You’re Not Enough (And That’s Okay) – Allie Beth Stuckey

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If there’s one term that describes contemporary cultural interaction, it would be this: affirmation. The constant cultural refrain is be ‘affirming’ of other people and their feelings. From advertising slogans to Instagram picture captions, there is a perpetual cult of affirmation.

In You’re Not Enough, Allie Stuckey helps the reader in “escaping the toxic culture of self – love”. In particular, this book is mostly aimed at women (towards whom Stuckey recognises this culture of self – love is primarily directed) and the specific contexts in which this culture of affirmation manifests. However, the assumptions of the myths of the culture of self – love that Stuckey analyses goes much deeper and is applicable to almost every area of society.

There are five central myths that Stuckey helps to deconstruct. The common theme through these myths is that the culture of self – love encourages people (especially young women) that the root of their anxieties, insecurities, and shortcomings is that they do not realise that they are self – sufficient, definers of their own truth, and entitled to achieve their goals. It is their “truth” that needs to be believed and that everything they are and feel is “valid”.

This insidious message is notably paradoxical: ourselves cannot be both our problem and our solution. The culture of affirmation sees the solution to all our insufficiencies in self – love, self – affirmation, and self – defined truth. In fact, one may wonder when the current generation of young women that is most entrenched in this culture of self – love and affirmation is experiencing the highest recorded levels of mental health issues.

From a biblical perspective, looking inwards is never a cure for our insufficiencies; we must look outwards, beyond ourselves, and ultimately to Christ. We are not “enough” because we are not self – sufficient. We were made for communion with God. As Augustine famously said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find your rest in thee.” Moreover, we are not “perfect the way we are”; in fact, we are destitute and sinful the way we are. The solution to our sinful nature is not another dose of introspection and self – love (which often borders on self – obsession) but the person and work of Jesus Christ. Simply put: we are not enough, but he is. As Stuckey comments, recognising the fact that we are not enough is an important step in understanding how to improve our condition. Coming to the end of ourselves leaves us clinging more and more to our saviour.

One particular obstacle the culture of self – love places in our way is the ceaseless proclamation that our feelings are always ‘valid’. In fact, this is not the case and it prevents us seeing when our feelings are actually the result of sinful actions on our parts. To be continually told that what we think and feel is valid, is the erase the category of sinful thoughts and is thus detrimental in our sanctification. God has given us a conscience to hold our moral conduct (including our thoughts) accountable. Therefore, consuming messages from social media influencers who perpetually inform us that our feelings are always valid actively represses and blunts our ability to deduce our own sinfulness. We become desensitised to our sin and thus become more prone to continue in it.

Despite these excellent critiques of the culture of self – affirmation, what prevents this book on being a 5 star work is Stuckey’s penchant for unnecessary political tangents. There were a view comments she makes about particular political positions she is well – known for holding that do not add, but detract, from the point she is trying to make. This is most notable in part 2, when Stuckey examines the “you determine your truth” myth.

Political comments aside, Stuckey’s book is certainly worth reading for those under the influence of these types of messages. To struggle with insecurities, anxieties, and insufficiencies is human; to feed our sick souls with a diet of introspection and falsehoods about our own perfection is not a cure. Instead, we ought to look away from ourselves and to the finished work of Christ to enable us, not to love ourselves more, but to love and serve others better.

The Whole Christ – Sinclair Ferguson

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may well be a cliché, but it’s certainly true when it comes to theology. The spiritual struggles and questions of contemporary Christians are almost always the same as those in earlier generations.

One such ever – present issue that causes spiritual problems is that of the relationship of the Christian to the law of God. Sinclair Ferguson analyses this issue of the law of God’s relationship to the Christian through the lens of the so – called “Marrow Controversy” of the early 18th century in the Church of Scotland. Whilst the book is not primarily about the Marrow Controversy, Ferguson uses the issues at stake as a background to tackling the Christians relationship with the law.

The key catalyst of the Marrow Controversy was the so – called “Auchterarder Creed” that was asked to perspective ministers of the gospel before they were licensed by the Church: “Is it sound and orthodox to teach the we forsake sin in order to come to Christ?”

In other words, is repentance (our forsaking sin) a condition we must meet before we may come to Christ? One’s answer to such a question brings out our understanding of the relationship of the law of God and the grace of the gospel. Perhaps another way the Auchterarder Creed could be stated is: “Is obedience to the law a pre-requisite for receiving the grace of God?”

Not only is this is issue of the law of God still very much relevant to contemporary Christians, but the implications of affirming the Creed bring about uncertainty about assurance of salvation. For example, if repentance truly is a necessary condition we must meet before we come to Christ, one may ask of oneself “Have I repented enough?” and have serious doubts about the validity of their own salvation.

Ferguson skilfully helps the reader find the biblical understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the law. He does this by looking at the two main errors. On the one hand, there is the legalistic view of the law and, on the other hand, there is the antinomian view of the law. As Ferguson adamantly stresses, these errors are not, at their root, opposite errors. In fact, Ferguson convincingly shows (perhaps counter – intuitively) that, in fact, legalism and antinomianism stem from the same theological error that manifests in different ways.

To understand this, consider the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, we see the prodigal son prematurely take his father’s inheritance and live a life of lawlessness. Here is the archetypal antinomian (anti – “against”, nomos – “law”) who seeks to free himself from the stifling laws of his father’s house. But what was the motivation of his antinomianism? He viewed the rules of his fathers house as oppressive. Even when his money runs out and he returns to his father’s house, he seeks to petition his father become a servant and thereby earn forgiveness and favour. In both cases, this antinomian is actually a legalist at heart. Ferguson insightfully explains that antinomians reject God’s law because they are actually legalists and have separated the law of God from the character of God. To see the law in isolation from God’s character is to miss the truth that the law is given to use a good, loving, and generous Father.

