Review: Job (People’s Bible, Book 12)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Joseph Parker was a famed Congregationalist preacher of late nineteenth-century London. His People’s Bible is a monumental series of over 1000 sermons from the perspective of biblical (or narrative) theology.

Overview:

Joseph Parker’s preaching style is especially suited to Old Testament wisdom, and had already published a volume on Job (Job’s Comforters: Scientific Sympathy, 1874) more than a decade before his magnum opus, The People’s Bible, was begun.

As usual, almost every sermon in this volume includes generalizations about the book as a whole, relating it to New Testament truth. However, unlike many books written about Job (e.g., Morgan’s The Answers of Jesus to Job), he doesn’t skip over the dialogues of Job’s friends. Parker goes chapter by chapter, following the dialogue in narrative chunks, but usually not verse by verse.

Meat:

Job’s friends are a topic that Parker pays special attention to, as he did in his previous book on Job. In the course of his sermons, he points out two key errors that can be made about Job’s comforters:

  1. We may cite them as Scripture, without differentiating them from Job himself, or paying due notice to the narrative.
  2. We may pay them no notice because of the divine verdict rendered against their words (in Job 42:7).

Parker steers away from both, treating Job’s friends (and Elihu) as serious debaters and theologians, with mostly correct—but incomplete—view of God’s providence.

History is not a succession of accidents, but the outworking of a sublime philosophy, the end of which is the coronation of righteousness, the enthronement of purity and nobleness. Such comforters are sent to us as from the very presence of God.

Paul Anleitner’s Deep Talks podcast on Job treats Job’s friends in much the same way; they are correct in observing that, in general, the righteous prosper and the wicked perish (Prov. 11:10, 29:2, etc.); this, however, is simply not the whole picture.

The general doctrine is founded in truth; its fallacy lies is in its application to Job’s peculiar case.

I should add, Chesterton’s wonderful 1902 article on Robert Louis Stevenson rather turns this topic on its head.

Bones:

The shortcomings of this book are not different from the shortcomings of The People’s Bible as a whole; namely, Parker is a “big picture” preacher and doesn’t often answer detail-oriented questions about the text. This book should not be read at a study desk. Rather, his sermons need to be approached in armchair with a large cup of tea.

Quotes:

“Good behaviour founded upon a philosophy of fear is only vice in a fit of dejection.”

“No man could see himself and live.”

“May we not have argued about providences when we ought to have prayed respecting them?”

“If we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is able to lay a wounded hand upon God, and a wounded hand upon man, and to bring God and man together in righteous and eternal reconciliation.”

“How if it should turn out at last that our very punishment has been meted to us in mercy? What if at the end it should be found that adversity was a veiled evangel sent from heaven to bring us home?”

On meaningless suffering:

“We must often suffer, and not know the reason why: we must often rise from our knees to fight a battle, when we intended to enjoy a long repose: things must slip out of our hands unaccountably, and loss must befall our estate after we have well tended all that belongs to it, after we have securely locked every gate, and done the utmost that lies within the range of human sagacity and strength to protect our property. These are the trials that we must accept. If everything were plain and straightforward, everything would be proportionately easy and proportionately worthless.”

On immortality:

“God, who has made so much out of nothing, means to make more out of so much: the very creation means the redemption and salvation and coronation of the thing that was created in the divine image and likeness. Creation does not end in itself: it is a pledge, a token, a sign—yea, a sure symbol, equal in moral value to an oath, that God’s meaning is progress unto the measure of perfection. This is how we discover the grand doctrine of the immortality of the soul, even in the Old Testament—even in the Book of Genesis and in the Book of Job. What was it that lay so heavily upon Adam and upon Job? It was the limitation of their existence; it was the possible thought that they could see finalities, that they could touch the mean boundary of their heart’s throb and vital palpitation. When men can take up the whole theatre of being and opportunity and destiny, and say, This is the shape of it, and this is the weight, this is the measure, this is the beginning, and this is the end, then do they weary of life, and they come to despise it with bitterness; but when they cannot do these things, but, contrariwise, when they begin to see that there is a Beyond, something farther on, voices other than human, mystic appearances and revelations, then they say, This life as we see it is not all; it is an alphabet which has to be shaped into a literature, and a literature which has to end in music. The conscious immortality of the soul, as that soul was fashioned in the purpose of God, has kept the race from despair.”

