Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Purpose in Prayer

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a clergyman in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and held a pastorate in Franklin, Tennessee. During his time in Tennessee, he led a spiritual revival and eventually began an itinerant ministry. He only published two books during his lifetime, but nine others were arranged from manuscripts and published after his death—most of them on prayer. He spent three hours a day in prayer and emphasizes a life of prayer as the one essential of the Christian life.

Overview:

Purpose in Prayer (1914) is a compilation of E. M. Bounds’ writings on prayer, with exhortations. If you enjoyed Power Through Prayer, I would recommend this as the next follow-up. Homer Hodge, the editor, calls Purpose in Prayer the companion volume to Power through Prayer. It was published the year after Bounds died.

The theological background in this book is a development on Wesleyan understandings of prayer. The first chapter bears the title, “God Shapes the World by Prayer.” This is a theme that was developed by Wesley himself.

This book contains strong medicine against fatalism and complacency. Bounds, like Wesley, sees our prayer as effecting real change in the history of the world. Some events only become possible through prayer. Prayer is not trivial; it is not just something ordained before an already-ordained event, having no power of decision in it. It creates new possibilities. There is purpose in prayer.

Some reviewers complain that Bounds doesn’t provide enough biblical backing for his assertions about prayer. In my opinion, that probably shows that they were expecting a theology book, which this is not. Moreover, Bounds does provide plenty of biblical grounding for purpose in prayer, but this is secondary to the goal of the book; his classic books are written to inspire you to pray, not to convince you of his specific theory of prayer.

I don’t recommend reading this book in a compilation (if you have a choice) because I think the compilation obscures the unity of theme that is found in this book, apart from his other books.

Read:

Like all of E. M. Bounds’ books, Purpose in Prayer is available for free in PDF format on the Internet Archive.

Similar:

If you enjoy Bounds’ books on prayer, you might enjoy Praying Clear Through by W. J. Harney. It is written in a very similar theological stream.

Quotes:

“I think Christians fail so often to get answers to their prayers because they do not wait long enough on God. They just drop down and say a few words, and then jump up and forget it and expect God to answer them. Such praying always reminds me of the small boy ringing his neighbor’s door-bell, and then running away as fast as he can go.”

Review: Hus the Heretic

This is not really a book review per se. It is more of a long footnote concerning a fabricated document, related to the trial of John Hus. This book is easily accessible to those doing research. In English it has been published under at least four different titles:

  1. The last days of John Hus, a historical romance (1909)
  2. The infallibility of the Pope at the Council of Constance; the trial of Hus, his sentence and death at the stake, in two letters (1930)
  3. The trial and burning of John Huss! An eye-witness account (1991)
  4. Hus the Heretic (1997-2003)

The book includes two sensational letters, purportedly giving an eyewitness account of the trial and death of John Hus. But the letters are nineteenth-century fabrications, written to stir up fervor against Catholicism.

Who (supposedly) wrote these letters?

The author is given as Poggio Bracciolini, or, in some versions, “Poggius the Papist”! Poggio Bracciolini attended the Council of Constance, and even wrote about the death of Jerome of Prague in 1416. As far as we know, Poggio Bracciolini did not attend Hus’ trial.

What is in the fabricated account?

 Here is a famous portion of Hus the Heretic:

. . . With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him in a skirt drenched with pitch. At this moment the elector of Palatinate, Ludewig, rode up and prayed Hus with fervor to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away . . .

The saying about the goose and the swan (referring to Martin Luther) is first recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; most of the other details and dialogues in Hus the Heretic are not recorded in any other sources. The book concludes:

I wanted to acquaint you with this story of a heretic, my dear Nikolai, so that you might know how much fortitude of faith Hus had shown before his enemies and how blissful, in his faith, this pious man’s end had been. Verily, I say unto you, he was too just for this world!

John Hus died in 1415, but this book first appeared more than four centuries later, in German. It has also been translated into Czech, Dutch, and Latin.

Why did someone fabricate this?