Indeed, on the other side of the coin, the elder brother in the story is himself a legalist also. He is despondent that his antinomian brother, on his repentant return home, is celebrated with a feast. But again, the elder brother has viewed working and “slaving” at home in isolation from the character of his father, which is loving and generous. He also seeks to earn his father’s favour through obedience.

To reject legalism, then, is not simply to add in a bit of antinomianism (and vice versa). It is best to view both God’s free grace and our necessary obedience to his law in the following way:

“At one level the problem is indeed rejection of God’s law. But underneath lies a failure to understand grace and ultimately to understand God. True, his love for me is no based on my qualification or my preparation. But it is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are. He receives us only in Christ and for Christ’s sake. Nor does he mean to leave us the way he found us, but to transform us into the likeness of his Son. Without that transformation and new conformity of life we do not have any evidence that we were ever his in the first place.” (p. 154, emphasis original)

With this key distinction, we understand that the law is good precisely because it reflects the Father who gave it to us and we obey its content because of, and out of, our love for him. Armed with this understanding, we can see that in fact there is no pre-requisite condition what we must fulfil in order to come to Christ. Our coming to Christ and the grace of the gospel gives rise to repentance. And whilst we ought not put the theological cart before the horse, repentance and faith are not be separated. As Ferguson himself says:

“The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly” (p. 88)

Such a clear distinction is needed for our time, and will continue to be necessary. Both legalism and antinomianism are ever – present millstones around the neck of the Church that erode the assurance of believers and the joy of the grace of God. Helpful and engaging works such as The Whole Christ equips us to rightly see God’s law as a gracious provision from our gracious and loving Father.

Luther on the Christian Life – Carl Trueman

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Living the Christian life is not an easy task. Regardless of the culture and era in which one lives, the Christian life is full of opposition, suffering, and uncertainty. Whilst the Bible is the sole infallible guide in the Christian life, we recognise that we can learn much from those gone before whom God raised up in extraordinary ways.

One of the most extraordinary Christian lives ever lived was that of Martin Luther. From the son of a miner, to a law student, then an Augustinian monk, Bible professor, and finally a husband, father, and pastor, Luther’s life was extraordinary. 16th century and Martin Luther expert Carl Trueman helps bring Luther’s insight on the Christian life to the modern reader.

One idea Trueman is keen to press home is that Martin Luther, as much as many people want to ‘claim’ him, is not a modern day evangelical. We, as Trueman critically notes, have a tendency to anachronistically read our wider theology back into historical figures. We read specific words and ideas with our contemporary, evangelical understanding rather than their original meaning. Moreover, with Luther in particular, we are often very selective with our reading of him. A wider, fuller reading of Luther (beyond just reading his writings on justification) will find his own priorities rather different to that of the contemporary evangelical Christian.

To be sure, there are many points of contact between the contemporary evangelical and Luther. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the authority of Scripture alone is what we love to read Luther for. We read his opposition to the tyrannical and corrupt Roman magisterium with a whispered “Go on Martin!”

Luther’s view of the Christian life, however, as Trueman argues, should really be parsed through two main lenses.

The Theologian of the Cross

Luther believed there were two types of theologian: the theologians of glory and the theologians of the cross.

The theologian of glory looks at how the world is and how the world works, and infers back from the mechanisms of the world the nature of God. The theologian of glory, therefore, sees how humans interact and gain favour with one another and interprets God’s relationship with humans in the same light. If we want God to look upon us with kindness, then we must do something to earn His favour.

In contrast, the theologian of the cross draws their understanding of God’s nature from where God has chosen to reveal His nature, the pinnacle of which is at the cross. What God has done in Christ is the lens through which we understand who He is.

For Luther, this distinction profoundly shapes how we view justification and our standing before God. For theologians of glory, God loves that which is lovely within us and we earn favourable standing with Him by making ourselves, in some sense, worthy of that favour. On the other hand, Luther, in thesis 28 of his Heidelberg disputation states through this paradigm:

“The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”

In other words, as Trueman explains “Human love, Luther claims, is reactive: it responds to something intrinsically attractive in an object, which consequently draws it out…[D]ivine love, by contrast, is not reactive but creative: God does not find that which is lovely and then move out in love toward it; something is made lovely by the fact that God first sets his love upon it.” (p. 66 – 67).

Not only does this distinction help us understand God’s justification of sinners, but is in fact a liberating way of understanding God’s love that rightly gives the honour and praise for our salvation to God alone. He is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and Luther brings out God’s creative love in a way that does not burden, but liberates the Christian to worship God rightly.

The Objectivity of Word and Sacrament

The second major paradigm through which Luther understood the Christian life was the objective work of the word and sacraments.

For Luther, Christ is objectively offered in both word and the sacraments to their receivers. So strong was his conviction on this, that he was willing to deem Zwingli, with whom he agreed on a number of other fundamental principles as “of another spirit” (i.e. not a Christian) because they disagreed on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

In many ways, I think Trueman makes the convincing case that the word and sacrament is the defining aspect of the Christian life for Luther. They are the cornerstone of the Christian life. Neglect of word preached and sacrament rightly received is spiritual decay; diligence in these matters often results in spiritual vibrancy.

Again, Trueman’s motif of not reading contemporary evangelicalism back into Luther is useful here. The modern evangelical has ‘quiet time’ or personal Bible reading and devotional study as the cornerstone of spiritual discipline. It is personal, individual study of Scripture that is touted as the key to spiritual life. Of course, in Luther’s day, this was impossible. Only those who could read Latin (a small enough minority of the population as it is) and actually possessed their own (often handwritten) copy of the Bible could actually read it. The average 16th century Christian only heard the Bible read to them and, in Luther’s eyes, the Gospel was displayed to them visibly in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

I certainly fall in line with Trueman in disagreeing with Luther’s view of the sacraments with respect to Christ’s corporeal presence, but agreeing with Luther on their importance in the Christian life. The administration of the sacraments and the word preached as the fundamental diet of Christian piety is something the modern Church needs to recover. Luther’s focus on the corporate aspects of the Christian life are an antidote to the secular individualism of the modern age.

