Trusting God – Jerry Bridges

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In a book very similar in tone to Bridges’ other works (Discipline of Grace, Pursuit of Holiness) this volulme considers the problem of suffering (from mild to major) within the context of thinking about God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and love. The purpose of the book to serve as an introduction into thinking about God’s sovereignty and trusting God in adversity.

“Can we trust God?” is his intial question to tackle, but once we are convinced of God’s trustworthiness, the question becomes “How do I trust Him?”. The book is arranged into 14 short chapters in order to explore these themes, with an attached study guide.

Bridges argues in the opening chapter that we must keep three truths in mind when thinking about this subject:

1. God is sovereign
2. God is infinite in wisdom
3. God is perfect in love

He goes on to look at what it means to trust God within this framework. The first 7 chapters focus on God’s sovereignty, showing His trustworthiness, and the second 7 on His wisdom and love, helping us understand how to trust Him.

Bridges draws attention to the idea of God’s providence and how Christians often wrestle with a warped view of providence. How often do people say that good outcomes in their life is down to God’s providence? It is easy to say that you got a new job that you wanted in God’s providence. Yet how little, in contrast, do we hear of difficult and painful experiences being attributed to God’s providence? Rarely do we hear people say things like “I must thank God’s providence for my arm breaking”. Yet, Bridges argues, is it not equally true that it was God’s providence whether the event occuring happened to be enjoyable for us or not? Bridges uses a number of examples to highlight the inconsistency many Christians embrace on this issue that hinders their understanding of God’s sovereignty. In a succinct (and timely!) summary, He says:

“Nothing, not even the smallest virus, escapes His care and control” (p. 13)

With respect to sovereignty, Bridges argues that God’s sovereignty does not operate independently of the other attributes of God. In fact, he is very consistent with an orthodox understanding of the simplicity of God (i.e. that God is not ‘made of parts’). This is a very useful and pastoral observation at this point. We cannot examine God’s sovereignty in isolation from the rest of God.

A large portion of the section on sovereignty is focussed in the Old Testament. Bridges uses Old Testament narrative to show the sovereignty of God over people. Bridges makes the point that everywhere Scripture teaches how God exercises His sovereign control over both nature and people for His own glory. The God who was sovereign over leading His people out of slavery from Egypt, and the saving of the Jewish people via Mordecai and Esther’s intervention from the hand of Xerxes, is the same God sovereign over our lives today.

This necessarily leads on to a discussion of evil. I found his explanation of the problem of God and His sovereign will concerning evil to be a bit underwhelming. All of what Bridges said was true, but I felt it was slightly incomplete. Perhaps the author’s intention was not to give a deep treatment since the book is more of an introductory work, but still, he seems comfortable with saying God ‘uses sinful actions of man’ and even that God ‘permits them to happen’ but He does not say that actually God decreed them to happen. Bridges rightly says that God is not the author of sin and that God tempts no-one. However, I think he stops short of a full answer to the question. If evil is to happen, God must have decreed it to happen in some sense, since He has decreed whatsoever comes to pass.

He exhorts humility in the believer to convey this truth to others, very much in the ‘weaker brother’ spirit. Moreover, he shows the effect that trust in a sovereign God should erode our bitterness, resentfulness, and not encourage slothfulness (since we are still accountable). This was a sensitively written section of the book, and I think it necessary in all such discussions of the subject. Few authors are as conscious of the natural tendency of man to “puff himself up” in light of certain knowledge than Bridges, and he tackles this issue very well.

The examination of God’s sovereignty includes His sovereignty of both nations of men and over nature. Bridges implies that God’s isn’t judging nations by disasters or other events. By simply allowing them to happen, their purpose can not be known to us. In an ultimate sense, there is truth to the argument here, but I think it plain that God does use events and people for judgement. Whilst we must never presume to know the mind of God completely in all events, it is not true that no such judgement exists.

In the second half of the book, Bridges begins by examining God’s wisdom and love. His wisdom prevents us from badgering Him with questions of ‘why?’ Instead, as the Psalms do, we make ask ‘why?’ but ultimately rest in trust in Him.

