Category Archives: Book Reviews

Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.


A Powerful World War 2 Resistance Story

Faith and Victory in Dachau, Jack Overduin.  St. Catharines: Paideia Press, 1978. 

Back in 2018 and early 2019, dark times seemed to threaten Christian education in the Canadian province of Alberta.  The radically left-leaning NDP government of Rachel Notley was pressuring Christian schools to abandon biblical teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.  There were threats of not only defunding, but also removing the accreditation of Christian schools.  All of this was thankfully averted by the sound defeat of the NDP in the April 2019 provincial election.

Today other threats are looming in both Canada and Australia.  In both countries, there’s impending legislation in relation to so-called “conversion therapy.”  Canada’s legislation is being discussed in federal parliament (Bill C-6); in Australia the legislation is being put forward in the state of Victoria, but with potential impact across Australia.  Such legislation would make it illegal even to pray with someone who struggles with their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Offences under this legislation could result in prison sentences.  This is another thinly veiled attack against Bible-believing Christians, churches, families and education.

In times like this, the temptation is strong to lie down and play dead.  We might hope that we can just quietly go on with our lives and the powers that be will just ignore us in our little corner of society.  However, their agenda is clear.  They won’t stop until they bring us to heel.  That means bringing us to celebrate and affirm their ideology in every corner of life.  It’s a totalitarian agenda.

We need stories from our past to inspire us to resist the temptation to give up and give in.  Jack Overduin’s Faith and Victory in Dachau is one such story.  Overduin was a pastor in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) during the Nazi occupation.  While he was serving the church at Arnhem, the Nazi occupiers tried to seize control of the local Christian school.  One of the teachers was a Nazi sympathizer.  He made accusations against the principal.  That led to the attempted Nazi take-over.  When the school board resisted, two of its members were arrested and control of the school was turned over to the Nazi education department in the Netherlands.  When this happened, the parents refused to send their children to the school and the teachers refused to teach. 

Rev. Overduin was convinced that he had to provide leadership to his congregation at that moment.  He prepared a sermon on a relevant Bible passage.  As he climbed the pulpit, he spotted two Gestapo agents sitting in the pews.  He had a choice.  He could boldly preach what he prepared and face the consequences, or he could back down and remain relatively free.  He chose the former.  After the sermon the congregation sang, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the famous hymn by Martin Luther.

Some days later Overduin was arrested by the Gestapo.  The rest of the book describes his initial imprisonment in Arnhem, his transfer to a camp in Amersfoort, a brief time in Nuremburg, and then finally a lengthy stay in the hellish concentration camp of Dachau.  This part of the book vividly describes the brutality of many of the Nazis, but also the surprising humanity of a few others.  Eventually, in late 1943, Overduin was released from Dachau and allowed to return home to Arnhem.

If you have a Dutch Reformed heritage like I do, this book will resonate with you.  It’ll give you a profound insight into how our forefathers resisted Nazi totalitarianism and the price some were willing to pay.  It’ll embolden you to do the same in our day against the totalitarian forces we’re facing.  However, even if you don’t have such a heritage, seeing Christians of deep conviction standing up to resist anti-Christian persecution should be inspirational.

Throughout Overduin made it clear that we shouldn’t look at him as a hero.  His story is really a story about the power of Christ in the lives of his people.  In his grace, Christ gives the power to resist evil forces which seek to destroy the gospel.  He concludes, “My prayer is that this story has made a God-glorifying impression on you, and that you will say with me, ‘How great and good Christ is, how faithful and merciful!’” (p.252).

I need to make a couple of remarks to finish off.  First, in a number of places, Overduin spoke quite favourably about some Roman Catholics he encounters in Nazi custody.  Two of these Roman Catholics die and he speaks about them going to heaven.  In a spirit of Christian charity, I’ll assume Overduin said this because he personally heard these men profess faith in Christ alone as the only Saviour.