Aside from these two main focuses, I really enjoyed the chapter on family life, children, and marriage. Luther gives unique insight in the Church as a man who was pastor, husband, and father. To read about his relationship with his wife, Katharina, and his children was really heart – warming. I especially liked the quotes from Tabletalk where Trueman refences intimate moments in the Luther household.

Very convincingly, Carl Trueman shows that Luther is more than just his 95 Theses and his “Here I stand” speech at the Diet of Worms. Luther had to come to grips with the implications of Reformation theology on the Christian life, and we, as contemporary evangelicals may disagree with some of his views, but we can learn an awful lot from Dr Martin.

None Like Him – Jen Wilkin

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In many important ways, we are nothing like God. He is entirely apart from us in His nature. “There is none like You, O LORD” cries the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 10:6). We worship God more purely when we capture that knowledge of how distinct He is from us in His perfections.

In None Like Him, Jen Wilkin focuses on ten attributes of God that make God totally distinct from humanity. Her focus is on the distinction between creature and Creator; between the finite and the infinite; the created and the eternally uncreated. To gaze on God’s separateness to us helps put us in our place and totally dependent on who He is.

By focussing on the limitlessness of God’s nature, Wilkin helps put into contrast our limits as humans. A key feature of the book is how she helps ‘topple the myth’ that humans functionally possess each of these attributes. We kid ourselves, for example, to behave as if we believe our selves to be all – powerful. Although as Christians we might not confess that we believe we are actually all – powerful, we have the habit of functioning as if we do. Wilkin seeks to shed some necessary light on some ways in which we have this tendency and temptation.

In some places, however, (and this is especially noticeable in the chapter on self-sufficiency), the focus is more on us than God. The focal point becomes how we are needy and how that displays itself in our lives rather than in God’s perfection; on our dependence rather than His self – sufficiency. Of course both are related. And in an important way, these attributes are described in relation to our human condition. Many attributes are defined ‘negatively’. That is, if we are finite then God is not finite (i.e. infinite). We are in time, He is eternal (outside of and not bound by time). We are what He is not. Thus, the distinctions Wilkin makes between us and God are useful, but overstressed. I assume she did not want to come across as too ‘abstract’, but ends up, in my taste, being slightly too man – focussed. Reflection on the nature of humanity and our limits is a fruitful endeavour, no doubt, but felt out of place in a book ostensibly about God’s attributes. I don’t think this fulfilled the mandate of the book, even if it did provide some helpful reflections.

Moreover, in a book on God’s attributes, I would have loved to have read a chapter on God’s simplicity. Many of her target audience are not (I would guess) likely to have a working knowledge of God’s simplicity. In a day and age where, arguably, the doctrine of God is one of the most keenly debated topics, and a knowledge of divine simplicity would keep many from error, a primer in Wilkin’s style would have been wonderful as an introduction.

She has an affable and winsome writing style, punctuated with many anecdotes that never very infrequently feel out of place. It’s written as an introduction to these ten attributes, with points of reflection and prayer at the end of each chapter, but many of the chapters feel under – baked. Some chapters seemed to end before they’d really started, though this is more noticeable in some chapters than others. Her chapter on the sovereignty of God was a particular highlight, however. Such a topic is a minefield of preconceptions but she helped the reader navigate the tricky waters with ease.

Coupled with her twin book In His Image, None Like Him makes for a basic, but apposite, introduction to God’s attributes.

When the Stars Disappear – Mark Talbot

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

What do we do when, sailing out on the open sea, the world goes dark and the stars that we use to guide us disappear? It’s a powerful image of suffering (based on Acts 27:20). How are we to cope when that which orients us is gone? This is the question Talbot addresses in When the Stars Disappear.

Each of our lives is an unfolding narrative, interweaving with other people’s narratives all the time. In fact, we are all involved in a greater narrative – the larger story of God’s people. In this light, Talbot wants to put our suffering in the context of the wider biblical narrative and uses individual biblical stories and characters to do so. He primarily focuses on Naomi, Jeremiah, and Job.

Considering the suffering of these great saints gives us a framework with which to view our own suffering. Indeed, our suffering is not ‘new’; people have suffered like us before. We are not alone. And God is not surprised by our suffering; He has seen it all. In Naomi, where famine drives her to Moab where she loses her husbands and her two sons; in Jeremiah who is rejected and beaten, and Job who loses everything he has and then his friends come to tell him that it’s all his fault. We suffer just as God’s people have always suffered, and their suffering is recorded for our benefit.

Just as the suffering of Naomi, Job, and Jeremiah had a purpose, so does ours. In fact, the Bible does not acknowledge the category of ‘meaningless suffering’. If our materialistic, secular culture has lied to us about anything, it’s the lie that our life, in general, and our suffering, in particular, is meaningless and purposeless. The biblical figures never thought that way, and neither does God.

Talbot looks at using the biblical idea of lament as a focus of our suffering. He helpfully argues that, in lament, the idea of God’s loving-kindness (chesed) is the point at which our lament turns from complaint and anguish at our situation to praise and trust in the very character of God. We must remember in suffering that His loving-kindness is basic to His character, appeal to His loving-kindness for reassurance of His unceasing care for us, and that God is able to do all His loving-kindness intends for us.

Talbot’s style is strongly exegetical and he really works at specific biblical passages on suffering. In doing so, he is not afraid to confront the difficulties in the way the biblical authors approach their suffering. How often are we tempted to sand-down the edges of biblical sorrow and lament, to make it more palatable to our ears? Specifically, Jeremiah says some things many of us would not feel comfortable saying in prayer, but yet that was his reaction to his suffering, recorded by the Holy Spirit. Talbot does a good job in helping present things in an honest light. Sometimes, he leaves issues in the text open – ended as to how to best interpret them. This seems useful to the interested biblical student to wrestle with these challenges, but I am not sure how helpful it is to those reading in the midst of suffering.

