Tag Archives: Five-star books

Review: Hosea: The Heart and Holiness of God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: G. Campbell Morgan was a British Congregational preacher, active from 1883 to 1943, mostly at Westminster Chapel in London. Nicknamed “the Prince of Expositors,” Morgan’s accessible expository preaching gained him a wide audience on both sides of the Atlantic. During his long life of ministry, he published more than 60 books, many of which were sermons.


Hosea: The Heart and Holiness of God (1934) is a masterful exposition of the prophecy of Hosea. Morgan’s style of exposition is not verse-by-verse, but rather utilizes thematic verses that summarize the key points of a chapter.

As implied in the title, his summary of Hosea is that it is about the union of God’s compassion and his holiness. G. Campbell Morgan is able to paint such a beautiful picture of God because he learns the brushstrokes from the Bible itself. In this book he will stretch your heart and stretch your theology as you see the suffering heart of God, longing to see his redeemed people walking in holiness, walking with him. But as always he exposits the Word with reverence and simplicity.

The first couple of sermons deal with Hosea’s suffering as prophet. There are many in the middle dealing with the defection of the people and its causes and course. The last few sermons were in my opinion the best as he talks about the love of God for his people, how he cannot give them up to a life without Him, but sent His missionary Son to pursue His straying lover, His prodigal son—His people.


Morgan’s sermons are almost always simple, readable, applicable, and committed to the biblical text.

In much of his exposition, Morgan dwells long on the themes of God’s grief in Hosea, a prominent topic that is often shied away from because of its doctrinal difficulties. See for instance, the chapter entitled “The Difficulty of God”, on Hosea 6:4; while such language entangles systematic theologians in a thicket of complications, Morgan resolutely and simply discusses its meaning as it stands. He also does so without making God sound spineless or desperate. It illustrates Morgan’s commitment to the text, and vindicates him as an important preacher and writer for those interested in doing practical, biblical theology (as opposed to “systematics”).


Morgan’s strength is how he deals with the text, but if he has a weakness, it would be in spiritualizing what were meant to be historical events in the text.

Review: Christus Victor

Rating: ★★★★★

Full title: Christus Victor: A Historical Study of Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement.

Author: Gustaf Aulén was a Swedish theologian known mainly for Christus Victor. In historical context, he is also part of a movement towards neo-orthodoxy in Swedish Lutheranism (the “Lundensian” movement).


The book begins with the following statement:

My work on the history of Christian doctrine has led me to an ever-deepening conviction that the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement is in need of thorough revision.

Aulén sees previous atonement literature as divided into two camps, while a third option has been overlooked since the Reformation. Many previous studies of the atonement used a dichotomy of two logical theories: the “objective” atonement theory (penal substitution) and the “subjective” atonement theory. Aulén’s book, however, traces atonement theory from a third, older view: the “classic” or “dramatic” view seen in Scripture and the Eastern Church Fathers, which is less logically rigorous but just as important. In a nutshell, the classic view is exemplified in the Narnia novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wherein the atoning triumph is specifically over evil forces, not against an angry deity. The triumph is also sometimes seen as an act of deception over the devil, who attacked Christ at Calvary, not knowing that such a violation of divine law would overthrow his own kingdom:

Christ—Christus Victor—fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the “tyrants” under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. Two points here require to be pressed with special emphasis: first, that this is a doctrine of Atonement in the full and proper sense, and second, that this idea of the Atonement has a clear and distinct character of its own, quite different from the other two types. (ch. 1)

In Aulén’s view, the atonement as conflict and triumph over Satanic forces (including sin and death) is the most prominent explanation in the New Testament and Church Fathers, and the objective and subjective theories are later attempts to iron out tensions in the New Testament’s account of atonement.

Thus, Aulén divides atonement history into:

1) The classic view (conflict and triumph), which was the usual explanation in the New Testament and the Church Fathers for the first millennium of church history;

2) The objective atonement (satisfaction theory or substitution), which was developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and became the “orthodox” Protestant view;

3) The subjective atonement, which is typically credited to Abelard, a near contemporary and critic of Anselm. In Aulén’s view the subjective theory of the atonement is basically a reaction to the objective theory.


Aulén’s book is tranquil where others are incendiary, brief where others are verbose, historical where others are critical. It has become key to the entire atonement controversy and should be discussed by modern theology students.

