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Tim Challies

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4 years 2 months ago
I love biography. That’s probably the tenth time I’ve begun a review with those words, yet it’s no less true now than the first time I penned them. The more I read of biography, the more I am enamored with it and the more I see just how valuable it is to my life and faith.

I was in Virginia recently, spending a week on vacation. I decided the occasion merited a biography of a Virginian. That led me to choose between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In the end Jackson won in a shootout. I turned to the epic work by James Robertson. Written in 1997, this biography remains the definitive word on Jackson. I can’t imagine how it will ever be equaled.

Over the years Jackson has been variously portrayed as a great general and a great Christian. It seems that few biographers have managed to do equal justice to the two most notable emphases of this extraordinary man. On the one hand he was a brilliant military strategist who time and again relied on speed and surprise to catch his enemy off-guard. On the other hand, he was a man who deeply loved the Lord and who cherished his relationship with the Savior. He was a man who suffered much from his earliest days to his final days. Fatherless at two, orphaned at seven, he also witnessed the death of two of his siblings, two of his children and his first wife. Some of his closest friends died and he was estranged from others by the war that devastated his nation. Yet through it all Jackson remained absolutely fixed upon the firm foundation of God’s sovereignty. Always he placed his trust in God and always he sought to submit himself to God’s will and to delight in God’s providence.

The facts of Jackson’s life are well-known so I will forego those to comment instead on the lessons I’ve learned from Jackson and to comment on what makes this biography so sublime.

Determination. I saw in Jackson the importance of determination, of being very serious about life. He determined that he could be whatever he would resolve to be. He was determined to rise above his circumstances and to make something of himself. Yet this would be difficult for a poor orphan boy. Throughout life, whether it was in the classroom, the sanctuary or in social situations, he was determined to do better, to honor God. And by God’s grace and by sheer determination, he did so, getting better and better at just about everything he put his mind to.

Love.  Jackson sought to obey Romans 12:16 which says “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He was not too proud to work with slaves, the lowest of the low. In fact, he loved them as brothers and sisters and treated them with dignity. He was a man of his time, a person who could tolerate slavery even if he did not really approve of it. It is easy to portray him as some kind of a monster for having slaves. And yet we can’t deny his love for them, his desire to treat them well and to see them become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Trust. Jackson had total confidence in the will of God and the goodness of God. He knew the character of God and allowed that to be his starting point. He didn’t allow his pain to redraw the character of God so that God was shaped by pain and suffering. Instead, he knew and loved God and allowed God to speak, to comfort, to console him in pain. He studied God and walked with God in the good times so that his hope was firm in times of sorrow. Not only this, but he saw God’s sovereign hand in everything. Whether things went well or poorly, he saw God’s hand in it and willingly submitted himself.

Prayer. Jackson was a man of prayer. He prayed all the time. He would pray before battles and during battles, often holding his hands up in prayer, asking God to bless and protect his men. He would rise in the night, even when he had had very little sleep and he would pray. He was never too busy to pray. He would go to services held by his chaplains and pray with them. He prayed with his wife and prayed over his daughter. He never grew tired of prayer and always saw the need for it. He was a true prayer warrior who would do nothing, make no important decision, without taking it before God. He had a right assessment of both himself and God and knew the utter importance of being on his knees.

These are at least some of the lessons I’ve learned from his life, lessons I hope to apply to my own life.

As for what makes Robertson’s biography so sublime, well, that is an easy one. It is simply that I could glean all of this. In a biography about a general, a military man, I was able to peer deeply into his life to see not just his accomplishments on the battlefield, but more importantly, the heart of the man, the Christian character of the man. Robertson showed his subject at this best and worst, at home and on the battlefield. This is one of those biographies where to read it is to meet the subject. Jackson was a multifaceted individual and Robertson portrays him in all of his complexity.