For all that is helpful in the book, I came away with the impression that the book is incomplete. Often, Talbot references the three future volumes of this series and, for my mind, is a curious way of presenting his work, since this first ‘volume’ is less than 100 pages. I feel two 250 page books would have been more helpful than four sub-100 page books. There were many small chunks of good insight that never really got developed. This made the book slightly too prosaic and dry, in my mind, for what it was attempting to be.

Above all, however, When the Stars Disappear helps orient our suffering around biblical stories and ground us in the inexhaustible loving-kindness of God. To that end, it is a useful book.

Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul – John Eldredge

Rating: 1 out of 5 starts

What does it mean to be a man? What is the heart of a man, specifically, a Christian man? These are the questions that Wild at Heart seeks to answer. They are important questions. Very important questions, in fact, for our time. Though the book was written 20 years ago, the questions it raises are all the more relevant in a day and age where gender is arguably the key issue.

Eldredge’s view is that recapturing the heart of true masculinity will not only help a lost, confused, and spiritually wounded generation of men but also the women with whom those men relate (whether as wives, daughters, or mothers). With this, I wholeheartedly agree with him. The questions he raises and the implications he draws from such questions are vital.

Throughout the book, Eldredge does well to highlight some issues that particularly face men. In particular, he talks about the damaging effects of pornography, the worrying trend of growing fatherlessness, confusion between the genders, and moralism in the Church (i.e. that men feel ‘doing good’ and ‘being nice’ is the heart of the Christian faith). They are all issues and questions men must face.

Unfortunately, however, my praise and agreement with Eldredge ends there. Eldredge’s book is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. His answers to the above questions are just as damaging as the problems he addresses. The issues with what Eldredge presents in Wild at Heart is treated accurately and thoroughly in Garry Gilley’s review (part one here, and part two here) which I highly recommend. However, I want to offer a critique of the major issues in Wild at Heart.

Rigid Definitions of Male and Female

As mentioned above, the main focus of Wild at Heart is discovering and recovering the heart of true masculinity. Eldredge’s initial claim is that in the heart of every man and boy are three fundamental desires: a battle to fight, an adventure to love, and a beauty to rescue.

These desires, says Eldredge, are in the heart of every man as he states multiple times “I gaze into boyhood, I search the pages of literature, I listen carefully to many, many men, and I am convinced these desires are universal, a clue into masculinity itself.” (p. 7, pdf version).

Firstly, this imposes a uniformity on masculinity that, frankly, isn’t present. More disconcerting, however, is the application of these desires that Eldredge brings forth.

In explaining the male desire for “a battle to fight”, Eldredge says “Aggression is part of the masculine design; we are hardwired for it…Little girls do not invent games where large numbers of people die, where bloodshed is a prerequisite for having fun.” (p. 7). This is a rather disturbing view of the male psyche which is extrapolated, if anything, from the innate sinfulness of the human heart. This may indeed be a particular sinful inclination, that of violence, that men are prone to more than women. However, Eldredge lauds this thirst for bloodshed in boys as a virtue.

Not content to acknowledge such a desire in the heart of boys and young men, Eldredge takes steps to actually encourage this desire in his own sons as they grow up. He recounts that “As [his sons have] gotten older, they love to start punching matches with me…Luke senses the opportunity, and he sneaks downstairs and silently stalks me; when he’s in range, he lets loose a wallop…I’ll never forget the day when Sam gave me a bloody lip, quite by accident, when we were wrestling. At first he drew back in fear, waiting, I’m sorry to admit, for my anger. Thankfully, on this occasion I just wiped the blood away, smiled, and said, “Whoa . . . nice shot.” he beamed; no, he strutted.” (p. 35). This is not just a particular dynamic Eldredge happens to have with his sons but is, in fact, meant to show the healthy approach for all boys and their fathers.

Not only is there the masculine desire for a fight, but also the second universal principle of manhood: a desire for adventure. Now, this particular desire would be less objectionable if it were not for the incredibly narrow definition of ‘adventure’ that Eldredge supplies. Generally, ‘adventure’ is synonymous with ‘outdoors activities’. Eldredge regales the reader of tales of hiking in arctic conditions, hunting, camping, rock – climbing, and so forth. Exploring is the key to masculine heart. Indeed, Eldredge states that men have an “innate love of maps” (p. 4) which is quite the claim.

Adventure and challenge cannot be interpreted outside of Eldredge’s narrow definition, however, which he presents as follows:

“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.” (p. 5)

In fact, men who are not enthralled with the same things that Eldredge are simply denying and suppressing their nature. Those who are naturally more bookish or artistic are simply not as inherently masculine as the canoeist.

Finally, there is the “desire for a beauty to rescue”. After all, “What would Robin Hood or King Arthur be without the woman they love? Lonely men fighting lonely battles.” (p. 10) Not only does Eldredge implicitly dismiss the idea of singleness as compatible with his model of masculinity (bad luck to Paul and Jesus, I suppose, who weren’t true men after all) but he gets dangerously close to viewing women in a very unhealthy object-to-be-saved light. I say “close” because I do not believe that is Eldredge’s actual view of women, but the lines of his argumentation stray close to those waters on occasion.

Ultimately, the view of the male heart provided by Eldredge is full of stereotypical macho-image outdoor explorer types with a sinful lust for aggression paraded as a virtue. In fact, I would suggest Eldredge actually argues for a kind of asceticism for men. Instead of men becoming monks to live in monasteries separate from the profane influence of society, they become adventurers living in the wilderness separate from the profane influence of society.

Use of Scripture

Underpinning Wild at Heart is Eldredge’s poor use of Scripture. Firstly, Scripture is not used at the primary source for Eldredge’s ideas about male and female. I was expecting the ideal, archetypal man to whom Eldredge would point as an example would be Jesus Christ. Alas, I was disappointed. Who does Eldredge point to? William Wallace, from the film Braveheart. A running theme of the book is that we are to look to films (and sometimes novels) for our understanding of human nature rather than Christ and His Word.

