For those able to get to the eastern part of Tennessee in the middle part of April …
There are a couple of interesting volumes that have been produced in recent months that Baptists might appreciate. But first, and more generally, may I draw your attention to a new bi-annual journal called Unio Cum Christo: International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life? Never knowingly undersold, it intends to show itself an international scholarly and practical journal for the global Reformed community; to encourage deeper fellowship, understanding, and growth in faith, hope, and love in the Reformed community at large; and, to support small and isolated Reformed witnesses in minority missional situations. It is a proper journal, weighing in at 332 pages, costing $20-35 for a year depending on your status, and sponsored by Westminster Theological Seminary and International Reformed Evangelical Seminary. The first number contains a long and stirring editorial by editor-in-chief Paul Wells, followed by sections on biblical studies (on the theme of witness), historical theology (covering a great deal of chronological and geographical territory), contemporary issues (persecution the topic du jour), an interview and a series of book reviews (including a stimulating brief review of Metaxas on Bonhoeffer by William Edgar). Surveying the contributors, one finds a few of the usual suspects, but also an interesting range of writers from a variety of backgrounds and differing degrees of reputation (not bad or good so much as better and less well known). Both the editorial committee and the board reveal a genuinely and refreshingly international scope (though it must be said that Baptists appear to be at a premium!). These strengths are evident in the opening number, and I hope will be sustained in coming years (the second number focuses on the text of Scripture). Those with the requisite interests, appetites and capacities are likely really to enjoy this new journal. I hope it does much good in its sphere, and holds its tone and line for as long as the Lord grants it life.
Then, on to Baptist books. The first is called Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (amazon.com / amazon.co.uk), edited by Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman. This is a spirited study and defence of a robust and well-defined church polity (authority structures and government) from Baptist convictions. It is neither brief nor shallow, but substantial and thorough, academic in timbre. It is nevertheless both enjoyable and profitable.
An array of historians and theologians – many of whom are also pastors – blend their notes within and among the nineteen essays that make up this work. Five broad elements are addressed: congregationalism, ordinances, membership and discipline, elders and deacons, and inter-church relationships. In reading, careful attention must be given to definitions, which should not be assumed. For example, the mantra of “congregational rule that is elder led” must be fairly handled. Indeed, the tensions between those two phrases are evident in the book itself. British readers should also recognise that the book arises primarily out of a Southern Baptist environment, which means some strands of the discussion are less relevant in a conservative evangelical British context.
Even so, what we have here drives us back to first principles. From a careful hermeneutic base it offers a fairly coherent, consistent, cohesive pattern for Baptist churches without being overly prescriptive. It is deeply-rooted Baptist high churchmanship, sometimes wrestling with difficult questions (such as the nature of apostolicity). It gives the lie to crass assertions or accusations casually tossed off that Baptists have no ecclesiology, while poking a necessary finger in the eye of those Baptists who have not bothered to cultivate it.
This is, then, a volume that will both confirm and challenge those of Baptist convictions especially. We must work through and work out the principles and practices raised here if we are to be faithful to God’s word and our heritage.
The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, edited by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin (amazon.com / amazon.co.uk) is another work of a more academic tone, but of a very different outlook, being intended primarily – as far as I can tell – for students within American (Southern) Baptist seminaries, and more in light of the so-called Reformed resurgence. This is one of those catch-all introductions to a subject, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, buttressed and mollified or undermined and exaggerated by the qualities of the editors and contributors. In this case, the strengths are more buttressed and the weaknesses less exaggerated, but all present and correct.
The book is divided into four sections, covering the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth century, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and Baptist beliefs. The three editors each take the reins for a particular period, and then, presumably, combine for the rest. With minimal footnotes, and with a brisk tone and at a good pace, the book carries us through the events, personalities, sermons, churches, tensions and efforts of Baptist history. Excerpts from sermons and documents are scattered throughout to give some flavour from primary sources. There are even a few pictures for those who weary of words. Depending on your appetites and predilections, you will either be delighted or devastated at the inclusions or exclusions. The recommended reading must fill in the gaps.
