My Favorite Theology/Christian Living Books of 2020

I read a lot of good, inspirational, thoughtful and devotional work this year, but these were the ones that stuck out in my mind. I’d encourage the careful reading of all of them.

(in alphabetical order by author)

None GreaterNone Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

by Matthew Barrett

I haven’t had a chance to write about this book yet, but it’s great. Barrett provides a wonderful tool to introduce believers of all ages/background to the main attributes of God to shape belief and practice. It’s a corrective, but not scoldy. It’s deep, but not hard to understand. It appreciates mystery and doesn’t try to overexplain anything but it also grapples with what we’re given to understand. I’ll say more in a week or two, but for now, just know it’s one of the best things I read last year.

4 Stars

Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Theology ProperReformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Theology Proper

by Geerhardus Vos, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Translator and Editor)

My original post
Yeah, it’s only a picture of one of the volumes (but they all pretty much look alike). This set concisely, yet comprehensively, discusses the major theological loci in a way that’s scholarly and yet warm and practical.

5 Stars

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

My original post
This look at the Synod of Dort, as well as the Canons produced by 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.

5 Stars

 Grace Worth Fighting ForGrace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort

by Daniel R. Hyde

My original post
Is a fantastic companion to the previous book. Hyde focuses on the Canons themselves and what they’re getting at, showing how Church History developed those ideas to this point and how the Reformed church built on them. I didn’t expect anything to beat the Godfrey volume in this year where we got multiple books (thanks to the Canons’s anniversary), but this one did. it’s warm, pastoral and approachable. Anyone over 13 should have no problem with it. Sure, some of the topics will leave some scratching their heads and pondering for a while, but that’s because these are weighty, thought-provoking topics, not because of Hyde’s text. I may have read a better theological book this year, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head. This is simply excellent—rich theology, rich application, solid history, smartly writing, occasionally stirring.

5 Stars

Beyond Authority and SubmissionBeyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society

by Rachel Green Miller

My original post
This book made me re-examine a lotand will probably continue to do so as I mull on what she has to say (and I’ll probably find a lot to disagree with ultimately, and a lot to agree withas it ought to be). How much of what I think about how women and men should interact with each other (in the home, Church and society) comes from Scripture and how much from the culture? How much of what I think it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman has more to do with Ancient Greek culture or the Victorians? (more than it should). The core of the message should be heard and weighed, and hopefully, after the hubbub around its publication has died down a bit, we can start to deal with it.

4 Stars

Theological Retrieval for EvangelicalsTheological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future

by Gavin Ortlund

My original post
A fantastic mix of theory and practice—showing why and how Evangelicals should mine the treasures of the past to shape the theology of today and tomorrow.

4 Stars

The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster StandardsThe Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards

by Alan D. Strange

I was sure I’d written a post about this book, and was embarrassed to discover that I hadn’t—I somehow let this not be included in the November Retrospective, too. This is why I don’t get paid for this blog, folks.

Anyway, Strange packs a lot into this 176 page tome. It is dense. But somehow, it’s also an easy read. He explores the historical debate—particularly around the Westminster Assembly—around this doctrine and explains why the Standards express things the way they do. Then he applies it to contemporary debate in a straightforward manner. Pound for pound, possibly the most helpful book I’ve read this year.

4 Stars

Grace & GloryGrace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary

by Geerhardus Vos

My original post
This is exactly what a collection of sermons ought to be—the language is clear, precise and almost lyrical. You can almost hear them as you read them. Solid theology, warm application and gospel-centered. My only problem with this collection is that it was so short.

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts for those I wrote about): The Future of Everything: Essential Truths about the End Times by Willaim Boekestein, The Whole Armor of God: How Christ’s Victory Strengthens Us for Spiritual Warfare by Iain M. Duguid, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life by Michael S. Horton, The Prayers of Jesus by Mark Jones, and Baptism: Answers to Common Questions by Guy M. Richard.

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals by Gavin Ortlund: An Accessible Call for 21st Century Christians to Learn from the Past

I ended up having more time in the day to write this post than I normally do, and as a result ended up a bit more rambling and less-focused than intended. Hopefully it’s worth the read, despite my laxness.

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future

by Gavin Ortlund

eARC, 224 pg.
Crossway, 2019

Read: October 5-12, 2019


This is another one of those theological works that I feel really unqualified to discuss. There’s part of me that thinks I should stop requesting them from NetGalley, or buying them and deciding that I want to post about them, but I probably won’t. So, know that this is from the perspective of an opinionated and semi-(formally)educated reader and occasional armchair theologian. Not the reflections of an ordained minister or professional theologian.

I’m glad Ortlund talks about this right out of the gate—but the case he lays out for Theological Retrieval here, strikes me as very similar to Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation and Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Ortlund says they’re aiming for the same target, but those works are more oriented toward the Reformed, where he’s focused on Evangelicalism. I’d say that they’re all wanting the same thing, but his work is more accessible (by design) and less-inclined to advertise his scholarly awareness (particularly with the former).

One problem that you encounter right away is a nebulousness about the term “Evangelical.” If Ortlund defined his usage, I missed it. He seems to use it to apply to Bible-believing Protestants who aren’t Reformed or Lutheran. Which is fair enough, I guess, it’s just not an easily defined term anymore. Frankly, I’m with Carl Trueman and others, and consider the label “evangelicalism” meaningless as it can be applied to “everyone from Joel Osteen to Brian McLaren to John MacArthur.”