When Scripture is used, however, verses are shoehorned in wildly, with little care for context or original meaning. Of particular note, and one of the only times in the book Eldredge’s spends more than a sentence explaining a Biblical text, is his exposition of the book of Ruth.

According to Eldredge, the book of the Ruth is primarily about Ruth using her femininity to seduce Boaz into acting like a man. Moreover, Eldredge holds Ruth the Seductress as a model for all women to follow. I will let Eldredge speak for himself:

“Boaz is a good man, this we know. He offers her some protection and some food. But Boaz is not giving Ruth what she really needs–a ring.

So what does Ruth do? She seduces him. Here’s the scene: The men have been working dawn till dusk to bring in the barley harvest; they’ve just finished and now it’s party time. Ruth takes a bubble bath and puts on a knockout dress; then she waits for the right moment. That moment happens to be late in the evening after Boaz has had a little too much to drink: “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits …” (Ruth 3:7). “Good spirits” is in there for the more conservative readers. The man is drunk, which is evident from what he does next: pass out. “… He went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile” (3:7). What happens next is simply scandalous; the verse continues, “Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down.”

There is no possible reading of this passage that is “safe” or “nice.” This is seduction pure and simple–and God holds it up for all women to follow when he not only gives Ruth her own book in the Bible but also names her in the genealogy.”
(p. 91)

Dangerous Theology

Finally, scattered throughout the book are some very bizarre theological ideas that are used to support his argument. Of these, I note three.

First is that Eldredge’s view is essentially that of Open Theism (that God does not know future events). Now, Eldredge explicitly denies this claim, but when you say things like “God is a person who takes immense risk” (p. 17) and “It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases” (p. 18) and “It’s not just a battle or two God takes his chances with, either.” (p. 18) such statements are meaningless unless God does not know future events. How does an all – powerful, sovereign, and all – knowing God “take risks” or “take his chances”? The good news of the gospel is the sure foundation of God’s promises, not His apparent risk-taking.

Second is the shaming of the servant hearted. One of the saddest portions of the book was when Eldredge says “I’m telling you that the church has really crippled women when it tells them that their beauty is vain and they are at their feminine best when they are ‘serving others.'” (p. 91). This view is explicitly denied by the Lord Jesus, who not only instructed His followers to be servants of all (Mark 9:35) but modelled servitude in a humility we could never hope to replicate (Mark 10:45). In fact, the whole idea of service and sacrifice which is central to the Biblical idea of masculinity (Ephesians 5 is but one example) is never once mentioned. In its place is a self – serving view of masculinity; of adventure and pleasure – seeking.

Thirdly, Eldredge claims in a number of places that God verbally and audibly speaks to him. Whilst I am able to charitably disagree with brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to a different view of spiritual gifts than myself, there is a limit that both sides of the debate (who wish to deal honestly with the Bible) do not cross. In my opinion, Eldredge crosses this line in what he claims God has audibly told him. 4 or 5 times Eldredge records God’s audible words, including God telling him “You are Henry V after Agincourt … the man in the arena, whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dust, who strove valiantly … a great warrior … yes, even Maximus.” (p. 66, ellipses are original and not abridgements).

There are many other things I could have mentioned about this book, but this review must end at some point. The few good observations Eldredge makes are entirely obscured by his narrow and unbiblical view of gender roles, his wild and irreverent use of Scripture, and his poor theology. Wild at Heart should be read with great discernment or, preferably, not at all.

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy – Mark Vroegop

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a book that revolves around a idea little mentioned in many churches and by many Christians: lament. Whilst a third of all the Psalms focus on lament, it is curiously absent in contemporary worship – in prayer, song, and preaching. Lament isn’t only confined to the Psalter. You can find lament scattered throughout the Old Testament books of Job, Ezra, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Habakkuk. There is a book devoted to lament – Lamentations. In the New Testament, Jesus laments (Matthew 26:36 – 46 in the garden of Gethsemane; Matthew 27:46 on the cross), and so do Apostles Paul (2 Corinthians 12) and John (Revelation 6).

The concept of lament is foreign to us 21st century Christians. As Vroegop highlights in this book, Christians in the contemporary Western culture tend to lean one of two ways when confronted with suffering brothers and sisters. On the one hand, there is a false positivity, a “look on the bright side” type response. On the other is a encouragement of anger towards God. The characterisation of the Psalms, in particular, as allowing us to “shout and scream” at God in anger is ubiquitous. Vroegop helpfully guides the reader between these paths; neither denying or softening the difficulty of pain and suffering with therapeutic platitudes nor excusing sinful acts of anger towards God.

Lament, and Vroegop explains through analysis of 4 lament Psalms and sections of Lamentations, constitutes in:

  1. Turning to God in prayer. Addressing God and coming before Him; not letting our suffering lead us to prayerlessness and silence.
  2. Complaint. To bear one’s hurt and complaint before God; to express our experience as we understand them. To tell God how and why we find them difficult.
  3. Asking. Making a request of God that would honour Him and relieve our suffering. To make a heartfelt plea of what we desire.
  4. Trusting. Choosing to place our faith and our trust in God despite our circumstances. Reiterating what we know to be true about God, His nature and His character, and trusting that our suffering has a meaning that is decided by His sovereign decree.

Each step of lament can be drawn from examples in the Psalter and give a valid expression to our suffering in a God-honouring way. The framework that Vroegop provides is immensely helpful in applying Biblical passages of lamentation. There are even appendices to the book that help identify lament Psalms and phrases from the Bible to help a lamenting Christian express their sorrow, grief, and pain in prayer to God.

Vroegop is writing for those in need of lament, or those who are helping others to lament through suffering. The tone of his writing reflects this. It is the work of a pastor who has known and seen suffering first-hand, but has also helped others lament in their suffering. He helps the reader learn how to lament, how to learn from lament, and how to live with lament.

