Book of the Month: February 2015

The choice for this month is Living Zealously by Joel Beeke and James La Belle. This is one of those rare books which, having finished, I think I am going to start over reading again.Living Zealously

Lewis once said about courage that it was not so much a separate virtue as it was the testing point of all the virtues. It is a similar kind of thing with zeal. No one is able to simply radiate zeal. Zeal always accompanies something else, always has a particular object other than itself. A man might be zealous for God’s honor, or be zealous for evangelism, or have a zeal in preaching, and so on. That said, zeal is a true grace, and it is not optional. “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14).

What Beeke and La Belle did in this book is provide a compendium of Puritan teaching on the subject of zeal. This is a subject that the Puritans knew a great deal about. Their zeal — which transformed the Western world, to insufficient thanks — was not an accident. They knew what they were doing. They pursued it as part of their discipleship. They knew and taught on the dangers of false or misguided zeal. What Beeke and La Belle have done is taken their extensive knowledge of the Puritans and have assembled in one place an orderly arrangement of Puritan doctrine on the subject. This book is a feast for any Christian who is tired of lethargy masquerading as moderation.

“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

Our Last Christening

A year or so ago, I read through Marilynn Robinson’s novels, which was a treat for the most part. I read all of them except for Lila, but there I had the excellent excuse that it had not yet been released. But now it has been, so it comes to pass that I have now read it also.

Robinson’s descriptive powers remain as great as ever, and she does what every novelist dreams of, which is to hold your attention page to page. What she does not do, however, is provide a compelling case for universalism. Robinson specializes in exquisite descriptions of broken characters, but here her theology unwittingly becomes one of those broken characters, lame and blind, and with no one to help.

In universalism, the human is constant. He or she does things, and those things can be good or bad. Universalism focuses on those things, and wonders whether God is so arbitrary or so irrational as to be unwilling to forgive such things. And it is also pointed out that someone else has been forgiven for those very same things, and if one person is forgiven, then why not all? Meanwhile, the perpetrator is standing off to the side, a constant subject whose role is to have done a list of bad things without having been transformed by them.

For the universalist, the question is “why cannot God forgive these things?” The person is always underneath, constant, and sins are what you wipe off. For the Christian, our actions define and illustrate what we are becoming. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Damnation is the ultimate gollumization of a man, and salvation is our last christening. We become what we worship.

For the universalist, there might be a goodish bit of pushing and shoving on the playground, but when the bell rings all the kids are still just kids and they all come in for cookies and juice. Everything comes into perspective, especially during sharing time, when teacher speaks to us all in that soothing voice.

But we are not constant. We are all in the process of becoming something, and Jesus teaches us that there is a tipping point in that process of becoming. Hell is hellish for those who are there, but for a damned soul, Heaven would be a worse Hell. The prospect of being there with Him is utterly loathsome.

Souls that will be damned and souls that will be saved — the only kind you will ever meet — are all of them, every last one of them, in the bud. We are not there yet. We are not the constant. Only God is constant, and as we look at the face of His constancy, we will either see — forever — justice or love.

Book of the Month/January 2015

This month the book of the month is a brace of books. You should get them together, and read them both. Together they address the central political issue of our day, one that rests underneath whatever the turmoil of the moment might be.

The doctrine of the lesser magistrates is one of our lost doctrines, an essential part of our civic heritage, but one which we have shamefully neglected and now are in desperate need of again. We are not going to get it back unless we resort to the reading of old books, and books that recover old doctrines. After urging you to get and read these two books, I will add a few thoughts of my own below.

Lesser Magistrates

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella is a very fine introduction to what was once a standard understanding among conservative Protestants. Calvin treats this doctrine in Book IV of his Institutes, and John Knox has a clear-headed treatment of it in his Appellation. In this book, Trewhella gathers together the basic questions that surround the doctrine, and answers them systematically. What is the doctrine? What are some historical examples? Can the doctrine be abused? And so on.

Magdeburg

A companion volume, The Magdeburg Confession, is a book that contains the testimony of some faithful Lutheran pastors in 1550, when they were facing down the attempted tyranny of Charles V. A very capable translation of their testimony is here rendered by Dr. Matthew Colvin, and it shows us that the perennial issues are indeed perennial. These were the men who withstood a siege of the city of Magdeburg for the sake of liberty of conscience, and anyone today who has ever enjoyed any measure of such liberty should render their thanks to God for these faithful servants. Chief among them was Nicolas von Amsdorff, a close friend of Martin Luther. These were the times when we had pastors with titanium spines — in distinction from what we have too much of today, which is pastors with spines molded out of saturated paper towels.
Here is the doctrine, in a nutshell.