I think this may well be the best biography I’ve ever read and if not that, it’s the one I’ve enjoyed reading the most. I enjoyed it so much that I followed it with three other books on Jackson: Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims (a good look at the principles through which he sought to improve himself), Beloved Bride: The Letters of Stonewall Jackson to His Wife (enjoyable, but read the biography first) and Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend (an excellent look at Jackson’s faith and his relationship to blacks, both slave and free). Whether or not you are interested in Jackson’s military accomplishments, you will still find great value in reading about his life and learning from his faith, his trust, his determination, his love. Though by no means a perfect man, he is a man who showed clear evidence of his love for the Lord and his desire to honor him in all of life. And in that way, his life can serve as a lesson to any of us.

4 years 6 months ago
I have been waiting a long time for this book. Published last year by Intervarsity Press, The Unquenchable Flame was initially released only in Europe. It has taken until now for it to make its way to North America, courtesy of Broadman & Holman who secured the rights for this side of the ocean. The book is, quite simply, an introduction to the Reformation. That puts it in the company of plenty of similar titles, but this one is unique in its accessibility and its liveliness. Michael Reeves tells the story of the Reformation and he does so in a way that is really and truly enjoyable.

So what is there to say about the book’s content? It is, after all, a 180-page account of a well-known period of history. There are no great surprises here—no new theories, no new facts that have been recently uncovered. It is just a straightforward telling of the Reformation. Reeves begins by setting the stage in the medieval era, telling of the state of the medieval church and introducing the pre-Reformers Wycliffe and Hus. He also introduces Erasmus and discusses that man’s unique contribution to all that would follow.

Subsequent chapters focus on Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, the British and Scottish Reformers and the Puritans. It concludes with a chapter asking, “Is the Reformation Over?” Here Reeves looks to a book by that title and concludes that the doctrinal divide at the heart of the Reformation persists; there can be no reconciliation between Protestantism and Catholicism. In fact, what we need is more reformation, not less.

The state of things today testifies, as loud as ever, to the need for reformation. The doctrine of justification is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrong-headed or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised, just that—given up or compromised. And it is not just new readings of the Bible. A culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification therefore unnecessary today.

It is important, then, that we, the heirs of this great Reformation legacy, know our history and understand our roots. Not only will this help us from falling back into the very errors that were corrected at so great a cost, but it will also give us courage to continue in the ongoing work of reformation. To know our history is to know ourselves and to plot our future.

The “Further Reading” section Reeves includes at the back of the book is very helpful to this end, offering excellent suggestions for further study on each of the main topics he covers. It offers suggested reading that spans genres from history and biography to personal growth and devotion.

Well-written and enjoyable, The Unquenchable Flame has an element missing from so many dry histories and especially introductory histories—it has character. With occasional dashes of wry or ironic humor and through a decidedly non-academic telling of this great moment in history, Michael Reeves has written an excellent introduction to the Reformation. Mark Dever declares it “quite simply, the best brief introduction to the Reformation I have read.” And I am inclined to agree. The Unquenchable Flame is a book you will want to add to your collection.

5 years 2 weeks ago
It is here at last. For years now I have been waiting for a great biography of Calvin—the kind of biography which I would recommend without hesitation for those who would want to learn about the life of the great Reformer. In a year that has seen the arrival of at least half a dozen biographies of Calvin, this one, I believe, stands as the best. Written by Bruce Gordon, professor of Reformation History at Yale University, it is titled simply and properly, Calvin.

Biographies of figures as controversial as John Calvin tend to be written by unabashed fans or ardent enemies. There is a lot of biography that reads like hagiography and a lot that reads like pure slander. This was the case with Calvin himself and his earliest biographers—either they were his closest confidants, singing his highest praises or they were men who feared and despised him, fabricating outrageous charges against him (such as Jerome Bolsec who, ten years after Calvin’s death, wrote an account of the Reformer’s life in which he accused him of sodomy and suggested that he had died from crab lice). Even today, many of the biographies seem to focus undue attention on Calvin’s great accomplishments without wrestling with his notable faults and foibles. This new biography is an exception as Gordon writes from a position of notable objectivity. He seems a little bit detached from his subject, almost as if he has had to become a somewhat-grudging admirer of Calvin through immersing himself in the man’s life. Throughout the book he is willing to credit Calvin for what he did so well but he is also willing to call a spade a spade, whether that means pointing out pride or temper or youthful arrogance.