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Scribes of the Kingdom

An Apologia for Christian Scholarship

There are several classes of people in the New Testament setting that are difficult to translate or describe, and are liable to be painted with a broad brush:

As we take each of these in turn, a clear picture emerges: Jesus and the apostles endorsed the role of theologians and scholars as essential to the function of the church. The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees was most assuredly not that they took their Bible seriously and sought to learn all they could about it; rather, Jesus’ conflict with them was caused by their neglect of applying what they knew so well (Matthew 23:23). Their expertise brought upon them a great responsibility.

Who Are Pharisees and Sadducees?

Pharisees and Sadducees are two important schools of thought within the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees derived their authority from the law of Moses, and numbered in the thousands. According to Josephus, only the wealthy elite were persuaded to become Sadducees. Their main distinguishing doctrine was their denial of an afterlife.

Both of these groups frequently become straw men during sermons on the New Testament. However, it is clear from the Bible that not all of the scholars or religious elite of Jesus’ day were hypocrites. In the New Testament, the Sadducees are never depicted in a positive light.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were rivals with different views of the Torah. Interestingly, Jesus warns his disciples about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). Thus, he steered them away from joining both of these leading schools of thought, though several Pharisees did later join them.

Who Are Scribes and Lawyers?

Scribes and lawyers are, for all intents and purposes, the scholars and theologians of biblical times. But they are not translated this way because there are clear differences related to the tasks that they were involved in. In general, scholars of today are more specialized and less involved in clerical work.

In Greek, scribes are, etymologically, “lettered” or “literate” people. This makes more sense here in Asia, where handwriting is considered a marketable skill. In the Middle East, a “scribe” (خطّاط) acts mainly as a calligrapher, and neat handwriting is prized; in South Asia, scribes also may act like notaries, helping with official documents and clerical work, as they did in Bible times.

Lawyers as spoken of in the New Testament were not mainly concerned with secular law, but with God’s law found in the Torah. It is not entirely misleading to think of someone constructing an argument from piles of books or manuscripts, but the key difference here is that it was a religious role, not a secular role. For this reason, modern translations often use phrases like “expert” or “teacher” of the Law (that is, Mosaic law).

Woe to the Scholars!

Of the four categories listed above, all are are prone to negative descriptions. Among these, the Sadducees are perhaps the only one that is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the New Testament. They were in serious doctrinal error, and none of them in the Gospels or Acts ever offers any encouragement to the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus also pronounces woe on lawyers (Luke 11:46, 52), and scribes and Pharisees, whom he groups together (Matthew 23, Luke 11:42-44). In light of this, and Paul’s writings about the cross being “foolishness” to the wise of this world, intellectuals and scholars have become low-hanging fruit for Bible teachers who want to lead people into a more spiritual worldview.

In general, this kind of anti-intellectualism is not only unfounded, but unbiblical. In the New Testament, there are many scholars and teachers that seriously consider Jesus’ teachings or even follow him. There are several verses where Jesus explicitly speaks of scribes in a positive light, which are listed below. As for the lawyers, Paul requests a lawyer named Zenas to minister with Apollos (Titus 3:13).

Several Pharisees are either sympathetic to the Christian faith or believers themselves. Paul calls himself a Pharisee before and after conversion, suggesting that there was nothing offensive about their doctrine; rather, similar to the “Nazirites” of Scripture, it denoted a certain status in relation to the law (Phil. 3:5). In today’s terminology, some contemporary writers have characterized the Pharisees more like a conscientious revival movement—not a bumbling cult of nitpickers.