As God is all wise, we ought not to think that when disaster strikes, that God is somehow uncaring. Bridges notes the parallel falsehoods. One is that God is good but is not sovereign. One is that God is sovereign but not good. If we affirm God’s sovereignty without recognising His wisdom in causing events that to us appear not to be good, we fall into the latter error.

When considering the love of God, Bridges begins by showing the depth of man’s sin. It is in seeing who we are that most magnifies God’s love for us. He finds the ultimate expression of the unity between Christ’s love and His sovereignty in the image of sheep and shepherd in Isaiah 40:10-11. God has both power and control over, yet tender care and watchfulness for, His sheep.

Bridges makes some excellent points about trusting God in the way we are made. Even people with disfigurements, abnormalities, and other defects are made by God in the way that He wanted them to be made. Moreover, those individuals are no less ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ than anybody else. It is worth our suffering with such infirmities in order to showcase God’s glory.

Bridges also talks about adversity and how it is an instrument of God to grow us spiritually. Through adversity, God uses the Word in ways we could not have understood or appreciated if we were not so afflicted. We should look to profit spiritually from adversity as He intends it for our benefit and for His glory.

Finally, Bridges concludes with two chapters that say that we must choose to trust God as an exercise of faith and to be ever thankful to Him as an ultimate exercise of our trust.

The book is written in a candid and personable style, as Bridges uses lots of personal experiences as explanations. Some of these explanations do feel over brief and anecdotal. In addition, some exegesis and context to verses used in argument is lacking that would make his points more robust. However, this book admirably serves as an introduction to trusting a sovereign God, and many Christians would do well to begin study the subject with this work.

The Sovereignty of God – A. W. Pink

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this seminal work, Pink wonderfully and powerfully provides a compelling treatment of the sovereignty of God. Pink analyses God’s sovereignty as revealed primarily in Scripture but also in nature. Pink is relentless in driving home his points using a stream of Biblical examples, which is a defining feature of the book. Pink is able to step aside and let the Bible speak for itself and refute any couter- arguments against God’s absolute sovereignty over His creation.

Pink starts with a short chapter on God’s sovereignty in creation and how it is revealed in nature. Variance in creation, he argues, is a sign of God’s sovereignty. Everything, from the variance between types of roses, to weather patterns is all decided by God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Next, he moves of to God’s sovereignty in the election of sinners unto salvation. He makes the strong point about election, in that election is “in Christ” and fervently denies the notion that God “saves people willy – nilly” as if He doesn’t still require belief. People are not elected apart from faith in Jesus. God still uses means to accomplish what He ordained in eternity. The category of people that are ‘dragged kicking and screamin’ into eternal life that would not otherwise want to be there is nonsense. No such category of people can be found to exist.

Once he has examined election, he tackles the trickier subject of reprobation – i.e. what happens to those who aren’t elected unto salvation. In talking about reprobation, Pink maintains that God not electing some to salvation is more than merely ‘passing over’ them. He says that this is part of the truth. The whole truth is that His reprobation is purposed and decreed. In essence, they were made for reprobation, and yet their reprobation is just on the basis of their own, real, sin.

“God’s providences are but manifestations of His decrees: what God does in time is only what He purposed in eternity – His own will being the alone cause of all His acts and works.”

Later in this chapter on reprobation, I think Pink’s supralapsarianism comes out to the open. He says that reprobation is not based on a foreseen rejection of God. If he means here a temporal foresight (just as, analogously, election to salvation is not by foreseen faith in the temporal future – contra the Arminians), then I wholeheartedly agree with him. If Pink, however, is talking about the logical order of God’s decrees, I would have a disagreement here (as someone who leans to the infralapsarian position). However, what he actually states about reprobation is completely orthodox and I wouldn’t have a fundamental disagreement, only a superficial one at this point.

Pink then goes on to consider God’s sovereignty in operation, first in dealing with the righteous and secondly with the wicked.

First, with respect to those counted as righteous by God:

1. God exerts a “quickening” influence on the elect. That is, regeneration.
2. God exerts an “energising” influence. God gives the believer, strength to serve Him in the fruit of the Spirit.
3. God exerts a “directing” influence. God the guide for all the elect. He guides us by “working in us both to will and do His good pleasure”.
4. God exerts a “preserving” influence. He preserves us for Himself and keeps us out of the hands of the evil one.

