Category Archives: Book Reviews

An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology

R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students.  This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian.  That theologian was R.C. Sproul.  As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name.  A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta.  For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works.  I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.  I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order.  I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness.  Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.

Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone.  When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively.  This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:

The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul.  Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise.  As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.”  This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell.  I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.

Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime.  One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s.  Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic. 

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification.  A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).  Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.  ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God.  Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God.  Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer.  The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on.  If justification isn’t worth it, what is?

It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul.  I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after.  That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for.  Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him.  Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics.  This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity.  Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics.  This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible.  This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.

On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions.  According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner.  One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul.  Here’s the important thing to realize:  presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology.  You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics.  That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following:  “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed.  It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia.  Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.

That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme.  In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics.  You can find this debate online here.  Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points.  Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all.  I’m left wondering:  what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years?  If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back?  I’m perplexed.   

Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime.  One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2.  Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today.  However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.

I couldn’t put this biography down.  It’s engaging and well-written.  If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him.  And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.                 


Resurrecting Reading

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Softcover, 296 pages.

I grew up with the blessing of books everywhere.  For most of my youth I inhabited “the dungeon” — a basement bedroom with no windows, but a full wall of bookshelves.  No, my father wasn’t an academic; he was a police officer.  He’d completed high school, but didn’t go to university.  Nevertheless, his many books filled my room.  Even though we always had a TV in the house growing up, I was almost always reading a book.  Reading wasn’t only natural, it was delightful.  When I was a teenager, I spent hours and hours every week at the local library, about a 30 minute walk from our home. 

I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d grown up today rather than in the 1980s.  We had TV, but we didn’t have mobile phones.  We had cable and a VCR, but we didn’t have Netflix.  We had a Commodore 64 computer (with some pretty neat games), but we didn’t have the Internet.  So many less distractions back then!  It’s a wonder that any kids today still read.  Reading is on the rocks – and all ages are affected. 

This book seeks to bring reading back from the brink, particularly amongst Christians.  Leland Ryken is a retired professor of English and Glenda Mathes is a professional writer.  Together they have a passion for not merely helping people to read, but to read excellent literature artfully.

The first part of the book argues the case:  “Reading is a Lost Art.”  In the second part, Ryken and Mathes explain the different dimensions of literature, including the various genres: stories, poems, novels, fantasy (yes, Harry Potter is discussed), children’s books, and creative non-fiction.  This part also includes a chapter on learning to delight in the Bible as literature.  The last part of the book discusses what it means to read artfully, with appreciation for the truth, beauty and goodness of literature. 

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading will help avid readers become better readers.  As it did for me, it may also introduce you to some new authors.  This book may also be of interest to budding writers – it certainly gives some insight into how stories are put together.

Unfortunately, Ryken and Mathes did leave me with some unanswered questions, especially in the last part of the book.  The authors write, “No good reason exists for immersing ourselves in literature that portrays immoral behaviour and recommends immoral attitudes” (p.184).  However, there’s no discussion at all of the one most conspicuous forms of immorality in much literature:  blasphemy.  What should Christians do with books which take God’s Name in vain?  It would have been helpful to explore this elephant-in-the-room question.

There were many good and true things said about beauty in chapter 17.  I appreciated the way the authors want to link our understanding of beauty to who God is.  Admirably, they want to base their view on what the Bible says, trying to bring some objectivity to bear.  However, at the end, they appear to state that what’s beautiful is what gives us pleasure and what employs artistry.  Beautiful things do give us pleasure, certainly.  But what gives one person pleasure may be nails on a chalkboard to another.  I may find pleasure and artistry (and therefore beauty) in an Oscar Peterson jazz composition – but another Christian may listen to it and feel nothing, or worse.  I may find pleasure/artistry/beauty in a Marilynne Robinson novel – but another Christian may read it and fail to experience what I did.  The authors quote artist Makoto Fujimura on pages 198-99.  I decided to look up this artist to see his work.  Honestly, I don’t get how his work is beautiful – I get no pleasure from it. Others do.  Is it beautiful or not?  You see, even though God is objectively beautiful, we struggle to translate what we see in him to how we evaluate literature, art, and music.  I can’t escape the conclusion that there may always be something subjective about our notions of beauty and artistry.