Jesus Sends Us Scribes

There are at least three passages in which Jesus makes explicitly positive evaluations of scribes:

  • In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe asks Jesus about the first commandment. (This is one of several passages in which scholars ask Jesus sincere questions, not intending to “trap” him as in other stories.) After their discussion, Jesus pronounces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
  • In concluding the parables of the kingdom, Jesus tells his disciples that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Scholars, therefore, have an important role in preserving and disseminating kingdom truths!
  • In Matthew 23, Jesus is pronouncing woe on the “scribes and Pharisees.” He tells them that he sends “prophets, wise men and scribes.” This is the most important verse in this study because it not only legitimizes scribes, but proclaims that Jesus himself sends them, working alongside prophets and other “wise men.”

Jesus and his disciples frequently interacted with scribes, lawyers and Pharisees in neutral settings. They attend his teachings and ask genuine questions:

  • In Matthew 17:10, Mark 9:11, Jesus’ disciples knew scribal teachings. In Mark 12:35, Jesus himself knew the teachings of the scribes.
  • In Luke 17:20, the Pharisees ask about the coming of the kingdom.
  • In John 9:40, Pharisees ask Jesus if they are blind, too.
  • In Mark 7:1, Pharisees and scribes come to see him—though he afterward rebukes them.
  • In Luke 7:37 and 39, Jesus sits in a Pharisee’s house. In Luke 11:37, Jesus accepts another invitation from a Pharisee.
  • In John 3, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) approaches Jesus in the night.

In other passages, scribes agree with Jesus:

  • In Luke 20:39, scribes agree with Jesus about the resurrection.
  • In Mark 12:28-34, the scribe (mentioned above) agrees that Jesus has spoken well about the greatest commandments.

In many New Testament Scriptures, scribes, lawyers and Pharisees have even become disciples of Jesus:

  • In Matthew 8:19, a scribe asks to be a disciple.
  • In Acts 15:5, some Pharisees had believed the gospel.
  • In Titus 3:13, Paul asks Titus to send “Zenas the lawyer” with Apollos; here he appears to be financially endorsing a scholar with a traveling ministry.
  • Paul himself was a Pharisee, and proclaims himself “a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee” well after becoming a follower of Jesus (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Phil. 3:5).

There are also New Testament passages where scholars, teachers, and Pharisees receive Jesus’ spiritual ministry:

  • In Mark 9:14, scribes came seeking healing.
  • In Luke 5:17, Pharisees and teachers came from every town, and “the power of the Lord was present.”

In a surprising number of passages, scribes and Pharisees defend Jesus and the apostles from the persecution of others:

  • In Luke 13:31, some Pharisees warned Jesus of persecution from Herod.
  • In John 7:50, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) publicly defends Jesus.
  • In Acts 19:35, a scribe calmed the mob in Ephesus.
  • In Acts 23:9, scribes of the Pharisees wanted to release Paul.
  • In Acts 5:34, Gamaliel (a Pharisee) advises the Sanhedrin to release the apostles.

Conclusion

The above passages resist caricatures of the Pharisees, who were a large and presumably diverse group. Rather, unlike the Sadducees, many Pharisees became followers of Jesus, or defended him against others of their sect.

More importantly, though, there is a clear and legitimate role for theologians in Jesus’ teaching. He does not exclude all intellectuals with a wave of his hand; rather, in Matthew 13:52 and 23:34, he maintains space for scholars and experts who maintain a high regard for God and his words.

Review: A Miscellany of Men

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Essays, articles.

Overview:

A Miscellany of Men (1912) is one of Chesterton’s most humorous and interesting books of short articles. Like The Defendant (1901), the essays here share a loose frame, but vary widely in subject matter. The frame for A Miscellany of Men is that of a collection of types or profiles of various people, but all of the “men” (and women) being portrayed are anonymous: “The Free Man,” “The Real Journalist,” “The Fool,” etc.

Themes covered are Chesterton’s typical fare: political paradoxes, religious freedom, and, of course, embarrassing tales of his own lethargy and absentmindedness. His self-deprecating humor peaks in “The Real Journalist” and “The Gardener and the Guinea.” Only a few articles deal with current events, and he usually only does so when there is an element of humor or paradox involved. With that in mind, pegging this book as “journalistic” articles would fall short of their enduring quality.

