All-Time Top 25 Christian Non-Fiction

For fun, I decided to post my all-time top 25 Christian non-fiction books. I could not order the biographies together with the others, so they are in two groups.

What about you? Are there any that I missed?

  1. Unspoken Sermons (3 vol.)
  1. Power through Prayer
  1. The Pursuit of God
  1. Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
  1. My Utmost for His Highest
  1. Spiritual Depression (Lloyd-Jones)
  1. Christianity Is Jewish
  1. The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person
  2. A Tale of Three Kings
  3. The Problem of Pain
  4. The Call (Guinness)
  5. The Practice of the Presence of God
  6. The Christ of the Indian Road
  7. The Company of the Committed
  8. Exodus (vol. 2 of The People’s Bible)

Biography:

  1. The Life of Adoniram Judson (by his son Edward)
  1. L’Abri
  2. Bruchko (originally titled For This Cross I’ll Kill You)
  3. God’s Smuggler
  4. George Müller of Bristol
  1. Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God
  1. The Peace Child
  2. James Gilmour of Mongolia
  3. The Hiding Place
  1. The Footsteps of Divine Providence

Some honorable mentions would be The Blue Flame (Boreham), G. Campbell Morgan’s expository sermons, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs), Vanya (a biography), many lengthy Puritan books which are admirable but difficult to finish, and the rest of The People’s Bible (28 volumes of Joseph Parker’s sermons, hard to classify as one whole).

I’ve intentionally left out theology and commentary which I think need to be handled based on subject matter (in the case of theology) or by canonical order (in the case of biblical commentary). I may start posting more commentary recommendations soon!

Missions and Empire: Are Protestant Missionaries Colonists?

A Historical Inquiry

In some colonial contexts, nominally Christian religion was forced upon natives as part and parcel of the endeavor of colonization. This being the case, many missionary groups have historically been denied state support, even when tolerated by monarchs; others, like the Donatists (4th to 6th c.) and the Brethren (19th c.), would not accept such support if it was offered. The charge of colonialism, so often levied against the Christian religion, may not be applied equally to all Christian groups, since they have quite different visions of the state-church relation.

If we try to draw together a broad treatment of the relation between Protestant missionaries and their home governments, what we find historically falls into three categories: missions and empire in unity, missions and empire at odds, and missions and empire at distance.

Missions and Empire in Unity

Catholics in Latin America

As someone who publishes books on pioneer missions, I often come across the platitude that Christian missions is “the handmaid of empire”. This sweeping criticism is held up as a banner by detractors of Christianity, secular and religious alike. It is a just verdict in particular of the Iberian colonial powers, whose vision of Catholic Christianity was that of an unchallenged state religion.

Unlike other European colonizing powers such as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion.

Adriaan C. van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, p. xi

Even there, reformers arose to oppose the systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bartolomé de las Casas were bright spots in a dark tide of bloodshed, as they chose in 1511 to denounce violence against the people of Hispaniola.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Protestant Reformation did not immediately lead to any change in church-state relations. Luther and Zwingli were not more tolerant than their predecessors in Germany and Switzerland. Likewise, Protestant missionaries of the seventeenth century were not so different from Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded with an explicitly eschatological vision of a Christian utopia, with no room for plurality of religions. This included the intention of converting and civilizing natives, as the 1629 Charter spells out.

. . . whereby our said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and [Savior] of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.

Massachusetts Bay Charter, 1629

Evangelization of indigenous did not precede settlement though, as is sometimes described. John Eliot did not attempt to preach to the Indians until 1646. Charlotte M. Yonge writes that Eliot thought that faith would lead to civilization. Though he worked with approval from colonial authorities, Eliot may also be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness, since so few shared in this work at that time.

Anglican Missions

For two more centuries, the unity of missions and empire remained prevalent among Church of England missionaries—mainly working within the British Empire—but it declined as independent and evangelical Protestant churches began to proliferate. In 1900, the Governor of Bengal viewed missions as an “unofficial auxiliary” of British government there.

I view, then, the missionary work as an indispensable, unofficial, voluntary auxiliary of the government in carrying out in India its highest aspirations, the ennobling of the whole Hindu people.

Sir Charles Elliott, Governor of Bengal, quoted in Jacob Chamberlain, The Cobra’s Den, 1900, ch. 26

The sentiment was sometimes reciprocal. The President of the Church Missionary Society wrote as late as 1907:

[A. B. Lloyd] has been bearing his share of “the white man’s burden” of ruling, civilising, and Christianising the “silent peoples,” of whom John Bull carries no less than 350 millions on his back.

