandonment by the time of Matthew Henry.  Meanwhile the section on family worship was both challenging – because I doubt any of us manage such a thorough family devotional life! – and useful. Any family hoping to take seriously Bible study and prayer together would benefit from this section, even if the rigorous schedule of the Henry family is not followed to the letter.

The extensive work on Matthew Henry’s understanding of the Sacraments was deep and thoughtful, though at times rather dense. The use of the phrase “improvement of baptism” was not adequately explained and was rather awkward due to this.  On the other hand, the thoughts of Henry on preparation for, and reception of, Holy Communion were most timely and well laid out.

Much of the book is dedicated to the structure of the services led by Matthew Henry. This, and how it evolved from what came before in terms of Calvin, Knox, Baxter and the Westminster Directory was well laid out and clearly explained.  It could, however, have benefitted from a comparison to the Book of Common Prayer, given the influence that book had not only on Baxter in particular but the entire milieu of religious services throughout England.

Ultimately, this is a real gem of a book with a wide number of uses. Perhaps the greatest problem is the academic nature of its style. This is not an “easy” book or a real page-turner and I fear that those without a higher education will struggle to engage with it. Often the paragraphs are so large they take up almost an entire page in a single block of text, something which could easily have been remedied. Given the academic background and origin of Jong Hun Joo’s work it is perhaps unfair to expect this book to be more accessible – it is just unfortunate, when its content is so good and relevant for our times.

Adam Young
Associate Minister at All Saints’ Church, North Ferriby, and Chaplain to the Yorkshire (North & West) Army Cadet Force.

Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God

Joe Rigney (Crossway, 2018), 310pp, £16 (paperback)

“The best way to learn about ‘Lewis on the Christian life’ would be a book club.” If Rigney had his way, people who are interested in Lewis’ thoughts on the life of faith would simply read an awful lot of Lewis! However, this book club is not to be, and so what follows in the next seventeen chapters is Rigney’s categorising (and analysis) of Lewis’ thoughts on various different topics relating to the Christian life, ranging from the gospel itself, to pride and humility, to introspection, to election and much more. Each chapter helpfully draws together Lewis’ writings on that subject (e.g. heaven) from his various books, letters and addresses and presents a well-rounded summary and explanation of his take on it. Rigney adds his own comments and analysis along the way, which makes for an interesting and informative dialogue between the two men as the reader moves through the book.

Although Rigney is a self-confessed huge fan of Lewis’ work, he does not shy away from disagreeing with, or giving honest feedback to, some of his ideas that might receive less sympathy from certain wings of the church. He is concerned that readers who disagree with Lewis in such areas are not put off from reading the rest of his work, and thus miss so much wisdom and poetry. For example, Rigney acknowledges Lewis’ “dismissive attitude toward penal substitution” and spends the next few pages in conversation with Lewis before finally asserting that the essence of penal substitution may be found in Lewis’ work, even if he doesn’t phrase it exactly that way. This is helpful to those, like me, who have not read all of Lewis and so cannot bring together his thoughts in this way!

I found this to be a very helpful book, not just in understanding more about Lewis’ position on the Christian faith, but in showing how to engage respectfully and faithfully with someone who brought so much helpful material to the table, yet was in no way perfect in his understanding in various areas, just like the rest of us.

Ian Chidlow
Curate, St Mary’s Church, Cheadle

Plugged In: Connecting your faith with everything you watch, read and play

Dan Strange (Good Book Company, 2019), 160pp, £6.46 (Amazon)

Dr Daniel Strange, the Director of Oak Hill College, has written a compelling and accessible book urging evangelical Christians to engage with culture in order to communicate the gospel more effectively. Plugged In takes Paul’s discourse to the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 as a paradigmatic template for gospel proclamation, as “subversive fulfilment”, which connects with culture and yet confronts its idolatry. Reading this book will certainly help Christians to understand their context and open their eyes to see the possibilities for gospel engagement all around them, thus liberating them from bland and overly-simplistic evangelistic presentations. It will help pastors and preachers sharpen their analysis and application, and ordinary readers to communicate more effectively with their colleague, friends, family and neighbours.

The book is part theological defence of cultural engagement and part training manual, outlining the techniques for effective “subversive fulfilment” and providing some worked examples from a range of fields, including adult colouring books, birdwatching, zombie movies and Japanese domestic toilets. The strength of the book is that is never becomes purely abstract or merely intellectually interested in culture but always seeks to show how this cashes out in practical evangelism.

The book reflects a presuppositional apologetic methodology. Sin is understood as misdirected worship that is manifested in idolatry. It advocates an appropriate balance between the need to connect with the culture, affirming what is good, and to confront it. “Subversive fulfilment” is not a means of evangelism without cost.  

The theological framework helps to dispel the misunderstandings many Christians may have about cultural engagement and demystifies the technical and impenetrable language that is often used by those who favour a presuppositional approach to apologetics. “Culture” is defined as everything that human beings make, which rightfully guards against cultural engagement being an elitist exercise. It is as much about soap operas as opera, and pop culture as high culture. “Texts” are not just writing, but the message conveyed by everything that humans make, encoding or proclaiming an underlying worldview. Whilst acknowledging the great breadth of “culture”, the primary focus of the book concerns engagement with films and television programmes, which is appropriate as this is the means by which most readers will be able to engage their friends and colleagues.  

The book does not avoid the important and controversial question of whether Christians should watch films and movies that contain material which is explicitly sexual or violent. Dan notes the heated debate between Christians in this regard, which can be crystallised by the question of whether it is ever legitimate for Christians to watch “Game of Thrones”. Naturally, a book advocating cultural engagement will want to defend watching such cultural texts with caution, but Dan does so with careful balance.

Rather than laying down simplistic rules, he applies the five solas of the Reformation to provide a helpful framework for personal discernment. Not everything that is permissible is beneficial. Whilst this approach encourages potential viewers ask good and searching questions, it might have been helpful to spend more time considering whether there is a difference between watching films and movies for the purpose of undertaking cultural engagement as opposed to for personal entertainment. How determinative is the motive for our consumption? The argument in favour of watching might also have been strengthened by noting that the Bible itself is a text that contains much material that is explicit or violent in content. Christians can sometimes be more sensitive than the Bible itself about facing the realities of life in a fallen world!

No one could fail to profit from reading Plugged In, and many will be inspired and encouraged to make the most of every opportunity to share the good news of Christ, who alone can meet the desires of our hearts. “Subversive fulfilment” is not the only legitimate evangelistic methodology, but in our post-Christian and post-modern context, marked by increasing biblical illiteracy, it is an essential tool in our armoury. Our contemporary context is overwhelmingly Athens rather than Jerusalem.

Tim Keller warmly commends this book, saying that there is nothing else quite like it on the market. He is right. It makes cultural engagement exciting and possible for every Christian. Its midrange level, relative brevity and engaging and humorous style make it easy to read. It would be ideal for small group discussion in our churches, or as the basis for an evangelistic training course in the local church.

John Stevens
National Director, FIEC

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