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Tim Challies

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church history

7 years 5 months ago
Through the past few decades there has been a great resurgence of interest in the Puritans. This resurgence seems to have begun with Martin Lloyd-Jones who would often refer to their works in his sermons. People would then ask “Where can I get these books?” Banner of Truth began to reprint the books and soon other publishers began as well. Today there are so many available to us that few people could afford to buy or shelve even a fraction of them. This choice has led to confusion as many people, intrigued by what they have heard about the Puritans, hardly know where to begin in reading them. Into this void step Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson with their new book Meet the Puritans.

Meet the Puritans is a resource designed to guide people through the reprints of Puritan writings that have been produced since 1956. The book provides “a brief biography of each Puritan author whose works have been reprinted since 1956 and a short review of those books. We hope this will help purchasers of Puritan books, interest other readers in the Puritans, and guide those already immersed in Puritan literature to further depths of study.” It is more a reference book than one you would be likely to read from cover-to-cover, though if you wanted to, you certainly could.

The format of the book is simple. After a Preface explaining how to profit from reading the Puritans, a brief word about where to begin and a brief history of English Puritanism, there comes a long list of authors. Each author has his own chapter containing a short biography and a list of his books that have been reprinted. There is a review of each book along with publishing information and the number of pages. And that is the heart of the book and continues for some 800 pages. Five appendices deal with collections of Puritan writings, Scottish divines, Dutch further Reformation divines, secondary sources on the Puritans and a final word on Puritanism courtesy of J.I. Packer. In short, this is a one-stop-shop for all you could want to know as a beginner to the Puritans. And if you are already a fan of their writing, this book will lead you further and deeper, guiding you to the best books available.

One thing I would like to see in future editions of this book is a more thorough list of the best place to begin in reading the Puritans. The authors do offer a few suggestions, but they are only basic ones. I’d like to see a list of the top ten or twenty books they would recommend. Additionally, it might be nice to have a topical index of sorts, pointing to the best works on a variety of subjects so that a person looking for a Puritan work on worship or sin or other important topics could quickly and easily find the best resources.

Quite simply, if you are interesting in reading the Puritans, this is a guide you won’t want to be without! It is endorsed by a who’s who of Reformed leaders and authors (the back cover alone has endorsements by Sproul, Piper, MacArthur, Packer and Mohler and there are many more inside!) and deservedly so. Best of all, it promises to be a book that will be updated as time goes on and as these great writings continue to be released.

8 years 10 months ago
I could draw up quite a list of reasons why Christians need to study and understand the history of the church. We should study the history of the church so we can understand the development of doctrine and realize that a doctrine like the Trinity was not simply understood by a brief reading of Scripture, but was a doctrine forged in the fire of counsels, battles and excommunications. We should study the history of the church because, as the old adage states, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But I think the most important reason to study church history is to see and appreciate the mighty acts of God in preserving His people through the past two millenia of strife and persecution.

Nick Needham, who pastors a church in London has attempted to carry this theme throughout a series of books on the history of the church. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power is a four-volume series with the first three volumes already published and the fourth due for publication in the near future. The first volume discusses the age of the early church fathers, the second discusses the middle ages, the third discusses the renaisscance and reformation with the final, forthcoming volume bringing the history of the church to the present day.

While the study of church history can easily become laborious, this series is intended to appeal “to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating to be introduced to men and women who loved and served the same Saviour that he loves and serves.” Of course those who have already studied the history of the church will still find plenty of deep and interesting content.

So how well does Needham succeed in his goal? Having now read the first volume I found he did an excellent job of making a complicated era of the church’s history both interesting and understandable. This is surely no small task! The book is written in an appealing fashion and clearly targetted at people with little prior knowledge of the subject. The format is primarily chronological and each chapter concludes with a section of primary sources where the author provides short readings from the works of the historical figures just discussed. Words and concepts are well-defined and the book includes a helpful glossary. All of these factors work to make this a very accessible volume that will benefit any adult or teenager.