The greatest strength of Calvin may be the author’s deep knowledge of the time in which his subject lived. He sets Calvin firmly in his political, religious and cultural context, expending great effort in showing how Calvin was, in so many ways, a product of his time. This allows Gordon, a student of the Reformation even more than he is a Calvin scholar, to draw the reader into the time and the life of his subject in a way that none of the other biographies have been able to do. He also draws widely from Calvin’s writing, introducing lesser-known works and drawing often on his voluminous correspondence. In this way it is a more well-rounded account of Calvin than others and one that is also deeper.

I tend to measure successful biographies in one of two ways: either they teach me a lot about the subject and the context of his life or they make me feel as if I’ve met the subject himself (with the very occasional sublime biography doing both). Gordon’s Calvin falls firmly in the former camp. I did not feel like I knew Calvin himself at the end of this book, but I certainly did understand the man better, especially as I came to understand the religious and political climate he was born into and the even more complex climate he helped create.

In my opinion, this is the best biography of John Calvin to date. If you haven’t ever read a life of Calvin, this will be the place to start. And even if you’ve read each of the other biographies available, I am convinced that by reading this one you will gain a richer understanding of the man and the complex times in which he lived. I highly recommend it.

 

5 years 3 months ago
I wonder what Calvin would have said, what he would have thought, if he could have peered five centuries into the future and seen how he would be honored on the five hundredth anniversary of his birth. Several new biographies; a long list of conferences; books discussing every aspect, every facet of his theology; a bobblehead; and now The Betrayal, a novel that recounts his life as historical fiction.

The Betrayal, published by P&R Publishing, comes from the pen of Douglas Bond who has written several historical fiction novels in the past. In this new book, he writes from the perspective of a lifelong sworn enemy of Calvin—a boy who grows up in the same town and who, as a man, remains involved with Calvin’s life to the very end. As the publisher says, “This fast-paced biographical novel is a tale of envy that escalates to violent intrigue and shameless betrayal.” I hesitate to say too much about the plot lest I inadvertently ruin it for those who would like to read the book. Perhaps there is value, then, in simply sharing a few of the endorsements for it.

Burk Parsons, editor of John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, Doxology says, “With masterful insight, Douglas Bond offers us an illuminating portrait of the life, ministry, and theology of John Calvin. For readers of all ages, this well-researched, historical fiction takes us back to the sixteenth-century Reformation as if we were eye-witnesses of all that God accomplished in and through the life of His humble servant John Calvin. If you enjoy reading the fictional works of C. S. Lewis, you will love this book.”

Joel Beeke, who has written several books on Calvin and Calvinism writes, “Douglas Bond introduces John Calvin to us in a gripping way, colorfully taking us back to Geneva and its times, unveiling Calvin as the principled man of action, commitment, and love that he was. The Betrayal makes for an exciting read, showing the great Reformer’s heart for theology, piety, and doxology, while almost effortlessly and implicitly undoing caricatures about Calvin along the way. If you want Calvin and his times brought to life in a page-turner, this is the book for you!”

And David Hall, who heads up Calvin500, writes “Douglas Bond’s latest novel introduces many to a prejudicially ignored character: John Calvin. This historical fiction brings Calvin back from an unwarranted oblivion. Thanks to Bond’s vivid writing style and thorough acquaintance with the period, readers now have a looking glass into the life and history of a great man. I am pleased to commend this fine book to readers, especially those who will meet Calvin in these pages just in time for the 500th anniversary of his birth.”

As for me, well, I’ll be honest and say that I read fiction only on rare occasions and my preference would always be to read a standard biography over a historical novel. However, I do know that a lot of readers prefer fiction and for these people, I think The Betrayal will be a great way of getting a useful overview of Calvin’s life. I was sometimes amazed at just how much of Calvin’s life is present in this book but never in such a way that the novel becomes bogged down in irrelevant details. Bond has done a great job of integrating reality with fiction so the reader will hardly know when one begins and the other ends.