Sir John H. Kennaway, Preface to A. B. Lloyd’s In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, 1907, p. 7.

But even at that time, these were becoming outmoded ways of discussing a Christian’s role in reaching indigenous people. In a way, another reformation had been slowly spreading in European Christianity: evangelicalism. It was the focus on individual faith, rather than institutional loyalty, that began to lead to a major shift in Christian attitudes toward the state.

The First Evangelicals

To understand how all this began to change, we need to understand the beginnings of evangelicalism. In 1688 and 1689, at the university in Leipzig, August Francke and Philip Spener began holding a series of meetings in which the New Testament was read and discussed. They focused on a personal and living faith, but this was seen as an affront to the concept of a state church. Teaching individual conversion was controversial, and Francke became embroiled in conflict. After being prohibited from teaching in Leipzig, he began ministry in Erfurt; after fifteen months in Erfurt, he was expelled by the local authorities and given forty-eight hours to leave the city. All this happened in spite of his Lutheranism.

Francke continued his ministry by teaching children. He established an orphanage in 1698, which eventually became the largest charitable organization in the world. In 1893, the Missionary Review of the World called him “the father of evangelical missions.”

Count Zinzendorf was educated at Francke’s Foundations in Halle. In 1722, Zinzendorf founded his famous Herrnhut community for the Moravian Brethren. In 1727, a revival occurred in Herrnhut which led to several men volunteering to become missionaries.

In 1738, George Whitefield and John Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries. Wesley was greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravian colonists on their ship. Whitefield had been ordained in the Church of England, but in time his outspokenness led to him being rejected by ecclesiastical authority, and he began to pave his own path. Wesley, in a similar position, went to Herrnhut to learn of the Moravians. In 1739 and 1740, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching in the open air and at “revival” meetings. Their preaching sparked the First Great Awakening in America.

Missions and Empire at Odds

The First Lutheran Missionaries in Tranquebar

In 1705, the King of Denmark, Frederick IV, asked August Francke to select two men to go to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, in present-day Tamil Nadu. These were the first Lutheran missionaries. Francke chose Batholomaüs Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, both trained by him in Halle under a yoke of Prussian Pietism. Though they were sent by the king, as Pietists, their eschatology and missiology was very much at odds with the Danish colonial government, and they butted heads on several occasions. Theologian Joar Haga writes, “the king’s interest in mission activity has been quite a riddle for historians to explain”, but apparently he was impressed with Francke’s work in Halle.

In addition, the Lutheran theologians in Copenhagen had grave doubts about the legitimacy of mission work. The Gospel had already been declared all over the world by the Apostles, according to leading theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) and Hans Resen (1561–1638). They had explained that the Gospel had been declared twice before Christ’s arrival. . . . []

Joar Haga, “Consecrating the New Jerusalem in Tranquebar.” p. 419.

Haga writes that “The idea of mission was not a part of the original plan for extending Danish rule to India.” (p. 420) The Danish East India Company had been present for almost a century (since 1616) before Ziegenbalg established a church for Indians. In addition, the missionaries were not allowed to use the church used by the Danish and Germans. Even though they had the support of the king, they lacked many supports on the mission field, being generally regarded as radicals. Missions is certainly not the “handmaid of empire” in their case.

When Zeigenbalg preached the consecration sermon for his New Jerusalem church, he stated that it should never be used for “worldly and domestic” use, but that it would be dedicated to spiritual use, meaning preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Their stated goal on the mission field was always that polytheists would leave idolatry for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Denmark.

Reform for Sati

The British East India Compny was very reluctant to interfere in native customs in India, to the extent that they did not even outlaw sati. Jemima Luke writes that the Baptist Missionary Society, the London (Congregational) Missionary Society, and the Church (Anglican) Missionary Society, along with many Hindus and Christians, including missionaries James Peggs and William Carey, sought reform for this practice, finally succeeding in 1829. Reforming native religion and practice was not conducive to resource colonialism (as opposed to the settler colonialism practiced in Latin America).

The East India Company and Independent Protestants

British colonial government had a tenuous relationship with those missionaries in its midst who were Protestant but unconnected to the state church. In a biography of Sarah Loveless, Richard Knill writes:

The East India Company would not allow Christian missionaries to sail in their ships; therefore Dr. Carey, Mr. Loveless, and many others, were glad to sail to British India in the ships of foreigners!