Then, considering God’s dealing with the wicked:

1. God exerts a “restraining” influence. God withholds and restrains the hearts of the unbeliever to carry out their sinful intentions.
2. God exerts a “softening” influence. In this way, God gives the sinner a disposition, contrary to his natural inclinations, in order to serve God’s purpose.
3. God exerts a “directing” influence. In this case, God directs good to come out of the intended evil.
4. God exerts a “hardening” influence. God blinds the minds of the ungodly as an act of judgement.

Pink also devotes a large chapter on God’s sovereignty and the human will. He rejects that man cooperates with grace in salvation and denies many ‘out of context’ Scriptural arguments in favour of the libertarian free will of man. We may have chosen God, says Pink, but only because the Holy Spirit “brought us from unwillingness to willingness”.

Pink initially discusses the nature of human will. He argues that our will is essentially the faculty to choose between alternatives. There must first be at least two alternatives before a choice can be made. Therefore, since we are not eternally indifferent to all alternatives, something in our will already influences the choices we make. We cannot make our choices apart from this influence, since for to do so would produce an uncaused effect, violating the key philosophical principle of ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes). Therefore, the will of man is not sovereign or self – determining. We choose according to the strongest motive at any given time – i.e. we always do what we want to do. The determining influence of the will, Pink argues, is in Biblical language the ‘heart’.

In the next section, Pink is quick to assert that the will is in bondage. In other words, the ‘influence’ that biases the will to one alternative or another is not free to be a bias to good or evil. In Adam, our will was free, in a state of innocence, to choose either good or evil. But the sinner after the fall is biased towards evil only. He uses an illustration that is most helpful. An object when held in the air, when dropped, will always fall in one direction – downwards. Yet if I want to move the object upwards, I must provide an external force and lift it upwards with my arm. The object in its natural course will never go upwards, and also being prevented from falling by the hand that holds it. In the same way, the human will always chooses evil, unless the external influence of the Spirit of God enables him. God’s hand prevents the sinner from falling, but when he does fall, it is not because God pushed him but he fell on his own account – it is in his nature to do so.

In this section, Pink denies that Jesus’ will was in the same state as Adam’s – being biased only to the good. I would disagree with Pink here. Christ is the second Adam and obeyed where Adam sinned. He has the capacity to sin (in accordance with His true, unglorified human nature) and not to sin, just as Adam did.

In conclusion, however, Pink argues that man’s will is impotent in the matters of salvation due to its bondage in sin.

Next, Pink takes time to dissect the matter of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. He discusses the problem of man being held responsible for that which He cannot, in his nature, do – i.e. accept God. Pink convincingly shows that this inability is a moral one and only adds to our guilt. He takes Genesis’ account that Joseph’s brothers “could not speak a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Their inability was not because they didn’t know the language but be because of their moral hatred. Similarly, our inability is not because our human nature, as created, is incapable but our hatred of God in our sin is what makes us incapable.

Pink briefly deals with the sovereignty of God in prayer, qualifying the statement ‘prayer changes things’. If we ask God, in accordance with His will, that will surely be granted. Yet to imply (as some do) that we can change God’s sovereign plan, or that things cannot happen without us praying for them, is nonsensical. It makes man, not God, sovereign in the universe.

In Pink’s final two chapters he first considers some objections to the teaching presented thus far, and then a explanation about why the doctrine of God’s sovereignty matters. In particular, he highlights:

1. It deepens our veneration of the Divine character.
2. It is the solid foundation of true religion.
3. It repudiates the heresy of salvation by works.
4. It is deeply humbling to the creature.
5. It affords a sense of absolute security.
6. It supplies comfort in sorrow.
7. It begets a spirit of sweet resignation.
8. It evokes a song of praise.
9. It guarantees the final triumph of good over evil.
10. It provides a resting place for the heart.

Another slight disagreement I had with Pink is that he erodes the distinction between God’s love of benevolence, the general love He has towards His creation, as simply ‘compassion’. I think there is some sense in which we can say that God indeed loves, and is not only compassionate towards, the reprobate.