Near the end of the book, “The Divine Detective” is an essay that is key to understanding why Chesterton revelled in detective stories, as well as a profound statement of missional theology. I highly recommend it.

Liberty is a theme that is repeated throughout this book more so than in his other books of essays. Several whole articles are devoted to this topic:

  • “The Mad Official”—about unjust laws;
  • “The Free Man”—about political liberty;
  • “The Sectarian of Society”—about religious tolerance;
  • “The Voter and the Two Voices”—about agenda-setting in politics;
  • “The Chartered Libertine”—about liberty and law.

But, for Chesterton, the other side of the coin is always equality. He deals with classism and inequality in essays such as:

  • “The Miser and His Friends”;
  • “The Man on Top”; and
  • “The Fool.”

The key to much of Chesterton’s thought is how he seeks to balance these two axiomatic principles of freedom and equality.

Meat:

This was a very good book of essays, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in how Chesterton thinks. It contains some of the clearer statements of Chesterton’s political thoughts, in the above-mentioned essays. In particular, I was intrigued by “The Voter and the Two Voices”:

It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose.

Agenda-setting was formalized in political science in the 1960s, so this was not a problem that scholars were often writing about in Chesterton’s day.

Chesterton’s political opinions are, like his other opinions, told in a rather upside-down fashion. That is, he stands on his head, and proceeds to point out that that is the only way our theories are turned right-side-up. When he writes about women’s suffrage in the books opening essay, he does not argue for one or the other solution; he is always turning them both down and searching for clues to the deeper issues in our system.

Bones:

I enjoyed the “miscellany” in A Miscellany of Men, but I do wish that Chesterton had spent more time connecting his arguments together in longer chains of thought, as he did in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. If there is one reason that he is not grappled with more often as a serious thinker, it is this: his epiphanies do not roll in linearly, one at a time, but they come in jumbles all at once—so that he has had precious little time to filter for us the light of the Muses as it shone so brilliantly on him for those four decades of prolific output.

If I may make a single criticism, Chesterton seems to have more criticisms for the greedy and the power-hungry than he has solutions. One gets the feeling sometimes that he was backed into a corner. But then, he was a journalist, and I suppose that a cheery exposition of his ideal society would not have sold papers! He had to couch his philosophy in the reality around him, which was not always free and not always equal.

Read for Free: You can read this book for free on LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (multiple formats), the Internet Archive (pdf), and in the Kindle Store (mobi).

Similar: The Defendant, Tremendous Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, All Things Considered

Review: The Home of the Echoes

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of more than 50 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my guide to his published works.)

Overview:

The Home of the Echoes is another great book of Boreham sermons, from the period when he was at his prime. My favorites were “The Magic Mirror,” on looking away from self to Christ (see quote below), and “Breaking-Up,” on the end of a school term and separating from treasured friends.

Quotes:

SECOND-HAND THINGS:

“A gregarious religious is essentially a precarious religion. . . . She simply went with the rest; she followed the crowd; her faith was a second-hand faith. . . .
The young prophet had to choose between his own first-hand vision and the elder prophet’s second-hand one.” (loc. 137-141)

“I was hastening on to eternal destruction when the great tremendous God met me like a lion in the way.” (John Haime, Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, qtd. in loc. 156)

THE KINGFISHER:

“What are mountains for but to be climbed? What are oceans for but to be sailed? What are rivers for but to be crossed?” (loc. 204)

“[John Milton’s] only gleam of comfort lay in the fact that he had written, during his last year of eyesight, a pamphlet on the Civil War! ‘He could not foresee,’ his biographer remarks, ‘that in less than ten years his pamphlet would be [obsolete] and only be mentioned because it had been written by the author of Paradise Lost.” (loc. 193)

DOCTOR DIGNITY:

“He had too much respect for his dignity to stand on it.”