The Missionary’s Wife, 1839; quoted in Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of British Female Missionaries.

Most Protestant missionaries, without any support of a state church, did not have the backing to travel to mission fields within the British Empire. In 1804, the Lovelesses sailed on an American ship for Chennai. Knill comments that arriving on a foreign ship “made it very difficult for a missionary to labour there.”

In the same volume, Thomas Timpson narrates how this policy of the East India Company changed “after great opposition” from British Christians. He records how in 1813, 900 signatures were sent to Parliament.

Divine Providence appeared to open a wide door in the year 1813, especially by the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter. Religious liberty gained a most glorious triumph over avarice and infidelity in the new charter: for Christians of various classes, especially . . . the committees of the London and Baptist Missionary Societies, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, sent 900 petitions to Parliament, for permission to propagate the gospel in Hindustan; and after great opposition, a clause, introduced by the government, was carried in the House of Lords, July 20th, securing protection to Christian Missionaries residing in India!

Thomas Timpson, “Elizabeth Harvard.” Memoirs of British Female Missionaries. 1841.

It is telling that Timpson, a Baptist, celebrates a unified victory of the British independent churches, and the Church of Scotland, seeking religious liberty—from their own government! Even after the change in policy, two missionaries who arrived in Bombay wrote that they were not supported beyond transportation. They were “as missionaries, unknown, unexpected, and even undesired.”

Other examples could be adduced. Recall that when Adoniram Judson and James Colman appealed directly to the Emperor of Burma in 1820 for the right to live and minister freely, they were denied. British aggression certainly did not serve his cause, and Judson was a prisoner of war to the Burmese for nearly two years, though an American. They could not help thinking that an English speaker would be helping their imperial enemy.

In his book on Unoccupied Fields (1900), Samuel M. Zwemer writes that the British government was happy for Muslims to advance their religion among pagans, but, except in Egypt, Christians were routinely prevented from doing so. Christian missionary activity in Muslim-majority lands was seen as provoking retaliation from local fanatics. Even alongside Anglican missionaries, who were sometimes seen as an approved “auxiliary” to British colonial governments, most British Protestant missionaries were considered a liability to their home governments.

Missions and Empire at Distance

Christians among Arabs

The criticism of colonial pretenses comes frequently from Muslims because, Islam being a political vision as much as a religious one, Muslim thinkers cannot help but believe that Christian missionaries work hand in hand with what they perceive to be Western, Christian governments—or, if not, they claim that that is how Protestant missions started.

This Islamic perception of Christians has been around since the earliest eras of Christian mission. Thus you will come across statements from pioneer missionaries in the Arab world, like the following:

I imagine his impression is, that we are sent out by the king of England.

Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, April 2, 1830; Journal of a Residence at Bagdad.

The prevailing idea is that we get so much money for every case from the Queen or our Consul in Jerusalem.

Archibald Forder, in a letter dated January 1893; With the Arabs in Tent and Town, ch. 2.

As a matter of fact, both Groves and Forder paved the way as pioneer missionaries apart from institutional backing; and both are held up today as early examples of “indigenizing” missionaries rather than colonizing missionaries. As a very early member of the Brethren movement, Groves absolutely rejected any entanglements between state and church. And Forder, far from “civilizing” Arabs, is regarded by two modern Arab academics as an example of “going native”. As much as was in his power, he dressed, travelled, and spoke like the Bedouins he worked among.

As evangelicalism began in Europe largely in the context of institutional opposition on the local scale—both among the Pietists in Germany and the Methodists in Britain—it now continues largely in the context of institutional apathy from Western governments. Today, most Protestant missionaries are not affiliated with a state church, but supported by independent churches and societies. Their home governments do nothing or almost nothing either to prevent or encourage them from overseas evangelism.

Conclusion

I conclude with these words from Susie Rijnhart, an unaffiliated missionary in Tibet.

Kind Christian friends have questioned our wisdom in entering Tibet. Why not have waited, they ask, until Tibet was opened by ‘the powers,’ so that missionaries could go under government protection?

The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.’ . . . Persecutions came upon them from every side, but nothing, save death, could hinder their progress or silence their message. . . . So it has ever been in the history of Christianity. Had the missionaries waited till all countries were ready and willing to receive them, so that they could go forth without danger or sacrifice, England might still have been the home of barbarians. Livingstone’s footsteps would never have consecrated the African wilderness, there would have been no Carey in India, the South Sea Islanders would still be sunk in their cannibalism, and the thousands of Christians found in pagan lands would still be in the darkness and shadow of death.

Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, 1901, p. 393–395.

Review: The Mystery of Suffering

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Hugh Evan Hopkins (1907-1994) was an English preacher, missionary and the author of several books. He was educated at Cambridge and became a member of the Dohnavur Fellowship founded by Amy Carmichael. After six years in India (1931 to 1937), he was sent home for health reasons. He served Inter-Varsity Fellowship, and later went overseas to Kenya (1947 to 1955). He was awarded OBE in 1955 and had a very long and active writing and preaching career before and after his retirement.

Hopkins’ books are listed here because it was difficult to obtain information about them:

  • Henceforth: The Meaning of Christian Discipleship (1942),
  • The Inadequacy of Non-Christian Religion (1944)
  • The Mystery of Suffering (1959)
  • Morning and Evening Prayer (1963)
  • Charles Simeon of Cambridge (1977)
  • Understanding Ourselves: Some Personal Christian Insights into Temperament, Depression, Fear, Inability to Believe and the Mystery of Suffering (1983)
  • Sublime Vagabond: The Life of Joseph Wolff, Missionary Extraordinary (1984)
  • A History of the Church of St. Edward, King & Martyr, Cambridge (1989)

Overview

Hopkins begins by discussing how different world religions have different answers to suffering, and why the Christian answer is the best. This was a unique approach. In looking at this, Hopkins is trying to explain the “link between the sins and the sufferings of the world”. Sin is a general explanation for suffering, but may not always be the personalized explanation (as in a system of karma).

When he moves into the Christian answer, Hopkins seeks to do so in a way that continues to acknowledge that evil is not easily explained away. In the words of N. T. Wright, “Evil is still a four-letter word.” In fact, Hopkins strikes a chord that resonates with N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Both write that we should not treat human suffering as only an intellectual knot to be untied.

We must beware lest familiarity with the existence of suffering in our present age make us insensitive and merely curious.

Hopkins seeks a balance between the fatalistic pat answer that “everything happens for a reason” and the sometimes man-centered answer that says we can “pray ourselves up by our bootstraps” (my idiom, not his). On the fatalistic answer, Hopkins writes that it is common enough to speak of our sufferings as a God-ordained “cross to bear”, but “there is actually nothing in the Bible to suggest that God works in this way” (p. 54).

Hopkins writes that “taking up your cross” means discipleship, not suffering:

Firstly, the cross [Jesus] was speaking about was something to be voluntarily undertaken, and secondly it is an essential part of our Christian discipleship. There is nothing arbitrary about bearing a cross. God does not lay it on one and not on another. Every true Christian should be bearing his cross every day, and doing so by choice and gladly as a sign of his devotion to his Lord. (p. 54)

This does not mean, though, that Christians never suffer, as some have it. Though an Anglican in the 1950s, Hopkins has some awareness of Charismatic healing literature and the idea that God wants to heal all diseases. He tries to explain these in context with other prayers that go unanswered. He concludes that “it is not possible to say that God always wants his children to be insulated from suffering” (p. 75). We should learn this much from Gethsemane: Sometimes suffering is God’s will.

A quotation from P. T. Forsyth is a great explanation of Hopkins’ point in juxtaposing sin and suffering:

The cross of Christ can submerge suffering, and make it a means of salvation, but with sin it can make neither use nor terms; it can only make an end of it. God in Christ is capable of suffering and of transmuting sorrow; but of sin he is incapable [of transforming], and his work is to destroy it. (cited as The Justification of God, p. 138; qtd, on p. 63)

He gives Amy Carmichael, who he worked with, as an example of the right attitude in suffering. Carmichael had lifelong bouts of neuralgia that sometimes left her bed-ridden for long stretches. Hopkins writes that she hated to be referred to as “removed from combat”; rather, she was still in combat in her sick-bed. “Much of the suffering we endure is surely permitted in order to be attacked and overcome.” (p. 57) (Carmichael herself wrote a book on suffering, Rose from Brier.)

In the chapter, “How Can Pain Glorify God?”, Hopkins evinces the choice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stay in America as an example of a God-glorifying choice to suffer (p. 106). God invites us to enter the kingdom through many tribulations. and to endure suffering as a soldier. For Hopkins, this is part and parcel of discipleship and mission, and that in itself is part of the explanation of suffering.