My other remark has to do with another struggle against oppression taking place around the same time, this one in the church.  During the Nazi occupation, there was a doctrinal and church political struggle going on in the Reformed Churches.  Synods made heavy-handed doctrinal declarations that were imposed upon the churches.  When ministers like Klaas Schilder refused to fall in line, a synod suspended and then deposed him, even though this was contrary to the agreed-upon Church Order.  This resulted in the Liberation of 1944.  Jack Overduin didn’t agree with the Liberation.  After the Second World War, he continued to be a minister in the so-called synodical churches.  It’s regrettable that Overduin didn’t take the same bold stand against synodical oppression that he took against the Nazis.  Nevertheless, I don’t think that takes away from the value of Faith and Victory in Dachau.  In fact, in my lifetime it’s never been more relevant than it is today. 

Faith and Victory in Dachau is available from goDutch.com.


An Essential Resource on the Psalms

Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms:  Study Resource (4 vols.), ed. Peter H. Holtvluwer.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2020. 

Before, during and shortly after the Reformation, the book of Psalms had primacy in Christian private devotion and public worship.  However, in the 18th century this began changing in many corners.  Isaac Watts was one of the key drivers behind the change.  Known as a pioneer of English hymnody, Watts was convinced that the Old Testament Psalter had to be Christianized.  This he did, publishing a metrical “Psalter” in 1719.     

Others in history have gone further, arguing that the Psalter, or at least parts of it, are inappropriate for Christians to sing today.  One of the most famous is C.S. Lewis and his attitude towards the imprecatory (or cursing) psalms.  Sadly, Lewis condemned these psalms (like Psalm 137) as unchristian, even stating that they were “devilish.” 

Because they’re Old Testament compositions, the Psalms are often under pressure.  This is true even in Reformed churches.  The pressure often arises because contemporary readers don’t have a good handle on how to interpret and apply the Psalms in view of the New Testament.

There are plenty of commentaries on the Psalms.  Many of them offer helpful insights into the meaning of the Psalms in their original Old Testament context.  But few will take you deeper into understanding these songs in the context of the whole Bible.  That’s the beauty of this new resource with contributions by 16 Reformed pastors. 

Each of the 150 Psalms is treated with the same template:

  • Author and Purpose
  • Setting
  • Type and Structure
  • Poetic Elements
  • Placement within the Psalter
  • Key Words
  • Unusual Words or Expressions
  • Main Message
  • Christ Connection
  • Old Testament Links
  • New Testament Links
  • Confessional References
  • Scriptural Themes
  • Application
  • Occasions for Use
  • Questions for Further Study

As I looked at this template, it struck me that this is structurally rather similar to the way I was taught to write exegesis papers in seminary.  It definitely exhausts just about everything one could say about the passage under consideration! One of the advantages to taking this approach is that readers can easily find whatever information they may be after with any given psalm.  This fits the intention to provide a reference resource — it isn’t a commentary or devotional book that one is going to read from front to back.    

The editor, Peter Holtvluwer, has provided an extensive introduction to the Psalter and to the whole work.  This introduction covers the Psalms in general terms, explaining the different types and how they point to Christ.  There’s also a helpful excursus on the imprecatory psalms, those cursing psalms that upset C.S. Lewis so much.      

In preparing this review, I didn’t read through all four volumes from cover to cover.  Instead, I chose to read through the treatment of selected Psalms, ones which I’ve preached on.  What I found was faithful and clear exposition of God’s Word.  I especially appreciated the effort made by all the authors to demonstrate how the Psalms truly are Christ’s songs.  Students of God’s Word are sometimes going to disagree on particular details and I don’t agree with every exegetical detail in Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms either.  Yet these are all men who regard the Psalms as God’s infallible Word and are seeking to understand it in the context of everything God has revealed.  When we take that approach, then there’s room for what’s called the “freedom of exegesis.”

Who ought to have this on their shelf?  Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms will be useful for pastors looking for a commentary, but it should also be accessible to others, including Bible teachers in Christian schools.  Any Hebrew words referenced are transliterated and explained fully.  Technical terms for the poetry are often used, but there is a glossary provided.