Sadly, Baptists outside America will find the book less and less useful as it advances, because the focus is more and more on the States and its distinctive groups, denominations, interests and battles. In addition, the concern for ‘balance’ sometimes leads to the inclusion of what seem to me to be rabbit trails or aberrations of greater or lesser degree. Although the closing historical chapters make every effort to give a global sense, it is still a survey through American eyes. Of course, as the stream of Baptist history broadens, one has to sit on a particular island in order to take one’s view – the ever-widening topic makes a complete and thorough survey almost impossible in a book of this order.
The chapter on identity and distinctives is also fascinating. After a little to-ing and fro-ing on the Baptist attitudes to confessions of faith, the authors suggest that Baptists are marked by regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational polity, local church autonomy, religious freedom. To all of which the only answer can be, “Yes, but …”. It is undeniably true that many Baptists (especially the kind of Baptists who are likely to be reading this book) do hold to such distinctives, and those who give others this textbook might think that they should. However, the issues over what these things look like in practice, and who embraces them, and how many are embraced at any particular point and in what way, even by those who call themselves Baptists, make this a quite surprising absolutism. I don’t disagree that it should be so, more or less, but I query whether or not it is so. The conclusion suggests that promoting liberty of conscience, following Christ’s will in our individual lives and churches, and proclaiming the gospel everywhere, are the three interrelated themes of Baptist history that crop up again and again. Again, that’s frustratingly exclusive and maddeningly broad at the same time. Up to a point, it is indisputable; in other respects, it leaves much to be desired.
So much for the inherent strengths and weaknesses of books like this and this book in particular. It is an introduction to its topic, and should not be assumed to be anything more. If you are an American Baptist history student, or indeed a student of American Baptist history, this will be a fine volume for you. Others will find much of real value and genuine interest, but will feel more as if we are looking over the wall than playing the game.
Drop into some Amazon site or an equivalent at some point and have a look at the reviews for fairly substantial books by reasonably substantial authors of a fairly solidly evangelical stripe. Or look at the endorsements on some of the slim volumes and weighty tomes that issue ceaselessly from the presses of more or less evangelical publishing houses.
I had cause to look at some reviews recently, and I still contribute my own from time to time. I also check out various new books and even get asked to consider writing an endorsement from time to time. I confess to being concerned by a lack of properly critical engagement that borders on the lazy on the one hand and the dishonest on the other.
With regard to reviews, it is far from unusual to see the fanboy reviews in which, because Author Smith has written it, it gets a five star review because … well, how could it get anything else? Either that, or some other book gets an absolute slamming because it is written by Author Jones, and it goes without saying that Author Jones produces nothing but unmitigated tripe. Has anyone stopped actually to engage with Authors Smith and Jones and to consider and assess their assumptions, reasonings, and conclusions? Another class of laziness is seen in those middling reviews in which the reviewer seems disappointed to discover that the book was not the one which he had been expecting, and still less the far better one he clearly would have written had a cruel world not deprived him of the opportunity. Really? How about judging the book on its merits and intentions, or would that require stepping away from pre-judgments and presumptions and necessitating a little careful and critical participation?
One is tempted to conclude that if this is the vox populi, then it really needs to get its act together before it makes a future pronouncement. I am not suggesting that every reviewer needs to be an expert, as if every response must be a genuine peer review, but such contributions really help no one and offer no valuable insights. I recognise, too, that most reviewers review because moved to do so by a strong reaction, which tends to skew the system. However, when so many ordinary books are awarded five stars or the equivalent, it devalues the whole rating system, and robs one of the ability to recognise the rare but genuinely outstanding title.
If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to endorsements. Given the amount of written applause generated by some blokes, it would not be surprising to read in a future biography that Pastor Brown had dedicated the year 2015 to the perusal of unpublished manuscripts, while Professor Green was grateful to be offered a sabbatical for the same purpose in 2013. I know that a lot of the top men know and appreciate and esteem one another, and that there is some kind of pecking order to differentiate those of us who lie in the gutter gazing at the stars. In some respects, I don’t have a beef with that, especially with regard to rightfully earned credibility and genuine relationship.