I do have a few small concerns with the book. It was clear to me that the author was generally attempting to describe history without interpreting it or commenting on it. Having said that, I would have found it helpful to have him expend some effort in comparing the development of doctrine in this age with Protestant doctrine as we know it today. While at times it was clear to see how theology began to drift away from biblical orthodoxy, at other times it was more difficult to understand how the failings of the early church fathers contributed to much of the incorrect doctrine that flourished at least until the time of the Reformation and in many cases continues to flourish in our day. It would also have been helpful if the author had defined the word “great” which he uses quite regularly. I was unsure if he used the word to describe a person’s contribution to the history of the church or if he used it in a more subjective sense to indicate his agreement with that person’s contributions. Finally, at times it seemed to me that the author was endorsing some of the figures who seemed to have drifted far from orthodoxy and even far from the gospel. This was especially true as time progressed and more of those who considered themselves Christians drifted farther from the foundations laid by the Lord and His apostles.

Those concerns aside, this book gave me a deeper understanding of the early history of church and helped me understand the graciousness of God in continuing to preserve and strengthen the church. It helped me understand the historical foundations for many of the doctrines that we too-often take for granted today. I have no trouble recommending it and I look forward to reading the subsequent volumes.

  Evaluation Support
Theology/Accuracy
Generally strong, though the theology is more descriptive and prescriptive.
Readability
Should make for enjoyable reading for both adults and teens.
Uniqueness
Unique in its wide appeal and accessibility.
Importance
It is critically important that we understand the history of the church.
  Overall
Quite a good book and one I’m glad to recommend.
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9 years 2 months ago

I wonder if it has always been true that when people write about the church they write with sadness, lamenting what the church has become or is becoming. In our day we have the church growth advocates bemoaning the fact that not enough churches engage in full-scale marketing of their churches; we have the Emergent Church leaders lamenting the church’s refusal to adapt to and engage with the changing culture; and we have conservatives calling us to return to the pillars of faith the church once held dear.

I, sometimes reluctantly, find myself predominantly in the third camp, though I sometimes also wonder if we really are doing so poorly. Philip Graham Ryken is also clearly in the third camp. He assumed the pastorate of Ten Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia after the death of James Boice with whom he co-authored the wonderful book The Doctrines of Grace. As if to prove his allegiance, he subtitled this book “Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the 21st Century.” As with leaders of the other camps, Ryken examines the culture and seeks to find ways in which the church can fulfill it’s God-given mandate to be a city on a hill.

This book began with a ministry retreat in early 1999 in which Ryken and the leadership of his church engaged in discussion about being a church that could successfully fulfill God’s mandate in the post-Christian 21st century. When he succeeded Boice as pastor of Tenth, Ryken began his ministry by preaching a series of sermons on the seven committments of his church’s mission statement. These messages form the basis for the book. Because of this they do read a little bit like sermons (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

City on a Hill begins with an introduction to postmodernism. Ryken identifies these post-Christian times as being characterized by relativism and narcissism. In order to combat those forces and to be a remedy to society, the church needs to return to the model of the 1st century church - a church that was modelled on teaching, worshiping and caring. These three forces, when combined, caused the church to grow. Ryken identifies seven objectives for the church: expository preaching, worthy worship, Bible study and fellowship, pastoral care, educational programs, missionary work and service to the church and community. Each of these objectives forms a chapter in the book.

While these objectives are hardly unique, and could as easily be found in a book written by John MacArthur or any of the other Reformed or conservative church leaders, Ryken does something that gives this book great value. He shows how relativism and narcissism negatively impacts each of these seven objectives, and also shows how returning to the biblical model can be an antidote to the influences that pervade our culture. For example, he teaches that in a post-Christian culture, worship becomes less about Scripture, and less about honoring God, while becoming predominantly about the individual. Church becomes a place where needs are met rather than a place where God is worshiped. He teaches that we need a theology of worship to guide our practice so that we can avoid society’s negative influences. In the fifth chapter, which deals with pastoral care, the author teaches that “the revolt against the mata-narrative helps explain why people are so resistant to the gospel. Christianity has a story to tell. It claims to be the story, the story of humanity…However in these post-Christian times, people don’t want to listen to God’s story; they want to make up their own. When they read the script of salvation, they discover that it’s all about God and His glory. But they were hoping to play a bigger part. Hence the postmodern revolt against the meta-narrative, which is really a rebellion against the authority of God” (page 94).

Ryken determines that if we are wise, “we will recommit ourselves to expository preaching, God-centered worship, loving fellowship, pastoral care, costly discipleship, global evangelism, and practical compassion. But none of this will matter unless we recognize our need - our daily need - for the gospel. The church can only be a city on a hill if it confesses its sin and trusts in the crucifixion, resurrection, and intercession of Jesus Christ for any hope of salvation” (page 179).

