Futurists have predicted the demise of the book and the coming dominance of electronic media. This trend may ho d true for much of the culture, but preachers are likely to guard their libraries with zeal and ho d on to the book long after others may have abandoned paper documents for the electronic screen.
Preachers are bookish people. As those who bear responsibility to preach and teach the Word of God, preachers enter into a conversation with scholars, theologians, and other preachers who have wrestled with the texts and sought to bring order and richness to the task of preaching.
Even as some are predicting the demise of the book, America’s publishers are releasing a torrent of new titles each year. An interesting demographic pattern has been revealed in recent years. More books are being sold and bought than at any other time in American history. As a matter of fact, the per capita rate of book buying has been increasing over the last quarter century. Nevertheless, it appears that book buying is by no means evenly distributed throughout the society. Many persons, indeed, most of the population, buy very few books over the course of a decade. Others, on the other hand, are buying a disproportionate number of titles each year. The growth in sales of books is dependent upon a small slice of the population who are fervent (if not fanatical) about the book and its value.
No doubt, preachers are a predominating part of that very thin slice of the population. With that in mind, Christian publishing houses are releasing many new titles each year, with hopes that preachers and Christian scholars will remain committed to the book.
Biblical Studies
As is usually the case, a large number of titles in biblical studies were released in previous months. Notable among these are some major commentaries as well as specialized works in various dimensions of the field.
Among the commentaries, two additions to “The New International Greek Testament Commentary” are significant. Anthony C. Thiselton has produced The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans). Thiselton, Professor of Christian Theology and head of the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham in England also serves as Canon Theologian of Leicester Cathedral. He is well known to biblical scholars for his work in hermeneutics, and he now applies that expertise in this commentary. G.K. Beale has released a massive commentary, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans). Beale is well known as an evangelical biblical scholar teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His commentary provides a thorough analysis of the issues involved in interpreting the last book of the canon, as well as a very helpful overview of the history of its interpretation.
Preachers have often avoided preaching through some of the more difficult literature in the Old Testament. Solid assistance comes in the publication of Song of Songs by Tremper Longman III in the “New International Commentary on the Old Testament” series (Eerdmans). Longman, who teaches at Westmont College in California, here offers a very helpful and solid commentary on the Song of Songs. Longman places the Song of Songs in its canonical text and also draws rich material from the context of the ancient near east. His commentary will be indispensable to those preaching on this often neglected book.
Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read This Year1. Donald G. Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts “Christian Foundations” (InterVarsity Press).
2. Peter Watson, The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (HarperCollins).
3. Thorns R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (InterVarsity Press).
4. John S. Feinberg, No Other Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Crossway Books).
5. William J. Bennett, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family (Water Brook [Doubleday]).
6. Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington, DE, ISI Books)
7. Thomas S. Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to Seinfeld’ (Spence Publishing)
8. Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Baker Books/Brazos Press)
9 M. Wesley J. Smith, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America (San Francisco: Encounter Books).
10. Don Eberly, ed., Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance (Wm. B. Eerdmans).
Two volumes in “The Pillar New Testament Commentary” are recent releases of interest to the pastor. Kolin G. Cruse, an Australian New Testament scholar, has written The Letters of John (Eerdmans). Cruse presents a thorough review of these three important letters and also provides critical insights into the theological and ecclesial controversies addressed by John in these writings.
Douglas Moo, well known to scholars of the Bible, has taught for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In The Letter of James (Eerdmans), Moo writes a fascinating commentary which should be read in light of his earlier massive work on Romans. As Moo remarks, “Few New Testament books have been as controversial as the letter of James.” Moo’s commentary will reward all who work through its verse by verse exposition.
In the field of biblical studies, few scholars have matched Gordon D. Fee in terms of influence. Professor of New Testament Studies at Regent College in British Columbia, Fee is one of the most capable teachers of biblical interpretation. Most preachers have already benefited from his previous writings including How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and To What End Exegesis? (Eerdmans), Fee presents the fruit of the past 25 years of his professional and scholarly work. The volume will be of greatest interest to other New Testament scholars, but preachers should also give attention to this volume as it provides both programmatic articles and the demonstration of Fee’s method in exegetical studies.