Key to Aulén’s book are the many quotes from Irenaeus, Anselm, Abelard, Luther, and others. He shows quite effectively that “conflict and triumph” is at the very least an underappreciated facet of Christ’s atonement. This was part of a movement of “re-Reformation,” in which Luther’s theology was re-appraised and some key concepts were given new treatments in Lutheranism. Aulén states in the fourth chapter that legal explanations of the atonement had become the only “orthodox” explanations:

The theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy took it completely for granted that the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice was to be found everywhere in the New Testament, or, rather, that it was presupposed both in the New Testament and in the Old; in fact, it was primarily from the Old Testament that the “scriptural proofs” of the Atonement were primarily drawn, and this is a highly significant point. (ch. 4)

The goal in view in Christus Victor, however, is not to criticize satisfaction theory, but to revise “the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement” (ch. 1).

There are some unique elements of the classical/dramatic atonement that come out in his study:

1) The classical view of the Atonement is a view, not a theory. Aulén contends:

[The classical view] is not a logically articulated theory of redemption but rather an idea, a motif, a theme, which is essentially one and the same in Paul and in the early church, but finds ever-varying forms of expression. (ch. 4)

2) The classical view brings the Incarnation to the forefront. Aulén points out that early explanations of the Atonement were indelibly bound together with Christ’s Incarnation. The legal view, however, is somewhat at odds with the Incarnation, and critics point out that penal substitution pits the Trinity against itself.

3) The classical view makes God the main actor in the Atonement. The legal view of the Atonement often makes God the object of the Atonement, whereas he is the Initiator of the Atonement in the classical view (2 Cor. 5:19). Aulén aptly summarizes this tension:

It may be summed up thus: The classic idea shows a continuity in the Divine action and a discontinuity in the order of justice; the Latin type, a legal consistency and a discontinuity in Divine operation. (ch. 5)

4) Finally, the classical view emphasizes a new order based on grace. The legal view makes the act of grace also an act of payment; in the classical view, God not only makes amends (in Christ) or accepts the means of making amends (in the Father), but he initiates a change in the universal order which we may freely appropriate by faith in Christ. He enables believers to live in freedom from the devil and death. Law does not triumph over law; rather, grace triumphs over law, and the tension in the divine order is palpable in the classical view:

The nerve of the whole is the idea of the Divine Love breaking in pieces the order of merit and justice, and creating a new order to govern the relation of man with God, that of Grace. (ch. 6)

This acceptance of paradox, which is the final note of triumph in Aulén’s conclusion, resonates both with Christian mysticism and with modern writers on paradox such as Gerald Kennedy (in The Lion and the Lamb: Paradoxes of the Christian Faith) and G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy).


Aulén’s book is a potent challenge to proponents of substitutionary atonement. If the substitutionary atonement is so important, why is it only discussed during the second millennium of church history? Aulén probably doesn’t give proper weight to the Calvinist explanation, however. The options are these:

1) Aulén’s view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because the dramatic view of the atonement was the dominant explanation.

2) The Calvinist view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because there was no rigorous atonement theory.

As I see it, it would be shortsighted to say that there was “no theory” for 1000 years. This may be just another way of saying that explanations of the Atonement didn’t have all their kinks ironed out, which Aulén freely admits. But the fact of the Atonement was passed on from generation to generation, even in Britain’s medieval mystery plays, with a clear conflict and triumph motif. It cannot be passed on in a vacuum, just as anyone who says they have “no theology” just means that they do not know what theology they have.

Aulén manages to play to the strength of this problem by claiming that the classical/dramatic view is not logically rigorous; but I only mention it to point out that his explanation of this problem could be teased out in a longer work.


“The New Testament teaching corresponds with that of the early church; it being understood that there is not to be found in either case a developed theological doctrine of the Atonement, but rather an idea or motif expressed with many variations of outward form.” (ch. 4)

“It is possible to fix with precision the time of the first appearance of the Latin theory. Tertullian prepares the building materials; Cyprian begins to construct out of them a doctrine of the Atonement.” (ch. 5)

“The Latin doctrine of the Atonement is closely related to the legalism characteristic of the medieval outlook.” (ch. 5)

“Satan’s triumph would be his undoing. This strange paradox, that He who was the stronger than Satan should succumb to the power of evil and thereby break it—this paradox was involved in His situation as the Son of Man in lowliness, but having His high vocation, and all the while an instrument of God’s will.” (quoting Anton Fridrechsen)

Review: Orthodoxy

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: 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.”