THE MAGIC MIRROR:

“[Richard] Baxter is a past-master in the art of self-examination. . . . Writing toward the close of his life, he makes a significant and instructive confession. ‘I was once,’ he says, ‘wont to meditate most on my own heart, and to dwell all at home, and look little higher; I was always poring either on my sins or wants, or examining my sincerity; but now, though I am greatly convinced of the need of heart-acquaintance and employment, yet I see more need of a higher work; and that I should look oftener upon Christ, and God, and heaven, than upon my own heart. At home I can find many distempers to trouble me, and some evidences of my peace, but it is above that I must find matter of delight and joy and love and peace itself. Therefore, I would have one thought at home upon myself and sins, and many thoughts above upon the high and amiable and beautifying things.’” (loc. 1609-1613)


This review was written in November 2015. I wrote this review using the Kindle version of the book.

Review: The Arrows of Desire

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of more than 50 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my guide to his published works.)

Overview:

This is a sought-after book of essays, and came highly recommended.

After his so-called retirement, many of Boreham’s shorter articles were collected into full volumes. This includes Boulevards of Paradise, The Arrows of Desire, Dreams at Sunset, The Tide Comes In, and The Last Milestone; all of these books consist of somewhat shorter articles than Boreham’s earlier volumes of essays.

Meat:

There are several great adventure and missions stories in this volume. About twenty of the articles were biographical. Sometimes Boreham would repeat biographical anecdotes from famous people; but some of the stories in this book were unique material that clearly required extensive reading and research.

It has been about ten years since I read this book, but I distinctly remember the following essays:

“Flying Fingers” (about Isaac Pitman)

“The Whale’s Tooth” (about missions in Polynesia)

“The Conquest of the Braves” (about John Eliot)

“On the Road to Yemen” (about Ion Keith-Falconer)

All of these are seldom-referenced stories, and in my voluminous reading in Christian biography and missions, I have hardly come across a reference to any of the essays as told above. These are the treasures of Boreham’s great depth and breadth of reading.

Bones:

In Boreham’s short articles, which were often culled from newspaper articles, not all subject matter was spiritual, so a few of the stories are lacking in any spiritual application. That is always a disappointment when you have limited time and are using Boreham’s books as devotional reading. Fortunately, though, the occasional interesting-but-not-so-spiritual essay is the exception and not the rule.

Review: Afghanistan, My Tears

Rating: ★★★★½

Author: David and Julie Leatherberry spent many years as Christian workers in Afghanistan. They have written two books about their experiences: Afghanistan, My Tears and Abdul and Mr. Friday.

Overview:

Afghanistan, like much of Central Asia, is a land of great linguistic and ethnic diversity. While Dari (or Afghan Persian) is the official language, most of the people Pashtuns (i.e., Pashto-speaking). The Leatherberrys felt God was calling them specifically to focus on working with Pashtuns, who number around 50 million worldwide.

In a world of flash and bang, this book is a simple account of a couple who trusted God and followed him for a people that desperately needed the gospel.

This book is a quick read. What I appreciated about it was that it does not create unrealistic expectations of life overseas. Many books make Christian work sound romantic. It is rare to find a book that presents the long view of leadership—cultures simply do not change overnight.

For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
And like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4)

About Beliefs

This article about the resurrection of Christ was published in G. K. Chesterton’s 1936 book of essays, As I Was Saying. Since that book is now almost impossible to obtain—and the title has been co-opted for an unrelated compilation—I’ve reproduced the essay here in full.


Some time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.
The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles’ testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any “resurrection myth” he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.
I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine. Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.
But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: “What are the Pleiades to me?” the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: “They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me.” We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.
The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say “I am Wisdom; I am Power” seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

Review: George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller

Rating: ★★★

Author: Michael Phillips has accomplished an exemplary work in reprinting numerous works of George MacDonald in contemporary language. In addition, Phillips has written many novels of his own with the goal of imitating MacDonald in his style and theology.