If you are a fan of novels or of historical fiction, and if you are anxious to learn a little bit about John Calvin, this man who is so fondly remembered even five hundred years after his birth, you cannot go far wrong in reading The Betrayal.

5 years 5 months ago
There are not too many men whose five hundredth birthday is a cause for remembrance, not to mention celebration. Yet here we are, five hundred years after the birth of John Calvin, witnessing widespread celebration of his birth. This year we see many conferences dedicated to understanding Calvin’s impact on the church and on society, even centuries later, and we see the publication of many books looking at the man and his theology. It strikes me as a strange oversight that we do not yet have a definitive biography of Calvin (as Marsden has done for Edwards, as Dallimore has done for Whitefield, as Murray has done for Lloyd-Jones, and so on) and I am hoping that this year will end the drought—that by year’s end we will have that one biography that will stand for many years as the definitive life of Calvin. With several biographies set for release in 2009, one would think this ought to be the year.

Into the fray steps Robert Godfrey with John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. He begins by saying “Today for many people the name of John Calvin is known only in a vague sense and has become a label for attitudes that are negative, judgmental, and joyless. Historians, by contrast, know that John Calvin was one of the most remarkable men who lived in the last five hundred years and that his influence on the development of the modern western world has been immense.” Indeed, Calvin’s influence is felt in the rise of democracy, capitalism and even in modern science. “The life and work of John Calvin have always been controversial as well as influential. Some have loved him, and some have hated him. All would agree that he was a man with a brilliant mind and a powerful will who had a profound impact on the development of western civilization. But was the impact positive or negative?” Even among Christians, many of whom have no sense of the debt they owe Calvin, many see the negative much more than the positive. Everyone has an opinion about Calvin but one wonders how many of these opinions are based on fact.

Even in his own day Calvin was loved by some and hated by others. Even in his own day he was a figure of great controversy. Yet, as Godfrey points out, he did not set out to be controversial or to be a figure of great renown. “The real Calvin was not in the first place a man who lived to influence future generations. Rather he was a spiritual pilgrim finding anew the apostolic Christianity expressed in the Bible and serving as a faithful minister of that Word in the church of his day. The influence that Calvin would have regarded as most important was as a purifier of the Christian religion and a reformer of the church for his day. The essential Calvin was a pilgrim and pastor. From that reality all his influence flowed.” This book is “an introduction to the life and thought of John Calvin,” a man who lived out his faith as both a pilgrim and a pastor.

Though the book introduces Calvin’s life and his thought, it focuses primarily on the latter. The first few chapters, along with the final one, give that overview of his life. It looks to the outline we tend to be familiar with—his “fateful” journey from France to Strassburg and his meeting there with William Farel who convinced Calvin that he must stay; his initial ministry in Geneva and his eventual banishment; his short ministry in Strassburg; and the rest of his career after returning from his exile and taking up again his ministry in Geneva.

The bulk of the book describes Calvin’s theology. Some of this theology is woven into biography, but in many cases it stands alone. Godfrey focuses on topics such as the church and worship, predestination, sacraments, city and schools, and Calvin as pastoral counselor. He describes each well, looking primarily at how Calvin formulated his thoughts and his theology in each of these areas. He looks often to Calvin’s writings, the Institutes, his sermons and his voluminous personal correspondence. I feel that the chapter on Calvin as Pastoral Counselor is particularly important to those who would seek to understand Calvin as something other than the caricature so many present. Here we see a man who had a pastor’s heart and who was eager to bless and encourage others. He shows himself to be a far cry from the angry tyrant that so many present him as. Godfrey clearly has an exhaustive knowledge of Calvin and in this book he conveys it in a way that is at once deep and accessible.

