Books On Christian Theology

We continue our recommended reading with books focusing on Christian theology. I have chosen the following, partly simply because I am either currently reading or re-reading them but also because I consider these topics to be pivotal and often overlooked by lay people. The study of theology is so important because, in the words of John Calvin –

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (1).

Many, many years ago, I studied one subject, Theology, at Ridley College in Melbourne over a couple of years. I did this to better understand Who God is. I was wanting furtherance of my knowledge of God – knowledge that I knew was coming from a “low” Anglican perspective. As Christians, you don’t have to study theology to arrive at what you consider to be true but please do not settle for unexamined premises. Non self-questioning can lead to an unthought-out faith or, worse still, an unworthy following of the world’s lead. Careful examination of Scripture – all of it – every day of our lives, really is required reading for Christians in order that we can “test the spirits” –

(NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 1 John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

How can we judge and discern if we have no gauge against which to measure people’s words and actions? So you see, we need to keep re-committing to studying scripture, day by day, small chunk (maybe one chapter) by small chunk at a time. Theology is based upon scripture, or people’s understanding of what they read in scripture. Individuals and denominations vary in this understanding, or theology. I have found that when studying or exploring the Bible, it is helpful to read any particular passage of scripture first, before consulting any commentaries, to see what I make of it and asking God to guide me. After that, guidance from someone who has studied theology and scripture in depth would be beneficial. I find the ESV SB Notes particularly helpful but if something does not quite resonate or I continue to question what a particular passage of the Bible means, I turn to commentators on biblehub.com. Sometimes I use the commentaries on biblehub.com first. I find the most helpful are from Barnes but other commentators on the biblehub.com site, as well as elsewhere, are also very good. Dwell on scripture, pray to God for Him to open your understanding of what is written, not applying it to yourself but just seeing what is there. This latter piece of advice also comes from Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, via her youtube presentation on Bible study.

When I was first introduced to Bible study as a child, I was offered Scripture Union (SU) Bible Study Notes for children. A return missionary from New Guinea who attended the same church as me had offered me these. It was through the SU notes that I was introduced to the idea of praying a particular prayer before every reading of scripture. The prayer comes from Psalm 119:18. I first read it in the King James Version and I still pray it in that version to this day. 

“Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”

I take “law” to mean not the Old Testament law but more the precepts and history of God in this world that reveal His character. Here is the ESV SB explanation –

““wondrous things.” Probably the wondrous works recorded there and what they reveal of God himself (cf. v. 27; Ex. 3:20; Josh. 3:5; Ps. 78:32; 145:5).”

ESV SB, Psalms.

So, on the topic of recommended reading on Christian Theology, I begin with two books that were published as a unit, as it were, on the topic of Calvinism. That is, you can buy them separately or as a package together. Before we look at the books, I declare myself to be Arminian-leaning, persuasive though Michael Horton is in his book, ‘For Calvinism’. Some introductory notes might help elucidate the theological positions of Calvinism and Arminianism. These are named after John Calvin, ‘(1509-1564)…French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation.” (wikipedia) and “Jacobus Arminius, (1560–1609), …(who) was a Dutch theologian from the Protestant Reformation period whose views became the basis of Arminianism and the Dutch Remonstrant movement.” (wikipedia)

Calvinism represents a major theological framework within Christianity that helps to define the Reformed understanding of soteriology (the theology of salvation). A major doctrine within Calvinism is that of ‘election’. Election encompasses concerns over how a Christian comes to faith/conversion/belief in God. Is it through God’s work alone (‘monergism’ – God acting alone – location 90 of ‘For Calvinism’) or are humans fully free to respond to God’s leading of them to genuine faith (‘synergism’ – God acting synergistically with an individual – location 90 of ‘For Calvinism’).

Arminianism is, bluntly, the opposite of Calvinism. Arminian theology holds to the belief that Christians become so through free choice because God offers His grace to all of humanity (“Many are called but few are chosen”). This verse is interpreted differently on both sides of the fence and this includes the word, ‘many’, as a source of contention. However, I use this verse because I believe that in its context of  Matthew 22:1-14, it would appear to show that the call is made to everyone and that an individual may refuse the means of salvation, Jesus Christ, as the sacrifice for sins and the One through whom Christians are dressed appropriately to be in God’s presence (Matthew 22:11 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 11 “But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes…”.