A couple of years ago, a colleague wrote an article dealing with the problem of people not reading in the church.  The irony is that the people who don’t read probably won’t read it and therefore won’t be challenged or helped.  Sadly, something similar could happen with Recovering the Lost Art of Reading.  That’s why I’m going to say it’s especially two groups who ought to read this, two groups who can really make a difference.  One is English teachers.  English teachers can make a difference in encouraging kids to get into a lifetime of reading.  The second group is parents who themselves are avid readers.  Reading this book will motivate you more to pass on your love for reading to your children.  Now, if you’re not in either of those groups, and you just love books, get this one too.  It’ll assuredly enhance your appreciation for God’s gift of literature.

Here’s an interview with Leland Ryken about the book:


Rod Dreher – Orthodox and Not

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher.  New York: Sentinel, 2020.  Hardcover, 240 pages.

Rod Dreher’s latest book has gained as much interest as his previous work, The Benedict Option.  This new offering explains the new world we’re in, the “brave new world” looming on the horizon, and how it all connects to the recent past of Eastern Europe.  Live Not By Lies also wants to provide guidance for Christians as we descend into the darkness of “soft totalitarianism.”   It looked like a promising read.  However, it turned out to be less than what I was hoping for.

The strength of this volume is in its first part:  Understanding Soft Totalitarianism.  This part is more descriptive, historical, and analytical.  Dreher explains that totalitarianism is about complete state control over actions, thought, emotions, and even what is and isn’t true.  Soft totalitarianism “is therapeutic.  It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (p.7).  Soft totalitarianism “masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavoured demographic groups to protect the feelings of ‘victims’ in order to bring about ‘social justice’ (p.9). 

Dreher helpfully draws historical lessons from the Eastern European experience of totalitarianism during the Cold War era.  He interviews people who lived through that horror and who see disturbing parallels developing in western democracies today.  Chapter 3, “Progressivism as Religion” is the best chapter.  It explains how the Christian faith and totalitarianism, particularly manifested with today’s woke leftists, are “best understood as competing religions” (p.56).  So far, so good.

The subtitle is “A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”  Dreher desires to help Christians dissent from the deepening soft totalitarianism.  This is the focus of the second part of Live Not By Lies, How to Live in Truth.  In this section too, there are valuable insights to be gleaned from the experiences of others who’ve endured communism in Eastern Europe.  Nevertheless, this is the weaker section of the book. 

I say that for two main reasons.  One is because I’d expect “A Manual for “Christian Dissidents” to offer authoritative guidance based on what the Bible teaches.  The Bible is mentioned here and there.  There are paraphrases from a couple of Bible passages and one direct quote.  But the Bible doesn’t appear to be foundational to Dreher’s manual.  The lived experience of people who were dissidents during the Cold War seems to be more so.

The second reason I found this section of the book weak is because of what it does, and doesn’t do, with the gospel.  In some places Dreher mentions the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  However, there’s no mention of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone.  In fact, there are places where that biblical teaching is denied by some of those interviewed by Dreher (e.g. Alexander Ogorodnikov on p.196).  Moreover, the book doesn’t emphasize how it’s the true gospel of Jesus Christ which can actually transform not only individual lives, but also entire nations.

These points won’t be surprising to those who know something of Dreher’s background.  He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993 and then to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006.  Sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church led to his departure.  However, Dreher continues to have a mostly positive view of Roman Catholicism. 

That leads me to one of the other major issues in Live Not By Lies:  its false ecumenism.  When Dreher says “Christian,” his definition includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.  It’s a definition that can’t be swallowed by a confessionally Reformed Christian.  I can grant that many of the people interviewed in this book are religious, as is Dreher.  I can grant that, in sociological terms, they and their churches are often described as “Christian” in the broad sense of being distinct from other religions.  I can grant that totalitarian persecutors don’t care about our theological differences — they will persecute the devout Roman Catholic as a “Christian” just as readily as they will the Bible-believing Protestant.  What I cannot grant is that any person who holds to the gospel-denying tenets of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy is truly a Christian in the biblical sense of the word.  As an Orthodox believer, Dreher holds otherwise.  This is a dangerous lie which we ought not to live by.    

His Orthodoxy surfaces at certain points in the book.  Dreher describes “mystical awakenings” by which God is supposed to have revealed himself (p.197).  He speaks of a prisoner who “was able to be an icon” to others (p.204) and an Orthodox father-son duo canonized as saints whose icon hangs in Dreher’s home (p.178).  Dreher quotes a Romanian Orthodox priest who says, “You, my friend, are the unique bearer of your deification in Jesus Christ…” (p.160), referring to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

Finally, Dreher’s focus is on more recent totalitarian movements.  However, a Reformed reader can’t help but think of other historic forms of totalitarianism, especially those connected with Roman Catholicism.  I think of what the Huguenots endured in France during the two centuries following the Reformation.  What Reformed believers need today is a “manual for Christian dissidents” primarily based on Scripture, but also explaining how our Huguenot brethren dissented in their day.