In 2018, a devotional with the same title was published, by the same authors and editor (see here for my review).  It has received wide acclaim as a solid source of Psalms-based encouragement.  Good devotionals, just like good sermons, are based on a lot of behind-the-scenes “kitchen work.”  With this new study resource, we have access to all that work.  It allows the curious Bible student to dig deeper and see more of the beauty of God’s revelation.  And perhaps it will be another means by which God’s covenant songbook will still hold a place of primacy in the lives of Reformed believers and their churches. I’ll certainly be referring to it often in the years to come.                                                      


Book Review: Fill the Earth

Fill the Earth: The Creation Mandate and the Church’s Call to Missions, Matthew Newkirk.  Eugene:  Pickwick Publications, 2020.  Softcover, 328 pages.

When it comes to what the Bible says about mission, where do your thoughts immediately go?  If you’re like most Christians, it’d probably be the Great Commission, especially the version found at the end of Matthew 28.  We’re accustomed to thinking almost entirely in terms of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  However, the Bible’s teaching about mission reaches far beyond the Great Commission.  In fact, as Matthew Newkirk persuasively argues, it stretches back to Genesis and forward to Revelation.

Matt Newkirk has his ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He serves in Japan, teaching Old Testament at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya.  He received his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary and also holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Wheaton College.

Fill the Earth can aptly be described as an exercise in biblical theology.  By “biblical theology,” I don’t mean “orthodox theology” (although it is).  “Biblical theology” is a field of study often regarded as having been pioneered by Geerhardus Vos.  Vos described biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”  God’s revelation is embedded in history and involves a historical progression.  Biblical theology describes that, often by taking a topic or concept and tracing its development through the Scriptures.  In this case, it’s mission.    

There have been previous attempts to wed biblical theology and mission, Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission being one of the most well-known.  Newkirk builds on the work of Beale and others.  He convincingly demonstrates that not only is mission bound up with the story line of the Bible, but it’s also intrinsic to the church founded in Genesis and which continues through and past the book of Revelation.

One of the notable features of this book is its detailed exegesis of numerous Scripture passages.  While he’s tracing out the big picture, Newkirk also has the exegete’s penchant for detail.  Some of the detail gets technical, but most readers without advanced theological training should still be able to follow his arguments.  Not unexpectedly, the level of detail also means that, at times, other students of Scripture are going to disagree.  For example, Newkirk argues that the book of Jonah is only missional “insofar as it exhorts Israel to repent from their hardened and disobedient posture towards God’s Word and respond to him faithfully” (141).  I can fully agree that it is missional in that regard, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Jonah is sent out by God to a foreign nation with a call to repentance.  There appears to be an incipient form of centrifugal mission here pointing ahead to what will unfold in the New Testament.  Aside from some of these debatable points of detail, I find Newkirk’s overall trajectory to be cogent, namely that Scripture teaches our mission to be “to fill the earth as God’s representatives and thereby demonstrate that his kingship extends over the entire earth” (18).

Most of Fill the Earth is taken up with making that case.  However, Newkirk concludes with a chapter explaining how his argument bears on the work of mission today.  Let me share some of the questions addressed (without giving away the answers):

  • Is mission merely a reactive response to the presence of sin in the world? 
  • Is non-expansionistic ministry legitimately classified as “missions”? 
  • Is missions fundamentally cross-cultural?
  • In light of what Scripture teaches, how should we evaluate the trend towards seeing the nations coming to us and therefore concluding that we need not send out missionaries to places without a sufficient indigenous gospel witness? 

The cumulative argument made in this book has a bearing on how each of those questions (and more) are answered.     

This book is thought-provoking – Newkirk helpfully challenged some of my previously held notions of what the Bible teaches about mission.  If you’ve done any reading in the field of missiology, you’ll know how difficult it is to find books which not only take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but also go in for the deep dive.  But to advance the field of missiology in a God-honouring way, that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what Matt Newkirk has provided


Book Review: ‘I Kid You Not’

‘I Kid You Not’: Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture Wars, Lyle Shelton.  Redland Bay, Queensland: Connor Court Publishing, 2020.  Softcover, 273 pages.