Yet lament isn’t just confined to those in deep suffering and pain. The whole Christian life, as Vroegop instructively notes, is to be lived in the “minor-key” of lament. We should not only lament for personal tragedy but also over sin – even others’ sin and injustice. There are injustices (such as abortion, as Vroegop mentions) that should prompt us to lament. In fact, our personal sin should prompt us to lament daily. The Christian life is a life of lamentation. We need to spend time in the “house of mourning”. In a very real sense, to neglect lament is to have an incomplete response to our own sin and the sin in the world.

As an introduction to lament, this is a concise, encouraging, and practical book. Whether you are in the midst of personal suffering, helping someone who is, or feel convicted to develop lament as a spiritual discipline as a response to sin and brokenness in the world, Vroegop’s excellent book would be my place to start.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution – Carl Trueman

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The culture in which we live in the West is the product of a revolution. Statements such as “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” would have seemed meaningless (or at least the symptom of a serious medical condition) but now is an accepted, and protected, phrase.

We can be tempted to reason that recent discourse and debate around gender and sexuality has instigated this cultural revolution, but Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self takes a different view. Trueman argues that today’s gender and sexual revolution is merely a symptom of a greater, slower revolution; a revolution that can be traced back in history. Whilst, as Trueman notes in the book, no historical event is the cause of itself, Trueman looks at the roots of today’s revolutionised culture from the thinking and writings of Jean – Jacques Rousseau through to the modern day. As a concise summary, Trueman explains the overarching historical narrative that he examines in the following way:

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity – and therefore sex – political.

The work is exceptional, scholarly without being difficult to read, and provides the reader with a critical framework with which to better gain wisdom and understanding for the current culture. One of the hallmarks of this book is that, by the end, you begin to be able to analyse the cultural phenomenon through the framework Trueman provides in the book before he does. In a way, this book is profoundly instructive in how we view ideas, and even legislation, in our immediate social context.

There are three fundamental, incisive concepts to Trueman’s analysis.

Human Identity is Made Psychological

A basic paradigm in which Trueman works is that, in the past, man in the West has derived identity from external virtues and influences. Political, religious, and economic institutions and affairs gave rise to the identity of an individual. Trueman notes the modern shift, however, to a psychological man. Identity is now an internal construct, not derived from higher ideals or values. An individual’s value come from her own self-consciousness.

A couple of important things that are familiar to us have arisen from this monumental reorientation of cultural understanding. First is that institutions now become servants of the individual and their own sense of inner well-being. A big shift can be seen church life. Instead of the Church giving meaning and individuals deriving identity from her teaching on the Gospel and its related ethics, churches have seen a surge of “seeker sensitive” movements to appease and serve the inner well-being of the individual. One must only browse the social media of an “affirming” church to see the validity of such perception.

Second is that things like oppression become predominantly psychological (and therefore subjective) categories. In a world of psychologised identity, the greatest crime becomes verbal assaults and challenging of one’s ideas and constructions about themselves. This, Trueman explains, as a key contributing factor about modern societies penchant to police speech, with ‘hate speech’ being considered violence and ‘misgendering’ an individual being a reprehensible act of bigotry.

Contemporary Culture is an Anticulture

Another framework with which Trueman uses to analyse today’s culture is the “three worlds” paradigm. Essentially, first world cultures derive their morality and code of ethics from pagan myths and/or legends (think Ancient Greek or Roman traditions), whereas second world cultures have foundations more in faith than in fate, yet still derive their morality from an objective source, apart from nature (the obvious example being Christianity). However, third world cultures have a morality that is not derived from a sacred order, like the first and second worlds. The third world exists to remove and overthrow the enshrined cultural norms and morality. Thus, in a very real sense, they are anticultures because, offering no new transcendent ideals, they exists only to remove and overthrow.

One such example Trueman mentions is that of modesty. First and second world cultures may disagree on what is and is not modest, and will disagree on their reasons for their conclusions, but will both agree in modesty as a concept. The third world culture seeks to abolish modesty as an inherently oppressive construct (usually toward women).

A particular outlet of these anticultural tendencies manifests through art. In a second world, art reflects the culture of which it is a part. Yet in a third world anticulture, artwork becomes deathwork in that it portrays that which was sacred and upheld in the culture as ridiculous, distasteful, disgusting, and maybe even childish. Deathworks seek to overturn the moral fabric of the society and divorce something upheld in culture from any moral content. This is quintessentially seen in the widespread manufacturing and distribution of pornography. As one of the central artifacts of the second world culture, sex was always given a meaning and context beyond itself. Pornography makes sex and end in itself, divorcing it from any cultural or moral significance and is therefore a powerful (as well as pervasive) deathwork.

Morality is Therapeutic

Another consequence of the psychologising of identity is a profound sense of emotivism as the basics of morality. Moral judgements become the expression of taste and of preference. One’s feelings about an ethical question becomes an ethical stance. The phrase “it just feels right” is the quintessential emotivist sentiment.

This ultimately means that morality becomes a therapeutic exercise, as the feelings of the individual are the final (indeed, in some cases, only) authority. What becomes important is that the internal, psychological self – defined identity of the individual be satiated – even the at the expense of verifiable, scientific fact. Trueman notices this initial shift in Charles Darwin. For Trueman’s analysis, Dawin’s evolutionary metaphysics, rather than his evolutionary biology, is the key conceptual change. The central point, Trueman notes, is that Darwin rejected the idea of teleology – that there is purpose, or an end, to the existence of humanity.

Once these three key strands are understood, Trueman makes a number of applications to contemporary society towards the end of the book, most notably that of the LGBTQ+ ideology, and more specifically of transgenderism. Once one accepts identity as a primarily psychological category, and, following Freud and subsequent critical theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, that psychological identity is primarily sexual, then the issues such as transgenderism become logical progressions.

Trueman insightfully captures the essence of our therapeutic society in the following way:

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.