The team of Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, have collaborated to produce Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Eerdmans). The volume is a thorough consideration of the New Testament and a significant survey of the New Testament Canon.
Debates over Pauline theology have framed many of the most contested conflicts in New Testament studies. How should Paul Epistles be understood in light of the gospels, and to what extent should the Pauline Letters be understood as a unity? These questions are thoroughly considered and convincingly answered in Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology by Thomas R. Schreiner (InterVarsity Press). Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is well established as a scholar of Pauline literature, having recently released a massive commentary on Romans. His work is worthy of every preacher’s attention and his even-handed consideration of controversial issues is a model for other scholars to emulate.
If biblical studies constitute the foundation of the preacher’s work, theology represents the super-structure of ministry. A review of recent releases in the field of theology reveals continuing issues of concern and matters of immediate cultural importance.
The doctrine of God, known as “Theology Proper” has been largely neglected by evangelicals since the Second World War. Evangelical scholars have been more likely to write works on soteriology and Christology or works on the doctrine of Revelation. Recent controversy has required a more focused evangelical attention on the doctrine of God.
John S. Feinberg has released a massive consideration of the doctrine of God in No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Crossway Books). This work may be the most thorough consideration of the doctrine of God to be released in the past century. Feinberg has been working on this project for many years.
“Like the moth drawn to a flame, I kept coming back to this topic. In one way or another, it has been the concern of much of my adult intellectual thought and publications. Of course, the subject is more than worthy of our attention, because nothing could be more important than coming to understand God better and hence worship Him more.”
Feinberg’s survey covers the classical concerns of the doctrine of God as well as matters of contemporary importance.
The rise of what is now commonly known as “open theism” or “openness theology” presents evangelicals with an unavoidable question of theological identity. The openness theologians argue for a new model of divine omniscience which amounts to a denial of exhaustive foreknowledge. Theologians such as Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd have been particularly influential in presenting the case for “open theism,” and recent work by Bruce Ware, Norman Geisler, and H. Wayne House are attempts to refute the denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Ware’s volume, God’s Lesser Glory (Crossway) is now joined by Geisler’s volume The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Kregel Books). As Geisler and House note, “Evangelicalism has faced several crucial battles in the past two generations: The battle for the Bible … The battle for Creation … The battle for the Resurrection … None is more important, however, than the battle that now must be faced — the battle for God.” Other volumes addressing the same issue include Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, edited by Douglas Wilson (Canon Press) and No Other God: A Response to Open Theism by John Frame, Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Other controversial issues of recent years include the doctrine of creation, John MacArthur, the well-known pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California has released A Battle for the Beginning: Creation, Evolution, and the Bible (Word). MacArthur presents an unapologetic call for evangelicals to be bold in preaching and teaching a young-earth cosmology based solidly in the creation account in Genesis. As MacArthur explains:
“Although most of Darwin’s theories about the mechanisms of evolution were discarded long ago, the doctrine of evolution itself has managed to achieve the status of a fundamental article of faith in the popular modern mind. Naturalism has now replaced Christianity as the main religion of the Western world, and evolution has become naturalism’s principle dogma.”
MacArthur has also released God in the Manger: The Miraculous Birth of Christ (Word Publishing). This volume will be of particular help to preachers during the Christmas season.
The late James Montgomery Boice has left an indelible legacy among American evangelicals. Through the work of capable assistance, some of his final projects have been brought to completion. Among these is Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World (Crossway Books). Boice was very concerned about the loss of the Christian gospel in the midst of popular evangelicalism’s pragmatism and experientialism. Beyond this, the blatant compromise of the gospel in many pulpits is a scandal that can only be corrected by returning to the simplicity of the gospel as revealed in Holy Scripture. Boice provides a most helpful summary of the gospel in this important volume. This book provides preachers another opportunity to give thanks to God for the ministry of this faithful servant.
