Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort by W. Robert Godfrey: A great Intro to the Canons of Dort and a valuable tool for study

Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of DortSaving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort

by W. Robert Godfrey


eARC, 265 pg.
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019

Read: February 3 – 10, 2019


I’m halfway inclined to just copy and paste the Table of Contents here and say, “If you want to know about any of this, here’s where you start.” Slap a nice little graphic with some stars on it, and we’re done. But I’m not that lazy. This is a historically-based study of the Synod of Dort’s major product — the Canons of Dort (although it does look at some other concerns), the defense of the Reformed doctrines in answer to the challenges of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants that took up and furthered his cause following his death. The Canons gave us the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism” and are often misunderstood because of that and as mischaracterized as those points themselves. If this book only helps people stop doing that, it’d be well worth the effort (it won’t, but it’s pretty to think so) — but it’s so much more.

There are four parts to this book — any one of which can be read independently from the others. I’m not sure why you would do that, but they’re self-contained enough that you don’t have to.

Part I focuses on the historical and theological context for the calling of the Synod, those who attended and the topics it would address. Godfrey is a Church Historian and former History professor, this is his bread and butter, and you can tell that from these chapters. You also get the impression that he could’ve written a book about the same length as this one just on the historical matters without breaking a sweat. This isn’t the best part of the book, but it gets things off to a great start.

Part II is a “Pastoral” translation of the Canons prepared by Godfrey for this book. I’m not familiar enough with other translations to really have much to say about this. I’ve read others, but I don’t have them committed to memory. Besides, I don’t know Latin well enough to evaluate the translation. But I can say that this was a clear translation, it didn’t read like something written in Latin for experts, but something written to help me and other Christians to wade through some weighty topics. As the problems caused by the Remonstrants were in the churches more than in the academy, the language matched that.

The heart of the book is in Part III, An Exposition of the Canons of Dort. Godfrey beings with some observations about the Canons as a whole — how they’re structured before he dives in to the Canons themselves. In addition to the errors of the Remonstrants, the Canons address other issues related to the doctrines involved, providing a resource for believers for generations not just an answer to their contemporary problems. The pastoral focus of the Canons — and Godfrey — is evident throughout the Exposition, he’s frequently talking about comfort, encouragement, and assurance. It’s not just an explanation and defense of the Reformation and Protestant teaching, it’s an aid and comfort to believers.

It may come as a surprise to see what Godfrey points out as a result of compromise, and the reasoning behind those things that needed no compromise. The behind-the-scenes portions of the book are as interesting as the exposition (giving an indication to those of us who didn’t sit under Godfrey’s Church History lectures that we really missed out on something). Godfrey also points out how the Canons weren’t as successful in some ways as they wanted to be — not as a failure, just that some of their goals were out of reach of the assembly.

Some of this section gets repetitive — because each Head of Doctrine is complete in itself, capable of standing alone — so similar points are covered repeatedly. Godfrey’s exposition both points that out and is written to keep the repetition from being dull, but instead an indication of the importance of the various points. This section is so helpful that I really can’t do justice — my copy is full of highlighted lines/paragraphs. I will be returning to it often, I know that. Concise, clear, insightful — everything you want in this kind of study.

The remainder of the book is Appendices. There’s an outline of the Canons, an explanation for the pattern of each head of doctrine (very similar to the same idea in the Exposition) and a handy guide to the relation of the positive articles to the rejection of errors. The last appendix is a new translation of the Synod’s provisional position on the Sabbath, giving some insight into the relation of the Synod’s stance to that of British Puritanism. The largest, and probably most helpful (and maybe controversial) is an extended look at Arminius and his overall project. Godfrey takes a position that argues against some recent scholarship (as I understand) and insists that he wasn’t a moderate Reformed churchman, but someone seeking to overturn segments of the church’s teaching and introduce serious Pelagian error.

In this anniversary year, I know this will not be the only book about the Synod released (I have another pre-ordered, and am sure I’ll pick up others) — but I can’t imagine that it won’t be one of the better. It is well-researched, careful, encouraging and pastoral — this is not dry and dusty history, nor dry and dusty doctrine. This book, like the Synod it focuses on, seeks to defend, protect and further the cause of the Protestant Reformation, the Gospel itself. As such, it succeeds and you’d do well to study it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Reformation Trust Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair Ferguson: Sinclair Ferguson brings out the heart as well as the life of Church History

In the Year of Our LordIn the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church History

by Sinclair Ferguson

eARC, 229 pg.
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018
Read: August 26 – September 16, 2018
The seeds of this book were first published in a book Ferguson co-authored called, Church History 101: The Highlights of Twenty Centuries — he’s now taken those chapters, done more research (being retired has freed up some time for him to do some reading), and expanded that into this great survey of Church History.

