An amazing gathering took place in May 2012, when a huge congregation of ultra-Orthodox Jews met in New York City’s City Field in order to warn the Jewish community about the effects of the Internet. The Internet’s ubiquity, joined with its unique pattern of information processing, presents dangers, the rabbis agreed, to the ability of the Jewish mind to honor God.
One Jewish leader, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, suggested that modern persons are in danger of becoming “click vegetables,” who simply click from one data source to another with little comprehension. “If you’re bored with something, just click,” the rabbi explained.
As literary critic David Mikics argues, reading a book is still a superior experience to grazing from the tsunami of information that comes to us online. “Real reading of real books, reading designed to augment the reader’s creative strength, never loses its power,” writes Mikics.
Mikics is an advocate of what he calls the slow reading of a text. In his very interesting new book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, Mikics invites readers to slow down and read a text for what it is worth.
My guess is that just about every preacher has an Internet-connected computer very close at hand and is likely to have a smartphone and tablet along for the ride in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, preachers continue to be uniquely committed to the printed word, the word that arrives printed on paper and bound between covers. Although we may not join with other preachers in City Field in order to warn of a precipitous loss of learning, we should remind ourselves why we read books and why we believe reading matters.
The publishing year of 2013 included the release of thousands of volumes. The good news is a far greater number of worthy volumes was released than any single reader ever could read—or merely appreciate. The bad news is the good books are vastly outnumbered by those that are unworthy of the slightest attention. However, if you are like me, you need someone to recommend a few books that rise to the top of the stack.
My intention in this article is to suggest 10 books that deserve any preacher’s careful attention in the next several months. Each one has appeared in the past year or so, and all of them represent a contribution worthy of our time and priority.
John M. Frame, Systematic Theological: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2013)
Just a few years ago, it was commonly heard that the age of systematic theology had ended. The presumption of those who made such claims was that no comprehensive and coherent system of considering the totality of Christian doctrine could survive the onslaught of modernity. Nevertheless, and quite contrary to those assumptions, the past few years have witnessed the release of several worthy and truly systematic theologies.
Preachers may recoil a bit from the suggestion that we should read a systematic theology. For many preachers, that was an assignment in a seminary class not to be repeated in pastoral ministry. On the other hand, the very real demands and dilemmas of pastoral ministry are precisely the catalysts that should lead the preacher to recognize a hunger to dive more deeply into what rightly is described as a systematic theology in order to gain a better and more comprehensive understanding of biblical truth and the Christian faith.
John Frame’s Systematic Theology arrives as a massive contribution to the field of theology and as the mature fruit of a long and very respected teaching ministry. Frame is the J.D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. His scholarly writing has been distinguished by an attention to the doctrines of revelation and God, and by a very careful and intensive consideration of the doctrine of knowledge. Those who have followed his work with great interest awaited the release of his systematic theology, and they will not be disappointed with this major work.
One advantage of a systematic theology of this scale is that it serves as a book to be read and an authority to be consulted. Frame understands the enormity of his task, and he clearly has poured a lifetime of theological thinking, teaching and learning into this great project.
As Frame acknowledges, some of the most important systematic theologians never actually wrote a systematic theology. As evidence of this, he offers the example of B.B. Warfield. On the other hand, those theologians who did write systematic theologies have left us with the greatest and most substantive theological assistance. In many cases, the systematic theologies have continued to serve the church long after the author has deceased.
In his foreword to Frame’s work, J.I. Packer declares the imperative: “The church must ever seek in its theological life to verbalize biblically affirmed realities and biblically approved attitudes—to make clear to itself what is and will be involved in holding fast to these things and living in their light and power and to detect and reject inauthentic alternatives.” That is exactly what Frame does in this important book.
One great benefit of Frame’s approach is that he understands theology is directly related to every aspect of the Christian life and the life of the church. For example, he argues against the assumption that ethics and theology “are very different disciplines.” In Frame’s view, worship, preaching, teaching, theology and ethics all come together in the responsibility of the theologian, and thus of the preacher, as well.
Tom Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Mentor, 2013)
Why is Charles Spurgeon the most widely quoted preacher in the English language—more than a century after his death? The answer is more obvious than we may at first allow ourselves to think. There is no one else like him. Furthermore, Spurgeon left the most massive contribution of homiletical materials ever published in the English language. Even now, it would be very difficult to out-preach Spurgeon, even in terms of the sheer volume of words, not to mention the magisterial content of his messages.