Overview:

For much of his life, George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a poor and poorly known pastor. His claim to fame was his long and varied literary career, which spanned five decades and included fantasy, realistic fiction (some set in England, others in Scotland, complete with dialect), poetry, literary criticism, and sermons. MacDonald’s five books of written sermons (Unspoken Sermons, The Hope of the Gospel, and The Miracles of Our Lord) are the quickest path to understanding his theology, which can be quite dense.

MacDonald’s theology was influenced positively by speculative theologians from the Continent, and negatively by his own childhood in Scotland. He recoiled from the strict Calvinism of his youth into a relational theology that made God’s absolute goodness the most important thing about him.

Meat:

The Prologue is awesome. And there were certain chapters I enjoyed. All in all though, I felt that the meat was lost in a sea of details about family life and lengthy quotes.

MacDonald was great in suffering, and, while it shows in his writing, this book does a good job of illuminating some aspects of it. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, he suffered from a number of ailments.

MacDonald also suffered because of his theology. His deacons in Sussex, not taking kindly to his free-spirited way of explaining his own thoughts, docked his pay in the hopes that he would resign. They knew that MacDonald had a growing family—eventually raising eleven children with his wife Louisa. But MacDonald didn’t quit. In fact, this move drove him to commit to more novel writing as a way of finding a second stream of income; and this eventually expanded his influence. Although he wasn’t ever as well regarded as London contemporaries like Spurgeon and Parker, he was invited to a few prominent pulpits, and was befriended by famous writers such as Ruskin, Longfellow, and Walt Whitman.

The way of the world is to praise dead saints and persecute living ones. (Nathaniel Howe)

Bones:

There are several interesting anecdotes, but in general this biography felt overloaded. I am curious to find out soon if Greville MacDonald’s George MacDonald and His Wife is better. If you couldn’t tell, I am a big fan of George MacDonald, as well as what Michael Phillips has done in bringing him to a new generation. However, I found this particular biography to be more useful for reference rather than enjoyable reading.

Phillips is clearly enamored with certain aspects of MacDonald’s theology. He spent nearly eight pages quoting MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons as an explanation of how he thinks about the afterlife. I had already read many of those sermons, and a half-dozen of his novels, so these lengthy quotes didn’t really add to the story for me. I was more interested in MacDonald’s influences and personal life.

Phillips does point out that the best way to get to know MacDonald is through reading his books, and for me I felt that saying still stood true after reading most of this biography. If you want an introduction to George MacDonald, this biography would be a decent one. If you are a reader looking to delve into George MacDonald’s thought-life or theology, his books, especially his sermons, can stand for themselves.

Review: The Wild Knight and Other Poems

Rating: ★★★★½

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

If you have not read any of Chesterton’s poetry, The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) is a great place to start. It holds the distinction of being G. K. Chesterton’s second published book out of a corpus that spans over 100 volumes over four decades (1900-1936).

Published at the turn of the 20th century, when the author was in his mid-twenties, the volume has almost nothing of the archaisms and classicisms that keep modern readers away from older poetry. Just as Chesterton’s other works, it strikes a balance between profound insight and childlike whimsy.

Among all his works of poetry, the more serious (or semi-serious) poems are found in The Wild Knight (1900), The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Poems (1915), and The Ballad of St. Barbara (1922). Those four volumes deal with many Christian themes and will probably be enjoyed by serious readers. Very different in tone are the light little collections Greybeards at Play (1900) and Wine, Water and Song (1915), which make quick and light reading, but don’t offer much in the way of hidden treasure.

Meat:

Among my favorites from this volume included “The Human Tree”, “The Donkey”, “Ecclesiastes”, and “A Portrait”.

“The Human Tree” is, to me, a striking picture of divine forbearance, reminiscent of the doctrine of kenosis found in Philippians 2.

“The Donkey”—about the donkey that carried Jesus during the Triumphal Entry—is frequently quoted by Ravi Zacharias and other Christian authors.

Many of Chesterton’s poems, both here in and in his 1915 volume of Poems, deal with Christmas themes, and these were later arranged into a pamphlet called Christmas Poems (1929).