“The primary duty of the lesser magistrates regarding the doctrine of the lesser magistrates is threefold. First, they are to oppose and resist any laws or edicts from the higher authority that contravene the law or Word of God. Second, they are to protect the person, liberty, and property of those who reside within their jurisdiction from any unjust or immoral laws or actions by the higher authority. Third, they are not to implement any laws or decrees made by the higher authority that violate the Constitution, and if necessary, resist them” (p. 15).

In short, this is civil disobedience by officials, acting in an official capacity. Moreover, it involves officials doing so with a clean conscience. When they interpose themselves between the people and the tyrannical power above them both, they are not acting lawlessly. Quite the reverse. They continue to act lawfully, even when the head has become lawless.

The issues involved extend down into matters of individual civil disobedience, to be sure, but one of the reasons resistance at that level is not as effective as it could be is that officials with actual resources for effective resistance do not interpose as they ought to.

There are many practical questions. Who decides? By what standard do they decide? Who decides if their decision was a good one? And so on. But the fact that godly resistance to tyranny generates many questions is not an argument against it. Submission to tyranny generates many more questions, mostly insoluble, and with no opportunity even to ask them.

This is a fallen world, which means that no human authority is absolute. All authorities must be checked and bounded, and a crucial part of the boundary for such authorities is found in the authorities beneath them. When evil rules, “I was only following orders” is not an adequate defense. But if it is not an adequate defense, then we have to go back to the practical questions listed in the previous paragraph.

Fortunately, we are not the first generation ever to face these particular dilemmas. We as a people have wrestled with these questions for centuries, and we have a well developed theology that addresses what we ought to do. This theology is found in books, and these are books we must read, and get others to read.

Constitutional freedoms are not kept alive on pieces of paper. They are kept alive in the hearts and minds of people who have been set free by Christ.

Book of the Month/December 2014

Leif Enger’s other novel, Peace Like a River, was an earlier selection of mine for “book of the month,” a year ago today, in fact. And now comes his other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome.Brave Young Handsome

Let me first say that I don’t really care for his titles. Peace Like a River is taken from the prophet Amos, but comes off like a mash up of an evangelical cliche and a folk song. After you read the book, you don’t care, but there it is. So Brave, Young, and Handsome is taken from a song called “The Cowboy’s Lament.”

We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly
And bitterly wept as we bore him along
For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young, and handsome
We all loved our comrade, although he’d done wrong

The book is set in the West, in the early days of the twentieth century, when the old ways of the West were still a living memory, but the new ways had settled in. The book is written in the first person by a writer from Minnesota named Monte Becket. He had published one book, Martin Bligh, that had been a best seller, and now after many attempts on the second one, was coming to grips with the fact that writer’s block had him by the windpipe. He is happily married to Susannah and has a precocious son named Redstart.

Book of the Month/November 2014

Rise ChristianityI really appreciate this book. In it, Rodney Stark applies some of the tools of analytic sociology to a particular historical phenomenon which in this instance matches the title of his book exactly — the rise of Christianity. Full disclosure: I won’t be done with this book for a couple more days, but it is November 1 already. But I have already read enough to know that I really want you to read it too.

He asks obvious questions — but that are only obvious once someone has asked them. For example, he has a chapter that starts with a thousand Christians in the first century, and notes the number of Christians there likely were when Constantine officially abandoned paganism. He then asks the obvious question — what growth rate was necessary in order to get between that first point and the second one?
Another chapter examines the likely class status of converts to Christianity. Contrary to class struggle advocates, the gospel grew the way it did, and was as effective as it was, because it appealed strongly to the middle and upper classes. Christianity was as appealing as it was because of its work with the outcasts, but there was a strong appeal in this to those who were not outcasts.

This relates to another chapter. Stark examines the impact of deadly epidemics on the growth of Christianity. Pagans would scatter and flee at the first sign of an outbreak, and Christians would not. Christians would stay and minister to the sick, and despite this — and as Stark shows, because of this — the Christians had a much better recovery and survival rate. This meant that recovered Christians, now immune, could continue the task of nursing the sick.

