R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God

This coming Thursday through Sunday, my brother David and I will be attending the 2009 Ligonier conference in Orlando, FL, on “The Holiness of God.”  In preparation for this conference, I just finished reading R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God.  I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read this great work before.

I’ve read and listened to Sproul before, and I’ve long been aware of the status of this book as a “modern classic,” but until now I’ve never been able to speak personally about this book.

I sincerely regret my delay in reading this.  It is, in a word, tremendous.  Sproul looks at God’s holiness in a compelling and easy-to-read way that leaves the reader awestruck at the greatness of our God and the wonder of His holiness.

His opening chapter on how God called him into His presence out of a deep sleep was powerful and set the right tone for this book.  His discussion of how creation declares God’s power and holiness was really well done and I daresay it will challenge most readers (as it did me) to think rightly about the grand wonder of creation.

His handling of the “hard sayings” of the Old Testament was well done, but I daresay it remains insufficient to answer the critics’ questions.  Of course, one of the points of Sproul’s argument is that, like Job, our questions mask our own pride and God’s answer is, in the end, His own being.

I thought the sections on Luther and Edwards were particularly good, especially the latter.  His discussion of imputed righteousness was helpful and his illustrations were quite useful, I thought.

All in all, a wonderful discussion of God’s holiness in an accessible format that is well deserving of the admittedly much overused “modern classic” label.

Alister McGrath’s What Was God Doing on the Cross?

What Was God Doing on the Cross? was originally presented as a lecture, in a shorter form, at the Princeton Theological Seminary on October 22, 1990. Perhaps owing to this fact, what we have in this book is a highly conversational, “nuts and bolts” approach to the cross. While this keeps the book from becoming highly technical, it makes it an ideal introduction to the issues surrounding the cross of Christ.

The first two chapters of the book are presented from the perspective of an onlooker at Calvary. This is an interesting approach which allows McGrath to take the reader into the mind and possible thoughts of an original witness to the cross. These chapters serve as a foundation to the rest of the book which presents McGrath’s own perspective on the cross.

A rather refreshing aspect of this book is McGrath’s criticism of the tendency of many theologians to lose touch with the common person. McGrath (himself one of the most influential evangelical theologians in the world today) reminds us all that if our theological concepts cannot be communicated to the common man, then they are essentially worthless. He then goes on to back up what he says by presenting his discussion of the cross in terms that are highly readable and highly effective.

The book covers a wide range of topics: the act of crucifixion, the nature of Jesus, the idea of sin, the atonement, and the resurrection. McGrath does not fear to posit these traditional Christian concepts in new language, and, in fact, he seems intent on doing so. The result is that both Christians and non-Christians alike will be challenged to rethink what they know or think they know about traditional Chritian categories.

I would more than heartily recommend this book as I would more than heartily recommend anything Alister McGrath writes. There is a sincerity that comes through these pages that the reader will not miss. His aim is to have his audience grapple anew with the cross. In this, he succeeds wonderfully.

Calvin Miller’s Into the Depths of God

Every now and again you come across a book and are able to tell while reading it that what you’ve got is something special, something that (hopefully) will be around for a very long time. Into the Depths of God, by Calvin Miller, is one such work. I could not help but feel while reading it that I was encountering mature thoughts, the type which rarely surface in too many Christian books today. And, in a sense, I felt that I was reading a book which was the encapsulation and culmination of Calvin Miller’s own journey of faith and words. Into the Depths of God has done with prose what The Singer did with verse, and that is no small compliment.

It is difficult to describe this book. One might be tempted to feel a little frustrated that it doesn’t slavishly follow a tight outline, though the progression of the work is plain enough to see. Miller does not A,B,C his way towards the depths of God and he offers no fill-in-the-blank promises for those who hope to experience them. It becomes clear in reading this book why this is so. Miller sees our journeys into the depths of God as being journeys of relationship and intimacy with the Father, not journeys of workbooks and three point sermons. Furthermore, Miller is an artist, a linguistic craftsman who would be as out of place defragmenting such a topic as a mathematician would be trying to parse “The Wasteland.” While he certainly does not lapse into any sort of stream-of-consciousness free form, Miller has never been a fan of dissection and categorical systemization. This work, like so many of his, bears the marks of fluidity and freedom, the two virtues that will always escape lesser writers.

Into the Depths of God is a powerful and soul searching book that forces us to consider our own compromises and our own demi-god fascinations with the comforts of shallowness. Miller interacts profusely with the greater body of Christian mystical literature, yet he never seems to become detached in the airs of ethereal vagueness. Far from it. Here is a work that is often penetrating, frequently insightful, and truly provocative.

You will not be comfortable with this book, which is, in and of itself, another mark of its greatness. All great books disturb the universe. C.S. Lewis once said that reading Thomas A Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ was like a bird without wings reading about the stratosphere. For the sake of decorum, we will refrain from saying that Into the Depths of God rivals The Imitation of Christ. But it is only for the sake of decorum that we will refrain from doing so. In secret moments I might confess to you that I quite often found myself, while reading this book, pondering the stratosphere.

Timothy George’s (ed.) God the Holy Trinity

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this collection of essays on the Trinity was.  Edited by Timothy George, these essays were originally delivered at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.  The contributors are an impressive lot:  Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T. Charry, Cornelius Plantinga, and Timothy George.

The essays approach the Trinity from a number of interesting starting points.  James Earl Massey (a prince of a man!) discusses the Trinity and African-American spirituals.  Avery Cardinal Dulles discusses the Trinity and Christian unity.  In a brief and fascinating essay, Frederica Mathewes-Green discuss the Trinity in the Old Testament.  J.I. Packer gives a very interesting look at Trinitarianism in the thought of John Owen.  Timothy George has penned a very helpful essay on the Trinity and Islam.

As I say, these are compelling essays, and each of them, to varying degrees, is helpful.  The highlights for me are (in this order):  (1) Cornelius Plantinga’s fascinating and soul-stirring sermon, “Deep Wisdom”, (2) Alister McGrath’s balanced and level-headed overview of and cautions concerning modern Trinitarianism, and (3) Timothy George’s careful but clear call for courageous Trinitarianism in the context of conversing with Islam.

I found Ellen Charry’s essay, “The Soteriological Importance of the Divine Perfections”, to be tedious initially, but it ended well and I think I get what she was driving at.  Furthermore, James Earl Massey’s essay, “Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals”, was good but I do wish it would have been longer.

Get this book.  It will sharpen your thinking about the Trinity.

Gerald Bray’s The Personal God

The Personal God was written a few years back as a response to Clark Pinnock et al’s The Openness of God. Bray’s work is short, but it shows a remarkable precision and depth in responding to the Pinnock and in offering the reader a well-informed and challenging articulation and defense of classical theism. It discusses the charge often brought against classical theism that traditional theology has been held captive by Greek philosophical categories and that our picture of God is therefore skewed. Furthermore, Bray offers an explanation of why Christians believe in God’s immutability, the deity of Christ, and the Trinity.

I found this to be a very challenging and rewarding book. Do not be deceived by its smallness. You will have to take time and work through this book carefully. Bray wastes no words. As an introduction to the current discussions surrounding God’s nature, you will not find a better book.