Historian Richard G. Salomon gives a detailed historiography in his article “Poggio Bracciolini and Johannes Hus: A Hoax Hard to Kill.”

The letters appeared first in 1845 in serial form in an obscure periodical . . . and one year later in book form, without the name of an editor.

It first appeared in book form under the German title Hussen’s letzte Tage und Feuertod [Hus’ Last Days and Burning at the Stake]. Salomon goes on to explain that there was a rise in sectarian conflict centering around the figure of Johannes Ronge, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church in 1845.

What was this book based on?

Probably the most insulting part of this fabricated book is that it is based on a true letter that Poggio Bracciolini wrote about Jerome of Prague. Poggio Bracciolini didn’t write a 60-page eyewitness account of John Hus’ death in 1415; but he did write a glowing 5-page letter describing Jerome of Prague’s martyrdom! One historian has called this Poggio’s “dangerous letter”; Poggio was employed at the papal court, and it was a very odd choice for him to write a letter praising a condemned and executed heretic!

Bracciolini waxes eloquent concerning Jerome of Prague. He begins his account:

I confess that I have never seen anyone, who came so near the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire.

This is another case in which truth is stranger than fiction.

‘Tis strange,–but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
(Lord Byron, Don Juan)

Review: On Fire for God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Victor Budgen is the author of two books: On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus and Charismatics and the Word of God.

Overview:

Victor Budgen’s On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus (1983) is an important biography of one of the key figures of the early Reformation.

John Hus was a Czech preacher and reformer who is known today especially for his dramatic martyrdom on July 6, 1415, at the Council of Constance under the Roman Catholic church. During his lifetime, however, he was also regarded as a prolific scholar and teacher, an important exponent of the teachings of John Wycliffe, and a starting point for Czech nationalism.

The World of Hus

Budgen’s biography takes great effort to explain the social and religious context in which Hus lived and died. He contextualizes Hus as one man in a theological movement that is inspired by key theological tenets of Wycliffe and the English Reformation, but also independent of that movement, with its own grounding in Scripture and an experience of God’s grace. Similar arguments are also presented in Matthew Spinka’s John Hus and the Czech Reform; though Wycliffe was a major influence on Hus, Hus disagreed with Wycliffe on important points. This is important to understand because, at the Council of Constance, charges of “Wyclifism” were brought against Hus. Though he was unwilling to recant, it was through loyalty to God, not to Wycliffe.

Budgen’s description of Hus and Jerome of Prague collecting Wycliffe’s books may resonate with readers, and is worth reading in full:

The works of Wyclif still continued to appeal strongly to many of the Bohemians. Although the bringing over of books was often a risky business, there were those who volunteered for the task. Jerome of Prague himself transcribed and brought over material, as he himself admitted. Two other Bohemian students were surreptitiously gathering texts in England in 1406 and 1407. We have a glimpse of them paying a pious visit to Wyclif’s tomb in Leicestershire en route (and taking a fragment of the tomb), probably visiting Sir John Oldcastle, a prominent Lollard of high rank, and then going on to do their main copying in Lollard hide-outs in country villages in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. Since Oxford was a place closely watched, they only stopped there briefly in order to correct their texts. There was an eager readership waiting for this highly explosive theological material, for this time a lot of theological works were brought back. Hus was among the keenest of the readers. By the end of his life he himself had accumulated copies of nearly all of Wyclif’s writings. This was no mean feat. It denoted a genuine enthusiasm for the works of the English reformer. (pp. 101-102)

Here I will give quotations on three convictions that Hus and his movement shared with John Wycliffe.

1. Vernacular Preaching

At Bethlehem he preached in Czech not only because it was stipulated in the foundation, but because it was his conviction. As the years went by he was to express himself increasingly in his native language both from the pulpit and with the pen. This was not a total innovation but there were not many precursors. The large numbers of works in Czech produced at the close of his ministry are the logical outcome of all this. (p. 96)

Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, now restored as a museum, plays an important role in the beginning of Hus’ story. Not only was preaching traditionally done in Latin; but there were also large numbers of German speakers in the university setting in which Hus found himself. In a classic case of religious (bilingual) diglossia, Czech was regarded as merely a spoken language, lacking in structure. Hus not only preached in Czech, but he also worked to reform Czech orthography, which would make spelling more nativised and literacy more accessible.