Scott J. Hafemann, Chair of New Testament Studies at Wheaton College, answers the big questions of life from the richness of the Bible in The God of Promise and The Life of Faith (Crossway Books). The book is an excellent example of theology richly presented and carefully applied to the Christian life.
R.C. Sproul, one of the nation’s best known Christian teachers, considers the love of God demonstrated towards sinners in Loved by God (Word Books). Sproul takes the simple statement “God is love” and expands this theme into an understanding of God’s glorious purpose and our redemption in Christ.
Finally, Donald G. Bloesch continues his massive multi-volume systematic theology with The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts (InterVarsity Press). In this volume, Bloesch continues his theological project and builds on the previous volumes by demonstrating the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Given the terrain he covers, Bleosch is certain to please and even to offend in turn, but this important work is simply too significant to be ignored by the preacher. Working through this volume will be an exercise in theology that will greatly enrich the preaching ministry.
Theology and Culture
The culture of postmodern America presents the Christian preacher with a significant missiological challenge. Our culture is so shaped by consumerism, secularism, naturalism, and various other ideological forces that present the preacher with the stark realization that his congregation is deeply in meshed in a culture that presents formidable obstacles to the preaching, hearing, and living out of the gospel.
One of the most abused concepts in postmodern America is “tolerance.” AJ. Conyers, Professor at Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University attempts a retrieval of this essential concept in The Long Truth: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence Publishing). Conyers presents a careful historical analysis and weaves this with an insightful critique of contemporary culture. Conyers contends that toleration is not “strictly speaking,” a virtue. He explains that tolerance “does not function as a virtue in the classical sense, even if it can properly be called a secular virtue.” Instead Conyers argues, tolerance is a strategy. “It calls upon virtue, such as patience, humility, moderation, and prudence; that toleration itself relates to these qualities not as another quality of the same sort, but as a policy intended to achieve some other end.” Conyers refusal to force tolerance to stand as an isolated concept redignifies this valuable word and sets it again in proper context.
Preachers looking for illustrations as well as cultural analysis will enjoy Honky Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music by Gene Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth (Baker Books). Veith and Wilmeth argue that country music echoes many of the themes of the gospel, with particular attention to the realities of sin and grace. The book will fascinate the preacher and may even explain some of the lyrics in country music. Then again, that may be more than can be expected of any book, no matter how clever and insightful.
An entire generation of evangelicals grew to admire James W. Sire for his apologetic works. In Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (InterVarsity Press), Sire continues his argument for the development of Christian intellectuals and intellectual Christians. As Sire argues, “thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be. God calls every one of us to think and to do so as well as we can. We are to love God with our mind as well as with our heart and soul and strength.” Sire provides a helpful review of Christian intellectual resources and historical models for the intellectual life as a demonstration of Christian discipleship.
An interesting work in cultural analysis has been produced by John W. Whitehead, President and founder of the Rutherford Institute. In Grasping for the Wind (Zondervan), Whitehead reviews the search for meaning in the twentieth century. The work is reminiscent of Frances Schaffer’s How Shall We Then Live? It gives particular attention to the intellectual currents of twentieth century intellectual life in the West. The book is supported by a video presentation and the volume is itself richly illustrated. It is a fascinating survey of twentieth century trends and thought.
Richard J. Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, presents an interesting interpretation of evangelical history in The Smell of Sawdust (Zondervan). Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University considers Christian intellectual responsibility in How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans). Stephen L Carter, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and the well-known author of Culture of Disbelief, continues his analysis of secular America in God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic Books). As always, Carter provokes thought, and this is true when the reader agrees or disagrees with his analysis.
Allen Jacobs, Professor of English at Wheaton College, will provoke the preacher to much thought in A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press). Jacobs is a careful and insightful cultural critic, and his essays cover issues ranging from modern politics to Harry Potter.