To suffer as a Christian means always willing the best for your persecutors. The author remembers kneeling with three Kikuyu men in Kenya and praying for their persecutors, following the examples of Jesus and Stephen. This is another way suffering glorifies God.

Hopkin concludes by contemplating the cross of Jesus Christ. “The Bible makes it clear that the problem of man’s sin, and therefore of his sufferings too, was dealt with on the cross.” (p. 109) If Christ’s suffering can glorify God, so can mine. We don’t explain suffering; we use it as an opportunity to glorify God, and in doing so, we transform it.

Hugh Evan Hopkins is an able and balanced writer with a wealth of experience. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading others from him.

Review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Author: Madeline L’Engle is an award-winning novelist whose fiction reflects both her Christian commitment and her love of science. She is usually thought of as continuing a tradition of faith-informed fantasy fiction that begin with George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis.

Overview:

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) is the third installment of the Time Quintet, an award-winning fantasy fiction series for young adults. The series began with A Wrinkle in Time (1962), which won a Newbery Medal and other awards. (It is also sometimes just known as the Wrinkle in Time series.)

This book was a patchwork of overtly parallel subplots unrelated to the main characters, loosely tied by a poorly applied frame narrative. It was very difficult to extract one overarching theme (as could be done with Wrinkle or Wind in the Door).

I was also put off by the use of plot elements that resonated with reincarnation, possession, and telepathy. These elements are crucial to the narrative, and just get weirder and weirder as the story goes on. In my opinion, these are much cheaper than the refined, spiritually anchored sorts of magic-science present in Wrinkle.

After Charles Wallace “went Within” (possessed?!) a character from a thousand years before, the book lost me, and since it continued along that line for 80% of the book, I never really re-engaged with the plot. This was a confusing plot device which inexplicably destroys a sense of either volition (who is making the choices?) or continuity (what century are the choices being made in?).

In spite of all my pooh-poohing this novel, I do expect to attempt more of L’Engle’s books in the future. If you think I have missed something profound about A Swiftly Tilting Planet, please let me know in the comments!

Review: The Light in the Prison Window

The Light in the Prison-Window: The Life Story of Hans Nielsen Hauge (1926) by Wilhelm Pettersen is a biography of Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian evangelist and social reformer who had a tremendous impact on the Scandinavian religious landscape.

In the late 1700s, as described by Pettersen, Norway was Protestant (Lutheran) in name, but steeped in cold scholasticism and hypocrisy. The Bible was treated as a mythology or a mere handbook for tradition. Pettersen names several priests and bishops of the time that had no concern for Christian piety, and some influential leaders did not even believe basic Christian doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ. In churches one might hear lectures on Greek classics instead of the Bible.

At the age of 25, Hans Nielsen Hauge had a lone conversion experience in an open field—a moment he described as his “spiritual baptism”. Though Hauge was definitely evangelical, much of the language he used has even pentecostal overtones.

Hauge in time became a force in evangelizing Norway’s villages, and many joined him in his task, including many young women, who preached and evangelized.

Not content with an inward renewal alone, Hans Nielsen Hauge also sought social reform and worked as an entrepreneur. He is generally regarded to have had a tremendous impact on both religious and secular life in Norway.

Hauge did not reject Lutheran doctrines; rather, he sought to apply them where they had become merely the traditional intellectual background to their religion. As some tell the story, Scandinavia had joined the Protestant Reformation in name in the 1530s, but it had not yet reckoned with justification by faith. This living faith was renewed with the Haugean movement.

Hauge was imprisoned many times for lay preaching under the Conventicle Act. A “conventicle” was an unauthorized religious meeting, such as a house church, and Scandinavian countries, until long into the 1800s, were cracking down hard on unauthorized meetings. It would be many decades before such meetings were legitimized, and even longer before they were able to perform marriages and burials recognized by the government. (Since 2000, Sweden and Norway have both legislated for a separation of church and state—perhaps the final chain in a long history of decline in the state churches, growth in the free churches, and growth in the non-religious.)

On the European landscape, the scene had been set for all this change by groups like the Methodists and the Moravians. The Moravian revival had started in 1727, and the Methodists had begun to organize in the 1740s. Like Hauge, these groups appealed to lower classes, partially by having either looser hierarchies, or no hierarchy, compared to the corrupt priesthood they were accustomed to. The keynote, though, was individual conversions.

Hauge didn’t teach major doctrinal shifts from Lutheranism; but he invited his countrymen to a living and personal faith.