Overall, this work is a true masterpiece on God’s sovereignty and deserves its place among the elite works on the subject.

You can obtain a free e-copy (in epub, mobi, and pdf formats) of the book at:

Secret Power – D. L. Moody

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This short work on the Holy Spirit looks at how depedent man is on Him. Nothing, argues Moody, can be accomplished outside the Spirit, in terms of doing good for God. He is the ‘power’ by which we walk the Christian life.

Moody begins by focussing on the personality and full Divinity of the Spirit and denying this idea He is a power divorced from full personhood. Slightly unfortunately, Moody uses the the comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7 – 8) as proof text. I am against the inclusion of this verse into the canon, but it is understandable given the state of English translation at the time of Moody’s writing.

In analysing the preaching of the Word, which Moody maintains is vital to true Gospel ministry, the Spirit’s role here is a revelatory one. The revelation of God comes by the Word and through the power of the Spirit. In fact, Moody shrewdly rebuts the misnomer that we have to, in some way, ask or invite the Spirit to dwell within us and within the Church. The truth is, He has never left and has been with us and in us since the very beginning of the Church age – a shall be present until the end. Indeed, he says:

“Our work is not to make them believe; that is the work of the Spirit. Our work is to give them the Word of God – not to preach our theories and our ideas about it but to deliver the message as God gives it to us”

Another area of contention in the book is that of the works we perform through the Spirit as believers. Moody gives a good explanation of the “greater works” referenced in John 14:12 that will be performed by the Spirit after Jesus was ascended. He argues that the Spirit’s work of the subjugation of man’s will from sinning and God-hating is greater even than the raising of the dead.

Following the theme of the Spirit in the life of believers, Moody expounds the fruit of the Spirit, showing how the aspects of the fruit manifest in piety and practice. I found his distinction between God – oriented (love, joy, peace), man – oriented (patience, kindness, goodness), and self – oriented (faithfulness, gentleness, and self control) a helpful one. This is followed by a section on the unforgivable sin. Moody rightly distinguishes between grieving the Holy Spirit and committing the unforgivable sin of calling the Holy Spirit evil and thus blaspheming Him.

Moody also makes a point about the preaching ministery of the churches in his day. He calls out churches that are simply providing worldly amusements – they take up their time with fairs, raffles, dramas, and musical entertainment rather than actual, Spirit filled worship. It was almost like he had modern congregations in mind! His critique against such churches is strong. He ends his critique by giving a great exhortation for cross centred preaching:

“Our failure now is that preachers ignore the cross and hide Christ with sapless sermons and superfine language. They don’t present Him to the people in a simple fashion, and I believe that is why the Spirit of God doesn’t work with power in our churches” Again, he could well have been talking about contemporary pulpits.

However, Moody in the next section goes further than simply a call to cross – centred preaching, and slips into revivalism theology. He says, in essence “If our churches do this, then we will experience the Spirit in this way…”. He implies if only the church were to fulfill a certain conditon, then we will experience a particular manifestation of God’s power. We will “have conversions all the time” (p. 106). Praying for God’s revival is all well and good, but I think Moody tips into revivalism here. He even belittles churches for not counting/boasting in their conversions.

Furthermore, I did disagree with his statement that “A man or a woman who is downcast is not fit to work for God” on the basis of Nehemiah 8:10. He seems to be equating “service of God” with “evangelistic outreach” and the two are not synonymous. Moreover, there are plenty of ways to serve God whilst under the weight depression or other forms of mental suffering.

Also, on the very last page, Moody makes a troubling statement that seems to implying that the Father is wrathful, the Son is wrathful but the Spirit is “the gentle, innocent, meek, and loving one”. Yikes.

Moody’s writing style is full of short sentences. He is punchy and sometimes witty, with some sarcasm thrown in on occasion. The book is an easy to read, especially for its time (late 19th century). Each section concise and broken into small chunks and relatively self contrained. A couple of odd comments at the end excepted, a fine treatment of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 4: The Age of Religious Conflict – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The final edition of Needham’s as yet unfinished Church history series, covering from about 1560 to 1740. The structure of the book has changed subtley to reflect the much more diverse nature of the Church in comparison to the earlier volumes.