One of America’s most influential Christian intellectuals, Robert P. George holds one of the most famous endowed professorships at Princeton University. In The Clash of Orthodoxy: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (ISI Books), Professor George rightly describes post-modern America as a context in which rival orthodoxy’s now clash and compete for privacy. His careful analysis demonstrates that the secular orthodoxy’s can be convincingly confronted with biblical truth. The church desperately needs a generation of convictional apologists ready to take up this task.
Popular culture is itself a minefield of worldview conflicts. For more than a generation now, the cultural elite have been drawn to the twin themes of irony and nihilism. In Shows About Nothing: Nihilism and Popular Culture (Spence Publishing), Thomas S. Hibbs reveals the pervasive influence of philosophical nihilism in film and popular entertainment.
America’s family crisis must be seen in the context of family decline in Western culture. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and “drug czar” addresses this issue in The Broken Heart: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family (Water Brook). Bennett’s penetrating analysis will be very helpful as preachers come to grips with the family crisis and understand that family failure is indeed part and parcel of the larger moral collapse in the American society.
Issues of stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, germ-line therapy, and the Human Genome Project have framed moral debate in recent years. The rapid advance of biomedical technologies presents the Christian preacher with a dramatic challenge. The preacher must address these issues from a biblical perspective and inform Christians so that they may respond appropriately to these moral challenges. At the same time, the pastor does not have time to become an expert in the various scientific fields related to these ethical quandaries. For this reason, books such as Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America (Encounter Books) by Wesley J. Smith should be on every preacher’s reading list. Smith provides a helpful overview of several of the most pressing ethical issues in modern America. His candor and clarity are refreshing as he reviews the massive assault on human dignity and human life now part of the culture of death. This book will provide preachers with both content and motivation for confrontational preaching on these urgent issues.
A constructive approach to the current cultural crisis is provided by John Everly in Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance (Eerdmans). Everly has gathered together essays by constellation of American intellectuals including Mary Ann Glendon, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Zbigniew Brezinski, and Charles Krauthhammer. In his forward, Senator Sam Brownback notes that: “The United States is, and may long remain, the world’s leading cultural exporter. To ensure that these cultural exports take our nation in the right direction requires the strategic thinking and committed efforts of dedicated, thoughtful individuals in every sphere of cultural life. Appealing to conscience and reason takes time, patience, and persistence, and offers few short-term political benefits. But it is the best way to keep citizens involved, society civil, and our culture healthy.”
The task of understanding the contemporary mind is a massive challenge. This task is taken up by Peter Watson in The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (HarperCollins). The volume, though presented in a secular context, is an intellectual tour de force and preachers will benefit greatly by reading this massive survey of twentieth century intellectual patterns.
Finally, a review of the last century of American philosophy would demonstrate that pragmatism has been the most influential strain of American philosophy. Lewis Menand, Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has produced the most thorough review of the impact of pragmatism in American culture. In The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux) Menand traces the impact of pragmatism from the period just after the Civil War through the twentieth century. The reader will be richly rewarded by working through this fascinating work of cultural analysis.
Church Ministry and Church History
Data on American church life continue to demonstrate that the majority of America’s congregations are plateaued or declining. Pastoral leadership is desperately needed and strong biblical preaching is central to any recovery of congregational vitality.
Thom S. Rainer, one of America’s best-known experts on church growth, presents a fascinating reputation of much popular wisdom in Surprising Insight From the Unchurched (Zondervan). Rainer, Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at Southern Seminary, wrote this volume after conducting a comprehensive research project that studied more than 2,000 effective evangelistic churches. Effective evangelistic churches were defined to be congregations with at least 26 conversions per year and a conversion ratio of less than 20:1. The national norm for churches in America is a conversion ratio of 85:1. As Rainer notes, less than 4% of churches in America meet both of these criteria.
Rainer’s research contradicts the approach promoted by many church growth experts. He demonstrates that these vital evangelistic churches were clear in their biblical conviction and public in their confrontation with the larger culture. The pastors of these churches did not preach “light” sermons avoiding doctrinal controversy, but instead preached bold messages that presented biblical truth without embarrassment.