2. The Priesthood of Believers

Every holy man is a priest, but not every priest is a holy man. (p. 95)

The priesthood of believers is a straightforward New Testament doctrine, but it is revolutionary in hierarchy-oriented societies. Because Hus believed in the priesthood of believers, he believed that he could take issue with the theological whims of the cardinals, or the Pope—or even, in his case, the three popes!

3. Authority of Scripture

Here is the nub of the issue. Hus knew and experienced the Scripture as a living Word breathed out and conveyed by the Holy Spirit. His opponents were strangers to the experience so vital for saving faith. (p. 170)

Like Wycliffe before him and Luther after him, Hus affirmed the absolute centrality of Scripture. Though we may disagree with these early reformers on certain issues of biblical interpretation, it is the authority and transformative power of the Bible that they could not deny.

Where he is inconsistent or less than fully scriptural, we must not lose sight of his pioneering role. These were ‘forgotten remedies’ which he was, with others, restoring to the light of day. (p. 86)

Budgen covers these issues in great detail, comparing and contrasting Wycliffe and Hus. He also spends a large portion of the book clarifying the precise circumstances of Hus’ death, using sound historical research. This is much needed work since there are so many spurious accounts regarding Hus’ death.

Quotes:

“Supporting myself with this most holy and most helpful example of the Redeemer, I appeal to God from the grave oppression, the unjust sentence, and the pretended excommunication of the pontiff, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the judges seated in the seat of Moses. To him I commit my cause, following in the footsteps of the Saviour Jesus Christ.” (p. 163, ch. 14 endnote 17)

“I will confess the evangelical truth as long as God permits, for I trust in that Witness whom no multitude of witnesses can divert from the truth, nor any Roman curia can terrify, nor any gift can suborn, nor any power can conquer.” (p. 170, ch. 15 endnote 15)

“Even a peasant can understand that he who has never fed sheep is not to be called a shepherd.” (p. 92)

Proclaiming a crusade against Ladislas, Pope John [XXIII] issued two bulls in the September and December of 1411 excommunicating Ladislas in blood-curdling terms and imporing men ‘by the blood shed by the Saviour’ either to take up the sword against Ladislas or to provide money for someone else to fight. This was termed ‘taking up the cross’ in papal terminology. The bull promised remission of sins for which the guilty parties were contrite and which they had confessed. (pp. 145-146)

“Finally, I did not appear at the papal court lest I lose my life for nothing. For every place was full of my enemies, both Czech and German, seeking my death.” (p. 133, ch. 12 endnote 3)

“I am ever ready … to render full account of my faith which I hold in my heart and confess by word and in writing, even if fire were lighted during the hearing.” (p. 143, ch. 12 endnote 24)

“Lords, understand me. I said that I heartily aspire to fulfil the apostolic mandates and to obey them in everything; but I call apostolic mandates the teaching of Christ’s apostles. In as far as the mandates of the Roman pontiff are in harmony with the apostolic mandates and teach . . . to that degree I am most willing to obey them. But should I find any of them opposed, those will I not obey, even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes.” (p. 154, ch. 13 endnote 15)

“However, as concerning fleeing from the truth, I trust the Lord that he will grant me to die in that truth.” (p. 165, ch. 14 endnote 24)

“One must not sin in order to avoid death . . . He who speaks the truth will have his head broken. He who fears death loses the joy of life. [Yet] Truth conquers all things.” (p. 172, ch. 15 endnote 25)

‘Look, Master John! We are laymen and know not how to advise you; therefore see if you feel yourself guilty in anything of that which is charged against you. Do not fear to be instructed therein and to recant. But if, indeed, you do not feel guilty of those things that are charged against you, follow the dictates of your conscience. Under no circumstances do anything against your conscience or lie in the sight of God: but rather be steadfast until death in what you know to be the truth.’ (p. 261, ch. 23, citation 15)

Review: The Road Back to You

Rating: ★★★

Full Title: The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery

Authors: Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile teach the Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery and spiritual growth.

