Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.


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.