TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 3)

The Doctrine Of God by Herman Bavinck

I encountered Bavinck in the spring semester of my first year at seminary (January 1990). As the saying goes, I was “blown away”! This is the Table of Contents from this book: God’s Incomprehensibility, God’s Knowability, God’s Names, God’s Incommunicable Attributes, God’s Communicable Attributes, The Holy Trinity, and God’s Counsel. Bavinck taught polemical theology, that is, he compared and contrasted other worldviews with the biblical understanding of deity. He also provided much historical information about the development of the doctrine of God. This statement was especially intriguing:

The Bible never attempts to prove the existence of God but assumes this; and it presupposes all along that man has an ineradicable idea of that existence, and that he has a certain knowledge of the being of God: an idea and a knowledge which are not the result of man’s own study and research, but of the fact that God on his part has revealed himself both in an ordinary and in an extraordinary manner, has manifested himself in nature and in history, in prophecy and miracle. Accordingly, the knowledge of God is never presented as a doubtful manner.

The Proslogion by Anselm

Anselm (died in 1109) was a monk in England who wrote a famous demonstration of God’s existence (Proslogion). Anselm assumed that it is possible for faith to gain understanding, as God illumines the mind. He prayed, “Well then, Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You to be.” Later on in his document, he testified with joy, “I give thanks . . . since what I believed before through Your free gift I now understand through Your illumination . . .” Anselm taught me the necessity and beauty of intellectual piety in all thinking, especially about God. Here is how he prayed about his intellectual project:

What shall he do, O most exalted Lord? What shall Your servant do, anguished out of love for You and cast far away from Your face? . . . Indeed, I was made for seeing You; but not yet have I done that for which I was made. O the unhappy fate of man when he lost that for which he was made! O that hard and ominous fall!

Teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me as I seek; for unless You teach [me] I cannot seek You, and unless You reveal Yourself I cannot find You.

O Lord, I do not attempt to gain access to Your loftiness, because I do not at all consider my intellect to be equal to this [task]. But I yearn to understand some measure of Your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.

Heaven―A World Of Love by Jonathan Edwards

In 1997, my first wife, Karen, was diagnosed with cancer. It was a terrible shock and disruption in every way. Later, in 2002, she died. During her time of illness, I thought a lot about heaven. I studied the Bible and read several books. In the last chapter of Charity and Its Fruits by Edwards I found a beautiful description of heaven called “Heaven―A World of Love.” The heaven he describes is worth dying for. Here is an excerpt where he links heaven and Eden with everlasting love:

And all this in the garden of God―in the paradise of love, where everything is filled with love, and everything conspires to promote and kindle it, and keep up its flame, and nothing ever interrupts it, but everything has been fitted by an all-wise God for its full enjoyment under the greatest advantages forever!

Future Grace by John Piper

For my birthday in 1997, Karen gave me this book. This was shortly before she was diagnosed. She wrote on the cover, “But he gives more grace” from James 4:6. Piper writes, “At the heart of this book is the conviction that that the promises of future grace are the keys to Christ-like Christian living.” That reality―and experience― became very real as we soon confronted illness, decline, and death. It was also sustaining knowledge in the twenty years since, as I have relocated to another culture and embraced new aspirations. This is a meaningful quote from book:

Future faith in grace produces love not only by what it pushes of out the heart, but also by the strong desires it brings to the heart. Faith has an insatiable appetite for experiencing as much of God’s grace as possible.

 

A Positive Review of My Book

Bill Edgar was my mentor at Westminster Theological Seminary

It has often been remarked that some of the best epistemologists (thinkers about thinking) are not particularly grounded in the text of Scripture. If that is true then you need to read Richard Smith’s excellent study on knowing in the Old Testament to rectify this failing. What may sound to some like an academic diversion turns out to be a first-rate examination of where human knowledge was meant to originate and where it is now. Why is this important? Because we have lost the sense that our understanding matters in order to navigate life. Many people today are either hostile to thinking or (worse) indifferent to it.

In a now famous statement, Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, opens with the declaration, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll has walked back this devastating indictment a bit, partly because evangelicals have begun to respond to his accusation and partly because Noll found certain pockets where evangelicals have made a difference. Had he been able to read Smith’s book he would have celebrated a new awareness of the epistemological self-consciousness so greatly needed.

This book has many virtues. The first is that it links knowledge to piety. Knowledge should never be severed from it spiritual roots both for weal and for woe. To prove this Smith goes beyond quoting Proverbs 9:10, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” fundamental as is this truth. But he delves into specific episodes in redemptive history, culling from them the admonition to know, and to know aright. Accordingly, the book begins with an extensive look at how unfallen man would use his mind to explore the wonders of God’s world. It then moves on to describe how sin has affected knowledge adversely. Particularly engaging is he examination of troubled souls such as Qoheleth and Job, as well as influential figures such as Daniel. Finally, Smith focusses on Jesus Christ and the age of redemption without leaving off the Old Testament emphasis.