Bones:

Like any good poetry, the author’s meaning is not always on the surface, and so I can’t say that these books make suitable devotional reading. Chesterton was a literary genius and sometimes makes use of archaisms that are not to be found in my little dictionary. Many poems will have to be read twice or thrice, but then, if that weren’t true, what is poetry for?

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub, mobi, html), Online Literature (html), Kindle Store (mobi)

Review: What Will Be Must Be

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Samuel Fancourt (1678–1768) was a Dissenting theologian in early eighteenth-century England. He is today well-known for two reasons: firstly, as a pioneer in creating the world’s first circulating library, a cause for which he practically bankrupted himself; and secondly, for being the earliest English theologian to write that some human actions are unknowable to an omniscient God.

Overview:

What Will Be Must Be is one of a polemical series centering around the Arminian theology of Samuel Fancourt, lasting from 1725 to 1735. The letters and essays include responses to Fancourt and Fancourt’s rebuttals, mainly around the concept of “future contingencies,” and the concomitant concept of God’s foreknowledge (of them). I have called this series of writings “The Prescience Papers,” and the titles are worth skimming:

  1. The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated (1727) [concerning his The Greatness of the Divine Love, A Sermon (1725), no longer extant]
  2. Appendix to the Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated (1729)
  3. The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved, Anonymous (1729)
  4. An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  5. God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated, John Norman (1729)
  6. Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (1730)
  7. A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies, Anthony Bliss (1730)
  8. What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (1730)
  9. All Future Free Actions : Future Contingencies, David Millar (1731)
  10. The Principles of the Reformed Churches, David Millar (1731)
  11. Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated in Reply to Mr. Millar’s “Principles of the Reformed Churches” (1732)
  12. The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated, David Millar (1732)
  13. Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
  14. Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (1733)

Many other books on similar topics were circulating in Dissenting circles during the same time period, such as A Vindication of Human Liberty: In Two Parts, J. Greenup (1731).

In particular, What Will Be Must Be (1730) argues that there is no such thing as a “future” event (that is, an inevitably future event) that is also a “contingent” event. This was a key idea for his opponents, such as Bliss and Norman, who argued that future events were contingent for us but inevitable for God at one and the same time.

These old works are not so fascinating in themselves, or in their precise content, because it contains no argument that would be novel to anyone well read on open theism. But the very fact that this “open view” was defended in Dissenting English theology 300 years ago is mind-boggling to those who have heard repeatedly that the open view is an innovation of the 1980s.

Meat:

The chief value of Fancourt’s writing is his return to the logical predecessor to open theism: the incompatibility of “absolute” foreknowledge with human freedom (or “the contingency of events”). Calvin also taught that contingency and foreknowledge were incompatible, but there it results in the denial of contingency and the affirmation of foreknowledge.

Fancourt’s relentlessly positive statement of God’s omniscience should be a lesson to modern open theists, who so clearly distance themselves from what they call “classical Theism.” Fancourt writes:

God’s foreknowledge is truly exhaustive: he knows past as past; present as present; certain future as certain future (because he has determined it in his providence); contingent future as contingent future (because he will allow men and angels to choose).

Again, in The Narrative (1747):

Why, it may be said—don’t you deny the prescience or foreknowledge of God? And this, however, is, we assure you, a prejudice to you here. I answer: if I deny God’s foreknowledge, it is more than I myself know. I never denied that God foreknows whatever will be.

Interestingly a chief axiom for Fancourt is that God did not plan the Fall of Man. Whatever glory he may get out of his atoning work, is not as great as his original plan, in which, Fancourt affirms, the Fall was neither foreplanned, nor a necessity.

Bones:

Reading this book in a fascimile from the 1730 edition was a hassle because of the many strange printing conventions, and I recommend getting an updated edition.

It is also annoying that the entire correspondence is not available in any format, and I hope that someone makes them all available.


Note: This review was written on May 28, 2016 and published online in 2020.