In the end analysis, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor is more of a life and theology than a life and times. Perhaps history has not recorded enough about Calvin’s life that we can construct the kind of biography that would be the equal of Marsden’s Edwards or Dallimore’s Whitefield. We will continue to wait and see. But I do not wish to criticize this book for what it is not and, perhaps, what it cannot be. This is, after all, a very good overview of Calvin’s life as well as a description and assessment of his theology. What it seeks to do, it does very well and it is well worth the read. As you close the back cover, you will know more about Calvin the man, more about Calvin the theologian, and more about Calvin’s influence in history. And I suspect, even if you cannot agree with all of his theology, you’ll thank God for raising up the right man at the right time. Calvin is one of those rare men who deserves to be remembered, even on his five hundredth birthday.

5 years 7 months ago
This is the year of John Calvin. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of his birth, many ministries are holding conferences to discuss his life and impact and many Christian publishers are releasing biographies of the man who did so much to form the Christian faith and the Western world. Reformation Heritage Books has taken a unique route by producing a biography targeted at children from ages 7 to 10. Written by Simonetta Carr and illustrated by Emanuele Taglietti, the book combines the story of Calvin’s life with excellent watercolor illustrations.

The publisher describes the book in this way: “In this attractive volume, Simonetta Carr introduces young readers to the life, thought, and work of one of the most famous Reformers of the Christian church. Readers will come to know Calvin’s personality, his devotion to God and the church, and the personal challenges he faced. They will understand the struggles of the early Reformed church faced at that time, not only surviving attacks of the Roman Catholic Church, but also achieving a clear identity and a unified doctrine.”

Calvin

In just about sixty pages, this book gives a brief overview of Calvin’s life, from the cultural and religious setting into which he was born, through his education and training, his years of writing and ministry, and his death. The author discusses not just Calvin’s life but also his impact, including his influence on the religious liberties codified in the American Constitution. It concludes with some suggestions for children who may wish to learn more about Calvin and with a series of interesting facts about the day in which Calvin lived. There are original watercolor illustrations or relevant photographs on just about every page.

Calvin

This is a very good little biography of Calvin and one that does a very good job of speaking to its targeted age group. It easily held the attention of my six year-old and nine year-old children as I read it all in one sitting (though my two year-old fell asleep before I had completed the first page). It led to some interesting questions and answers afterward, as we discussed persecution, martyrdom and a life lived for God’s glory. The children seemed to enjoy the book a lot. I would recommend this book to any parent who is interested in introducing his children to the life and times of a great Christian of days past. I am hoping that this is just the first in a series of similar books.

5 years 8 months ago
Faith Cook is beginning to make her mark as a Christian biographer. While she has compiled short biographies of hymn writers and other noteworthy believers, more notably she has completed several lengthy biographies of such subjects as Selina, Countess of Huntingdon; Lady Jane Grey; and William Grimshaw. And now, in her latest book, Fearless Pilgrim, she chronicles the life of John Bunyan.

It is interesting that the best-selling biography of Bunyan continues to be Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan’s autobiography. While there is no doubt that it is a classic in its own right, this book may not satiate the reader’s desire to learn about Bunyan’s life. It is not strictly chronological and at times and is perhaps not what we expect from a biography today. It is worth reading, to be sure, but there is much more to learn from Bunyan’s life than what he reveals about himself. And so Faith Cook, like many biographers before her, steps in to fill that void.

Bunyan’s name is nearly synonymous with The Pilgrim’s Progress, his greatest work. But his legacy extends through other classics like Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and The Holy War. He was an amazingly prolific writer who produced scores of books, papers and other works. Many of these works were produced during the long years he spent in prison for refusing to relent from sharing the gospel. Others were written in the depths of great pain over the death of his first wife or his favored daughter. Few were written without the presence of some pain or trial.

But there was more to Bunyan than his pen. Though he had only very little formal education, he was also a pastor and one who was known across the nation for his powerful, gospel-focused, biblical preaching. No less than the great Puritan John Owen said to the king, “May it please your Majesty, if I could possess the tinker’s abilities to grip men’s hearts, I would gladly give in exchange all my learning.” Cook does well to write about all aspects of Bunyan’s life without losing herself in his books. And she does well to share the fascinating historical events that unfolded around Bunyan—the wars and revolutions that forever changed the face of England and which gave him hardship, freedom, and then more hardship and more freedom. He lived in tumultuous times and this biography gives a sense of the unique challenges he faced as a Christian in seventeenth century England.