Live Not By Lies is worth reading, but with discernment.  It requires a cautious eye and a thoughtful mind.  To be sure, Dreher has helpful insights to offer.  But it has to be recognized that he’s not coming from a Reformed perspective, not even a Protestant or Evangelical perspective.  He has an understanding of what it means to live not by lies that’s not entirely acceptable to a Reformed Christian.  For us, living not by lies means we need to live by the truth of God’s Word as our ultimate standard.  Living not by lies means we need to uphold the truth of the biblical gospel – that there’s salvation through Jesus Christ alone.  Living not by lies means we need to experience unity with other believers only on the basis of a biblical faith.


The Greatest Threat to the Gospel Today

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Michael Horton, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.  Paperback, 270 pages.

In 1923 a stick of literary dynamite was tossed into American Christianity.  J. Gresham Machen published his response to the deformation of the church in his day, Christianity and Liberalism.  In this book, Machen decisively demonstrated that Christianity and theological liberalism are two entirely different religions.  The sad irony is that nearly 100 years later, Machen’s book remains relevant.  Only the names have changed.  Today’s greatest threat to Christianity is not called liberalism.

With this book, Michael Horton (professor at Westminster Seminary California and URC minister) has done for our generation what Machen did in his, surgically exposing the ultimate emptiness of much of what passes for Christianity in North America.  In fact, according to Horton, much of what calls itself Christian is simply missing the boat on who Jesus Christ is according to the Bible – that’s the essence of Christless Christianity.  Writes Horton,

Christless Christianity does not mean religion or spirituality devoid of the words Jesus, Christ, Lord, or even Saviour.  What it means is that the way those names and titles are employed will be removed from their specific location in an unfolding historical plot of human rebellion and divine rescue… (p.144) 

Christless Christianity means the trivialization of the Bible’s message of good news through Jesus Christ.

By its very nature and by the author’s admission, this is “not a cheerful missive.”  Horton incisively takes on the health and wealth pseudo-gospel of popular figures such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer as well as the postive thinking pseudo-gospel of Robert Schuller.  He rightly points out that while the erstwhile Emergent movement put its finger on various problems in American Christianity, the solutions it offered were no less problematic.  For instance, he critiques Brian McLaren, who “scolds Reformed Christians for ‘their love affair for the Latin word sola.’” (p.194).  More “Christless Christianity” isn’t the answer.

In the first chapter, Horton promised to follow this book up with a “more constructive sequel.”  In 2009 he delivered with The Gospel-Driven Lifeyou can read my review here.  Nevertheless, he does begin to offer constructive alternatives towards the end of Christless Christianity as well.  He calls for resistance to the trend identified in this book.  It all has to do with going back to the Word of God and what it says about us, about our ultimate problems, and about the solutions in Christ.  Horton writes:

A church that is deeply aware of its misery and nakedness before a holy God will cling tenaciously to an all-sufficient Savior, while one that is self-confident and relatively unaware of its inherent sinfulness will reach for religion and morality whenever it seems convenient. (p.243).

While this book addresses the “American Church,” I think many of us will recognize the same trends spilling over into Christianity elsewhere, including in Reformed churches everywhere.  Horton’s cry from the heart is one we all need to hear.

I have one slightly critical note regarding Horton’s perspective on worship.  He rightly notes that in much of contemporary American Christianity, people come to church to do something.  “Everybody seems to think that we come to church mostly to give rather than to receive.” (p.191).  Horton seeks to correct this by drawing attention to the ways in which public worship is about God ministering to us.  While this is a helpful correction, some balance is called for and that can be achieved through emphasizing the covenant structure of biblical worship.  Yes, God’s ministry of Word and Sacrament to us stands central in biblical worship, but reflecting the structure of the covenant also means that there’s a place for human response.  Horton has worked with that in A Better Way, but it would have been helpful to have it mentioned here also.

Obviously, my overall assessment is positive.  Five stars, ten out of ten, whatever you wish – this book receives my highest recommendation.  My prayer is that, unlike Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, this book would be entirely irrelevant in 100 years.