The voices of Cornelius Van Til, John Frame and others in the Reformed tradition echo throughout. But they are embedded in Bible study. Side refences abound with great quotes, confirming Smith’s insights.

Perhaps one of its unintended consequences is to re-introduce us to the riches of events and persons throughout redemptive history. This could become a devotional book exposing us to the treasure hidden in the biblical story. It is not a book to read rapidly from cover to cover. It is a book to be savored. Like a good wine it should not be gulped but tasted judiciously.

A unique book that will be read profitably for many generations.

William Edgar
Professor of Apologetics
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, USA

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 2)

The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer

I first read Schaeffer when I went back to university in 1981 to finish my Bachelor’s degree. Before reading his book, I never thought much about the intellectual plausibility of the biblical worldview. Schaeffer showed how Christianity made sense and he modeled “intellectual hospitality” with those who did not believe. He demonstrated how to interpret unbelief and how to communicate with unbelievers. When I went to seminary in 1990, I began to encounter more and more thinkers who had been discipled by Schaeffer. He also prepared me theoretically for the study of apologetics at seminary by utilizing the concepts of presupposition and worldview. This statement was helpful:

Non-Christian presuppositions [fundamental beliefs] simply do not fit into what God has made, including what man is. This being so, every man is a place of tension. Man cannot make is own universe and then live in . . . . Thus, when you face twentieth-century man, whether he is brilliant or an ordinary man of the street, a man of the university or a man of the docks, you are facing a man in tension; and it is this tension which works on your behalf as you speak to him . . . . A man may try to bury the tension and you may have to help him find it, but somewhere there is a point of inconsistency. He stands in a position he cannot pursue to the end; and this is not just an intellectual concept of tension, it is what is wrapped up in what he is as a man.

Knowing God by J. I. Packer

This book was my first exposure to systematic theology―specifically Reformed theology―and Packer expressed it in a very pastoral manner. I learned about God’s nature, his wrath and forgiveness, his word and scripture, his devotion to us, justification and sanctification, and the path of discipleship. I remember saying at this time, “I discovered that I could use my brain and be a Christian!” Reading Knowing God was a revival. When I was considering going to seminary in the late 1980’s (and leaving the American Dream behind), I read this counsel from Packer in a section called “The Adequacy of God”:

We know what kind of life Christ calls us to . . . . But do we live it? Well, look at the churches. Observe the shortage of ministers and missionaries, especially men; the luxury goods in Christian homes; the fundraising problems of Christian societies; the readiness of Christians in all walks of life to grumble about their salaries; the lack of concern for the old and lonely, or of anyone outside the circle of ‘sound believers’ . . . . Why, compared to them [Christians of the New Testament] do we appear as no more than half-way Christians? . . . One reason it seems is that in our heart of hearts we are afraid of the consequences of going the whole way into the Christian life.

The Institutes Of Christian Religion Vol. 1 by John Calvin

I discovered Calvin in my first class at seminary―the beginning of a five-year renewal. I wrote on the inside cover of this book “January 14, 1990.” The Introduction says that the Institutes “holds a place in the short list of books that have notably affected the course of history, molding the beliefs and behavior of generations of mankind.” This is clearly true, including me. When I read Calvin and received instruction about his system, I saw how he labored to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Volume One concerns “The Knowledge of God, the Creator.” Here are a few insights that I highlighted years ago and which still influence me:

It is certain that a man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.

And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by a great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure―so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption.

Our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him . . . unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him.

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 1)

In October of this year (2022), I will celebrate fifty years of Christian faith. I was converted in Munich, Germany, during my second year of university study. It was a time of crisis and prolonged searching.

In this blog and the next two, I will tell you about ten books that deeply impacted me during the first twenty-five years. In the future, I will describe books that influenced me in the second twenty-five years.

Prayers by Michel Quoist

In the inside cover of this book, I wrote “August, 1975,” but I suspect that I began to read it even before I became a believer. Quoist eloquently expresses many human aspirations, weaknesses, and emotionsand in the process teaches us how to pray. Early in my life, I was deeply moved by “Help me to say ‘yes’” and “Lord, deliver me from myself.” I have read these many times throughout the  fifty years. In the last two decades, I have embraced another prayer by the author, “I would like to rise very high,” especially with reference to my intellectual aspirations as a Christian. Here is a short excerpt:

I would like to rise very high, Lord, above my city, above the world, above time. I would like to purify my gaze, and borrow your eyes.
I would then see the universe, humanity and history, as the Father sees them. . . .
And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it, every person has his place, every group, every object. . . .
Startled, I will begin to understand that the great adventure of Love, that started at the creation of the world, continues to unfold before my eyes.