Rainer knows the stakes but remains hopeful about the future of America’s congregation: “I am still an obnoxious optimist about the American church. I know, statistics show the church has plateaued. The number of conversions has not grown appreciably in two decades. And many, many churches still fight the demons of traditionalism, complacency, and spiritual apathy. But this research project has renewed my hope. I have heard from hundreds of persons whose lives have been transformed by the power of the living Christ. I have listened to many church leaders who have led their churches to reach a growing pagan population. I have entered the land of miracles, and I do not wish to return. Too much is at stake. Too many lives hanging in eternity’s balance.”
Other cultural trends are thoroughly analyzed in The First Measured Century: An Illustrative Guide to Trends in America 1900-2000 (American Enterprise Institute). Researchers Theodore Caplow, Lewis Hicks, and Ben J. Wattenberg, collaborated to produce in written and illustrative form a remarkable analysis of how Americans live (and even how Americans die!) as well as the status of our economy and demographic patterns. The book is a fascinating almanac of facts and trends concerning American culture.
In Stones For Bread: A Critique of Contemporary Worship (Westminster John Knox Press), A.W. Frankforter takes on some of the most controversial trends in modern worship. Frankforter is Professor of Medieval History at Perm State-Behrend College in Pennsylvania. His book is intended to be controversial, and it delivers on this promise. No reader is likely to agree with Frankforter at every point, but all would benefit by reading this volume and thinking through his arguments. As Frankforter reflects: “If worship is to flourish, churches must constantly critique what they do in the name of worship. But they must do so for the right reasons. When worship reforms are driven by a desire to grow a congregation rather than improve it (through strengthening its awareness of the reality of God), a church begins to turn itself into a theater. It may mount a show that draws a crowd, but to no very serious purpose.”
In recent years, evangelicals have begun to reclaim the richness of the Christian tradition. This can all too easily fall into a pattern of tradition-dependence at the expense of biblical authority, but most evangelicals have fallen into the more common danger of ignoring the Christian tradition all together. In Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans), D.H. Williams presents a mature and serious argument for the evangelical appropriation of tradition as a way of enriching evangelical worship, thought, and theology. Williams’ argument is thought provoking and will likely serve as a catalyst for thinking as preachers consider his arguments.
For many years, evangelicals have needed a good one-volume survey of historical theology and the history of doctrine. For the same reason that evangelicals have been largely unaware of the Christian tradition, historical theology has languished as a discipline. The release of Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (NavPress) by John D. Hannah is a hopeful development for evangelical theology and will be of helpful assistance to the Christian preacher. Unlike many other volumes, Hannah, Professor of Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, presents his survey in a thematic structure, taking major Christian doctrines and reviewing each in its historical context. The book will, therefore, be of particular assistance to preachers in dealing with specific doctrinal questions and controversies. Hannah is a very careful scholar whose genuine love for the church is evident in this work. As he notes in stating his purpose, one of the correctives offered by historical theology is “to preserve the church from fads and novelties.” Given the fad-driven culture of much modern church life, this book comes as stern medicine as well as warm comfort.
The themes of renewal and revival are carefully considered by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. in When God Comes to Church: The Biblical Model for Revival Today (Baker Books). Ortlund, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, was formerly Professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. A careful scholar as well as a faithful pastor, Ortlund considers revival from a God-centered perspective. The book is both bold and humble and is a helpful corrective to much modern confusion over the reality of revival.
Publishers are almost certain to release books so long as customers are buying them. Preachers are constant consumers of thoughtful books because they are constantly on the line, expected to provide thoughtful content in preaching and teaching.
For this reason, no preacher should apologize for the stewardship demonstrated in library investment. For the preacher, the working library is not a book collection but a rich resource for the pastoral task. No preacher is likely to run out of worthy volumes that demand attention. The task of discernment must guide the preacher in setting an agenda for reading that will serve both immediate needs and long-range enrichment.

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