In a way, Hauge represents in his person the evangelical renewal of Norway. But there were many who joined his work, and likewise faced arrest and imprisonment for leaving the established churches.

One downside to The Light in the Prison Window was the very long roll call of Norwegian evangelicalism. It felt like being at a family reunion, but I didn’t know anyone. The sheer number of obscure Norwegian theologians and clerics mentioned boggles the mind. It is understandable, though, that the author wants us to acknowledge how many souls assisted and followed Hauge in the renewal of Norway.

Note: It is rather difficult to find biographies of Hans Nielsen Hauge. The Light in the Prison-Window is quite brief, and the only other biography I could find is Joseph Shaw’s Pulpit under the Sky (1955), which is quite rare. If you know of a substantial biography of Hauge, please share it in the comments!

A Brief Life of Joseph Parker

This seven-page biography will appear in print in Pioneer Library's new edition of Joseph Parker's monumental People's Bible (29 volumes), a series of over a thousand expository sermons, stretching from Genesis to Revelation. The sermons were first preached at London's City Temple.

An Atmosphere of Prayer

Joseph Parker was the only son of his parents, born in Hexham in the north of England. His father was a stonemason and a deacon of the Independent (Congregational) Church. He describes his father as having “the strength of two men and the will of ten; fierce and gentle, with passionateness burning to madness, yet with deepest love of prayer; no namby-pamby speaker.”1

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Wesleyans in the Wilderness: Assurance vs. “The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Beginnings of Wesleyan Assurance

“Can you be sure of your salvation?” Most evangelicals would answer with a resounding “yes,” but would have difficulty answering the follow-up question—“how?” We may agree on how salvation happens—Romans 10:9-10—but it is more difficult to agree on how assurance happens.

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Review: The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation

Author: Arthur C. Custance was a research scientist with an overflowing interest in anthropology, biology, theology, and biblical languages. He obtained his M.A. in Middle Eastern Languages in 1941, and completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1954, though his degree was delayed five years by prejudice against Custance caused by his literal understanding of biblical creation. He conducted research in physiology for Canada’s Defence Research Board and wrote sixteen unique books, mainly on the intersection of biblical theology and modern science.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation (1976) is Book 5 of 10 in The Doorway Papers, a series of studies fusing biblical study with scientific research. Much of the series explores aspects of the Creation, Fall, and Flood in Genesis, but many other themes are included.

It is divided into essays, so the topics are related but you can easily read and enjoy any essay without the others. The individual essays are themselves divided into chapters, and some of them are quite long.

The essays in this volume are:

  • Longevity in Antiquity and its Bearing on Chronology: This is a great study of the genealogy of Genesis 5, with statistical and historical data to back up the claims of human longevity. While many claim that there is some numerical or scribal anomaly in the years of Genesis 5, Custance supports a literal reading.
  • The Nature of the Forbidden Fruit: It was probably not an apple—so what was the forbidden fruit? And how did it affect Adam and Eve when they ate it? Custance shows the effects that certain foods can have on humans.
  • If Adam Had Not Died: This essay reviews scientific concepts connected to the Incarnation of Christ. Included here are several intriguing and strange ideas about the physiology of Adam himself. Custance is looking at the immortal physiology of Adam as a precursor of the immortal life of Christ.
  • The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation: The titular essay connects the concepts of “the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3, the virgin conception of Christ, and the immortality found in Christ. This is one of the most important of the entire Doorway Papers series as it presents ideas related to core Christian doctrines (as opposed to, for instance, whether the flood was local or global).
  • The Trinity in the Old Testament: This is probably the best thing I’ve read on the Trinity. Custance shows that it was not a new idea to God, although maybe it was to man. Many great Bible references will show you that the Trinity is not a foreign concept to the Old Testament.
  • A Fresh Look at the Meaning of the
    Word ‘Soul’
    : Body, soul, spirit? It is not always clear in modern thought whether there is a difference between soul and spirit, but in the Old Testament there is a clear distinction. Custance offers a solid biblical study of how these terms are connected with bearings on the creation of Adam and the death of Christ. I don’t believe that Custance’s explanation differs too far from the detailed explanations offered, for instance, by Watchman Nee. For an interesting perspective from the Old Testament, look into the work of Robert Alter on this.
  • How Did Jesus Die?: This essay is a study of the physical causes of the death of Christ, centering on the possibility that Jesus died of a burst heart, an idea promulgated in 1871 by William Stroud. (Pioneer Library published Stroud’s book as an ebook.)
  • The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: In three chapters, Custance treats the “historical”, “theological”, and “experiential” aspects of the bodily Resurrection of Christ. This study is mainly theological.
  • The Unique Relationship between the First and Last Adam: This essay continues to develop some themes from the titular essay about Adam and Christ.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation is an important volume within The Doorway Papers, and in many ways it is a predecessor to Custance’s magnum opus, The Seed of the Woman.