An entire library of books about Spurgeon has emerged to expand the library of Spurgeon’s own writings. Many of these are useful; some are ephemeral. Among the most useful of these books is Tom Nettles’ Living by Revealed Truth. In this wonderful new book, Nettles takes us into the life of Charles Spurgeon by relating his life to his theology and describing that theology in terms of Spurgeon’s pastoral heart and mind.
Nettles is another mature scholar, having devoted a lifetime to teaching seminarians and conducting research. Nettles’ approach to Spurgeon grows out of his great respect for the man and his ministry; but Nettles’ original interest in Spurgeon became a greater experience of admiration as he conducted the massive research into the man and his ministry.
As Nettles makes clear, Spurgeon was often controversial but never intended to be a controversialist. He was an autodidact, a self-trained minister, whose logical formation must be traced to the fact that he grew up in the home of a preacher and was surrounded by a library of Puritan writings and other worthy material.
The biographical approach to this book is very helpful, for there is no structure for telling a story that is the equal of the account of an individual life. Nettles puts Charles Spurgeon in his context as the modern age was dawning in London and as new opportunities, such as the publication of printed editions of his sermons on the teeming streets of London each week, were seized by this preacher for the cause of the gospel and the ministry.
In this truly interesting book, Nettles walks the reader through the formative events of Charles Spurgeon’s life and through the most crucial chapters of his life and work. Spurgeon appears—as inevitably he must appear—as a man of seemingly boundless energy and deep conviction. He also appears as a man who struggled with physical weakness and emotional depression. Nettles presents Spurgeon as a man who self-consciously understood the glory of the pulpit and the task of training a generation of younger ministers to take his place.
The book also takes us through the controversies of Spurgeon’s life, and as is so often the case, these controversies help illumine and develop the convictions and passions for which Charles Spurgeon is so well remembered.
As Nettles summarizes, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon engaged the last half of the 19th century with the power of his personal experience of grace and the unshakeable convictions that the Bible was revealed, that Christ came, and that the Holy Spirit was sent to make sure that all the Father’s elect” would have the same experience of grace and salvation that he had come to know. Readers of this book will be thankful to come to know Charles Haddon Spurgeon in a whole new way.
Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2013)
Those who take the Bible seriously must take the question of the canon seriously. During the past century (or longer), the question of the canon has become quite controversial in many academic circles, and the story of the canon and how it came to be recognized and affirmed by the church is a story many preachers do not know, though they undertake the task of preaching the Bible. As Michael Kruger observes, “The question of canon simply will not go away.” His new book represents an effort to answer many of the most pressing questions about the canon, and what Kruger describes as “this fascination with the canon,” with the work of solid scholarship that should interest every preacher.
Michael Kruger is a professor of New Testament and a seminary president, and this volume represents the kind of work his faculty should aspire to emulate. He takes the serious questions related to the canon head-on and helps the reader to work through these issues in order to gain a greater appreciation for and confidence in the canon as the correct shape of God’s written Word.
In his defense of the New Testament canon, Kruger rejects many of the most dangerous and subversive assumptions that have surrounded the question of the canon in recent decades. He argues, for example, that the sharp distinction between Scripture and canon is false. Along with other false assumptions, Kruger addresses these long-dominant academic assumptions as being tied to an understanding of Scripture that actually does not fit either the nature or the role of Scripture in the early church.
He corrects this approach by suggesting the canon is best explained by intrinsic needs and developments within the life of the early church. As he notes, this intrinsic model “argues that the phenomenon of canon was one that rose early and naturally within the first few stages of Christianity.” In other words, it was neither forced upon the church by controversy nor did it arrive late in the church’s developing consciousness. Instead, the phenomenon of canon was the developing shape of Scripture in the earliest experience of the church.
As Kruger concludes, “In this sense, the canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil of early Christianity—although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century—it was there…from the beginning.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, The King and His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker Academic, 2013)
“By now it is common consensus that no one theme adequately captures the message of the scriptures.” Those words represent Tom Schreiner’s acknowledgement that the Bible cannot be reduced to a single isolated theme. On the other hand, as he also makes clear, it is impossible to think of biblical theology without the use of themes. Within this tension, Schreiner is drawn to the understanding of the divine kingdom as represented by God as King who reveals Himself in glory, truth and beauty.
Thus, Schreiner argues the phrase “kingdom of God” best expresses the message of Scripture condensed in thematic form. “Now I would immediately add that God brings in the kingdom for the glory and praise of His name,” Schreiner adds. “Scripture unfolds the story of the kingdom, and God’s glory is the reason for the story.”
