Long Before Luther [A Review]

34525486“Was the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone an invention or a recovery?” Though Protestants might easily dismiss that question, it would be foolish to do so. The Roman Church asserts that this doctrine that is so central to Protestants is an innovation, and that we have thus been living in error for the past 500 years and need to return to the straight and narrow path found only in Mother Church.

It does not help, of course, that Protestants (and especially evangelicals) can sometimes act as if the modern Church just sort of appeared out of thin air without caring one bit where it came from. Slightly better (but only slightly!) is the belief that the true Church only arose 500 years ago when Luther posted his theses. This is not, however, how any of it works: we came from somewhere, and in one way or another we must reckon with our history.

In a peculiar and ironic way, this narrative of Church History is one that the 16th century Reformers like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli would themselves reject. While they did believe that there was corruption and theological infidelity and corporate sin in the Church that needed to be repented of, this was not a task of reinventing the Church or starting a new Church; their aim was to come back to the historical teaching of the Church. As Fred Sanders has recently put it, they intended to be more catholic than the Roman Church would allow them to be.

It is thus with great pleasure that I learned about Nathan Busenitz’s new book, Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation. There have been hundreds of books published this year in honor of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses, but this one stood out to me precisely because it works so powerfully to confront this false notion that the true Church was dormant or dead until the 16th century.

Structure

Busenitz focuses in specifically on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith with the intention of refuting the Roman Church’s claim that it was an innovative doctrine, having no historical precedent. He begins by looking at the scriptural warrant for the doctrine and then proceeds to examine the doctrine in theologians before Augustine, in Augustine himself, and then in later medieval theologians such as Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Throughout the whole book Busenitz stays rooted in primary sources, only leaning upon secondary sources to supplement his interpretation or to interact with others who read the sources differently than he does. Given that Busenitz holds a doctorate in church history and patristic theology, the section on the pre-augustinian Church and on Augustine himself are much stronger than the last section on the post-augustinian Church. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but it’s worth noting because there is certainly far more that could have been said about the medieval period than is spoken of here.

Areas of Improvement

Let me reiterate that I am so deeply thankful that this book has been published; Protestants could stand to have a lot more books like this on our shelves. That being said, I see two primary areas where this book could have been considerably strengthened: its doctrinal focus and its engagement with detractors and critics.

Doctrinal focus. In one sense, one has to commend Busenitz for his laser focus on a single doctrine for an entire book-length project; it would be easy to go a mile wide and an inch deep, and because he doesn’t do that he is able to interact extensively with primary sources. That’s pretty rare in popular-level evangelical books, and it’s wonderful that he does so.

Nonetheless, justification by grace through faith is not an adequate summary of everything the Reformers were trying to accomplish, and focusing only on this one doctrine exposes Protestants to the criticism that we only care about getting people saved without investing much thought into the life and function of the Church, and how individuals fit into the whole. Yet for Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, and the rest, the doctrine of soteriology was only part of the project of reformation.

In the medieval point of view, what distinguished the true Church was apostolic descent (can we trace a spiritual genealogy all the way back to the NT?) whereas for the Reformers the true Church was marked by the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and, for the Reformed at least, the right exercise of Church discipline. Right preaching of the Word came from the ad fontes impulse to dig back down to the primary sources rather than relying on millennia of interpretations instead. They weren’t abandoning Church history, but they were returning it to its proper place. Long Before Luther expressly does not intend to tackle all of that, but I cannot help but feel the book is a bit lopsided as a result.

Engagement with detractors and critics. Having only relatively recently begun to dig into patristics and reformation theology myself, I am in no way qualified to make judgments about whether Busenitz interprets the sources fairly or not. I imagine that most readers of this book will be in the same boat, and for the most part we are required to simply trust that he is not just lifting quotes out of context and using them as proof texts. That’s a scary place to be as a reader, and I imagine his case would have been rhetorically strengthened had he engaged opposing viewpoints more thoroughly.

To be fair, he does do some of this: on p. 25 he uses Alister McGrath’s contention that sola fide is an innovative doctrine as a springboard to get into his argument. In the section on Augustine he gives ample time to the argument that Augustine believed in sola caritate iustificare (“justification by love alone”) rather than by grace through faith alone. Given that the entire book is a defense against the accusation of theological innovation, though, I would have hoped to see this sort of interaction throughout more of his argumentation. This would have also increased the size of the book, but it would have been worth it.

Conclusion

It’s a rather short book weighing in at just over 160 pages minus notes and appendices, and seems to be targeted at the armchair theologian; it’s not as technical as historical theology can get, but I could imagine it going over the heads of some readers who have never read much in this vein before. My criticisms aside, I really do appreciate this book and Busenitz’s zeal to see a Protestant Church more connected to and grounded in its own history.