After a stirring (yes, really) introduction that lays out the purpose of this volume, why the study of Church History is important and what can be gained from even the figures from Church History that may disagree with — Ferguson dives in to his survey. I really can’t say enough good about this introduction — which feels odd, that’s not supposed to be the best part of a book (and it isn’t, actually — but it’s good enough that it really could be). The body of the book is twenty chapters — in case you couldn’t guess, that’s one chapter for each completed century Anno Domini (and Ferguson is committed to the usage of that).

Each chapter starts with an excerpt from a noted piece of writing from the century in question — like The Martyrdom of Polycarp, On the Incarnation, Gottschalk;s Shorter Confession concerning Double Predestination, and Savonarola’s The Triumph of the Cross (noted, not necessarily commonly known, obviously). Following that Ferguson summarizes the events of that century — focusing on particular figures or movements that stand out. Most of these will be at least familiar to the reader by name, if not for activities and attributes. Then he closes the chapter with some words of application to the contemporary Church and a hymn from that century — most of those hymns I was totally unfamiliar with, and am so glad I was exposed to them.

The core of the chapters, the history of that century — as summarized as it may be — is so helpful. I’ve taken classes covering a lot of those chapters — and read enough on my own that I was pretty familiar with the material covered. But I learned something about even those eras and individuals I’ve studied extensively — maybe not a lot, but enough to justify the time. And even those things that were primarily review for me were well worth reading — the story of our family is one we should hear over and over again and this book is a prime example of what we need to hear.

But what about those who haven’t taken the classes, or haven’t had that much exposure to Church History outside of the last century — or maybe the first couple of centuries? This book is even better for them. It’s primarily intended as an introduction to Church History, and it excels at being one. First of all, it gives you the good bird’s eye view from the day after the last chapter of Acts to the present. Which is a perspective that’s all too easy to lose in the details — we’ve got to see the forest. But the trees are also important — and Ferguson gives enough detail (while remembering that these are brief summary chapters) that the reader can get a handle on a particular century and learn enough that they can pursue what they’re interested in. I know from reading that Celtic monasticism is something that I want to read more about (and not just by rereading Thomas Cahill), but that there are other things from that period that don’t spark my interest in the same way. Some people will react that way to Gregory I or Thomas Chalmers or something else — and Ferguson has provided the reader with enough to start on to feel comfortable pursuing that interest.

Whether for review or as an introduction — the meat of this book is just what the doctor ordered.

Even if the history wasn’t that helpful, Ferguson’s application and the hymn made the book worthwhile. Sometimes that application is comforting, sometimes it’s challenging — it’s always helpful. And the bonus of having that hymn? That’s a wonderful, devotional way to bring history to life — that’s the same Lord, the same faith being proclaimed in these words. Loved that. Starting the chapters with a doctrinally rich (if occasionally problematic) excerpt reminds us that our faith is first and foremost about truth, about ideas — but those find expression in the heart and life of the believer — as seen in the hymns.

Yes, it’s a weakness that this book focuses on the Western Church — particularly that represented in the English, Scottish and American branches. Ferguson admits that at the beginning, but that’s his tradition, that’s his background — and that’s the background for most of his, readers, too — so it’s what’s most relevant. To go beyond that would result in a tome unwieldy and not that handy for his audience (as great as it would be to see).

The structure of head (excerpt), life (history) and heart (hymn) is a fantastic outline for this book — and everything hung on that outline is clearly-written, helpful to the Christian and relevant (if only to say “don’t be like that.”) Ferguson knocked it out of the park with this one, and I can’t recommended it highly enough. Great for personal use, family devotion, Sunday Schools, Home Schools — you name it, there’s someone who can benefit from this book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Reformation Trust Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars

John Knox by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)

John KnoxJohn Knox

by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 64 pgs.
Reformation Heritage Books, 2014
Read: May 25, 2014

I’m tempted to say, for a children’s book, this is quite good. But honestly? For a brief biography for any reading level, it’s quite good.

In these pages we get a good picture of Knox’s life (public and private), his historical context, and his teachings/beliefs. Essentially, everything you could want. There’s excitement, there’s hardship, there’s triumph and there’s tragedy. This isn’t a hagiography — Carr isn’t afraid to point out weaknesses, or problems with Knox (although she could’ve gone a little further in that direction). Nor is this all sweetness and light, as you might expect from a children’s book. While not dwelling on the details of the violence in Knox’s Scotland, she doesn’t sweep it under the rug, either.

The illustrations are great — the map, the photos and historic portraits are as well. Abraxas does a really good job in making his illustrations pop — but not to the degree that they become the focal point. The text carries this book, but the illustrations aid the text, as it should be.

Assuming this is a representative sample (and, based on a couple of interviews I’ve heard with Carr, I think it is), this is “Christian Biographies For Young Readers” series to get for anyone with kids. Or anyone just wanting small biographies to teach them Church History without having to wade through a tome like Shelley or González.

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4 1/2 Stars