Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review -- Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

Ulrich Zwingli's contributions to the Reformation are generally overshadowed by those of Luther and Calvin. Surveys of Reformation history typically mention Zwingli, but often serving as a comparison/contrast with Luther or as a forerunner of Calvin. As William Boekestein observes in his biography of Zwingli, the Zurich reformer's career was intense but relatively short-lived (around twelve years), and as a result, his written works have not had the same lasting impact as his fellow reformers. Nevertheless, Zwingli played an important role in the founding of the Reformed Churches, and the story of his life is intrinsically connected to the story of the Reformation in Switzerland.

Boekestein's volume is part of the Bitesize Biographies Collection published by EP Books. Intended for a general audience, this brief work (~160 pages) provides an overview of Zwingli's life and ministry; additionally, Boekestein, a Reformed pastor, offers a theological perspective on Zwingli that transcends a mere recounting of historical fact. Boekestein begins his account with a description of the Swiss context into which Zwingli was born, describing the political structure and religious backdrop which would shape the reformer. From there, the biography proceeds chronologically through the major events of Zwingli's life, from his early days as a promising student and young priest, through his emergence as a renowned scholar and career as reformer in Zurich, and ending with his death in battle at Kappel. Boekestein concludes with a chapter assessing Zwingli's legacy, observing that later centuries of Christians have honored him "more for his reform efforts than his theology," specifically commending Zwingli's love for the church, for the Gospel, for the Bible, and for his Lord.

Several features of Boekestein's biography deserve mention. Notably, Zwingli's commitment to the Scriptures is a major theme throughout the book. As a young priest influenced by humanists such as Erasmus, Zwingli developed a passion for the detailed study of the New Testament in its original Greek. Upon becoming pastor of the most influential church in Zurich, Zwingli re-introduced the long-forgotten practice of expository preaching through the Scriptures (instead of using lectionary readings prescribed by the Church). Erasmus' writings also led him to question whether certain practices and teachings of the Church could be supported by the biblical texts, and Zwingli soon began questioning and even denouncing those practices from the pulpit. Interestingly, Zwingli's pursuit of reform resulted in criticism from both conservatives and radicals. The latter, most notably the Anabaptists, had taken Zwingli's own insistence on Biblical fidelity to its extreme conclusion, and Zwingli was forced to respond to his own arguments (or perversions thereof) by staking out a moderating position that promoted reform while still upholding the Scriptural admonitions to submit to governing authorities. Nevertheless, Zwingli's insistence on Scriptural authority led to an all-encompassing program of reform in Zurich, extending beyond the church walls into civil affairs.           

Another commendable aspect of the book is that Boekestein praises without resorting to hagiography. Although Zwingli's scholarship and preaching were undoubtedly persuasive, the concerns of the Zurich magistrates were far more than theological. Indeed, even before the break with Rome, Zwingli's push for reform provided the city leadership with an opportunity to exert independence from the Church and to increase control over their own affairs. Also, the biography does not shrink from addressing Zwingli's personal failings, such as his secret marriage to Anna Reinhart, his likely approval (at least tacitly) of the severe persecution of the Anabaptists, and his ill-fated attempts at diplomacy which resulted in the Protestant-Catholic conflict in which he died. The inclusion of these aspects help provide a fuller picture of Zwingli, whose failings are often as instructive as his successes.

Although Zwingli's theological works have not had nearly the lasting influence as some of his contemporaries, his work in Zurich undoubtedly help shape the emergence of the Reformed Churches. Overall, William Boekestein's biography is a good introduction to the life and works of the Swiss reformer. I recommend it for anyone who desires to learn more about the Protestant Reformation.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to its content.)       

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review -- A Study Commentary on The Acts of the Apostles

"Why one more?" asks Guy Prentiss Waters in the Preface to his A Study Commentary on the Acts of Apostles, noting the proliferation of publications on this book of the Bible. "What will this commentary contribute to the burgeoning literature?" As Waters explains, he intends his commentary to be 1) brief and clear, 2) geared towards the exposition of the text, and 3) distinctively Reformed in orientation. Waters is successful in each of these three areas, providing a commentary that is both readable and useful for serious students of the Bible.

Waters' commentary is published by EP Books as part of the EP Study Commentary series, which is intended for a general audience and written from a Reformed perspective. Due to its length, Acts has tended to produce commentaries of ever-increasing length (consider Craig Keener's soon-to-be-completed four volume monster), but Waters' volume clocks in at just over 600 pages of reasonably-sized type. In his Introduction, Waters briefly surveys the standard questions of authorship, date, title, genre and purpose, arguing that Luke has written Acts to edify Christians by highlighting "the continued word and deeds of the exalted Jesus through his apostles." He then divides the text into 18 major sections, with further subdivisions under each. After providing his own English translation of the text, Waters walks verse-by-verse through the pertinent exegetical details and interacts with the secondary literature. The volume is well-researched, with copious footnotes provided for further study, yet Waters never lets the main commentary get bogged down with extraneous details or arcane technical discussions. For example, Waters often highlights significant details from the Greek text, but in such a way that readers need not be students of Greek to grasp Waters' arguments. In addition to examining Acts itself, Waters also focuses on connections with other Scriptures, such as the use of the Old Testament in Acts and its links with the Gospel of Luke.