As with most of the books published by Evangelical Press, I wish the publisher had chosen a different font. If you’ve read works by EP, you know the font they use—one that is oddly angular and perhaps too modern, too different. Meanwhile, extended quotes are in Papyrus, a font that is a strange choice as it can be quite difficult to read in any quantity. And then there is the cover. The book has a strange cover and one that seems rather disconnected from the subject matter. While Bunyan is there, he is in the background with children running in front and an elderly woman looking at his portrait. I do not know what the cover is trying to communicate (and neither do others I’ve asked). This is too bad, I think, as potential readers may be more likely to take the book seriously if it had a more dignified cover.

And it deserves one. This is a fantastic biography—one that is well-written and nicely paced. It could so easily have bogged down through discussions of Bunyan’s voluminous writings, but Cook does an excellent job of saying only what needs to be said and allowing the book to move along. One endorsement of this book suggests that it is Cook’s best book yet. Though I have not read all of her works, I’d be inclined to agree. This is a very good biography and one that is worthy of a place on your bookshelf.

5 years 9 months ago

Marriage is under attack in our day; there is little doubt about it. We need only look to the divorce rates among professed Christians to see that believers have been far from immune from the spirit of this age. In his new book The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers, Michael Haykin says that “reading expressions of love from the past can be a helpful way of responding to the frangibility of Christian marriage in our day.” And so he offers a collection, a small anthology, of letters from husbands to wives and wives to husbands—letters that share the beauty of the gift that is marriage.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow start with letters from Martin Luther and John Calvin. Luther’s letters to his wife Katherine display more of a strange sense of humor than a passionate love for his wife while Calvin’s, which are actually letters to others after the death of his wife, show a man who grieves for the wife he both loved and respected, but who reveals little about that love. However, Haykin states that he included these letters to combat the common but false perception that Calvin was a dour man who lacked passion. The next letter is one from Lucy Hutchinson to her children, telling them of the love she shared with their father, John, a Puritan military commander.

The book continues and grows increasingly interesting chapter-after-chapter. There are letters between Phillip and Mercy Doddridge, Thomas and Sally Charles, Samuel and Sally Pearce, and others. Allow me a moment to share a few of my favorite excerpts.

On the first day of a new year, Adoniram Judson writes Ann, his wife-to-be of the life that awaits them on the mission field:

May this be the year in which you will change your name; in which you will take final leave of your relatives and native land; in which you will cross the wide ocean, and dwell on the other side of the world, among a heathen people. What a great change will this year probably effect in our lives! How very different will be our situation and employment!! If our lives are preserved and our attempt prospered, we shall next new year’s day be in India, and perhaps wish each other a happy new year in the uncouth dialect of Hindostan or Burma. We shall no more see our kind friends round us, or enjoy the conveniences of civilized life, or go to the house of God with those that keep holy day; but swarthy countenances will everywhere meet our eye, the jargon of an unknown tongue will assail our ears, and we shall witness the assembling of heathen to celebrate the worship of idol gods. We shall be weary of the world, and wish for wings like a dove, that we may fly away and be at rest. We shall probably experience seasons when we shall be “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” We shall see many dreary, disconsolate hours, and feel a sinking of spirits, anguish of mind, of which now we can form little conception. O, we shall wish to lie down and die. And that time may soon come. One of us may be unable to sustain the heat of the climate and the change of habits; and the other may say, with literal truth, over the grave:
By foreign hands the dying eyes were closed;
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed;
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned.

Here is a brief portion of quite a lengthy letter from John Broadus to his wife Lottie (Charlotte):

Lottie, it is possible—of course it is—that I may not see you anymore. Four weeks, four weeks and I may have ceased to breathe. So I’ll tell you right now, here in the still night, in the room where at this hour we have often fallen asleep together, in the house where I first won your timid consent to be my bride, that I love you more now than ever before, more and more every year of the five—that I love you as much as I ever loved any other, or ever could have learned to love anyone that lives.