Ortlund doesn’t give a strict definition of Theological Retrieval—in fact, he avoids it, preferring to see it as a mindset or attitude toward the pre-Reformation Church and Theology, drawing from its strengths, seeing its weaknesses in our own, and putting the contemporary (and Reformation) Church in context of a developing understanding from the end of Acts to Second Coming. Given that, we should be more aware of, and interact more with, the Patristic and Medieval Church. He uses Turretin, in particular, to great benefit in showing that this was the mindset of the Protestant Reformation, and calls us back to it. Along the way, he uses Warfield (and the rest of Old Princeton) as emblematic of Evangelicalism’s departure from this thinking. I’m not sure that’s the best reading of Warfield, but it’s not worth arguing, because his overall point is so right.

The first Part of the book—roughly 60 pages in three chapters—sets the agenda, it’s “A Manifesto for Theological Retrieval.” He begins by asking if Evangelicals can Retrieve Patristic and Medieval Theology, before moving to asking why they need it, and then sketching out both the benefits and perils of it. All of which is profitable and well-worth reading.

But what makes this book different than so many, is that Ortlund doesn’t focus on the project, the theory behind it, or the method. He gives the rest of the book—120 pages or so—to examples of what he’s calling for people to do. Case-studies in theological retrieval—which is some of the best theological reading I’ve done this year, maybe the last couple of years.

The first is a chapter called “Explorations in a Theological Metaphor: Boethius, Calvin, and Torrance on the Creator/ Creation Distinction.” A nice mouthful, to be sure. To illustrate the Creator/Creature Distinction, he compares Tolkein’s relationship to The Lord of the Rings to God’s relationship to his creation, in terms of Boethius’ understanding, and how Calvin’s view would differ, before wrapping up with Torrance. Now, I have little use for what he tries to do with Tolkein—I think this sort of thing is almost as bad as trying to teach the Trinity by analogy (which always quickly lands the teacher in heresy). I know enough people do this sort of thing in teaching and writing, and I should try to pay more attention, but my eyes just glazed over. Most readers will get more out of this than I did. I did appreciate what he said about Boethius and Torrance in distinction from Calvin and feel like I understand the three a little better (not that I’m all that familiar with Boethius and Torrance), and think I got something from the chapter overall, but I know my own prejudices kept me from a full appreciation.

Things improve with “God Is Not a Thing: Divine Simplicity in Patristic and Medieval Perspective.” Rather than going head-on for contemporary critics of the doctrine, he takes a look at historic formulations (not limited to Aquinas’) of the doctrine and seeing how that should actually deepen Evangelical’s commitment to Simplicity as well as broaden our understanding of it. He interacts a good deal with James Dolezal’s wonderful All That Is in God and God without Parts here and reminds me that I need to re-read the former and read the latter. A better blogger (one also focused on theology, not the book) would camp out here for a few paragraphs, but I won’t. It’s just a great chapter and the kind of thing we need to see more of.

My favorite case study is the third, “Substitution as Both Satisfaction and Recapitulation: Atonement Themes in Convergence in Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius.” I would read a book-length version of this tomorrow. Well, not tomorrow. I would start a book-length version of this tomorrow, and have a lot of fun over the following days. Ortlund shows the overlapping concerns of Irenaeus and Anselm (who are so often pitted against each other), how the Christus Victor and Substitutionary Atonement models are interdependent, not rivals (while not giving an inch to contemporary critics of Substitutionary Atonement, it should be pointed out). From there, he moves onto some of Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, demonstrating that these works have a good deal to say about the Atonement, as well. If I got nothing else out of this book, I’d consider the time I spent reading it well-spent just for this chapter. I could’ve lived without the use of Aslan and the Stone Table portion of the study, but (contra the Tolkein), it proved to be a useful illustration.

“Cultivating Skill in the “Art of Arts”: Pastoral Balance in Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule” is the last case study. I remember reading healthy portions of this work by Gregory in a Church History class for much the same reason that Ortlund uses it. There’s a lot of wisdom for pastors of every age in this very old work—he also shows how manuals like Baxter’s or Spurgeon’s will say similar things. Timeless truths and advice put in ways that others wouldn’t. I really don’t have much to say about this, but it’s almost as good as the previous two.

This is one of the most-easily outlined books I’ve read this year (possibly the most), that’s a fantastic aid for referring back to it in the future or for going back and taking thorough notes. I’d go crazy if I read too many books like this, I prefer the more organic feeling approach. But when this is done right, it’s a handy bonus. Beyond that, as I said before, it’s very accessible. Sure, there are parts that are demanding, but nothing’s out of reach for the committed and attentive reader—and most of the time you don’t have to be that committed.

Like their counterparts from the previous century, Twenty-First Century Christians don’t know enough historical doctrine, and certainly don’t know how to treat what little they do know. Too often, Protestants will cede everything prior to 1517 to Rome (maybe Rome and the East), focusing only on the last 500 years—if they’ll even pay attention to anything prior to Fanny J. Crosby. Ortlund’s work is a great call for the everyday Christian to familiarize themselves with the past and learn from them as we ought the rest of the Church Militant. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Crossway via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this stimulating read.


4 Stars

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.

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.

—–

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.

—–

4 1/2 Stars