Orthodoxy (1908) is Chesterton’s vision of the world, and it is a vision that does not shy away from paradox. Chesterton unapologetically challenges the zeitgeist as he sees it—he sees an age being overrun by philosophical materialism and biblical criticism. Almost every chapter turns a stereotype on its head: “The Maniac” (ch. 2) challenges the idolatry of logic; “The Flag of the World” (ch. 5) fuses optimism and pessimism and finds the Christian doctrine of the Fall to be the perfect synthesis; “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (ch. 8) challenges the cliche that holiness is necessarily boring.

As an economic liberal and a theological conservative, Chesterton constantly spins around the idea that conservative theology is somehow connected to niggardliness, lifeless moralism, or unsociableness.

Meat: Perhaps the best thing about this book is that few theologically interesting books are such a pleasure to read. Chesterton is always entertaining, but this book is remarkably readable. I went through it in only a few days, and immediately decided that I must re-read it as soon as I can.

I could not possibly summarize here what was profound in this book, but I could note two things:

First, his statement, that “you must love someone for them to be lovable,” has had a tremendous impact on the way we do evangelism in my organization. It frees us from looking for a certain type of people to minister to; it pairs with Schaeffer’s universal statement, “There are no little people. There are no little places.”

Second, the chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” has only grown in relevance as we now live in an information economy, where every passing generation is technology-native. Academics positively fidget at the concept of paradox; it is like trying to swallow a bundle of firewood sideways. Because so many worship information on weekdays but Jesus on Sundays, we struggle intensely at the Bible’s statements about lions and lambs. If Chesterton is right, finding not a balance, but violent synthesis between such paradoxes, may be an important key for building our faith in an age that is, if anything, even more subservient at the altar of reason.

Orthodoxy is, in a way, a culmination of Chesterton’s non-literary essays (The Defendant, All Things Considered, Triumphant Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, etc.), which likewise often involve humor, modern metaphors, parables, paradoxes, and the artful breaking of dichotomies and stereotypes. All of these books are good, but Orthodoxy is by far the best.

Bones: The one struggle of this book is the references. Chesterton played the part of journalist and critic as well as lay theologian, so he often references current trends which are dated, or peculiarly British. I would like to see an edition of this book that uses endnotes to make the reading a little smoother.

Quotes: “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Read: You can read this book for free over at Amazon, Online-Literature, Internet Archive, or Project Gutenberg—better yet, listen to it for free at LibriVox.

Related: The Lion and the Lamb by Gerald Kennedy.

Review: Power through Prayer

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: E. M. Bounds was a chaplain in the Confederate Army 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.


First printed under the title Preacher and Prayer (1907), E. M. Bounds’ Power through Prayer is a modern classic and the best book we have found on prayer. I hesitate to call it a “favorite” because the book cannot be perused on a whim. All of Bounds’ books drip with spiritual imperative.

All of Bounds’ books are available cheaply as paperbacks, in numerous (and monstrous) nine-book compilations, as ebooks, or in PDF form (free). Most are also available as audiobooks.


This book deserves six out of five stars, and it has lost nothing in a hundred years of printing. I tell my friends that other books on prayer make you wonder or ponder about prayer; Bounds’ books make you run to your prayer closet. He holds up prayer in its true relation, as the key mark of a true Christian, the greatest factor in successful ministry, and the first priority of the life of devotion.


Power through Prayer is actually a later expansion of Preacher and Prayer, which was published during his lifetime. As the earlier title made clear, many of the chapters focus on the preacher’s responsibility in prayer. This could distract some believers, but does not detract from the book’s force or meaning.


“Men are God’s method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.” (ch. 1)

“Crucified preaching only can give life. Crucified preaching can come only from a crucified man.” (ch. 2)

“Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned how to talk to God for men.” (ch. 4)

“There is no real prayer without devotion, no devotion without prayer.” (ch. 10)

Related: Purpose in Prayer, The Necessity of PrayerThe Possibilities of Prayer, etc.