My Top Five Books of 2019: the Unthank Edition
Roald Dahl provided for my wife and I, when we first got married, a proper philosophy of home with his memorable instruction, “Please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away. And in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.” 2019 saw many more books added to that bookshelf and here I want to tell you about some of my favorites I’ve read this year.
1. Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God. Translated by Todd M. Rester, Reformation Heritage Books, 2019.
Originally published in 1699, here is classical Reformed orthodoxy at its best; a bridge between the best of medieval scholasticism and the best of reformed thought, translated and reproduced for us in modern English. But in Mastricht one also notices a profound piety and an emphasis upon knowing God, not just knowing about God. It is for good reason that Richard Muller says of Mastricht, that he has a “sense of the relationship between meditation on the divine attributes and the life of piety.”[i] This is a book that should make any serious reader grow in his love for God.
What one finds in Mastricht is a uniquely clear grasp of God’s infinite essence – his Spirituality and Simplicity – undergirding and making sense of all his other attributes. For instance, in speaking about God’s impassibility he does so by first exploring God’s will, reminding his readers that the will of God is simple, that is, it is not a part of God but is who God is – “it is the willing God himself.” Thus, God, who does not change, also cannot be moved to will or act by anything external to himself (his impassibility) because He and his divine will are one. And then, polemically, Mastricht makes this stunning application: “Just by this hypothesis alone, in the matter of predestination, the idea that the will of God would be dependent upon anything forseen is destroyed.”[ii] Mastricht is a master of seeing how any one doctrine has immediate relevance in a believer’s life and thus this is a book that should be read by many.
2. Anthony Esolen, Nostalgia. Regnery Gateway, 2018.
Anthony Esolen, as evidenced in almost all of his books, is today’s apostle of cultural retrieval. As an able apologist for the Great Books movement, he serves as a poetic (and pugnacious) prophet calling out in the wilderness of our modern and post-modern and post-post-modern decay for a return to the old and well-water paths of the past.
In Nostalgia we are invited into this classicist’s mind as he mines and expounds for us that ever-present longing for home, that evident nostalgia for what was Eden, a nostalgia which is communicated throughout so many of the great books of Western civilization. But he also looks forward, knowing that history is moving toward a consummation where all that is good, true, and beautiful will be restored. But while we wait Esolen helps us see the vain hubris of progressivism’s idolatrous pursuit of utopia, a pursuit which derides all that has come before as useless. And he also helps us guard against the misplaced longing for a past golden age which we mistakenly remember through rose colored glasses. This is not a nostalgia for the 50’s or for medieval Christendom or for the glory of Greece and Rome but for something far more Eternal.
3. C.W. Grafton, A Forty-Three Year Pastorate in a Country Church. Log College Press, 2017.
This short little autobiography was by far my favorite book this year. Since reading it I’ve gone on to buy a dozen or more copies just to hand out to friends and fellow pastors. In it we see a beautiful model of humble shepherding, a picture of what diligent biblical pastoring should look like unconcerned with the lime-light of celebrity ministry which motivates so many pastors today.
Originally an address Grafton gave as Moderator of the General Assembly in the PCUS in 1916, he recounts the ins-and-outs of pastoral ministry to a church who saw four generations under his shepherding care. Grafton, who began pastoring Union Church Presbyterian Church in 1873 continued on until 1934, serving for 61 years in a faithful ministry! A ministry spanning from the Reconstruction era to WWII, Grafton began his country ministry before there was a railroad that traveled near his parish, or ever before there were paved roads, and finished in a time when the world was radically different. But what remained constant was his preaching of an unchanging Gospel and applying that Gospel to each family under his care.
“For all these years at Union Church the fundamentals of Theology have been proclaimed. To wit: the doctrines of original sin, man’s total depravity, God’s sovereign will, eternal election of a multitude that no man can number, a definite atonement by Jesus Christ the Son of God for His people, irresistible grace in the regeneration of the soul, and the final, certain perseverance of the saints. These are sometimes called dry bones of theology, but our people have not found it so.”[iii]
4. J. Gresham-Machen, Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition with new essays by the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster Seminary Press, 2019.
This now classic has been reprinted with added essays by the faculty of WTS and it is just as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century. With what seems to be a pronounced resurgence of liberal theology, this time under the guise of intersectionality and critical theory, Machen’s treatise, grounded as it is in the unshakeable fundamentals of Biblical truth, is able to shine a clear light on the vain philosophies plaguing many churches today.
In my own ministry I have found myself having more than a few conversations with those questioning the inerrancy and timelessness of Scripture as they seek to give approval to same-sex attraction or women pastoring churches. And (re)turning to Christianity and Liberalism has helped give me clear vocabulary and clear thinking as I seek to shepherd and guide others to knowing the goodness of God’s unchanging word.
5. William Gouge, Building a Godly Home, 3 volumes. Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.
In a day and age where confusion abounds on what marriage is, on what roles ought to look like within a marriage, and what it looks like to raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, here is a three volume exposition of Scriptural instruction which leaves no stone unturned.
Gouge is a pastor-theologian of the first rank, taking difficult questions concerning the purpose and function of marriage and family-life and bringing clear, biblically saturated thinking on many issues. Volume two, A Holy Vision for a Happy Marriage, is particularly insightful. Who should and should not get married? What should a Christian wedding look like and consist of? What are grounds for divorce? How do couples work through different libidos? How to fight for fidelity in marriage. How can a husband lead in family worship? What does submission and authority look like and when is authority abused? How to grow in love throughout the decades of a long and fruitful marriage.
This characteristically Puritan work was a balm for my soul and injected renewed passion and thoughtfulness into my marriage. This is one of those books which should be gifted by every pastor to every newly married couple. It is a gift to Christ’s church and an added shield of protection to the institution of Holy Matrimony.
Gilles Emory, O.P. The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God. Translated by Matthew Levering, The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.
Terry L. Johnson, The Identity and Attributes of God. Banner of Truth Trust, 2019.
Samuel Renihan, God without Passions, a Primer: A Practical and Pastoral Study of Divine Impassibility. Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015.
Peter Kreeft, Doors In The Walls Of The World: Signs of Transcendence In The Human Story. Ignatius Press, 2018.
[i] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 134.
[ii] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, p. 298.
[iii] C.W. Grafton, A Forty-Three Year Pastorate in a Country Church, p. 7.