In this volume, the Lutheran Church is considered in its own chater, followed by the Continental Reformed faith, then two chapters on the Puritans (mostly in England), one on the Scottich Covenanters, two on the enduring Roman Catholic Church, and then the final chapter on the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Given such diversity within the 16th and 17th century post – Reformation Churches, the structure allows the reader to only focus on one tradition at a time, which makes it most helpful to follow.

Much as the last volumes, the writing is excellent and engaging, the biographical portrayals lively, the respective movements considered are all well defined (where possible!), and the source texts at the end of the chapter are, as always, most illuminating. Some particular highlights include:

  • The explanation of the origins of the Thirty Years’ War was, at least from a religious point of view, clearly explained. This is personally a conflict that I hadn’t had much prior knowledge of, so I found this particularly useful.
  • The discussion of Moise Amyraut was fascinating. He is such an enigmatic character. Indeed, the whole issues of some potentially Amyraldian influences in the Westminster Assembly was interesting to consider and the effects of hypothetical universalism on the final draft of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
  • The English civil war was explained in a nuanced light that I appreciated. Too often, the definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is made in such a way that makes the English civil war too simplistic (and, of course, the Puritans are the ‘bad guys’) . Indeed, the whole definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is so nuanced, as Needham shows. He takes the stance that before the civil war, a Puritan was, broadly, an Anglican who sought further reformation of the Church of England. During the civil war and Cromwellian eras, Needham uses the term Puritan to mean those who wished to self – consciously advance Protestant ideals under in a national church context. After this time (the ejections of the Purtians from the national church in 1662), the term ‘Puritan’ is abandoned in favour of ‘Nonconformist’ (or if they left voluntarily before 1662 as ‘Separatist’). I very much welcomed the rigorous methodology in defining such a key term of 17th century English Church history.
  • Moreover, the Covenanters of Scotland were given significant space in the book and I personally found their coverage particularly well written. I expected to be ‘bogged down’ in covering the Scottish Church but I was pleasantly surprised!

Needham goes to great lengths never to wholly demean, nor hero – worship, any one particular individual or group/tradition in the Church. In fact, it is a most refreshingly balanced read that gives credit, concessions, and charitable readings where they are dew. Most notable, Needham’s coverage of Cyril Lucaris was particularly excellent.

The only major things I found slighlty disappointing were:

  1. The continued lack of information regarding textual transmission or textual criticism. Needham openly states he believes it to be beyond the scope of the series, but I did leave me a little disappointed.
  2. The section on Roman Catholic Gallicanism was a little laborious. This is probably due to my lower interest in the topic as opposed to, say, the Puritan era. The danger with such a broad overview of Church history is those areas of particular traditions that you care little about. This can hardly be helped, but I felt it slightly tedious all the same.

It must be said that I thoroughly enjoyed each and every volume in the series so far, and I eagerly anticipate Volume 5. I will be among the first to order it, I am sure!

Coronavirus and Christ – John Piper

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

With an impressive speed of writing and publication, John Piper aims to offer some hope and grounding to Christians amidst the coronavirus crisis.

Structured around two parts, Piper aims to first show us the the God who reigns over the coronavirus (and, of course, everything else). In the second part, Piper attempts to take our knowledge of God from Part 1 in order to address the question: what is God doing during during the coronavirus? At only 100 pages or so, it is a bite-sized book of reassurance and pastoral solace rather than a full theological treatment.

In this regard, I think Piper achieves his aim very well. The writing is simple, easy to read, and never verbose. The point of the book is to remind the reader of truth that serves as a foundation stone on which to base our lives in a time of crisis and that aim is certainly accomplished.

As it turns out, this is the first Piper book I have read. I think his style, certainly in this book, will be appreciated by many. Personally, the writing felt very informal, which is not to my taste, even in a pastorally oriented book, though the same style will invariably resonant well with some.

In his first section, Piper wants to ground us in the nature of God Himself, as revealed in the Bible. A good place to start, no doubt, but I did find an epistemological issue with regards to the quesiton “why do you trust the Bible?” His answer is very subjective (which he even admits) and is possibly unhelpful. The reason we can trust the Bible is not because of our own internal feelings. In fact, it does seem to slightly undermine his message of having a firm rock on which we stand.