The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade

Eliade was certainly not a Christian, but I learned a lot from him. (I still have my original copy with my dormitory room number from 1973.) From him, I discovered the uniformity (what is similar) and diversity (what is different) in religions. I became curious to understand homo religiosus (man, the religious being) and homo adoranas (man, the worshipper). From Eliade, I first learned that human beings are incurably spiritual. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he also opened my eyes to the dynamic of idolatry, when he wrote: “The majority of men ‘without religion’ still hold to pseudo religions and degenerated mythologies.” The following observation stills seems prophetic:

From the Christian point of view, it could also be said that nonreligion is equivalent to a new ‘fall’ of man―in other words, that nonreligious man has lost the capacity to live religion consciously, and hence to understand and assume it; but that, in his deepest being, he still retains a memory of it, as, after the first ‘fall’, his ancestor, the primordial man [Adam], retained intelligence enough to enable him to rediscover the traces of God that are still visible in the world.

The New Demons by Jacques Ellul

Beginning with Ellul, I began to discover that the mind played an essential role in Christian faith and spirituality. For the first fourteen years of my church life, I participated in a movement that did not celebrate the intellect or cherish a deep knowledge of scripture. The New Demons was the beginning of my cure. Ellul critiqued culture―including popular evangelicalism and political ideology―in a way that fostered healthy skepticism. He wrote: “In every critical period of history myths reappear which have as their purpose to assure maintenance of a certain type of society and to confirm the dominant group in its faith in the system.” I learned that this dynamic can also occur among religious groups. The following statement had a big impact on my developing mind and anticipated my doctoral dissertation on Romans 1:18–25 (we “suppress” the truth for a “lie” and “exchange” the true God for idols):

It is forgotten that in this word of God there is attestation of man’s sin, of the rupture between man and God and, of man’s situation within evil. To void that, to reduce it, is on the one hand, to render the remainder of revelation completely meaningless, and the other hand, it is to prevent oneself any longer from seeing modern man’s sacralizing, for this man creates a sacred for himself and finds a religion only in order to counter the prior situation.

 

Intellectual Piety

The Old Testament calls us repeatedly to intellectual piety—loving God with our minds, not just our emotions.

Psalm 1:1–2 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 25:4–6 provides a prayer for knowledge: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”

Since God is omniscient, he knows all our thoughts (conscious and unconscious).

Psalm 94:11 proclaims, “The Lord knows the thoughts of man.” Similarly, Psalm 139:2b says, “You discern my thoughts from afar.” God declares, “For I know the things that come into your mind” (Ezek 11:5). Amos 4:13a extols God, “who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought.” Additionally, God’s knowledge extends to private ruminations and motives: “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!” (Prov 15:11). David wrote, “The Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chr 28:9).

God does not simply observe passively but scrutinizes our intellectual activity—in real time, 24/7.

Several terms are used to express this activity: “test,” “try,” “prove,” “search,” “search out,” and “examine.” The Lord declares, “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind” (Jer 17:10). Others testify similarly about him: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts” (Prov 17:3); “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Prov 21:2). Jeremiah wrote, “O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind” (20:12). This is why David told Solomon, “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (2 Chr 32:31).

Mental piety (or intellectual spirituality) appears in heartfelt petitions that invite divine testing.

These are prayers for intellectual self-awareness and they presume habitual repentance. David implored the Lord, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind” (Ps 26:2). Psalm 139:23 states, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” Psalm 19:14 declares, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight.” Perhaps the most poignant expression of intellectual piety is Psalm 131:1–2: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

(An extract adapted from my book Such a Mind as This: A Biblical-Theological Study of Thinking in the Old Testament. It is used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, http://www.wipfandstock.com.)

Beware of Conspiracies!

Beware of Conspiracies! Why? Because conspiratorial thinking is associated with those who are gullible and often ignorant. Conspiracies are the mechanism of demagogues and manipulators of all kinds.

As Christian thinkers, we ought to develop a healthy skepticism and intellectual caution about conspiracy. We should always ask: Where does the information come from? Who produced it? For what purpose? Who profits if we embrace it? Is the scheme accepted by the majority of trained thinkers on the subject? Why do they accept or object to the outlook? How should we think and respond with biblical wisdom?

Keep in mind what Yahweh told Isaiah during a period of intense crisis: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (8:12–13). Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, teach us to fear incorrectly. They teach us to think falsely. They divide and destroy.

Remember that Jesus told us to be discerning. He said: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). It is critical that we distinguish who is trying to manipulate whom and why. Otherwise, we are culpable for embracing “fake news” and making unwise decisions. We should not forget that conspiracies are inherently deceptive.

Paul told us that we should “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). They author of Hebrew urged us to “go on to maturity” (6:1).

“Wisdom and maturity,” however, are very difficult to achieve if we obtain most of our information about reality from social media. This challenge is particularly important in our day, for—if we are honest and humble—Christians are often ignorant and naive. Our biblical and theological understanding is underdeveloped. Our knowledge of church history or even contemporary news is often weak. We do not read very much. We certainly do not read anything that requires intellectual effort. Instead, we prefer the lazy way: watching television, gossiping with our friends, and soaking up whatever social media provides us. Our gullibility is really dangerous during time of crisis and hardship.

So, let us not be foolish and gullible. Let us cultivate a healthy skepticism about information on the internet. Seek out respected thinkers and listen to them. Read carefully. Above all, let us not embrace the wrong conspiracies: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy.”

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