Schreiner is a New Testament scholar who is greatly respected in his field and whose influence has been multiplied by the release of so many worthy books from his scholarly pen. The King and His Beauty is the latest of these volumes, and it deserves a place on every preacher’s bookshelf.
Preachers are especially aware of the very issue Schreiner has addressed—the necessity of describing the totality of Scripture in terms of themes that can be taught, preached and expressed. Christians desperately need conceptual handles whereby they can understand the storyline of Scripture and the totality of biblical revelation in terms that are understandable and traceable throughout the biblical text.
In developing his own biblical theology of both testaments, Schreiner walks through every book of the Bible and provides a theological exposition, drawn directly from the biblical text, that demonstrates how the theme of the kingdom of God unifies the biblical text, drives the biblical narrative, and provides the conceptual framework for understanding every text of Scripture in light of every other text.
This is one of those books that will provide preachers with an almost bottomless treasury of biblical insights. In many ways, this book should be seen as offering the very best of what preachers are looking for in a commentary, along with some of the most interesting exegetical insights tied to a driving theological narrative. There is no page in this book that is uninteresting. How could it be? For Schreiner’s attention to the biblical text ensures that his biblical theology is more than a theology drawn from the Bible. His effort is to allow Scripture to speak and to reveal its own theological priorities. Preachers and their congregations will be very well-served when the preacher makes this book a priority for his own reading.
John S. Feinberg, Can You Believe It’s True?: Christian Apologetics in a Modern and Postmodern Era (Crossway Books, 2013)
Are we still living in the postmodern age, or has the postmodern age already passed? That is one of the vexing questions faced by academics who enjoy endless analysis and who only could be exhilarated by the idea that something new might arrive on the scene—perhaps a post-postmodernism.
John Feinberg has been observing the modern age for many years, and he recognizes that modernity and postmodernity are coexisting side-by-side in our current intellectual era. Furthermore, he recognizes that neither of these movements is a stable project and that both are evolving before our eyes. Yet what he sees common to both is a deep suspicion concerning truth.
In response to this, Feinberg offers an apologetic approach that is intellectually robust and aimed at understanding and confronting the modern mind.
Early in the book, Feinberg writes that he had not intended to write a book about apologetics, having decided to leave that to his brother Paul, also a theologian. Nevertheless, “I changed my mind more than a decade ago, because I saw truth being relentlessly attacked both by nonbelievers and even by some who call themselves Christians. And, I didn’t see much of an answer to the onslaught of epistemological relativism, especially in the most virulent and deadly forms of postmodern skepticism about truth and reason.”
Feinberg’s sense of urgency emerges from that insight. He is keenly aware that truth matters and is central to the Christian faith. His new book, Can You Believe It’s True?, is a truly important response to modernity and postmodernity and one that belongs on every preacher’s bookshelf.
The urgency represented by this book is evident in the fact that every Christian minister faces the ongoing and continual responsibility to speak to people whose minds and worldviews are deeply shaped (often conformed to) the anti-supernaturalism and skepticism of modernity in its various phases. The preacher who neglects to understand this apologetic challenge will not serve the congregation well. If the pastor is not asking these questions on a daily basis, the congregation is, and he should be.
John Feinberg is a very capable theologian who has taught for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Indeed, he has been teaching apologetics for more than three decades. In this important new book, he walks through the question of truth and defense of the Christian faith while dealing with some of the most pressing issues confronting the church. Those issues include the problem of evil, the reliability of the gospels, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the reality of religious pluralism. As should be clear, every preacher must deal with these issues. This necessity is rooted in the fact that the biblical text actually deals with these issues and that those listening to the sermon are most assuredly dealing with them, as well. This book helps a generation of Christian pastors and their congregations think through some of the most crucial issues of the Christian worldview in our time.
Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2013)
How can a list of books for preachers lack a biblical commentary? Most preachers’ libraries show their greatest wear and tear in the commentary section. With desperation and regularity, the preacher turns to friends and trusted authorities for the exegesis and interpretation of Scripture.
Thankfully, a good number of worthy commentaries appear in every publishing cycle. This year, one of the most important is Douglas J. Moo’s new commentary on Galatians in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series. Moo teaches at Wheaton College, and he is well-known to preachers and the scholarly community.