Piper says that our understanding of God’s relationship with us is based on the Trinity and in God’s holiness, righteousness, and goodness. In doing so, he rightly discounts human suffering as an indication of God’s unrighteousness – a very useful point for us to remember in a time of suffering where people may turn to resent God. Piper also gives a really powerful attestation of the sovereignty of God; he gives a sober and welcome reminder that God gives and takes away life in His wisdom.

He does use some odd language with respect to Divine simplicity, though. “I take that to mean that while there are aspects of His character (His heart) that incline away from grieving us, nevertheless other aspects of His character dictate the holiness and righteousness of grieving us… But neither is He without complexity. His character is more like a symphony than a solo performance” (pg. 39). I think I know what Piper means, but I am not sure the language is helpful.

The second section Piper address what God is doing through the coronavirus. He gives 6 short answers. Of particular interest was that he maintained that God is using the coronavirus as a form of judgement in at least some situations. His distinction between purifying and punitive judgements was a useful and accurate one.

Overall, this book is a timely remind of God’s sovereign purpose in a global crisis, and a welcome call turn our eyes to the Rock and Foundation of all truth, who is sovereign over the coronavirus.

“In the presence of God, no one has a right to life. Every breath we take is a gift of grace. Every heartbeat, undeserved. Life and death are finally in the hands of God.” pg. 42

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3: Renaissance and Reformation – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Best of the series so far. I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of Reformation history. I suspect that is probably because the Reformation is perhaps personally my favourite period of Church history, but I found Needham’s treatment absorbing all the same.

I was a little apprehensive that the feel of this volume would be substantially different from the previous two owing to the sudden change of pace: the first two volumes together covered 1500 years of history and this volume only 100. Yet, there is simply so much ‘Reformation’ that I hardly felt the change of pace. In a way, Needham simply recounts the same 100 year period several times over. However, each time the focus changes different group or movement, ocassionally overlapping with one another: the Lutherans, the Reformed, Radical (Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and Rationalist), the Roman Counter – Reformation, and the Eastern Orthodox church (who didn’t really undergo any sort of ‘Reformation’.) Some time is also spent considering the Reformation by country, with England and Scotland having their own chapter. The humanist movement preceding the Reformation is highlighted and its influence over the following century is often linked back to men like Erasmus.

I really appreciated the biographical nature of some of the leading reformers in each movement – especially Martin Bucer who often ‘goes under the radar’ in some other works. Furthermore, Needham gave useful context to some of the more distateful episodes of the Reformation, highlighting, for example, the differnce between anti – Semitism and anti – Judaism, and the ubiquity of the death penalty for heresy (making the incident with Servetus a little more historically representative than: Calvin burned Servetus.)

One thing I was really looking forward to reading about was the huge change in approach to the Biblical text that occured over the course of the 16th century. Particularly, the advances in textual criticism and, even, of manuscript evidence. I was expecting some discussion on the textus receptus and its surrounding issues, but I was left slightly disappointed.

Nevertheless, the series is so gripping so far, I cannot wait for the next volume!

To Seek and to Save – Sinclair Ferguson

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Intended to be a daily devotional type book, Dr. Ferguson offers daily reflections on a small section of Luke’s Gospel throughout the season of Lent.

Starting with Luke 9:51 to the end of Luke’s Gospel, each daily chapter contains 2 or 3 pages of Ferguson’s reflections on the passage. At the end of each chapter, there is a sentence or two (usually in the form of a question) inviting the read to spend sometime themselves in prayerful reflection about what has been discussed in the chapter. There is then space provided for the reader to write down some responses.

The reflections are short and have a conversational flavour to them. They are intended to help offer practical reflections on how the reader can better focus on Jesus and His work in the Gospels throughout the book of Luke. Necessarily, the chapters are much more topical holistic than expositional in nature, but Ferguson always ties his application to the text.

On the Sunday chapters, instead of a reflection on a passage, there is a few verses from a hymn or poem to reflect on. Personally, though I found some of the hymns cited to be good and edifying, I found they didn’t fit or enhance the devotionals in the book. I personally would have prefered seven Scriptural reflections a week.