Overview:

The Road Back to You (2016) is a popular introduction to the Enneagram. Superficially similar to Myers-Briggs and other personality typing models, the Enneagram is touted as a tool for self-discovery that can lead to meaningful spiritual formation and improved relationships.

As a semi-spiritual counseling tool that has flourished among Catholics, the Enneagram is low-hanging fruit for fundamentalist critics. But many Christians of all streams have found it to be a meaningful model for describing personality. You may find it be a helpful model of patterns in human behavior; but you also may find it reductionist, like the many personality tools that came before it.

The Enneagram is a model of human personality. It divides people into nine distinct but interconnected personality types. As it is explained in The Road Back to You, our enneagram types are “masks” that we create to protect ourselves after we begin to experience hurt as a child.

The strength of the Enneagram is in how it deals with sin by bringing personal awareness. Many of our interpersonal problems (sin or not) are rooted in our own insecurities, often related to our core needs. “The true purpose of the Enneagram is to reveal to you your shadow side and offer spiritual counsel on how to open it to the transformative light of grace.” (p. 31) The book ties our “shadow sides” and core needs to the nine Enneagram types.

As the Gospel Coalition (predictably) points out, the weakness of the Enneagram is also in how it deals with sin. We are frequently reminded Though Carl Jung is not mentioned in the book, the phrase “shadow side” which they adopt is a term from Jungian psychology. In The Road Back to You, we are told that we have “a shadow side they need to guard against.” (p. 191) But in Jungian psychology, the “shadow side” is a subconscious element to be released, not guarded against. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The Enneagram literature thus muddles together the frameworks of Jungian psychology with Christian theology. I believe the authors would freely admit that it doesn’t have grounding in any academic field.

The very idea that people have “personality types” that are permanent is an idea grounded in Jungian psychology, though perhaps it has an ancient analogue in astrology. There is nothing in the Bible to make us think that we fall into any finite set of “types”, or that our personality does not change.

I also don’t think that the Enneagram should be considered a tool for “spiritual growth”. The self-affirming and therapeutic message found in The Road Back to You seems like it may improve self-esteem and interpersonal relations; self-esteem is not spiritual formation. Making better decisions because you have learned something about yourself is not spiritual growth.

In my opinion, it is more helpful to think of the Enneagram as one of several “models”—rather than a “hypothesis” or “theory” that explains the way the world works. A dictum in science is, “some models are useful.” Models may lack explanatory power, but they could still be useful in elucidating patterns. Maybe the patterns are not the whole, but we know more than we did before we started. We can also accept that in many instances, the model is not useful. In the case of the Enneagram, its limitations need to be stated more explicitly.

Reading about one specific number may resonate with you. In the complex lore of the Enneagram, though, a person of type 4 (a “Four”, an “Individualist”) may have a type 5 (“Investigator”) or type 3 (“Achiever”) “wing”. And this type 4 person takes on characteristics of a type 2 (“Helper”) when stressed, and a type 1 (“Perfectionist”) when secure. So a person of one type can share the characteristics of four of the nine types. At that point, I feel that the Enneagram is quite overdescribed. The writers could just as easily have tried to convince me that a “Individualist” becomes a “Perfectionist” when stressed and a “Helper” when secure. The goal here doesn’t seem to be realistic counseling; it seems to become a Theory of the Universe. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the Enneagram. It is overextended in its uses. Like other psychological tools, it can make it easy to try to “explain” someone to himself or herself, rather than letting them tell you who they are and want to be. If at all, it should be taught with caveats and in conjunction with other balancing ideas.