Throughout the book, Trueman writes evenhandedly and does not tip his hat towards his Christian beliefs, until perhaps the last chapter. The point, as he reiterates, is not to lament or offer a polemic, but merely to explain how our current culture has come to be what it now is. In this, Trueman sees that we are all products of this environment in which we find ourselves and must be mindful in our own disapproval. He notes, pithily:

Criticism of “snowflakes” by those who themselves live and breathe the atmosphere of expressive individualism is therefore a cause for all of us to engage in self – examination.

Trueman aptly chronicles the decline of culture in the West to the contemporary anticulture full of deathworks; a ticking time bomb ready to implode upon its own insatiable desire to destroy. Trueman gets to the heart of the cultural disease and, once its rotten nature is seen clearly, will prompt the reader to cry Maranatha!

Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The enormity of this book cannot be overstated. I’m not just talking about its size, although at nearly 1800 pages in total, it is rather large. Rather, the impact this book has had on Western thought, in general, and theology (particularly in the Protestant and Reformed tradition) in particular, is enormous. It is a book often alluded to, often cited, and often referenced. The format and organisation of modern systematic theology is heavily influenced by Calvin’s magnum opus.

Ultimately, this work does function as a systematic theology (although, interestingly, there is no section of eschatology). Calvin starts with the knowledge of God, the foundation of Calvin’s theology, and works all the way through his theological thought in a logical order, until he finishes with the relationship between Church and state – the final practical out working of Calvin’s theology into society. As a guide, Calvin uses the Apostle’s Creed to work out his thought.

The Institutes is arranged into 4 books. The first book is entitled Of the Knowledge of God the Creator. The book is split into two main sections: knowledge of God, and knowledge of man in relation to God. Calvin’s position is that the knowledge of God is not to be found in man or in the frame of this world, but in Scripture, whereby His highest revelation to us is His Triune nature. In relation to man, in the second section, Calvin considers the general government of human behaviour. Although God uses the wicked as instruments for His divine plan, He Himself is pure and free of any taint of sin.

The subject of second book is The Knowledge of God the Redeemer and looks at the person and work of Christ. First, through the lens of the law, and second through the lens of the Gospel. It is interesting to note the early development of the law/gospel distinction that is so prevalent in later Reformed theology.

Calvin first considers the reason for our redemption by looking at the fall of Adam, original sin, free will, and all the consequences this has on the human condition. Calvin advocates a high view of the depravity of man as a consequence of Adam’s sin, following in the footsteps of Augustine. His lengthy rebuttal of the concept of free will (as defined in the Roman Catholic sense) is incisive. After outlining, through the fall, the need for a saviour, Calvin enters into a discourse on the act of redemption itself.

He starts with the Law. Showing how the Law cannot save, but points to hope in salvation in its fulfilment, including an exposition of the ten commandments. Yet what was hidden in the Law is made manifest in the Gospel through Jesus Christ. Calvin shows in what way Christ is the fulfilment of the Law as our saviour, principally by considering Christ’s three offices as a mediator between God and man: prophet, priest, and king.

If book 2 is primarily about the God the Son, then book three is primarily about God the Holy Spirit. Whilst books 1 & 2 contained discussions on the objective work of God as both creator and redeemer, book 3 looks at the subjective work God to the individual believer; God as sanctifier. The book has three sections, encapsulated in its title: The Mode of Obtaining the Grace of Christ, the Benefits it Confers, and the Effects Resulting From It. Ultimately, this is Calvin’s main treatise on faith.

The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ is by faith; a special work of the Holy Spirit of God in the believer. Its benefits and effect are seen in our repentance and subsequent justification. The principal exercise of faith, Calvin argues, is prayer, which he treats in this section. He also goes on to look at the distinction between common grace (that which is given to all mankind) and special grace (that which is given to the elect only). From this distinction, Calvin propounds his doctrine of divine election.

Though his views on election is what Calvin is most known for, the subject takes up relatively little room (4 chapters, out of 25 in book 3) in this mammoth work, and is given no special status. Election is not a starting point for Calvin (it comes at the end of book 3, about 980 pages into the work) but is simply one among many orthodox teachings in the Institutes.

The (abbreviated) title of book 4 is: The External Means. This is the focus of the communion of the saints and is divided into three parts: the Church, the sacraments, and civil government.

Calvin explains the Biblical marks of a Church, its rule and government (such as different offices in the Church – presbyter, elder, and deacon), and the power of the Church in doctrine, law, and jurisdiction. He then specifically focuses in on the sacraments, and what is meant by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Calvin we see an almost full Covenant Theology in comparing the sacraments in the Old Testament with the sacraments in the New. Finally, Calvin finishes off the Institutes with a discussion on civil government, and the Church’s relationship to it.

It is easy to think of Calvin’s work as a book that only academics should be interested in (or weird non – academic nerds like me, I suppose), but Calvin did not write the Institutes for an academic use. He writes like a pastor. And, as all pastors should, he has two voices: one for the sheep, and one for the wolves. One thing I was not expecting in the Institutes was the amount of times Calvin defended his position against that of the Roman Catholics, or attacks the Roman Catholic position. Calvin, growing up and writing in a Roman Catholic world, was writing for those who would come up against Roman Catholic teaching all the time. He equipped them to reject the Roman Catholic position and also defend the Reformed, Protestant one. Yet it isn’t just the Papists that get the voice to the wolves. Anabaptists, “sophists”, “Schoolmen”, and individual heretics (such as Osiander, Servetus etc.) all get the treatment. Some of these views may be of little interest to the contemporary reader, but a great number are very similar to arguments one might hear today.

Yet, Calvin also has his voice to the sheep, too. He gives great encouragement to struggling Christians and offers many reasons to put hope in Christ, and to see the beauty of the Christian faith. Calvin was a pastor and it show in his work.