Devotional books of this sort are not usually my chosen reading, but I did find Dr. Ferguson’s pastoral and convicting writing to be a good accompaniment to reading through Luke’s Gospel, regardless of what ‘season’ of the Church calendar we are in.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 2: The Middle Ages – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this second volume of four (as published at present), Needham attempts the daunting task of covering 9 centuries of Church history in about 500 pages. After covering the first 6 or so centuries in the first volume of ‘The Early Church Fathers’, this volume focuses on the ‘Middle Ages’.

Thankfully, even by this nomenclature (and in other comments in the book) Needham seems to take the view that this period of Church history cannot rightly be dubbed the ‘Dark Ages’ in any meaningful sense.

As one might expect, the volume covers the main areas of interest in this period: the rise of Islam, the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, the Great East – West Schism, the Crusades, Monastic reforms, Scholasticism, and the proto – Reformation(s). What I was not expecting was quite such a focus on the Eastern Church; mostly due to my own ignorance on the subject, and so I found the chapters discussing the Russian Church and the Byzantine Empire particularly fascinating. Sometimes, I think that Needham gives a little too much credance to some seriously bizarre and downright heretical views (especially when discussing the Eastern Churches) that are spoken of somewhat favourably. I think this is charitability and impartiality on Needham’s part but he defnitiely speaks favourably, for example, of Chalcedonian Christianity over against Nestorianism etc, but does not follow this pattern with other issues.

The sections on papal reform, especially when considering Innocent III, and the papal vs empire controversies were dealt with skilfully. You get a real sense when reading it about the obvious tension between the two purported absolute authorities that dominated the political life of Europe. In fact, the topic of the papacy was a real highlight of the book. I don’t know how anyone can read Church history and think it supports the modern Roman Catholic position. The Avignonese captivity of the papacy is always a favourite to read about with three popes running around excommunicating each other.

However, whilst there was a full explanation about the development of the papacy (including a demonstration of the how late the wild and exalted claims of the modern papacy really are), I would have liked a bit more about the development of the rest of Church polity in the Western Church. How, when, and what prompted the change of the bishop – presbyter model?

Other highlights include an excellent treatment on the origins and development of Scholasticism as a theological movement. The treatment was well balanced, and showed the earnest inquisition of the great Scholastics and the rationale behind the movement. Furthermore, I thought its relationship with Aristotelian philosophy was really well explained.

Also, the narrative of the East – West Schism of 1054 was very illuminating. I got a real sense of how far apart the Churches had politically and spiritually drifted apart from one another in the centuries leading up to the split, and Needham really painted a picture of the divergence of the Churches to help understand the many factors that led to such a split.

Finally, I really enjoyed the section on the proto – Reformation(s), and the distinctions made between the non – conformist groups (here is one example I think Needham could have been justified in demonstrating how far outside the orthodox faith some of these groups were) such as the Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites.

As in volume 1, the story telling is superb, and the selected first hand sources at the end of each chapter were a real treat to read.

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A compelling survey of the ‘patristic’ age of Church history. A perfect blend of captivating story – telling and balanced scholarly analysis profitable for even the most novice of Church history enthusiasts.

In this work, the first of four existing volumes (though the author is planning subsequent volumes in the series), Needham covers the “Age of the Early Church Fathers”. In terms of dates, this covers basically the first 7 centuries of the Church’s life, starting from the book of Acts.

Important historical and philosophical background is supplied in the first few chapters to help the reader understand the intellectual and social context into which the Church is born. Furthermore, the discussion, particularly on Greek philosophical influence into the patristic theology, is extremely helpful. In particular, Needham’s introduction to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and its links to patristic theological thought is most useful.

Whilst I expected the volume of new vocabulary introduced to be overwhelming, there is a helpful glossary provided in an appendix that defines all of the technical language that is introduced. Moreover, the book is thoroughly cross – referenced. Whereever a technical word is used in the text after, there is a footnote redirecting the reader to the chatper and section where the word or concept was first discussed. With this, and the glossary, Needham makes it as easy as possible to follow the historical narrative. Even more helpfully, at the end of each chapter, a summary is provided of the important figures that have been mentioned in that chapter, their dates, and the area of life in which they were particualrly relevant (e.g. the Church, Emperors, philosophers etc.).