Lastly, I should point out, Ian Cron has a finely honed writing style, even if this book has been somewhat overproduced. These writers have given us an admirable introduction with which to begin to explore the concept. They begin from a viewpoint of skepticism about the beginnings of the Enneagram, which adds plausibility to their arguments. Cron tells memorable stories and anecdotes with zest and snarky humor. The book has been written for a modern audience. I felt that the authors sympathized with my short attention span. In my opinion, that is what makes this book so popular, as much as the persuasiveness of the Enneagram.

Review: A Crazy, Holy Grace

Rating:

Full Title: A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory

Author: Frederick Buechner is an American Presbyterian preacher and the author of more than thirty books. His short story “The Tiger” won the O. Henry Award in 1955 and his novel Godric was a Pulitzer-prize finalist in 1980, but Christians of many streams admire him for his candid memoirs and essays. Buechner had an affluent upbringing between Bermuda and the east coast of the United States. He gained fame as a novelist in his twenties. He eventually chose seminary and ordination, but continued to write throughout his lifetime.

Overview:

A Crazy, Holy Grace (2017) is a compilation of many of Buechner’s best passages related to death, grief, and the problem of suffering. Most of them are taken from his four memoirs, which are highly regarded by many Christian authors. They are listed here:

  1. The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982)
  2. Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983)
  3. Telling Secrets: A Memoir (1991)
  4. The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (1999)

While compilations are often detrimental to a writer’s original purpose and flow of thought, I welcome it in the case of Frederick Buechner. Buechner’s memoirs are reflective and untraditional. In my opinion, they don’t drive home a grand thesis from cover to cover. They may feel slow for an informed reader expecting heavy theology. A Crazy, Holy Grace, however, remedies this by drawing together Buechner’s many profound writings on a group of related themes. He is still not proposing a theodicy or a system of thought; but we may read his meaning a little more clearly.

As a child, Frederick Buechner suffered the loss of his father to suicide. He writes of being disconnected from the trauma as a child, but later being haunted by his father’s absence. This experience is one that shapes a large portion of The Sacred Journey, the best of which is found in A Crazy, Holy Grace.

Buechner is nothing if not frank. He chooses honesty over tradition in his writings, telling of his questions about the afterlife in The Sacred Journey and his seminary doubts in Now and Then. A Crazy, Holy Grace may be considered unsettling for a reader that lacks theological grounding. For instance, he imagines a conversation with his grandmother who is in the afterlife. Some readers (especially High Church adherents, perhaps) can appreciate this type of creative reflection, a la George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis; others may find it disruptive or strange. For my own part, I believe that this approach is why many ministers find Buechner so refreshing.

In an interview, Buechner was asked, “Do you envision a particular audience when you write?” He answered:

“I always hope to reach people who don’t want to touch religion with a ten-foot pole. The cultured despisers of religion, Schleiermacher called them. Maybe some of my books reach them. But most of my readers, as far as I can tell, aren’t that type. Many of them are ministers. They say, ‘You’ve given us something back we lost and opened up doors we didn’t think could be opened for people.'” (The Christian Century)

Review: Some Reflections on Prescience

Rating: ★★

Full title: Some Reflections on Prescience: in which the Nature of the Divinity is Enquired Into

Author: John Jackson (1686-1763) was an English clergyman, as well as a prolific writer with an independent way of thinking. Many of his works were first published anonymously or under pen names. In joining in controversial topics, he followed the lead of the philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Both men were sometimes regarded as heterodox for their writings about the Trinity.

Overview:

Some Reflections on Prescience (1731) defends the view, previously expressed by Samuel Fancourt, that some future events are truly contingent, and therefore unknowable, even to God. Whereas the other contemporaneous works on this topic—by Samuel Fancourt, John Norman, and David Millar—usually appeal to Scriptural revelation as an authority, Jackson appeals only to reason.

Jackson begins:

By Prescience is generally understood God’s foreknowing not only every action of ever Man, but likewise every, the most minute thing, that happens in the Universe. Now this Definition of God’s Prescience seems to me to be absurd, and no-wise capable of Demonstration, as I shall endeavour to shew in the following Sheets. . . .