Read: You can read The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation and Arthur Custance’s other works for free over at custance.org.

I read this book in 2006 and finished this review in 2021. I guess that tells you how memorable and unique the book was.

Review: Earliest New Testament Translations

Earliest New Testament Translations is “an interlinear comparison of the [six?] earliest English translations 1382 to 1611, updated to modern English.” My edition includes:

  • Wycliffe’s 1382 translation, which was done from Latin, not Greek;
  • Purvey’s 1395 revision of Wycliffe’s New Testament;
  • Tyndale’s 1530 New Testament, which was translated from Greek;
  • The Geneva Bible (1560), which was translated by a group of Reformed scholars in Switzerland;
  • The King James Version, completed in 1611.

This was put together and self-published by Clayton Porter. Porter has expanded to include other translations over time, so there are a number of volumes and versions out there, both digitally and in print.

This is an excellent parallel translation. I like that the spelling has been updated; reading Wycliffe without it is both unnecessary and a pain, even for a linguist. (It is very seldom that the outdated spelling creates any lexical ambiguity, but very often that a modern reader cannot guess what word is meant.)

In addition, the introduction was helpful in highlighting the differences between the translations.

Reading this brings to light how much we owe to Wycliffe and Tyndale, whose works are not so easy to get a hold of even now. Versions that pre-date the King James are extremely important to English history, but sadly do not appear on most Bible study websites like BibleHub, BibleGateway, or Blue Letter Bible.

This is an important addition to my digital library and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to explore why a New Testament verse has always been translated “this way” and not “that way.” Below I’ve given a few things I learned and some examples from the book.

Committee or Single-Scholar?

A key question to consider in reading a Bible translation is whether or not it is the product of group effort. As a kid I always imagined that translations are done by one dude with a very good dictionary, but since Geneva, nearly all have been done by committee. Single-scholar translations do not generally get a lot of attention anymore: Young’s Literal, Darby’s, Weymouth’s, Moffat’s, Wuest’s, and The Passion Translation are hardly considered by academics. I do see Young’s Literal sometimes referenced as a baseline for a purely literal translation (not a “reading” translation), and Weymouth’s work is highly regarded by some. Moffat’s was quite fashionable around the time of World War I, but enthusiasm waned. Robert Alter’s work is probably the biggest exception to the rule. Almost any modern Bible translation, regardless of the language, is done by committee.

So the work of Wycliffe and Tyndale is exceptional in this regard. It means that their personality “colors” the New Testament text. This sounds like a negative assessment, but I hardly mean it that way. Each individual brings out shades of meaning in the text that give us new lenses of interpretation and help us see the Word with fresh eyes. There is a wonderful novelty to reading Wycliffe and especially Tyndale. Their work required tremendous creativity, a virtue not often praised in Bible scholars or translators.

The Originality of Tyndale

Tyndale is exemplary in many respects, and may have contributed more neologisms and original wording than the King James—for instance, we are indebted to him for the words “scapegoat” and “passover”. He translates ekklēsia as “congregation” instead of “church”, and has many other eccentricities.

He also just stands out as someone with many novel (but tenable) readings of the Greek. For example, Tyndale—in my opinion, correctly—translates 1 Corinthians 14:34a this way:

Let your wives keep silence in the congregations.

The Greek phrase αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν is awkwardly translated “your women” in quite a few versions, both old and modern, starting with Geneva. I can only guess that the intended meaning is the church’s women. Others only have “women” or “the women”, which make it sound like Paul is making a very broad prohibition. But the plural possessive pronoun ὑμῶν (“y’all’s”) and the universal use of “husbands” in the very next verse mean that we are most likely dealing with a situation involving specific Corinthian wives, not all women for all time. Theologian Michael F. Bird writes that this is the case in his booklet on women’s roles.

Of all the translations I found, only Tyndale, Coverdale, and the WEB version use “wives” in this verse.