In this new commentary, Moo offers a comprehensive and thorough approach to understanding Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He offers a model of scholarship in addressing the critical issues and historical questions concerning this book of the Bible. Moo is also adept at dealing with the theological issues that arise in the interpretation of the biblical text, perhaps especially in an epistle such as Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Moo is judicious, careful and patient in dealing with these issues. On the other hand, he does not allow the commentary to become an endless series of footnotes to previous scholarship. He enters that conversation, but then quickly turns to assist the reader in understanding the biblical text.
This new commentary is relevant to the life of the church, reverent in its approach to the text, and genuinely helpful in its exegetical insights. While many preachers never may have read through a biblical commentary of this stature, preachers would find this to be a very healthy experience. This is especially true if that reading is undertaken without any direct reference to a preaching series.
Walking through a commentary of this stature, with the Bible on one side of the table and the commentary on the other, will help the preacher to understand how to read and study Scripture. In that sense, reading this commentary is akin to entering the classroom with Douglas Moo. For that, we should be grateful.
Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Zondervan, 2013)
In this new book, Michael Horton provides a unique service that should be appreciated by every preacher. He previously wrote a massive and worthy systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011). Two years later, he has come out with Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples. Why two books? The answer presents us with a dilemma. Would we really want to read the shorter version of a massively important book?
Oddly enough, the answer is often an honest yes. Actually, this two-book project by Horton represents the kind of gift to the church that should serve as a model for others. Preachers are aware of the temptation to start a massive and worthy volume only to discover the demands and interruptions of ministry often make the completion of that book very difficult. Many preachers have expressed the need for a more accessible approach that could fit within the actual reading practices of a disciplined preaching minister.
So, here’s good news: Every preacher should have the time and opportunity to read Pilgrim Theology and benefit from this powerful distillation of Horton’s very important theological work.
More good news in this volume: Horton not only believes theology is anything but a dry and abstract intellectual discipline, but he proves the vitality and relevance of theology for the Christian life. After all, he has written these works as guides for pilgrims, not as literary monuments.
The readers of this volume will find it to be a very helpful and well-organized approach to Christian doctrine—and to be an ongoing discussion with so many of the people and issues driving our contemporary conversations. Furthermore, Horton demonstrates a very substantial engagement with Scripture and the biblical narrative. Every preacher—every pilgrim—will find much health in this volume.
John Elliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf, 2013)
Seriously? A biography of Johann Sebastian Bach recommended among the top books for preachers? Yes, without apology, I recommend this book for the preacher’s enjoyment and enrichment.
I am not recommending this book because it settles current controversies in terms of worship and music in the church. It is not recommended because Bach is the beginning and end of church music and is to serve as the model against whom every other composer and musical servant of the church is to be judged.
This book is recommended because it offers the kind of insights into music and the life of the church that will be of real interest to any preacher. Above all, Bach was a church musician. He understood himself to be a servant of the Lutheran Reformation and he dedicated his life and remarkable musical abilities to the crafting of music that would be most worthy of the congregation’s hearing, experiencing and singing.
The author of this volume, John Elliot Gardiner, is perhaps the world’s greatest expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet this book, which comes after more than a half-century of Gardiner’s engagement with Bach, is actually his first book. Gardiner’s expertise as related to Bach is demonstrated in the fact that he has conducted some of the most important performances of Bach’s work ever to be enjoyed and recorded. As a composer, he is one of the quintessential interpreters of Bach. In this book, he brings us all into the mind of a conductor who has been wrestling with Bach for the entirety of his long and illustrious musical career.
Bach was a church musician, not a theologian. Yet he understood his music could serve the cause of theology, doctrine and the preaching of the gospel. As Gardiner explains, Bach was convinced his music could have a key role “in defining and strengthening Christian belief.”
As Gardiner explains, “None of his peers, and certainly none of his predecessors, had ambitions for exegetical music of an equivalent complexity or scale. None could match the depth of his elaborately patterned music—his meshing of narrative and reflection, of scriptural chronicles and theologically shaped poetic text. In a university city famed for its theological faculty, it was a courageous—some might have called it abrasive—statement, coming as it did from someone who is not a theologian and who did not even have a university degree.”
What Bach did have was a gift, and he shared that gift with the church. That gift continues to serve the church, and John Elliot Gardiner’s wonderful book about Bach will serve as a gift to every reader. The preacher who reads this book never will look at church music as he has seen it before.
Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
The human future is an urban future. Preachers need to understand the developing demographic of the world and the impact that rapid and pervasive urbanization will exert on every community and the vast majority of those who will hear our sermons.