However, whether it comes from the top of the tree or slightly further down among the branches, it is disconcerting to read of decidedly average books that they are destined to be instant classics, read for years to come. Really? How often has that actually been the case? Will some of these instant classic really be recognised as such in fifty or one hundred years time? We open the pages of a treatise which we have been guaranteed will revolutionise our spiritual life (such a claim should always provoke the raised eyebrow). We find ourselves confronted with recycled mundanities or eccentric novelties communicated in a decidedly flat fashion or with self-important extravagance. Perhaps more troubling is the kind of professional puff that announces a triumph of insight and a model of precision on the back of something that is anything but. One is tempted to ask, “Has Endorser McKay actually read this dangerously vague and evasive tosh?” One begins to fear that Endorser MacDuff may be a little too close to Author McTavish to give a properly thoughtful and careful endorsement, or that McTavish saw fit to hint to MacDuff that favours in kind were available in return for something generous. I have seen evangelical cheeses of the largest sort give two thumbs up to volumes which border on the suspect and even flirt with the heretical, though whether by accident or design cannot be discerned thanks to the ineptitude of the apparently “brilliantly perspicuous” writer in question. The good stuff may benefit from a few honest and reliable voices underlining its value. Derivative and diluted drivel is not worthy of entering the arena to the kind of fanfare reserved for an unusually unrestrained Wrestlemania. I have wondered how this strange state of affairs has come about, and whether or not anyone cares that said big cheese seems to have lost or suspended his alleged capacity for spiritual discernment.
I appreciate that an endorsement is not a review, but neither is it a hearty pat on the back for trying hard and failing. It is a commendation intended to demonstrate to the reading public that the book in their hands or on their screen is indeed worthy of their investment and attention. Surely all the more reason for endorsers, especially those who name the name of Christ, only to give their stamp of approval to those volumes that they have properly read, and then to do so only in terms that they could properly explain if asked to do so? When endorsements prove to be nothing more than overcooked soufflés, they provide neither flavour nor sustenance for those who hope to be nourished by them.
It would be grand if 2016 would prove to be the year of the thoughtful review and the sincere endorsement. For those of us who seek them, write them, or read and use them, surely honesty and integrity, fairness and openness, ought to be appreciated above all? Sure, they may not be as dashing or glowing as the vacuities we presently endure, but at least they will be true and substantial. So here’s to crisp and clear endorsements that carry weight, and to truthfully appreciative four star and necessarily stinging two star reviews! Here’s to a bit more honesty and integrity! May we cultivate a spirit of generous but genuinely critical engagement that serves authors and readers well, promotes the health of God’s kingdom, and reflects a desire for righteousness even in the smallest things.
Not so long ago I received the kind of warning that puts you to and keeps you looking over your shoulder. It came from an older and wiser man in the aftermath of a particular event, and it sent chills down my spine. In essence, I was warned to look out for the assaults of the wicked one, because – in his estimation – the distinctive circumstances suggested to him that the Adversary would be bristling.
Needless to say, this put me on my guard. I would not go so far as to say that I was on tenterhooks, but it would be reasonable to suggest that I left in a heightened state of spiritual alertness. Conscious of some of my particular, personal weaknesses and frailties, I sought to guard my heart, keeping Eye-Gate, Ear-Gate, Nose-Gate, Mouth-Gate and Feel-Gate well defended. My prayers took on a particular edge. Having had reason to mention the excellent little book by Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, I was left considering what might be the particular points at which I should expect the warned-against assaults.
As I pondered, a number of possibilities passed through my mind. And then I realised that several of them I could substantially discount. In themselves, it seemed that they were less likely to be the immediate occasion of the attack. Specifically, I did not need overmuch to fear physical death or damage. To be sure, there might be pressures associated with those circumstances which could be the assaults, but that is not, typically, the way Satan seeks to attack pastors.