Another key feature of Waters' commentary is that the exegetical analysis of each subdivision of the text is followed by several paragraphs of Application. In these sections, Waters demonstrates how the Scriptural texts inform the lives of Christians today. These sections are very much pastoral in nature, and address many of the practical questions that naturally arise from reading Acts, such as the nature of the continued role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, the fact of conflict inside the church, and the reality of opposition to the Gospel from outside, just to name a few. In these sections Waters often makes use of Calvin or the Westminster Standards to integrate the text with a broader Reformed perspective.

All in all, Waters does an admirable job of providing a detailed yet readable commentary on Acts. The depth of engagement makes the book ideal for use in preparing sermons or Bible study lessons, yet anyone interested in growing in their faith through studying the Acts of the Apostles would benefit from this commentary.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to its content.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

A few years ago, from 2005-2007, we spent our Fourth of July weekends in Annapolis, Maryland, at something called the JEI conference. Lots of speakers, books, good food, strolling around the lovely historic city, and fireworks. It was sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Institute, which existed to promote Edwards' ideas for a modern audience and "foster a God-entranced worldview.". And we loved it (because we're nerds like that).

Fast-forward almost ten years later and though the JEI Institute no longer exists, we are finding opportunities to share some of these same passions with our kids. One way is through a great series of biographies from Simonetta Carr. This particular biography came to us most timely, as we are actually studying American History this year and have been reading quite a few accounts of early colonists.

Carr's latest contribution to her Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, Jonathan Edwards, exceeds my expectations. Though I thought I knew much about Edwards' writings, I realized by reading this book how few details I really knew about his life. All of the books in this series are of excellent quality, hardback and sturdy and with exceptional content, but this one especially has some fascinating facts, photographs and illustrations. In this biography, Carr shares details of his life (1703-1758) from his time as an inquisitive youth to his death at a relatively young age due to illness, when he was then president of Princeton.

If all you know of Edwards is the classic sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," you will be most surprised and encouraged by reading about his whole life's work. His delight in Creation and wonder at the glory of God are evident throughout his story. Even as a child he was interested in science, and observed creatures like the infamous spider and marveled at their unique qualities. There's even an original sketch by Edwards included in the book. His time at Yale brought him into contact with contemporary philosophers and thinkers like Isaac Netwon and Voltaire. As he struggled and wrestled with these new ideas, he always checked them against the Truth he found in Scripture. And so he became captivated by the excellency and wisdom of his Creator. So much so, that Carr writes: "Often, Edwards felt so impressed by God's glory and beauty that he started to sing." What a fantastic picture of a man whose heart chased after God!

There is a good amount of information about his life's work as a preacher, of course, including the first Great Awakening. But Carr also examines his struggles as his beliefs conflicted with his congregation. There is an excellent chapter on his friendship with David Brainerd, missionary to the Native Americans, which later inspired him to move his own family to Stockbridge and become a missionary himself. His interactions with the Indians and his desire for their well-being, fair treatment, and the education of their children in a school alongside his own is much to be praised, and is quite unlike many of the other accounts we have been reading in our American History studies this year.

I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in learning more about Edward's life. Carr includes a helpful map, timeline, and an appendix with facts about the time period as well as a letter from Edwards to one of his children. As always, the illustrations are rich and well-done, perfectly suited to the text. Reading this has provided our family with an excellent model of what it means to live one's life out faithfully, to "discover God as He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures" and not try to "match the Bible to our own ideas." Many of the chapters offer frameworks for understanding the cultural context in which Edwards lived and offer up ideas for discussion, growth and further reading. This is a wonderful addition to any family library.

If you are interested in any of Jonathan Edwards' writings, I would recommend the Edwards Center at Yale University, which offers a large collection online.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for providing this review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review -- Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1–8

"The book of Psalms ... is the biggest book in the Bible, but for many in the church its contents are largely mysterious and out of sight," laments J. V. Fesko in the Introduction to his latest book, Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. To remedy this deficiency, Fesko aims to convince his readers of two important characteristics of the Psalter: 1) that it is focused on the person and work of Christ -- not just in certain "christological psalms" but in its entirety; and 2) that it is not a randomly-arranged collection of poetry but, rather, is a deliberately-organized work with an overarching story. By focusing on the first 8 Psalms, Fesko is able to demonstrate both these characteristics in the text as well as lay out an approach for studying the entire Psalter.