For the church to succeed in its ministry during the post-Christian era, it must take care that it presents a biblical alternative to the forces of society, all the while ensuring that it does not accomodate them. When church does what it is called to do - to be a city on a hill; a light shining in the darkness - it will give the world what it most needs - the message of life and salvation in and through Jesus Christ.

This is a book that is sure to challenge the reader. It is consistently biblical, returning constantly to the Word of God. It calls the church to return not to the model of the twentieth century, but the model given to us in the Bible. I enjoyed this book and recommend it to others.

  Evaluation Support
Theology/Accuracy
The theology is strong and accurate throughout.
Readability
It is quite easy to read, though it assumes knowledge of the Bible and the church.
Uniqueness
I know of several similar books, but this one stands out among them.
Importance
This is quite an important book. Ryken writes about cultural issues that are not often enough addressed.
  Overall
I recommend this to anyone concerned about being a biblical church for the 21st century.
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9 years 6 months ago
If evangelicals wish to take stock of where they are now and what the future of the church holds, they must look to the past and understand from where it is they have come. Evangelicalism Divided by Iain Murray, would be a perfect place to start, for it is a record of the changes that took place in the American and British churches in the years 1950 to 2000. It records the rise of influences and influencers that ultimately changed the course of evangelicalism.

The book begins with an examination of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and the theology of experience that influenced so many. The God of Schleiermacher was a mere man, and one who bore little resemblance to the God of the Bible. To defend God against criticism, Schleiermacher redefined Christianity as mere subjectivity and not an objective Truth. This stunning departure from Scripture provides a foundation for many beliefs that later gained prominence in evangelicalism.

Having set the scene, Murray begins to examine many of the men and organizations that have directly shaped contemporary evangelicalism. He speaks of Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, John Stott and organizations such as Inter Varsity. While he is unafraid to name names, he avoids slander and conjecture, always speaking in love and always providing ample support for his claims. He writes about controversies in the Church of England during the sixties, about the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). He writes also of controversy regarding how we ought to define a Christian and how we ought to define the church. Having thoroughly examined the modern history of evangelicalism, he raises questions and concerns about the present. The general conclusions he reaches are as follows:

  • The history of the new evangelicalism has shown how difficult it is to remedy the faults of one position without falling into dangers at the opposite extreme.
  • A great deal of the confusion which has divided evangelicalism has been related to the question, “Who is a Christian?”
  • The church cannot succeed in the same way in which political parties may succeed.
  • The period of history confirms the painful fact that there can be serious differences of belief and consequent controversies among true Christians.
  • The history of this period shows how hard it is for leaders to look in different directions at once.
  • The struggles and hopes of Christians are not to be understood in terms of the present and the temporal.

In short, Murray concludes that evangelicalism, as we know it today, has been unduly influenced by Schleiermacher. What is particularly amazing is that so few evangelical leaders know or care.

While this is sobering, we should not be discouraged or dismayed. Murray concludes, “At almost all times in history the kingdom of God has appeared to be in confusion to the outward eye. It is faith in the promises of God which provides a different perspective. The Holy Spirit assures us that infinite wisdom and love are presently directing the life of the church and that eternity will be witness to their success when a multitude which no man can number will be glorified with Christ” (page 317).

This book is fascinating, disturbing and critically important. I hope many evangelical pastors and leaders turn to this book to help them understand where evangelicals have come from so they can make necessary course corrections to lead where we need to go next. I give this book my recommendation.

9 years 6 months ago
Few figures in history cause such heated debate as Oliver Cromwell. The Cromwell Association says rightly that “since his death as Lord Protector in 1658, Cromwell’s life, ambitions, motives and actions have been the subject of scholarly investigation and intense, often vitriolic, debate. Whatever position is taken on Cromwell, ‘Chief of Men’ or ‘Brave Bad Man’, his importance as a key figure in one of the most troubled periods of British history is unassailable.” Within the church there has also been debate about Cromwell as believers try to discern if Cromwell was a great Christian figure or one who merely operated under the guise of Christian ideals. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes of Cromwell “That great period during Cromwell’s Protectorate…was one of the most amazing epochs in the whole history of [England]. To me it was certainly one of the most glorious…Oliver Cromwell is a man whom we do not honour as we should.” One of the oldest volumes in my library is one entitled simply Cromwell that was written by the great church historian J.H. Merle D’Aubigne in the first half of the nineteenth century. D’Aubigne says that the object of his work is “the rectification of the common opinion with regard to Cromwell’s religious character.” The way D’Aubigne proposed to rectify the common opinion of Cromwell’s religious character is much the same as Michael Haykin has done in the contemporary volume To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell - he has allowed Cromwell’s words to speak for themselves. As D’Aubigne says, “it is not we who ought, in this day, to justify the great Protector; he should justify himself; and fortunately authentic and authoritative testimony is not wanting for this purpose.”