Daniel Brook is a journalist who has written for some of the most influential news organizations and periodicals in the United States and beyond. His new book A History of Future Cities is one of those single volumes that will allow the reader to understand the world in a whole new way.
With his journalistic style, Brook is able to get right to the point: “Every month, five million people move from the past to the future.” In other words, every month sees five million people move into teeming cities, including megacities that did not exist a few years prior. In Brook’s estimation, this means they are leaving the past and joining the future. It is very hard to argue against his case.
With all the current conversation and debate about the reality of globalization, one insight gained from reading A History of Future Cities is the fact that though cultures might not be becoming more alike, cities are. In other words, the experience of living in a metropolitan context probably represents a greater commonality than any other previous sociological fact. Cities are more like each other than they are similar to their surrounding less-metropolitan environments.
Any world traveler today sees this reality. You can eat in some of the same restaurants and shop in some of the same stores in the megacities, whether in Africa, Europe, North America or Asia. You will encounter some of the same hotel chains and can fly on some of the same airlines. More subtle are the commonalities of technology, industry, commerce and transportation that make cities the unique social experiments they have become. Brook takes his readers through the development of cities such as St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay and Dubai, tracing each the successive phases of development.
Brook’s focus is on the development of the modern city, and his concluding city of consideration is Dubai, which he suggests offers the picture of the city of the future. He describes Dubai as “a work in progress—a city that we build rather than inherit, where the most fantastical drawings architects can imagine spring to life, where the fingerprints of the construction workers are still visible on the buildings.” Dubai is “still busy being born” as is the future of city life.
Preachers who want to understand the future will be served to read this book about cities old and new, and about the new fact that the human future is profoundly metropolitan. The great opportunity for preaching the gospel is found, as it was already found in the time of Spurgeon and in the time of the apostle Paul, in the city.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Reading for Preachers: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013)
The final book I recommend for reading preachers is a book about preachers reading. No one is better qualified to write this final volume than Cornelius Plantinga Jr., now president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary and senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Plantinga is a gifted writer, and (as any writer will understand) this is rooted in the fact that he is a very skilled and careful reader.
This volume is not just about the priority of reading, but about the conviction that the preacher who best reads is the preacher who will best preach. As Plantinga writes:
Above all, the preacher who reads widely has a chance to become wise. Few people grasp the preacher’s challenge. Where else in life does a person have to stand weekly before a mixed audience and speak to them engagingly on the mightiest topics known to humankind: God, life, death, sin, grace, love, hatred, hope, despair and the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Who is even close to being adequate for this challenge?
Preachers will find tremendous wisdom and insight from reading Plantinga’s short but very potent treatise on the preacher and reading. He really does call preachers to be in constant conversation with storytellers, poets, journalists and biographers. He understands the task of reading is integrally related to the calling of preaching, and he is unembarrassed to urge preachers to read and to read well.
An added bonus is the fact Plantinga is a very skilled writer. What preacher, remembering something read long ago that now seems hauntingly appropriate but inaccessible for a sermon, would not identify with this wonderful expression from Plantinga’s pen: “It makes you wonder whether it is truly better to have read and lost than never to have read at all.”
What preacher, reading a novel, has not been driven to wonder how it is that a novelist can get so much into such a tight space? A skilled novelist often seems to be able to capture an entire world in words. The preacher who learns from writers of such skill certainly will be able to fulfill the calling of preaching, which is itself a stewardship of words. We—just as the many authors considered in Plantinga’s book—share the same structure of language, the same possibilities of vocabulary, and the same opportunities of narrative.
Plantinga understands the preacher’s predicament, having become “a kind of sage.” As Plantinga explains, this is especially true if the preacher is committed to the exposition of Scripture, “because if the Bible touches on a topic the preacher has to follow suit.” For this reason, Plantinga recommends a reading program for preachers, and his suggestions will challenge and encourage the dedicated preacher.
Each of these 10 books deserves a space on the preacher’s bookshelf and in his reading program for the coming year. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it is perhaps indicative of the kind of reading to which preachers should aspire. Every one of these books will make a worthy contribution to the preacher’s ministry, not only in the year ahead, but far into the future. The reason for this is quite simple: The conversation we begin with a book is not completed when the reading of the book is finished and the book is placed again on the shelf—that conversation continues.
This is especially true if our reading is, as David Mikics exhorts us, a slow reading even in a very hurried age. The preacher, above all others, must understand why reading and the time devoted to reading are not distractions from preaching, but are vital to more powerful preaching from a more thoughtful preacher.