You can pick up a copy on Kindle for about $9, or you can purchase it from the publisher for roughly the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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Humble Roots [A review]

There have been (at least) two trends in my life over the past few years: first, I have grown rather weary of the endless parade of devotional books marching forth from evangelical printing presses, and second I have felt more and more of a desire to be out in my garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and planning. I tire of devotional literature not for any lack of good intention on the part of the publishing houses, but because so much of it seems to simply trot out the same clichés and formulas as the last 100 books. This has, in turn, led to my reading of far fewer books per year than in the past and thus spending more time out in the garden. To be fair, not all of the blame rests on the publishers; I tend to read books more quickly than they deserve, and my perception of their value might have been higher if I had read them more slowly.

513mja5ds-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still keep tabs on new books, however, and when I saw the publisher’s description of Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots, my interest was piqued to a degree that my cynicism could not repress. The premise is simple: growing fruits and vegetables and tending the land are activities that teach us much about what it means to be humble. In eleven chapters, Anderson walks through her experiences living in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cultivating the ground with her husband.

Chapter 7, “Vine Ripened,” is in my opinion the most excellent chapter of the book. The luscious-looking plump, red tomatoes in the store are not actually ripe but merely gassed to appear as if they are. Those tomato varieties are not cultivated for flavor but merely for their looks and for their ability to withstand long treks across the country in semis. In the same way, many of us approach life and maturity this way; the virtues we admire in others tend to be whether they are attractive or whether they say things we agree with. If someone knows the “right” people or espouses the right ideas, then we think of them as mature or worthy of our admiration. Anderson challenges this notion and suggests that perhaps the reason we see so many failures of character in the church (and even in the wider world) is because we prize superficial maturity rather than something deeper.

Horticulture is the thread tying the whole book together; this is largely a strength, but sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming cheesy. What saves the book from going there is the fact that Anderson is actually conversant in the language of the garden, and is not simply rummaging for illustrations out of a book or off the internet. She knows what she’s talking about, whether the subject is character or apple trees.

I must say that all in all, this is one of the better books I have read this year. The vine ripened tomato analogy I shared above is something I have been ruminating on for weeks and will likely stick in my consciousness for years to come. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $7.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age [A Review]

Why do greater certainty and more control only heighten our fear for what remains outside our control—especially if the possibilities are so improbable?

—Bob Cutillo, MD

It is a curious thing that health care, whose very existence was once solely predicated upon helping people, has become an intimidating, monolithic, even frightening system that nobody fully understands and that can even ruin people physically, financially, and emotionally. It is not that anyone sets out with an evil gleam in his or her eye seeking to scuttle the lives of the medically needy; instead, we have arrived at the current state of health care rather unintentionally. The root problem is that we believe our health to be a possession to which we are entitled and our health care a service which we have purchased, and thus are owed good service.

This is at least the thesis of the recent book Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado. it is true, of course, that when you or I go to the doctor we do expect competent and accurate diagnosis of any issues we are suffering from. What happens, though, when the diagnosis is something that cannot be treated? We may rage and splutter at the doctor as if we are being short shrifted, but this belies the fact that we have forgotten that health is a gift, not a possession. Nobody receives a guarantee in the birthing room that he or she will live a long, healthy, and disease-free life. Every healthy day we live is undeserved.

31qfo2suwml-_sy344_bo1204203200_With a certain amount of irony, it is this acceptance of our true lot in life that actually leads to a better relationship with our health. Life is a gift, and when a doctor, medicine, drug, or procedure restores us back to health this is also a gift. When we receive the news that a chronic condition is incurable or that death is knocking at the door, we can receive that news with sorrow, but also with a certain measure of peace and contentment, because every good day we have ever lived has been given to us.

I personally have a complicated relationship with the medical establishment; luckily I only have ever been to the doctor for something really serious a couple of times, but the heartache of sickness and death is not far from any one of us. I have lived my life in the peculiar valley that many others dwell in; on the one hand there are those who insist that everything about the medical establishment is good and ought to be accepted uncritically if it is uttered from the doctor’s lips. On the other hand, there are those who swear off anything and everything that has to do with the AMA; healthy living is a specific formula of nutrition, vitamins, essential oils, natural remedies, and even things like homeopathy and reflexology. To be honest, one of the reasons I picked up Dr. Cutillo’s book was to see if he might provide a way forward.

Reading Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age did not automatically reconcile these two groups in my mind or even provide me with an obvious third way, but Dr. Cutillo did help me recognize and understand that the posture of control is evident in both of these groups—they just disagree on how to control life. Viewing life as a gift, however, offers a certain amount of liberty in both. You can receive the diagnosis from the doctor without being disillusioned when the news is bad.