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in salvation through the blood of Christ, shed for them by Jesus on the cross and being the only means by which humans can be accepted by God for eternity. Michael Horton kindly acknowledges this in his book. This acceptance of sinners (all of humanity who has ever lived) by God is because Jesus came to earth to be the perfect sacrifice for all sinners (all of humanity) throughout history. Jesus’ sacrifice is believed by Christians to be efficacious (effective) for the salvation of sinful humans who repent of a life lived in disregard of God and therefore of Christ, and who turn to Him in a simple act of belief in Him as the Saviour and Lord of their lives. 

To be an Arminian DOES NOT equate to a belief in salvation through works. To not believe in Calvinism is simply a belief in our power to choose to belong to God or not choose through our life choices (synergism). We believe that God accepts all who come to Him on His terms – through repentance and faith in Jesus to save them. Our means of salvation is another question entirely to that of the Arminian objection to humans having no say in their election. No wonder this very difficult topic has Christians over the ages in disagreement – amicably at the best of times, but disagreeing nonetheless. Two theologians, Michael S Horton and Roger E Olson, have expressed arguments for and against Calvinism in their two books, aptly entitled ‘Against Calvinism’ (Olson) and ‘For Calvinism’ (Horton). Both scholars present their thoughts intelligently, intelligibly and engagingly. I consider them brothers in the faith by virtue of the evident dedication of their lives to the pursuit of the knowledge of God, coming from their love for God.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (2).

Roger Olson has upheld his concern that God’s character not be “impugn”ed (by Calvinist theology). He also argues that “Christian tradition and reason” should be applied to our understanding of God’s character, and therefore to soteriology.

Some quotes follow –

“God’s foreordination of people’s sinful decisions and actions is nothing other than his decision to allow them. And he allows them by self-limitation, not ‘specific, willing permission’ that renders them certain. Those who sin are responsible and accountable because they could have done otherwise with the free will God gave them.” 

“Of course I would like to persuade fellow Christians to avoid Calvinism, not because it will kill their faith or spirituality but because I want people to think better about God than Calvinism allows. I believe God cares what we think about him and, because I love God, I want all people to think rightly about him.” 

“As I have sought to make clear throughout this book, I believe high Calvinism inadvertently but inescapably impugns the good character of God. That I want to persuade people to avoid Calvinism does not mean I want them to avoid Calvinists. To be honest, I think evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world. I just think they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to Scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason. And I think some of those doctrines dishonour God even though that is not Calvinists’ intention.” 

I agree with all of the thoughts that Roger Olson has expressed here. For myself, Scripture is the final arbiter. But looking at the Bible references that would appear to support an Arminian theological stance would require a further article – and a further look at the arguments that Roger Olson has provided for us in his book. Now we turn to Michael Horton’s book which argues for a quite different theological position. 

For Calvinism by Michael Horton (1).

Many of my misconceptions about Reformed theology and Calvinism were corrected through Michael Horton’s book. In fact, it is the author’s precision of thought and depth of theological knowledge that makes this book such a welcome one. It was published in 2011, so a while back, but because it is so engaging, clarifying and readable, it is very worthwhile reading. Some memorable quotes follow –

“Often, when the term “Calvinism” is mentioned, people think of an arbitrary God who drags some people into heaven kicking and screaming, while telling others who want to be saved that they’re simply not on the list. Sometimes this caricature is actually given life by hyper-Calvinists. However, it has never had any place in the Calvinist system.” 

I note Michael Horton’s comment on the acronym, ‘TULIP’, with a quote by Kenneth J Stewart from his ‘Ten Myths About Calvinism’ –

“…there is no evidence of this acronym being used before the twentieth century.” 

TULIP stands for the 5 doctrines of Calvinism or Reformed theology. These doctrines are not the sum total of Reformed teaching –

T – Total Depravity

U – Unconditional Election

L – Limited Atonement

I – Irresistible Grace

P – Perseverance of the Saints

Michael Horton chooses to replace some of these terms, using 

• “Particular redemption: Christ’s death is sufficient for the whole world, but secured the redemption of the elect”, as another way of expressing Limited Atonement. His replacement term here certainly softens the notion of the atonement being purposely limited only to the elect by God.

• “Effectual grace: The Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ through the gospel and faith is the effect, not the cause, of the new birth.” This would appear to also put a softened emphasis on the doctrine of irresistible grace.