I’m told that when you join an army combat unit, you’ll usually get a lesson on that unit’s battle history.  I came to Australia nearly five years ago with little knowledge of the battles that have been waged here for what’s good and true.  Since then, I’ve witnessed the fight for the preservation of marriage and a few other skirmishes.  However, reading Lyle Shelton’s new book opened my eyes to many of the battles that took place before we arrived in 2015.  It’s like reading the battle history of biblically-minded and politically-involved Christians in Australia for the last two decades.

For those who don’t know him, Lyle Shelton may be the most hated man in Australia.  I follow him on Twitter and the abuse his trolls heap on him is ghastly.  While he first started drawing fire as a city councillor in Toowoomba, Queensland, it was really as the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) that he became the target of intense animosity.  This book documents two decades of his Christian political activism, battles fought — both those won (a few) and lost (more).

From his time in city government in Toowoomba, we read of the fight against brothels in Queensland in chapter 2.  Chapter 3 describes the battle against pornography in Australia — a fight simply to introduce a mandatory filtering policy.  There are chapters on abortion and euthanasia.  The battle against same-sex “marriage” takes up three chapters.  For me, one of the most interesting sections was the chapter on aboriginal relations.  I took a keen interest in that area when I was serving as a missionary to a First Nations community in Canada, so naturally I wanted to hear Lyle’s take on the Australian situation.  I was impressed with how Lyle applies Christian principles of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation.  His balanced approach deserves a hearing.

As mentioned, there’s history in this book of which I was unaware, having come “late to the party.”  For example chapter 6 describes Guy Barnett’s move to defund second trimester and late-term abortion.  Today, Guy is a well-known figure in Tasmanian state politics.  But in 2008, he was serving in the Australian senate.  He made an effort to roll back some of the gruesome practices of Australian abortionists.  The ACL supported his effort and, as part of that, invited Gianna Jensen, a survivor of a late-term abortion to come to Australia to assist the campaign.  I’ll let Lyle pick up the story:

She is probably the only person alive today whose birth certificate was signed by her abortionist.  He arrived back on the scene when it was too late.

Gianna indefatigably limped alongside me through kilometers of corridors in Parliament House — her bright and sunny disposition disarming the pollies before she unleashed her killer opening line (pun intended).  [the opening line:  “If abortion is about women’s rights, where were mine?”]

I’ll never forget the afternoon we ran into the then Greens leader Bob Brown in the Senate corridors.  I hadn’t bothered seeking an appointment with him.  The Greens care about saving tiny critters but, perversely, baby humans at risk of violence in the womb are not on their endangered list.

“This is Gianna Jensen from America, Senator,” I awkwardly said as we bumped into Brown.  At that moment, I had no agenda apart from being polite.  Brown, who is one of the most genuinely charming men you will ever meet immediately engaged Gianna in some good-natured banter about her need to see the sights of his home state, Tasmania.

My mind began racing as the Senator continued with small talk.  I felt I had to say something.

“Gianna is a survivor of abortion,” I blurted.  At that Senator Brown excused himself, turned on his heel, and walked off down the corridor.  Some truths are more inconvenient than others.  I’ll never forget it.  It was one of the most profound interactions I had at Parliament in my 10 years as a lobbyist.  I’ll always be grateful to Gianna for coming to our nation and telling her inconvenient story, even though her plea on behalf of unborn babies was politely ignored by our politicians.  (page 108)

An unforgettable afternoon, indeed — one prays it was unforgettable for Bob Brown too.

‘I Kid You Not’ is a must-read for newcomers to Australian politics — it’s a great primer on how we got where we are.  I’d also recommend it to Christian young people and others who are beginning to understand our need to be involved in the struggle for truth and goodness in the public square.  Lyle Shelton not only provides the battle history, he also has some insights into battlefield tactics — those used against the truth, but also those that should be used for the truth.  I would say that, unlike Lyle, and more like the current ACL director Martyn Iles, I believe we need to bring Scripture to bear on the situation.  That point notwithstanding, this book makes a valuable contribution to reflecting on how to be engaged politically as Christians. If we love our nation, if our desire is to see the nation flourish, then this is a battle to which all Christians are called.  Sign up.