Unless every action that passes in the Universe be foreknowable in its own nature from all Eternity, It is not necessary that God shoudl foreknow it; that is, in other Words, that God may be infinitely perfect without foreknowing it. . . . Now the particular Actions, that pass in the Universe are not foreknowable from all Eternity in their own natures, because the Actors of them, and things acted upon, are not eternal themselves. (p. 1-3)

If I recall correctly, Samuel Clarke shared this view with John Jackson. There were, then, a decent minority of writers and thinkers who spoke of unbounded omniscience as incompatible with human liberty. Ironically, these writers would agree on this point with Calvinists who deny human liberty to maintain God’s essential omniscience.

Jackson’s argument may be summarized as follows:

  1. God’s omniscience requires that he know all that is true and foreknowable.
  2. Free moral agents are not eternal.
  3. Since free moral agents are not eternal, their decisions are likewise undetermined in their causes, while they are yet non-existent.
  4. Therefore, even an omniscient God does not know all of the future decisions of free moral agents.

The argument is fine, so far as it goes; but it is probably meaningless to those scholars who presuppose that there is a state “outside time” or an “eternal now” from which God may see all events past and future as one.

Surprisingly, Jackson spends almost the entire book debunking the possibility that a human soul is eternal. (“Eternal” as used here extends to both past and future, whereas “everlasting” extends only into the future.) It is certainly an interesting choice from today’s perspective—I do not often hear anyone contend that human souls existed before their first breath (Gen. 2:7). Souls have a beginning point; if time is linear and basic to reality, no one can foreknow what a free soul will decide.

The logic he uses seems sound enough. But beyond the introduction, the book is very abstract, and belabors a point that is hardly ever discussed today—the alleged “eternalness” of the human soul. This book won’t be very interesting to anyone except those few souls who are keenly interested in the debates around open theism.

Review: The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1629)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: George Carleton (1559-1628), was a pupil of Bernard Gilpin at Houghton-le-Spring. He became Bishop of Llandaff from 1618 to 1619 and Bishop of Chichester from 1619 to 1628.

Full title: The life of Bernard Gilpin a man most holy and renowned among the northerne English. Faithfully written by the Right Reverend Father in God George Carleton Lord Bishop of Chichester, and published for the sake of his common auditors, by whom it was long since earnestly desired. The book was first published in Latin in 1628, under the title Vita Bernardi Gilpini, viri sanctissimi, famaque apud Anglos aquolinares [sic: aquilonares] celeberrimi.

Overview:

The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1629) is a brief but interesting account of a bold and compassionate English minister of the early Reformation days, written by one who knew him well. Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was well regarded by the English poor, whom he greatly assisted in both evangelism and advocacy work. He became known to many as “the apostle of the north” because he ministered across a large and rural area.

This book includes several of Gilpin’s personal letters, and has pointed stories about how he helped the poor of northern England.

Gilpin had a very independent mind, leading him sometimes to side with Catholics (as, at first, in the Marian persecutions of 1557), other times with Protestants (on the denial of purgatory and indulgences), and other times Gilpin abstains from stating a fast opinion (in the case of transubstantiation, which he believed to lack a clear answer from Scripture and reason). He gives lucid and accessible summaries of several of these Reformation issues in the course of this biography.

The most famous story about Bernard Gilpin is probably how his life was saved by the death of Queen Mary. In 1558, Gilpin was arrested, with a royal warrant secured by the bishop of London. In some versions of the story, Gilpin broke his leg and was thus late to meet his executioner (see page 100 of William Gilpin’s biography, and ch. 7 of All for the Best). In any case, when he was arrested and on the way to be executed, the queen died; the royal warrant against him was dropped as a result, and he preached for 25 more years!

This little book does give a few fine details about Gilpin’s life through his letters and anecdotes. A better sense of how he was “renowned by the northerne English” may be found in the historical novel All for the Best, or Bernard Gilpin’s Motto (c. 1890) by Emily Sarah Holt, which was a very interesting read with some difficult English vernacular. For a longer biography, you can also get a copy of The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1753) by his descendant, William Gilpin.