Fesko's book is explicitly "a devotional exploration of the first eight Psalms" and is intended for the edification of Christian readers. Each chapter focuses on a different Psalm, tracing its significance from its original context to its fulfillment in Christ to its continued application for Christians. Each chapter includes a list of questions for further reflection and study. And, since the Psalms were intended to be sung, the book includes metrical versions of each of the studied psalms, as well as resources for obtaining sheet music and audio versions of the tunes.

Overall, Fesko does an admirable job of demonstrating the aforementioned important characteristics of the Psalter from his chosen texts and from the Scripture as a whole. The notion that certain Psalms are Christ-focused is readily established by looking at how the New Testament authors connect the Psalms to Jesus, such as the citation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4. But Fesko's argument is not just that certain Psalm texts point to Christ, but that in fact, the entire Psalter does. He notes Jesus' own words in Luke 24, that "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms," indicating that the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate the coming of the Christ in their entirety, not just in isolated proof-texts or prophecies. In his exploration of Psalms 1-8, Fesko then identifies specific connections between the texts and the person and work of Christ, frequently demonstrating how the life of David serves as a type that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the righteous man of Psalm 1 is best understood to be the truly Righteous One, the true Anointed One of Psalm 2. However, just as Psalms 3-7 express the hardships and afflictions that God's chosen king David endured at the hands of the wicked, these Psalms also point forward to the undeserved suffering of David's greater son. Yet despite these tribulations, Psalm 8 offers words of praise and worship to God, specifically for the blessings given to man, best interpreted as the majesty bestowed on the Son of Man.

Another strength of Fesko's book is how he draws personal applications out of the Psalms and their focus on Christ. For example, Psalm 1 paints a vivid contrast between the prosperity of the righteous man and the ultimate destruction of the wicked. Yet the application is not simply that people will prosper so long as they act righteously (as if that were possible); rather, Jesus alone is the truly Righteous One, and those who seek refuge in him will be nurtured by him and bear fruit like a tree planted by the streams. Similarly, Fesko sees cries for deliverance from enemies, such as those in Psalm 3, as pointing to the deliverance found only in Christ, a deliverance not only from the wrath to come but also into eternal rest. I especially appreciated Fesko's appeal that the church not neglect the portions of the Psalms that address suffering and lament. The Psalms express the full range of human experience and emotion, and we deprive ourselves of rich resources if we limit our focus to Psalms of rejoicing and gladness. 

If I had any real quibbles with the book, they'd be with some of Fesko's presumptions that the Psalter's human authors clearly understood their writings to be christological. Admittedly, the sharply debated issue of Old Testament fulfillment in the New is too large to tackle in such a short book. But it strikes me that Fesko assumes more than is warranted. A couple of examples: first, in discussing Psalm 4, Fesko begins by examining the original context, particularly the applicable details from David's life, but then jumps from David's crying out to the "God of my righteousness" (4:1) all the way to asserting that "David knows that the Lord is his righteousness—the Lord has graciously forgiven him of his sins and imputed the righteousness, or obedience, of the coming Messiah to him." Secondly, concerning Psalm 8, Fesko states that "David does not merely have the creation of man in view here, however praiseworthy it is. Rather, he ultimately offers a hymn of praise for the true Son of Man, Jesus Christ." In both cases, Fesko makes theologically accurate statements, but given the progressive nature of Biblical revelation, I'm unsure whether an Old Testament author like David might have grasped the full meaning of his own writings. It seems just as likely that the inspired authors revealed far more than they understood at the time, with subsequent revelation bringing greater clarity (e.g., as Hebrews 2 does for Psalm 8). That said, the issue of David's understanding doesn't detract from the book in a major way, and as Fesko repeatedly demonstrates, the New Testament provides interpretive clarity to many of the passages he discusses.

Overall, I would recommend Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8 to anyone interested in learning more about the Psalms. J.V. Fesko has done a great service by demonstrating the connections between the Psalter and the person and work of Jesus Christ, doing so in a way that not only does justice to the text but also draws out applications for Christian living and discipleship. My hope is that readers of the book would be inspired to take advantage of the great treasures that God's people have been given in the Psalter.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why I Love Laura Ingalls Wilder

Describing a scene for her sister, who has gone blind from scarlet fever:
Laura let out her breath. "Oh, Mary! The snow white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and bright red shirt! The brown prarie all around--and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They'll go on in the sun around the world."

Mary thought a moment. Then she said, "Laura, you know he couldn't ride into the sun. He's just riding along on the ground like anybody."

But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true, too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.

By the Shores of Silver Lake, pg. 65