I also enjoyed the different approaches that Needham uses to tell the narrative of the early Church. There are chapters and where he takes a topic or area of Church life, and shows how that area changes throughout the patristic age. In other chapters, there will be theological figures at the centre of the discussion, and at other councils or controversies. The way in which it is written minimises the need to jump around to cover different things, as a strict choronological approach would have to do.

In particular, I found the overview of the controversy surrounding the counicl of Chalcedon, the subsequent debate around monophysitism and monotheletism particularly well written. In fact, the major patristic theological debates that are covered: gnosticism, donatism, pelagianism, arianism etc. are all explained in a clear (and charitable) way.

Whilst it is clear that this book is written by a Protestant (and, arguably, for Protestants) Needham is very balanced his handling of different theological traditions and allows the early Church to be the early Church, rather than shoe-horning his own theological imprint onto the Fathers. Not only this, but Needham makes extensive study into the Eastern Church, as well as focussing on the Western Church.

I did find his view on the real origin of “Roman Catholicism” to be rather unclear, indicating Roman Catholicism, as we know it today, may be said to start in the 11th or perhaps 16th centuries. Whilst these views can both be argued for (though I disagree with both), it would have been helpful to glean his insight as a historian (perhaps this question will be answered in Vol. 2!).

Finally, a real strength of this work in the quotations from source material at the end of a chapter that relates to its content. These are absolute gems to read, as you can interact with the original sources directly. I found them a really nice addition.

Review: The Blessing of Humility – Jerry Bridges

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A small and consice book, this work is a typical Jerry Bridges book: a strong focus on what it means to lead a life of holiness, and how a Christian grows and matures in sanctification.

The focus of his attention on this occasion is the Beautitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew 5. Bridges implicitly argues that it is precisely these blessings that constitutes the blessing of humility. In other words, to be a humble Christian is to exhibit:

– poverty of spirit
– mourning over sin
– meekness
– a hunger and thirst for righteousness
– mercy
– purity of heart
– peacemaking
– a gladness in persecution for the sake of the Gospel

Refreshingly, Bridges starts off each chapter by placing the blessing of each Beatitude within the context of the text of Scripture itself. This is a helpful grounding for all the Beatitudes, but particularly the seventh, where there is often confusion as to what makes a ‘peacemaker’. Bridges in this case argues, I think correctly, that the ‘peacemaker’ is not the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize or someone who participates in dialogue between rival organisations, but the ‘peacemaker’ is the one who is able to forgive and initiate reconcilliation between those who have mistreated them. His further explanation of what it means to be a peacemaker using a story of a man who was estranged from his sister but actively persued her despite his hurt to be a very helpful illustration of true peacemaking.

Similarly, his explanation of meekness is also helpful. Meekness, as Bridges defines it, is not being a ‘doormat’ to be walked over, but submitting oneself to God’s providence and sovereignty. Indeed, as Bridges points out, this may appear to others as if you are letting yourself be taken advantage of, but he points to the example of Christ, who allowed Himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter, all while perfectly submitting to His Father’s providence.

Moreover, where Bridges is particularly insightful, is how he sees that humility comes as the Christian moves through each of the Beatitudes. They were stated by Christ to be progressive. Only once the Christian truly sees her poverty in spirit can she then mourn over her sin. Only once she has mourned her sin, and seen herself as she truly is, can she begin to understand why she must be meek, and so forth.

The final Beatitude was a little American – centric, whereas the true application of the Beatitude has nothing to do with one nation or another, but Bridges was obviously speaking into his own context. For all that, however, his point about submission to authority, specifically respect for the Presidential office, was amusingly relevant to today’s society!

Finally, Bridges finished with a word about humility and the Gospel. He encourages believers, as he commonly does in other works, to ground themselves in the Gospel; by ensuring that we never ‘move on’ from the Gospel, but preach it to ourselves daily on order that we may grow in humilty.

At only 95 pages (plus study guide) it is not a long read, but it is deisgned to be read devotionally, with reflection and introspection, and, ultimately, prayerful focus on the the person of Christ.