Read for free: You can read this title on the University of Michigan’s digital collection, here.

Review: Freedom Seekers (Series)

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternate Series Title: In the old editions, this series was called The Riverboat Adventures. Now they are called the Freedom Seekers books.

Author: Lois Walfrid Johnson is an American author with Scandinavian roots. She is mainly known as the author of three series of young adult novels: Freedom Seekers (formerly The Riverboat Adventures), Adventures in the Northwoods, and Viking Quest. She has also written four devotional books, some aimed at young people. In all, she has written 38 books.

Genre: Young adult fiction, American fiction, historical fiction.

Titles:

Freedom Seekers is comprised of six titles:

  1. Escape into the Night
  2. Race for Freedom
  3. Midnight Rescue
  4. The Swindler’s Treasure
  5. Mysterious Signal
  6. The Fiddler’s Secret

Overview:

The Freedom Seekers series (1995-1998) follows the many journeys of Libby (Elizabeth) Norstad as she becomes involved in the Underground Railroad while living aboard a Mississippi steamboat. The books are set in 1857 and include thorough geographic and historical details, impeccably researched by the author, but presented for children. It would be difficult to find an author of Christian historical novels more thorough, accessible, or tactful than Lois Walfrid Johnson.

Each of the books has its own physical journey to follow, but there is also Libby’s spiritual journey, plainly and gently told by the author. Through the course of the books, Libby deals with a variety of emotions, including fear, shame, guilt, and sadness, and she deals with them both appropriately and inappropriately. She learns simple lessons about Christian living in each novel. Though all this occurs while she is learning the ways of the Underground Railroad, Libby’s character development is the crux of the series.

Libby struggles throughout the books with the ethical dilemmas that come with helping freed slaves in the 1850s. She and her friends risk their safety many times so that their friend Jordan and other freed slaves can avoid being returned to their owners.

The intense action in certain chapters (snakes, criminals, cliffs, and risk of drowning are occasional dangers) may be too much for very sensitive readers, but Lois Johnson does not overplay these risks.

Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Alvin C. Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher.

Genre: Analytic philosophy.

Overview:

God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) focuses on two important theological problems:

  1. The problem of evil, which Plantinga classifies as “natural atheology” (p. 5-64);
  2. The ontological argument for God’s existence, which Plantinga classifies as “natural theology” (p. 85-112).

In passing, Plantinga discusses verificationism (p. 65-66), and arguments about the incompatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom (p. 66-73). He also covers the cosmological argument for God’s existence, popularized by Aquinas (p. 77-80); and the teleological argument for God’s existence, (p. 81-84).

This book often summarizes from Plantinga’s earlier and longer work in God and Other Minds (1967); it appears that this book was written with a more popular audience.

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the most important part of this book. Some philosophers believe that this defense has effectively rebutted the problem of evil in philosophy.

The problem of evil (as stated by Hume and others) regards moral evil as incompatible with the existence of an utterly benevolent and omnipotent God. Plantinga points out that these propositions—God’s existence, God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence and the existence of moral evil—are not explicitly contradictory. Some explanation is required to see that there even is a “problem” of evil, and certain presuppositions may be questioned. Plantinga uses the rules of logic to show that free will provides a plausible explanation for moral evil, even in a world created by an omnibenevolent God.

The gist of his argument is that it is possible that God, though omnipotent, cannot create a world in which all free actors always and necessarily choose to do good. For some Protestants, this may be a firm stance (i.e. a theodicy), but Plantinga points out that he does not need to prove this position. He only needs to prove that it is logically possible, and thus he uses the term ‘defense’ rather than ‘theodicy’.

Plantinga’s defense is thorough and grows in complexity. The lynchpin in his argument is what he calls “transworld depravity”: the idea that, if certain conditions are always met, a free moral agent may choose to do wrong in every possible world. “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong.” (p. 48)

It should not be surprising that our own guilt frees us from laying an accusation against God. A way of restating the argument in simplistic terms is this: the problem of evil relies on the unproven premise that, if we were God, we could do better than God did (that is, by creating a world with either less moral evil, or no moral evil).