To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell is primarily a collection of Cromwell’s letters, excerpts from his speeches, and even deathbed utterances. There is a brief introduction to Cromwell, but apart from that, the rest of the volume is dedicated to Cromwell’s words. Haykin provides some brief commentary and explanation for each of Cromwell’s writings, but only as much as is necessary to provide historical context, Biblical references, or explanation of words that are no longer in use.

Here is a sample of what you will find in this volume. This is a letter “For my very loving Brother, Richard Maijor, Esquire.”

Dear Brother,

…I hope you give my son good counsel; I believe he needs it. He is in the dangerous time of his age, and it’s a very vain world. O, how good it is to close with Christ betimes; there is nothing else worth the looking after. I beseech you call upon him. I hope you will discharge my duty and your own love; you see how I am employed. I need pity. I know what I feel. Great place and business in the world is not worth the looking after; I should have no comfort in mine but that my hope is in the Lord’s presence. I have not sought these things; truly I have been called unto them by the Lord, and therefore am not without some assurance that he will enable his poor worm and weak servant to do his will, and to fulfil my generation. In this I beg your prayers.

Here is another brief excerpt from the close of a letter of encouragement and admonition addressed to his son Harry. “If the Lord did not sustain me, I were undone; but I have, and I shall live, to the good pleasure of his grace. I find mercy at need. The God of all glory keep you.” Another of my favorite letters was one he penned to his wife in which he affirmed that he prays for her and their children daily, and seeks her prayers on his behalf.

Having read this book and having understood the words penned by Cromwell, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than that this man was a believer - a man who, in Puritan fashion, understood his own depravity, but took great comfort in God’s grace. I realize, too, that there is far more to Cromwell than what is presented in these pages. He was a man as corrupted by sin as any of us, and faced with far greater temptations and responsibilities than most. D’Aubigne cautions that “in studying the life of Cromwell, the reader will undoubtedly have frequent reason to bear in mind the saying of Holy Scripture, In many things we offend all.” However, Cromwell deserves to be understood in the light of his dedication to the Lord, for as Lloyd-Jones has said, perhaps he is a man “whom we do not honour as we should.” I will close with more of the words of D’Aubigne, who says that after having examined the evidence “we are compelled, unless we shut our eyes to the truth, to change our opinion of him, and to acknowledge that the character hitherto attached to this great man is one of the grossest falsehoods in all history.”

9 years 11 months ago

There are more biographies devoted to Charles Spurgeon than to just about any other Christian figure. The first were written before his death (including his own autobiography) and hundreds have been written since. In the two years following his death, new biographies were published at the rate of one per month! One would be justified in asking, then, why we need another one. Arnold Dallimore answers this question in the preface, saying that in his studies he discovered no definitive volume. He found, for example, that no other biography gave a satisfactory account of Spurgeon’s ability as a theologian or the methods he used in leading souls to Christ. Also, his character was often made to appear weaker than it really was. And so Dallimore sought to remedy these faults in his volume which was first published in 1984.

I quote again from the preface: “I trust that, at least to some extent, this book provides a more satisfactory account of the great Spurgeon…I have endeavored to understand and present something of the inner man – Spurgeon in his praying, his sufferings and depressions, his weaknesses and strengths, in his triumphs, his humor, his joys, and his incredible accomplishments.”

Dallimore succeeds admirably. He presents Spurgeon as more than a great and powerful preacher. He presents him as a man who was the product of a long line of believers, a man whose life was filled with struggles and a man who emerged victorious. Above all, we see a man who was specially gifted by God and used those gifts to the fullest. Spurgeon’s legacy is nearly immeasurable in souls won, in faith strengthened and in his influence over other preachers. He truly earned his title as the Prince of Preachers.

While not a definitive treatment of Spurgeon’s life (it weighs in at a mere 244 pages while other biographies have been many times that length), this book is a wonderful starting place to learn to appreciate one of God’s most humble servants. As with any good Christian biography, this book will serve to strengthen your faith and will turn your thoughts not to the man, but to the God to whom the man dedicated his life. I give it my wholehearted recommendation.