He does not so much seek to harm or destroy us physically as to hurt or damage us in our role as ambassadors of Christ. He would no doubt be very content to see certain warriors carried away from the field of battle, but his greater concern is to damage the cause of Christ, if he could. He is much more likely to seek to destroy our reputations, and so to bring dishonour to our Saviour, than anything else. It is not trials alone, but trials as a means to temptation, that are most to be feared. Sufferings, even to death, can be occasions for the glorifying of God and his grace in Christ. However, the temptations that come in suffering, or the danger of being drawn or driven into the kinds of iniquities that allow men to mock our testimony and discount our witness – those are the things most to fear.
I know of at least one man of God who prays that the Lord would rather take his life than permit him to discredit or dishonour his Saviour by acting in a way that would be contrary to his testimony and would undermine his witness.
And so, if not quite on tenterhooks, it is good for God’s servant to cultivate this heightened sense of spiritual alertness. We should buttress the various gates that give entrance to the heart. We should consider afresh the distinctive points in our own humanity at which the Adversary is most likely to strike. We should watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation, and succumb to it in ways which not only bring us to disgrace but – in doing so – expose the name of Christ to dishonour. May the Lord in his mercy, and for his own name’s sake, rather take us away, than allow us to be the means of bringing scorn upon the name and cause of the best of Masters.
Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity
Cruciform Press, 2015, 132pp., paperback, $9.99
In the kingdom of the distracted, the focused man is king. I often wonder if one of the prime saleable skills in the job market of the near-future will be the ability to concentrate over an extended period of diligent effort. If that is so, too many of us are going to be out of work.
As Christians, we accept that work is a gift, a privilege, and a duty. Before Adam fell, he was put in the perfect garden to tend and to keep it. Now, we contend with thorns and with thistles that cumber the ground – a host of obstacles and awkwardnesses that make our work hard. We contend, too, with our own sinful laziness. We contend with streams of diversions and distractions from our vocations and their moment-by-moment expressions.
Into that environment have come a number of books from Christian authors intended to assist us. Two that spring quickly to mind are Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung, a book which could have been entitled Deeply Distracted as I think it has as much if not more to do with the problem of distractedness than busyness. Then there are more developed volumes like Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next?, a sort of holy Getting Things Done book, full of helpful counsels.
Somewhere in the space between comes Tim Challies’ Do More Better. Challies’ book is shorter than Perman, more personal than DeYoung. Let me confess that I know Tim a little; I like Tim very much; I respect Tim a great deal. I am also in the slightly awkward situation of discovering that my own attempts at productivity use a very similar system to Tim, and some of that is due to the fact that I have taken his counsels once or twice over the years.
In brief, the author has spent a lot of time trying to work out how to be genuinely and responsibly productive to the glory of God and in the service of others, and here is the counsel he passes on. His definition of productivity is “effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” The answer is not so much a checklist as the cultivation of a certain kind of character.
The productivity process begins with definition: working out what you’re actually supposed to be doing then defining your mission(s) in those spheres. Tim then identifies three tools: one for task management, one for scheduling, and one for information, each one organised around the simple principle that there is a home for everything, and like goes with like. As a creature of the digital age, Tim suggests three programmes (and some equivalents and alternatives) that provide these functions. Those who have turned their backs on (or never turned their faces to) the digital realm will have to find their own equivalents. Basically, Tim has a well-ordered set of filing cabinets and calendars floating in the electronic ether and well-stocked with information. With each tool comes some comments and counsels on how to make the most of each in integration with each other. Planning and prioritising and reviewing and maintaining also get a few words, before the whole is closed with some thoughts on taming email and twenty miscellaneous tips.
In short, it’s short and sweet. You may not use all the tools that Tim recommends, but the overall approach is – I think – a good one, and the structures within which Tim is operating are profitable to work through even if one does not necessarily arrive at all the same spots. I found myself going back over some of my own systems and fine-tuning under the gentle prods and reminders of Do More Better. This book may not have all your answers, but it contains very good questions and offers very helpful pointers. Like so much in this and other spheres, it provides the toolbox but it requires diligence and effort to learn and use the tools. Do that in dependence on God, and you will very likely thank God that someone like Tim bothered to write something like this.
And now, having checked off this task, Tim urges me on to another. Thank you, brother!
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.