A Committee of Centuries

Modern Bible translations are heavily influenced by tradition, and, for good or for ill, it is very difficult to break free of. Translators are not only bound to the work of their translation committee and revision committees, they are bound to a committee of centuries. It is not hard to find verses in which either Wycliffe or Tyndale set a tone that has never been broken.

Observe 1 Timothy 2:5:

For one God and one mediator is of God and of men, a man Christ Jesus … (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, which is the man Christ Jesus … (Tyndale, Geneva)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus … (King James)

This verse exemplifies the awkwardness sometimes found in Wycliffe’s version. Like Slavic languages, Latin has no definite or indefinite article (“a” or “the”), which is why we have “a man Christ Jesus.”

You can also see that Geneva is identical to Tyndale. Bible versions are almost never made with a clean slate; translators basically revise past versions rather than reinventing the wheel.

It is very rare to find examples where all four translations disagree. Here is one that I find intriguing (Galatians 2:21):

I cast not away the grace of God; for if rightwiseness is by the law, then Christ died without cause. (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

I despise not the grace of God: For if righteousness come of the law, then Christ died [is Christ dead] in vain. (Tyndale, brackets showing a later revision)

I do not abrogate the grace of God, for if righteousness be by the Law, then Christ died without a cause. (Geneva)

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (King James)

In the last phrase, Geneva followed Wycliffe and King James followed Tyndale, showing that they are not just revising the most recent version; later translators had access to multiple translations and compared to choose the preferred reading of a phrase.

But they cannot agree on how to “English” this word ἀθετῶ, with various attempts shown in bold. It is notable that they differ so widely. Here are some more modern translations of the same phrase:

I do not make void the grace of God. (Young’s Literal)

I do not nullify the grace of God. (Weymouth, RSV, ESV)

I do not set aside the grace of God. (Darby, NIV, NKJV)

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. (NLT)

I hope that this review helps others to understand some of what I have learned from this wonderful parallel New Testament, so that we can better live by God’s Word and edify God’s people.

Review: The Openness of God

The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (1994) is an introduction to “open theism”, known to some “dynamic omniscience”.

For those new to the concept: open theism is the idea that the free future choices of accountable moral agents (read: humans) are not in any meaningful sense knowable—if future choices were known with any certainty (as in Augustinianism or Molinism), then they could not be free future choices. It relies, then, on an intuitively linear view of time in its metaphysics. Time as measured by us is a mere construct; but time as a directionality and causality is basic to all existence, including God’s, and it would be logically absurd to argue that anyone was ever “outside time”. Time is not a physical reality that you can enter or exit. Open theism, then, involves both philosophical and theological considerations, and both are handled at some length in The Openness of God.

The Openness of God, despite its length, felt to me like a fly-by. The biblical chapter did not have many new things to say to me, as someone who had reviewed these arguments for many years, but the “historical considerations” was much more relevant to me since I am weak in that area.

The writers argue that certain attributes of God in “classical” theism were derived from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible or Judeo-Christian thought. This is a key argument, because followers of the early church father such as Augustine have maintained for many centuries that God is outside time, and some regard this as the only orthodox position.

The research probably benefits from multiple authors, but I also felt that it made the discussion feel slow, and sometimes repetitive. The book is organized around the different kinds of arguments used to defend open theism.

I did not like that in some chapters the discussion is framed around “rejecting” or “accepting” universal foreknowledge as such. I prefer the language of Samuel Fancourt, who must have been the first Englishman to articulate open theism in the 1720s. He denied that God foreknew our free moral choices in advance, but he always maintained that God’s foreknowledge is absolute. Open theists simply have a different view of time, so certain things cannot be foreknown. (Edit: In a 2021 podcast, Greg Boyd and Thomas Jay Oord have agreed that the grounding fact of open theism is not that God voluntarily limits his omniscience or omnipotence, but that God does not need to predict what is merely possible, not certain.)

If you want to think about ideas like the suffering of God and how we see God’s activity in time, I would recommend something more practical and biblical. Many authors (as I mentioned above) have written on these topics without making dogmatic arguments that tend to remove focus from the application of biblical truth. This is an important debate, but it is primarily important because we need to balance our metaphors about God in the same way that the Bible does and live in light of that truth. Expository writing can meet those goals. However, this book is intended as a theological introduction to a way of thinking. I guess it would meet that goal pretty well if you wanted a clear introduction to “open theology”; though, something like Michael Saia’s Does God Know the Future? or Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic might be less time-consuming and more palatable for those who are not academics.


This review was written around 2013 and posted in 2021.