Lottie, won’t you love me too—don’t you? Won’t you pour all the wealth of your woman’s love, undoubting, without any reserve, into my bosom, and let it flood my soul with sweetness? Won’t you unlock every recess of your heart, and let all its affections rush forth in one rich, full tide of love? Won’t you forgive [me] if I have sometimes been exacting, apparently neglectful—won’t you forget that you have ever yielded to one moment’s skepticism about my love—won’t you just surrender your whole heart to trustful and joyful affection for your lover and your husband?

Some of these letters reveal an aspect to a person that may seem surprising or unexpected. Here is such a letter from Martyn Lloyd-Jones to his wife Bethan:

My dear Bethan,

Thank you for your letter of this morning, though I am very angry that you should have been up till 11.30 p.m. writing it! I see that you are quite incorrigible! The idea that I shall become used to being without you is really funny. I could speak for a long time on the subject. As I have told you many, many times, the passing of the years does nothing but deepen and intensify my love for you. When I think of those days in London in 1925 and ‘26, when I thought that no greater love was possible, I could laugh. But honestly, during this last year I had come to believe that it was not possible for a man to love his wife more than I loved you. And yet I see that there is no end to love, and that it is still true that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I am quite certain that there is no lover, anywhere, writing to his girl who is quite as mad about her as I am. Indeed I pity those lovers who are not married. Well, I had better put a curb on things or I shall spend the night writing to you without a word of news.

The letters of Helmuth von Moltke to his wife Freya give an interesting glimpse of a man’s reflections upon life and marriage as he prepares for death—how he may stir his wife’s heart with the blessed good news of the gospel. It shows, as well, a man who perceived his wife as a great gift from God:

And now my dear, I come to you. I have not included you in my list because you, my dear, stand in a totally different position from all the others. You are not one of God’s agents to make me what I am, rather you are myself. You are my thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Without this chapter no human being is truly human. Without you I would have accepted love… . But without you, my dear, I would not have “had” love. I should not think of saying that I love you; that would be quite false. Rather you are the one part of me, which would be lacking if I was alone… . It is only in our union—you and I—that we form a complete human being… . And that is why, my dear, I am quite certain that you will never lose me on this earth—no, not for a moment. And this fact it was given us to symbolize finally through our common participation in the Holy Communion, that celebration which was my last.

In the Introduction to The Christian Love, Haykin says rightly that “Anthologies such as this one are inevitably somewhat eclectic and reflect personal preferences.” This is right and good. Though Haykin has inevitably chosen letters by a process that is somewhat less than objective, he has chosen well. I very much enjoyed reading this small collection of letters and commend it to you. With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, this may well be a good gift for your spouse. Read it and be blessed. Read it together and be doubly blessed.

 

5 years 9 months ago
Ask those who love biography and ask those who admire Jonathan Edwards and you will find the jury split on which biography best tells the life of Edwards. Some will vote for Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography while others will opt for George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Most will say, rightly, that you cannot go wrong with either one; both are excellent and both are well worth reading.

Several years after the publication of his full-length, award winning book, Marsden has written A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. He explains the book’s existence in this way: “Prior to being asked to write that major biography, I had already told my friends at Eerdmans that some day I would write a life of Edwards for them. So with the cooperation of both publishers, I agreed that after I wrote the more definitive biography for Yale, I would write something shorter for Eerdmans. The happy outcome is that, having already published a much longer, closely documented work, this book could be kept brief without any scholarly apparatus.” Thus this book, written for a wider audience, comes unencumbered by footnotes, citations and references. It is not an abridgment of the previous work but is “a fresh retelling in which I have tried to include just what is most essential and most engaging.” Throughout, Marsden compares Edwards with none other than Benjamin Franklin. And, indeed, their lives do run in near parallel for some time. Though there are obvious differences between the two, there are also remarkable similarities.