If I have any critique to offer of the book, it’s that its target audience is not always clear. Sometimes it’s as if Cutillo is writing to medical professionals, and sometimes to laypeople. The result is a book that feels at some points laser-focused in its intent and at other points simply over my head. That is a relatively small critique, however, and in general there is plenty of food for thought for any reader. Though I would hesitate to call this a five star book, it nevertheless is one of the most interesting, applicable, and genre-crossing books I have read this year. I highly recommend it.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $10 or WTS Books for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Cover photo courtesy of 强 石.

Punderdome [A Review]

I consider myself something of a connoisseur of puns. A pundit, you might say. A pun at its essence is simply a play on words, but a good pun exhibits draws an intersection between two otherwise unrelated conceptual fields in one word or phrase. A pun will always draw forth a groan, but a good pun also draws forth begrudging appreciation for the punster’s rhetorical cunning.61ve2bo1hojl

All of the above is a fancy way to say, “I like puns and I actually spend time thinking about them.” So when I happened to see a new card game come out last month called Punderdome, I was sold… even though I received my copy for free from Crown Publishers. Thanks! I decided to try it out with my wife and one of our friends, two people who both love and hate puns more than most.

The game is quite simple: someone draws two cards at the same time. Each card has a word or phrase on it, and then everyone else has 90 seconds to write down a pun that integrates the two cards. That’s the big idea of the game—I told you it was simple. It might not sound very difficult, but I found it to be rather difficult (and I tend to find puns to come fairly naturally). At the end of the 90 seconds the prompter decides which pun is the best, and that winner gets the two cards. Whoever gains the most cards wins.

A quirky aspect of the game is that whoever brings the game out and wants to play it is the first prompter, and (as a sort of apology for the groans that will ensue) he or she has to fill two mystery envelopes each with a prize. At the end of the game, the winner gets to pick one envelope as their prize. Of course, there might be a good prize in only one of the envelopes, so it’s a bit of a gamble.

The game is pretty fun, but I imagine it would be most fun with a large group of people. The only critique is that some of the combinations of cards can be fairly difficult, which decreases the fun when everybody fails to come up with anything. It’s a great game in general though, and I love how simple it is.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this game from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Home Cooked [A Review]

Cooking good food is one of those things we just do not seem to have time for these days. Most folks subsist on a combination of microwaved dinners, takeout, or dine-in. When we do cook, it’s usually a matter of popping open boxes from the pantry or pouring a frozen bag into a pan and coating it with a tear-open packet of sauce. After all, when creating a relatively decent hot meal is this easy, is it really justifiable to pour extra time into a meal just to make it from scratch?

home-cookedIn her new Home Cooked: Essential Recipes For a New Way to Cook (10 Speed Press, April 2016), Anya Fernald offers a middle ground between slow-cooked, high quality foods and fast but flavorless cooking. Her suggestion is simple, yet genius: put in time creating quality base ingredients and preserve them, and then when time is short on a weeknight you’ve got flavor-packed ingredients that are ready for use immediately.

Take, for instance, her sofritto: there’s nothing to it but olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made this to start a soup. I usually rush it, cooking it hot just to get it done, and the flavor is never as good as it could be. Her innovation is to cook it ahead of time and freeze it in ice cube trays for ready-to-go flavor later on.

The first portion of the book is devoted to such recipes for base ingredients, and then the rest of the book is divided up into appetizers/cocktails, meals, and desserts that utilize these base ingredients. Interspersed throughout are her various thoughts on cooking as well as stunning photography.

If there’s anything that turned me off about the book, it was the many recipes that I personally found rather unappealing (fried chicken hearts? raw beef?). I imagine it’s mostly because I’m vegetarian, but my omnivorous wife had much the same reaction as me.

That being said, there are plenty of other interesting recipes in the book that are appealing. I normally link to both the physical copy and a digital copy of the book, but in this case just do yourself a favor and pick up a hardback copy of the book from Amazon for $17.50. Not only is the Kindle Edition actually more expensive, but the hardback is worth it. It’s well-bound and sturdy, and quite aesthetically pleasing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Water-Saving Garden [A Review]

When my wife and I got married, we thought we’d try our hand at gardening—the fruits of our labor that summer were pitiful, but the joy of growing our own food carried us on. It’s a wonderful feeling to grow so much food for free, but the thing is that when you sit down and do the math, it’s not that free anymore. After the cost of seeds, good soil, fertilizer, and most importantly, water, it can end up being fairly expensive. If you don’t get a good yield from your plants, it can actually be more expensive than just buying groceries from the store.

61bu6y4v2yl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Because of these concerns, I was intrigued to pick up a copy of The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick. If I could learn ways to make a gallon of water go further in my garden, I would love to. While Penick offers plenty of advice on how to be more thrifty in terms of water usage, unfortunately most of her advice wasn’t very applicable to those who are trying to simply grow a small sustenance garden. I’ll offer a fuller critique in a moment, but first, what I appreciated about the book.