Because of the adamant stance of the Christians against abortion and infanticide, they had a robust female population, and the pagans didn’t. This was because infanticide was frequently — as abortion is today in places like China — a means of selecting against females. In this context, the Christians had a lot more women, and they honored them highly.

The book is not perfect, and some of this is the result of certain realities not yielding to quantification. Another reason for the occasional stumble is that Stark is not as careful as he ought to be one the question of women holding church office. He is right about how the women were honored, but wrong about whether they wielded authority in the church. A deaconness in the early church was not a deacon who happened to be a woman.

Nevertheless, with all this said, this is a book that begins with some mundane number crunching, and moves on to treat some fascinating subjects, and in a way that is quite moving.

Book of the Month/October 2014

Hunter Baker does very good work. This new book is called The System Has a Soul. His earlier book The End of Secularism was really worthwhile, and now he is out and about with this collection of essays on similar and related themes.

Secularism is completely bankrupt, and the more people we can get to talk regularly about this useful fact in public, the better I like it. People used to believe that secularization was part of the inevitable march of evolution. Now the ground has shifted, and people are just acquiescing to certain practical realities brought about by the mere fact of pluralism. But, as Baker points out, “There is nothing about that situation that guarantees a secular future” (p. 54). What the future will look like is always an idea, and unless there is divine inspiration for your eschatology, you need to be a little bit careful about your pronouncements. There is no historical inevitability to secularism at all. Baker is one of the few writers today who is willing to point that fact out.

System SoulThe subtitle of this book is Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life, and his work ranges between a number of related themes. He talks about the crisis that higher education faces, he addresses whether social conservatives and libertarians can find any common ground, and what relevance the resurrection might have for political theory. Baker is an intelligent observer of the emperor’s parade, and he has the courage to comment on the emperor’s lack of suitable apparel.

Secularism had already gotten wobbly all by itself, and then God introduced the wild card of fundamentalist Islam. Secularists simply won’t follow their premises out to the logical conclusion, and so God arranged for ISIS to chase them there.

In the midst of this chaos, Baker reminds us that Christians in a society must learn to embrace their high calling.

“The church is a huge influence on the values of the culture. The church works to help the state when it is right and calls the state to righteousness when it is wrong. The church is the soul of the system” (p. 50).

There was an early church father, name began with a D I think, who said very much the same thing when he said Christians something something soul of something society. I was surprised that Baker didn’t quote him as I have done, the quote being so apropos to the subject at hand.

Without a return to something like what Baker is outlining here, we have had it. He deftly uses Elton Trueblood’s metaphor to refer to our “cut-flower civilization” — retaining our shape and glory for a time, but stuck there in the vase, and almost ready to be pressed between the pages of a fat history book.

Book of the Month/September 2014

Chlidren Living GodIn this wonderful book, Children of the Living God, Sinclair Ferguson carefully discusses the new birth, the glory of adoption, and the ramifications of living together in God’s family.

Regeneration “means to come to share in the risen life and power of Jesus Christ, and to enter into vital fellowship with him” (p. 18).  This is the work of God, and no one else can do it. When He does it, He displays the nature of His power — which is infinite. “It is no easier for God to give you a new birth than it is for him to give it to the worst man who ever lived” (v.  21).

“There are, then, two dimensions to our sonship. The first is re-creation (or regeneration); the second is adoption, God’s acceptance of us into his family” (p. 26).

Adoption “is not a change in nature, but a change in status” (p. 36). We are men before God does this, and we are men after. But before God brings us into His family, we are members of another kind of family, with a usurping alien father. The devil is our father, using all the gifts and faculties that God gave our race to hasten the day of our damnation. When someone is truly converted (which is not the same thing as joining the church), he is adopted by a new Father, and his status changes completely. His old faculties are still operational, but they are pointed in a different direction entirely, devoted to a new love.

When we are brought into God’s family, we are being changed into human beings. So with that being the case, what were we before then? The answer is that we were “wreckage of human” — and headed toward the abyss, the outer darkness, where our status would finally become “ultimate wreckage of human.”

Book of the Month/August 2014

For this month’s installment, I am going to do something a little bit different. I am going to throw some superlatives into the second paragraph, explain some obstacles in the next, and then add my own observations following all that.