A Note on Omniscience and Freedom

Plantinga argues (against an article by Nelson Pike) that divine omniscience and human freedom are compatible. This is, of course, the classical Arminian position. Pike used an example similar to the following:

  1. Suppose that at a certain time (let’s say, Tuesday), God believed that Charlie Brown would kick Lucy’s football on Wednesday.
  2. Charlie Brown has true freedom to either kick or not kick the football.
  3. Charlie Brown’s choice on Wednesday cannot cause God to change his belief on Tuesday.
  4. Therefore, if Charlie Brown chooses not to kick the football on Wednesday, then God was incorrect on Tuesday—God forbid!

In a nutshell, Plantinga uses the idea of “possible worlds” to argue that God has infallible foreknowledge in every possible state of affairs. I noticed a disconnect here. Plantinga apparently denies the premise #3 above because he and Pike are viewing time differently.

Pike seems to be assuming a linear view of time, in which a past mistake cannot be corrected.

Plantinga seems to be assuming a non-linear view of time, in which the future is somehow visible to God, perhaps from some stance “outside of time”.

Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time (1964) famously asserts that the Jews of Christ’s day had a linear view of time in which any kind of supertemporal abstraction was inconceivable. If Cullmann is correct, then the view asserted by Plantinga is not the traditional or biblical view, and we are left to amend either our view of God’s essential omniscience (i.e., by denying absolute foreknowledge) or our view of human freedom (i.e., by admitting Calvinistic determinism).

Review: The Glory of the Manger

Rating: ★★★★½

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Click here for more on Samuel M. Zwemer’s writings, or read his biography.

Overview:

While Samuel Zwemer was an extremely prolific writer throughout his career, only a few of his works have as much devotional value as The Glory of the Manger. It was the second published in a triad of devotional books, which are quite similar despite the time gaps:

  1. The Glory of the Cross (1927)
  2. The Glory of the Manger (1940)
  3. The Glory of the Empty Tomb (1947)

Zwemer was a voracious reader and an indefatigable worker, and it shows through even in his devotional works; that is to say, even his “devotional” works are very academic in tone. In several chapters, he takes to task the naysayers and philosophical materialists of his day who sought to deny the virgin birth of Christ. After these doctrinal defenses and logical forays, so common in Zwemer’s writings, he does move on to more applicable content!

Meat:

Although defenses of Christian creeds often feel like watching someone hold their breath until they turn blue, Zwemer presents here quite a bit of evidence for the historicity of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament. The appendix to Chapter III, on the “Witness of Pagan Writers to the Historicity of Jesus Christ,” is extremely interesting.

When he’s not presenting evidence for our faith, Zwemer gets to a masterful handling of Scripture.

The poetry and hymns presented at the beginning of each chapter—as it was in The Glory of the Cross—include a number of hymns that will be both fresh and fascinating to modern readers, chosen as they were from his wide reading across centuries of Christian tradition. Some may skip these few verses as if they were filler, but if you take a moment to read them, you will find that they are filled with treasure new and old, such as this four-hundred-year-old verse, taken almost at random, from Giles Fletcher:

“See how small room my Infant Lord doth take,
Whom all the world is not enough to hold.
Who of His years, or of His age hath told
Never such Age so young, never a Child so old!”

Bones:

It was characteristic of the time period to associate Christmas with doctrinal attacks on the virgin birth, as seen here in Zwemer’s Glory of the Manger, and Lockyer’s 1942 book The Christ of Christmas (material reprinted and expanded in All about God in Christ). Today that war has gone cold, so the polemical tone around this issue seems overblown. Nonetheless, Zwemer gives a wealth of historical and doctrinal resources in even as small a package as this book.

Quotes:

“The Incarnation was the greatest miracle of human history. And it is true. God who fills the universe was born a Babe.” (loc. 65)