I suppose it may be polite to offer a “spoiler alert” here, but I’m assuming most people know that Edwards is going to die at the end of the biography. That is, after all, the way most biographies end. In a section headed with “An Interrupted Life,” Marsden offers a beautifully-written look at Edwards’ final days and the almost inexplicable fact that God took him while he still had so much to accomplish. “In Princeton Edwards moved in with Esther and his two young grandchildren, Sally and Aaron Jr., in the attractive president’s home (still standing near the original Nassau Hall in Princeton’s campus). He preached a few times in the college chapel, set a few lessons for students, and was officially installed as president in mid-February. That was all.” That was all, for smallpox was spreading through the region and Edwards made the fateful decision to be inoculated against it. He subsequently contracted a secondary infection and succumbed to the disease in March of 1758. He was just fifty-four years old. Marsden writes “Almost all his life he had been preparing for this moment. He had often preached to others about how they should be ready for death and righteous judgment at any minute, and he had disciplined himself with a regimen of devotion so that he would be prepared. In the weeks when he was wasting away he must have wondered why God would take him when he had so much to do. But submission to the mysteries of God’s love beyond human understanding was at the heart of his theology.”

As he reflects on the life of his hero, Marsden pauses to ask some interesting “what if” questions regarding the timing of Edwards’ death. What if he had lived long enough to see the American Revolution? What if he had, as Franklin did, lived all the way to 1790? Would he have let go of his British loyalties and sided with the revolutionaries? Probably he would have. Would the growing understanding of America’s enslavement to the king open Edwards’ eyes to the evils of slavery? Had Edwards lived to the days of the Revolution, would he be remembered more widely? Might he have scrawled his signature the Declaration of Independence?

The book’s final chapter is a masterpiece of reflection, asking simply “What should we learn from Edwards?” Here Marsden lays out some of the most important lessons from the life of this great theologian, a towering figure in early American history.

While A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards is in no way a replacement for Marsden’s more substantial biography, it is a wonderful supplement to it (or to Murray’s volume if you prefer). Though there is obvious and unavoidable overlap between the books, each has different emphases and each has its own strengths. I’d suggest that the best way to reconcile these is to read and enjoy both volumes. This little biography is a must-have addition to any library.Other Edwards-related books that may interest you:

The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards by Steven Lawson (brand new from Reformation Trust), Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain Murray, Jonathan and Sarah: An Uncommon Union by Edna Gerstner.

6 years 1 month ago
A short time ago I made the decision to read through all of David McCullough’s books. He is a renown historian and a gifted author and I realized that reading his books would be both educational and enjoyable—not just to learn history from a master but to learn from his style of writing. Few men can write history with the lucidity and character of David McCullough. This is why, I’m sure, all of his books remain in print, even forty and fifty years after publication, and why he has twice received the Pulitzer Prize (not to mention multitudes of other accolades).

Intimidated by the sheer size of his biography of Truman, and having already made my way through 1776 and John Adams, I turned recently to The Johnstown Flood, one of his lesser-known works. This book, which weighs in at a “mere” 300 pages (quite short for McCullough’s standards) deals with one of the most devastating disasters in American history. On May 31, 1889, a dam burst near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, sending a massive wall of water hurtling towards the thriving town. It smashed into Johnstown, killing more than 2,000 people. But it was more than a tragedy—it was also a scandal, for the dam was privately owned and had been built to make a private lake on a summer resort property patronized by such tycoons as Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. Americans were outraged.

Though the event has been largely forgotten, at the time it was a national scandal and riveted the attention of Americans much the way Hurricane Katrina did when it devastated New Orleans a few years ago. For weeks and months it was front page news across the nation. Johnstown would never fully recover and, once a bustling town with a great future, it quickly faded in favor of other nearby towns.

While The Johnstown Flood may not be a book carrying lessons of great importance for our day (“Don’t neglect dams?”), neither does it need to be. It is a fascinating read and an interesting little slice of history. Through the pen of David McCullough the events come to life and the reader is transported a century into the past. Like all of the works of McCullough I’ve read to this point, this one is well worth the read.

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