Finally, Calvin never sets up his system of Christian doctrine as a new invention. He is always quoting not only the Scripture to prove his point, but also early Church fathers, as well as medaeival theologians. He interacts most often with Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Peter Lombard, and even Popes Leo, Gregory, and Innocent, among many others. Calvin is always keen to impress upon readers that the Reformation was just that – a Reformation, and not a Reinvention or even a Novel Invention. He also frequently interacts with ancient philosophical writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, especially in book 1. The real genius of Calvin’s work, in my opinion, is how he is able to succinctly articulate profound Biblical truths within the framework of the theology and piety that the historic Church (minus Roman corruption) had already established.

Quite simply, this is a phenomenal achievement of theological thought. So much can be gleaned from reading the Institutes – I managed to fill out 4 books worth of notes and reflections, as well as 270 highlighted quotations. I would highly recommend a read through the Institutes; it is a wonderfully beneficial exercise.

You can download H. H. Beveridge’s 1845 English translation of the Institutes in three different e-reader formats entirely for free here (courtesy of Monergism).

Recovering the Reformed Confessions – R. Scott Clark

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The main argument of this book manifests in two complementary threads; one broad and one narrow.

The broad thread of the book addresses the practice of the American Reformed Churches: their theology, piety, and practice. Specifically, how their theology, piety, and practice has deviated away from the Reformed confessions to which they purportedly hold. This particular thread of the book was difficult for me to follow and relate to, in practice, since I do not live in America, much less attend a Reformed church there. RSC distinguishes broadly between three types of churches. There is the ‘borderline’ group of conservatively evangelical churches that sit between the liberal ‘mainline’ and the confessionally Reformed ‘sideline’. It is this latter group of churches that form the focus of the book, yet insight can still be gleaned on confessionalism from this side of the pond, as someone who would personally sit in the ‘sideline’ camp but whose church would be in the ‘borderline’ camp.

The narrow thread of the book is the call for the Church (specifically the American sideline churches, but I think the author would extend this more generally) to recover the means of grace as the modus vivendi for the Christian. In particular, RSC argues the case for the confessional theology, piety, and practice.

Against the Reformed theology, piety, and practice of the confessions (essentially defined as the so-called “6 Forms of Unity” – Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, Larger Catechism, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt), RSC posits that the contemporary church has fallen prey to two major errors.

On the one hand, contemporary Christians suffer from a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). RSC argues that this is symptomatic of a type of fundamentalism, that leads to improper boundary markers for orthodoxy. Clark uses 6/24 creation (in the literalistic sense of 24hr periods), theonomic reconstruction, and a faulty view of justification (in particular, the Federal Vision/New Perspective-type covenant moralism) as examples of this theme.

On the other hand, there is the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) focussing on ways to circumvent God’s prescribed means of Word and sacrament. Specifically, RSC focuses on the experientialism of the Pentecostal movement within Reformed churches. Not necessarily in charismatic gifts (though they must be included), but also in aberrant ways of discerning God’s moral will. RSC digs deeper, and looks at pietism and revivalism as more foundational causes for the rejection of confessional piety. RSC makes a particular example of Jonathan Edwards’ pietism and makes a good case that such pietism is a return to medieval mysticism. Personally, I found this section the most relatable of the book, since the QIRE that RSC refers to is the dominant error that I encounter within my own context.

RSC seeks to recover a confessional Reformed approach to theology by first propounding the correct meaning of the analogical nature of our language about God, maintaining the Creator/creature distinction, and the categories of archetypal and echtypal theology.

To do this, if we are to retain the label “Reformed” at any rate, must be done within the public and, RSC argues, binding confession of the Reformed faith as expressed in the ecclesiastically sanctioned consensus documents of the confessions.

But how should we use the Confessions to this end? Three historic positions are discussed: “systematic” subscription, “full” subscription, and “good faith” subscription. Ultimately, the first leads to liberalism (since any specifics eventually are lost general themes) and the last is really no subscription at all.

In terms of the confessions themselves, RSC supports the idea of Churches revising the confessions to speak on heresies that have subsequently arisen since the 17th century. He argues this is was the heart of the divines who wrote them, and I agree with him. The confessions are written with anti-heterodox language throughout; specifically against the Papist views but also, of course, the Arminian views in the Canons of Dordt. The confessions then, must also be in some sense polemic rejections of what the Bible does not teach as well as apologetic summaries of what it does. Since, of course, many errors and controversies have arisen and have become prevalent since the 17th century, it would seem prudent to address these confessionally.

RSC goes on to defend the Reformed tradition more broadly, arguing from the classic Reformed theologians themselves, and the confessional documents, that the Reformed faith is:

1. Biblical
2. Catholic
3. Vital (i.e. living and life-giving)
4. Evangelical
5. Churchly

The final sections essentially address two major areas of contention when it comes to the application in the lives of churches and individual believers of the Reformed confession.

First is a section on the regulative principle of worship (RPW): its definition, and application. A main crux point is about the singing of uninspired songs and RSC claims that the singing of uninspired hymns is not consistent with any historical understanding of the RPW. However, RSC also offers a number of arguments as to why other canonical songs, other than the Psalms, may also be sung a capella.

Within this section, RSC offers an interesting interpretation of “in spirit and truth” from Jesus’s words from John 4. I confess, the interpretation I would have held would be along the lines of Calvin: “worship the true God correctly”. But Clark argues (and I think convincingly) that the verse should be rendered “in the Spirit and the Truth”, pointing to Trinitarian worship in the Holy Spirit and Jesus Himself.

Final section on the Sabbath and its continued place in Christian worship. The Sabbath as a one-day-in-seven rest from labour for the purpose of the worship of God and the attend of Word and sacrament was defended – both historically and exegetically.

These final sections were the most challenging to read for me. As RSC notes, adherence to both the RPW (in its historic sense) and Sabbatarianism is extremely counter – cultural. However, we should always be testing our practices against the Scriptures, not the culture (even church culture). RSC is surely correct that our attitudes to worship must change from the QIRE that dominates the contemporary Church, and instead restore the means of grace to their rightful place as the primary Christian experience.