This book, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, is one of the most important books of this generation — magnificent, magisterial, monster-mojo-fun. Everyone who is directly or indirectly connected with politics needs to get it, read it, and digest it. It is an unlikely contender for best seller status, but we need to make sure it gets there anyway. I am taking the unusual step of reviewing a book for this spot before finishing it — but bear with me. I want to take it all in slowly while getting the word out quickly.

Okay, there are some obstacles. The book costs about fifty clams, which works out to about a dime a page — worth every penny. This thing has a tight weave of 511 pages, with 111 pages of dense footnotes on top of that. It is a carefully written academic tome, published by The University of Chicago Press, in a nondescript powder blue cover, with the title looking suspiciously Times Romanesque. Take all these things together, and you scarcely notice the fuse sticking out of the top. But then, after a double take, you realize it is a lit fuse. Despite all these challenges, one time I checked it was ranked around 12,000 at Amazon. That is remarkable for a book like this, but we need to have it do a lot better than that.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

But don’t just buy it to make a statement. Read it, and let the good law professor make his statement. Scott Johnson of Powerline has a review of the book in the current issue of National Review, an adaptation of which can be found here.

We have been told that the modern world is a complex place, and that the archaic rules laid down for our governance in the Constitution have not be able to keep up. Modern! Shiny! Techno! Faster! How could we possibly expect the powdered wig guys, however much we revere them, to have anticipated the modern challenges that confront us Today?

In this book, Philip Hamburger simply destroys this glib assumption, not to mention the hubris it rode in on. The modern administrative state is not the shining achievement of technocratic man, but is rather a retrograde political movement returning, like a dog to its vomit, to a certain medieval form of governance that our constitutional forms of government first arose and smote.

The only thing missing is that the EPA has not seen fit to start meeting in a Star Chamber. Enough with the disparagement of constitutionalism as powdered wig governance. The “modern” administrative state is governance by despots in Elizabethan breeches and piccadills. There is nothing new about any of this.

The growth of constitutional liberty was a long slog, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was one great victory over the dogma of the “royal prerogative.” The American War for Independence was another great moment in that same struggle. The result of the American resistance to arbitrary government was our written Constitution, a document expressly designed to prohibit the kind of governance we now suffer. The fact that this Constitution was designed to prohibit the current shenanigans is something that Hamburger demonstrates again and again.

Royal Prerogative

We have determined that the employer mandate may be waived for the present, as it suits our pleasure . . .

Do you want to know why Obama thinks he can simply alter the requirements of Obamacare? Congress passes a law, he signs it into law, but then when aspects of it land heavily upon certain lords and barons who are friendly to the crown, he just issues his administrative waivers — his “suspending and dispensing powers,” as Henry VIII would have called them. As Scott Johnson put it, this is a “new old regime.”

There are two great takeaways from this book. The first is that our current regime is an old enemy in a new guise. It was not a development that the Founders could not have anticipated — it was their old foe. They knew it quite well. They knew the arguments of expedience and necessity, and they rejected them. They rejected them at the root and in the flowering fruit. They wanted nothing to do with it.

The arguments for administrative law are therefore arguments for absolute power. The whole thing is deeply and profoundly unlawful, illegal, and subversive. The ruling elites always gravitate toward this kind of dry rot polity, all while assuring us that everything is perfectly sound. But this book will forever dispel their ability to lie that particular lie.

The second takeaway is an implication of the book for those Christians who take their faith seriously, and who therefore believe that we have an obligation before God to be law-abiding citizens (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

In this respect, the title of this book is explosive. Is Administrative Law Unlawful? The answer to this question is provided over and over in the course of the book, and the answer is that administrative law is unlawful. It is not binding. It is lawless. It is rebellion. It is subversive. It follows then that those who reject its authority are not rejecting authority — just the reverse, actually.

There are of course a host of practical questions that arise. But before tackling the practical questions, it is important to get the theory straight. Whether or not a particular agency has enough SWAT teams to take my property away from me, I should at least be clear that when they do, they are the ones being the outlaws. Resisting them in whatever ways I can ought not to be a burden on my conscience. And to be perfectly frank, not resisting them should be.

Whatever you do, get this book. For all your getting, get wisdom (Prov. 4:7).