The Water-Saving Garden is divided up into 5 parts: motivation and inspiration for a water-saving garden, practical strategies and habits to use less water in the first place, how to landscape and pick more drought-resistant plants, how to evoke the illusion of water abundance, and a list of specific water-saving plants to consider.

Parts two and three were probably the most helpful bits; she gets very practical about how to collect and use (free) rainwater as well as the importance of permeable paving that lets rainwater soak into the ground, as well as mulching that slows the evaporation of that same water. Further, she also helps the reader understand that lawns gently sloping away from the house are good for the house’s foundation, but bad for water utilization because so much of what you sprinkle runs directly into the street. To that end, she gives practical ideas about how to replace lawns (which need tons of water in the first place) and re-landscape with native plants that are less thirsty and can trap water from running into the gutter.

Rainwater collection is a legitimately good idea that would help with my vegetable garden, except for the fact that I live in Colorado where it is very illegal to do so. I am very interested in trying some of her ideas with my front lawn, however, which is currently the epitome of water wastefulness. That’s a lot of money that I don’t need to be sending down the street! It was also valuable for me to think through the role of mulch in trapping water from evaporating, but I wish she would’ve spoken explicitly about vegetables (especially root vegetables) where you have to disturb the soil more frequently.

I hate to say it, but in general the book struck me as having a fairly pretentious tone. The introduction is mostly a guilt trip about using so much water in our country, and names sustainable living and climate change as the primary reasons anyone would want to save water. The pictures of gardens she presents in part one are these grand, sweeping vistas of beautiful shrubbery and carefully landscaped paths. I think gardens are beautiful as much as the next person, but it just seems like she’s writing exclusively to upper class middle-aged Americans who garden because they can and because they don’t have much else to do. Saving water, for this demographic, is mainly a moral concern rather than a financial one. I’m not in any way saying that these people shouldn’t save water, but only that it comes across as very pretentious to those who need to save water in order to make gardening a feasible endeavor.

For what it is, the book is a good one, which is to say that it accomplishes what it intends. That being said, it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. If you tend a largely non-edible garden, this will probably be a great read for you. You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $13.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Imperfect Pastor [A Book Review]

The Imperfect PastorPost-apocalyptic movies always begin the same way. The scene opens upon the heels of catastrophe—all of humanity’s best laid plans have quite literally exploded around us, and the few survivors are left to pull together what remains and eke out some semblance of meaning and purpose from the ashes.

So call Zack Eswine’s latest book, The Imperfect Pastor, something like a post-apocalyptic pastoral theology. Having experienced desolation himself, both personal and pastoral, Eswine forges a way forward for pastors in the far from perfect world we live in. Simply put, he explores the calling we pursue (part 1), the temptations we face (part 2), reshaping our inner life (part 3), and reshaping the work we do (part 4).

What is immediately striking about the book is its tone. There are many books in pastoral theology today promising seven steps to a better church, or the secret key to unlocking ministry leadership potential in order to grow your church tenfold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many other books that react against this sort of “Leadership Industrial Complex” (to quote Jared Wilson) with uneasiness, distrust, and even cynicism. Having seen such grand promises fall through, the second sort of book warns the reader against the church growth movement and its allurement. While they rightly (in my opinion) point out the errors of the first, few go so far as to chart a practical way forward.

This is what is remarkable about Eswine’s work: his own personal disasters and disillusionment with chasing “professional” ministry seem to have chastened him and created in him a humble wisdom that is grateful for small things. What does pastoral ministry look like without speaking platforms, book deals, podcasts, and networks? What is a pastor to think when his church is not large, influential, strategic, or well-known? Consider these words:

We have trouble seeing how it is glorifying to God to eat food, learn to love, go to bed, and get up the next day for the same old work. The thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death. Of what account to God is an ordinary life in the grain fields?

As Eswine painted ever more clearly his picture of ministry, my heart kept saying, “Yes!” The cult of personality that the pastorate has become is neither good nor safe. Furthermore, it is hard to reconcile pastoral platform-building with, say, the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Eswine speaks an encouraging word to the majority of pastors in the world laboring in small congregations in the middle of nowhere, helping them shepherd their flocks with practical advice about how to care for the sick and how to handle well-meaning but hurtful comparisons to the former pastor.

If the book has any weaknesses, it is in its verbosity. Sometimes Eswine says in ten words what he could say in two. Notwithstanding, The Imperfect Pastor is a thought-provoking, incisive, and valuable meditation on what it means to be a pastor. I had something to gain by sitting at Eswine’s feet, and I trust that many others will, too.

You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $15, or from WTS Books for the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.