A Sometimes Forgotten Figure in Our Church History

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.  Hardcover, 450 pages.

In my corner of the Reformed world, figures in church history are often categorized as heroes or villains.  If you’re either one, you stand a chance of being remembered.  For example, Abraham Kuyper is considered a villain because of the way his views were imposed on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, especially in the 1940s.  Klaas Schilder is a hero because of the way he resisted the imposition of Kuyper’s views.  But if you can’t be neatly categorized, even if you’ve made important contributions, more than likely your name and however God may have used you will be forgotten. 

I’m afraid that’s been the case with Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).  I had a look through my childhood church history textbook, Young People’s History of the Church by W. Meijer (published in Launceston!).  Figures like Schilder and Kuyper dominate.  But Bavinck isn’t mentioned at all, not even once.  P.K. Keizer’s Church History, a textbook for high schools and colleges, doesn’t fare much better.  Bavinck is mentioned once, just in passing.  I first discovered Herman Bavinck in university by reading Cornelius Van Til, the pioneer of Reformed apologetics.  Van Til claimed he wasn’t being all that innovative, just building on what others had done before, and especially Bavinck.

Who was Herman Bavinck?  Without spoiling the book, he was a highly-respected Dutch theologian.  After a short pastorate, he first taught at the seminary of the churches established out of the Secession of 1834.  Bavinck was instrumental in discussions leading up to the Union of 1892, when the churches of the Secession merged with the churches of the Doleantie of 1886.  In 1902 he accepted a position to teach theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.  He was also actively involved in politics, being elected as a senator to the Dutch parliament in 1911.  He wrote dozens of articles and books, the most notable being his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which has been translated into English).         

I’m hopeful that this new biography by James Eglinton will spark renewed interest in this influential figure from our Reformed church history.  While it’s scholarly and careful, it’s also exceptionally readable.  A few years ago, James Bratt published a biography of Abraham Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democratreviewed here).  This too was a scholarly biography, but it suffered from assuming too much about the reader’s prior knowledge of Kuyper’s context.  Eglinton, on the other hand, explains everything well for the reader new to Bavinck.  Eglinton has helpful features, including a map, chronology, and a list of key figures, churches, educational institutions and newspapers.         

This isn’t the first Bavinck biography to appear in English.  In 2010 we saw Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian (my review is here).  Eglinton’s biography is different in that it claims to be a critical approach to Bavinck – “critical” in the sense of being analytical.  Eglinton presents Bavinck as a theologically orthodox believer trying to come to terms with the modern world, a world which began to change radically after 1848. The author doesn’t shy away from some of the weaknesses, inconsistences, or doubts of his subject.  Eglinton also corrects some of the inaccuracies of previous biographers, not only Gleason, but also Dutch biographers such as R.H. Bremmer.  Eglinton does this by going back to the original sources, especially Bavinck’s journals and letters.

As a result of this original research, some new details of Bavinck’s life have emerged.  For example, Eglinton reveals the tragic obsession the young Bavinck had with Amelia den Dekker.  His journals tell the story of his apparently unrequited love for Amelia and how she broke his heart.  These sorts of details fill in more of the human side of Herman Bavinck.

It also becomes clear how Bavinck isn’t easily boxed.  He was a “son of the Secession,” but chose to study at the University of Leiden, a hotbed of theological liberalism.  Bavinck was always confessionally Reformed, yet one of his closest friends was an atheist.  He was a friend and colleague of Abraham Kuyper, yet was publicly and privately critical of Kuyper.  Bavinck edited and republished a classic Reformed theological textbook known as the Leiden Synopsis, but when he wrote his own dogmatics he wasn’t just regurgitating past formulations.      

Readers may also be surprised to discover that Bavinck was ahead of his time on some issues.  For example, Herman Bavinck argued that there was no Scriptural basis on which women should be prevented from voting, whether in society or in the church.  He wasn’t the first to make such arguments, but his voice did carry some heft in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Eglinton adds some context to these views with his fascinating description of Bavinck’s wife Johanna, a woman who certainly had an independent spirit and a sharp mind of her own.       

Scholars of Dutch Reformed church history are lauding this work and rightfully so.  But I’d also highly recommend it to all pastors and church leaders, as well as teachers of church history in Christian schools.  Not only is it informative, but it’s an enjoyable read.  Best of all, it’ll leave you with a more nuanced view of how Christ has been working through complex people to gather, defend and preserve his church.