The writer has clarified why the Apostles’ Creed reads, “I believe in…the holy catholic Church” –

“Reformed Christians are not restorationists. That is, they do not believe that the Reformation was a break from Catholic Christianity, or that the church had ceased to exist until the Reformers came along. Rather, they believe in “one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church” that was reformed according to God’s Word and stands in constant need of being reformed by that Word until Christ returns.” 

This is a wonderfully clarifying explanation. Based on the explanation that I had at one time been given by an acquaintance, a theological student who went on to become a bishop, I had an incomplete understanding of the term “Catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed. I was told it means “Universal”. I left it at that, never questioning the term further. Perhaps my acquaintance did explain more fully but I was not then ready to hear.The meaning given in ‘For Calvinism’ helped me to be far more receptive to Reformed theology because it highlights that the Reformed Church does not see itself as a breakaway and new movement. I have to say, though, that on many doctrines I do share the writer’s Reformed theology as he has explained it. Perhaps I had too many caricatures in my head before reading his excellent understanding of God and of human beings. For example, it is rare to see an evangelical acknowledge that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the One of the New Testament. As I have read and re-read the Bible I can see the unity of the Bible and of God’s character throughout the entirety of it. Many “discrepancies” that once troubled me have receded due to repeated reading and study of scripture that have led to increased understanding.

More quotes follow –

“All Christians believe in the new birth, but Calvinists believe that it is a gift that God gives us so that we will believe, not because we believed.”

Following are some tenets of faith that I was surprised to find as part of a Reformed understanding of God and of humans –

“In my reading, no theological system has been more affirming of this world and human nature as such while being so profoundly struck by the misery of fallen existence. In fact, this tragic character of our corrupt existence is measured by the height from which we have fallen and the glorious future that awaits us at Christ’s return.”

“Calvinism teaches that human beings are basically good in their intrinsic nature, endowed with free will, beauty of body and soul, reason, and moral excellence. In short, we are created in God’s image. Now, that might not fit the stereotype, especially when the famous “TULIP” starts with Total Depravity. However, Reformed theology never starts with the fall, but with God’s good creation. If we start with total depravity, we easily assume that human beings are just rotten from the beginning, without any goodness, integrity, or free will. However, Calvinists believe that this is a grave distortion of the matter and will lead inevitably to a misunderstanding of total depravity.” 

I was staggered to see these affirmations of human beings within Reformed theology, affirmations that do not depart from a true understanding of Christianity. I do not mean that we can incorporate humanism into our thinking. Rather, we are not to be facile in our understanding of ‘original sin’. Admittedly, there are many pronouncements in the Bible that would point to the truth of Calvinism or what Michael Horton prefers to call “the doctrines of grace”. I have read and re-read Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 and am in the midst of grappling with a deeper appreciation of the true meaning of these passages. I am still left with many questions about other biblical verses, not to mention the whole tenor of Scripture, that would appear to tally more with an Arminian understanding. Despite this wonderful book, I continue for now with a synergistic understanding of how a person comes to be a believer in God. Synergism in no way declares our works as being acceptable to God for our salvation. We are saved by God’s grace alone because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for our sins. But do we human beings have any ability by our free will to turn to God in faith? I think we do and that this aspect of our intact will and freedom to choose Him are a part of God’s grace to humanity and reflection of us being made in the image of God.

Heaven by Randy Alcorn (3).

What a fitting note to end on. This is the hope of Christians – to be in Heaven with God, with no Satan, no sin, no grief, no disease, no pain or death ever, ever, ever again and to be in the presence of our generous God who has invited us…us! to be in His perfect company forever. I use ‘hope’ in the Romans 8:24-25 sense –

24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (4)

I bought this book to look into the theology of ‘soul sleep’. Does soul sleep exist for Christians or does it not? Or do Christians go straight to be with God at death? There are many Bible verses that would indicate that at death, we, or the spirit part of us, goes straight to Heaven, awaiting our full bodily resurrection at the return of Christ to earth. One of the most obvious of these comes from –

Luke 23:39-43 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other (criminal hanging on a cross on the other side of Jesus) answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.””

The word, “today”, is the one we hang on to as indicating immediate entry to Heaven upon death. But scripture often uses terms metaphorically. For example, all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the transfiguration of Jesus, and what I am drawing your attention to here is the disciples’ question to Jesus in verse 10 below – 

“Matthew 17:9-13 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” 10 And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.”

The Old Testament prophecy of Elijah coming to prepare the way for Jesus’ mission was to be found in Albert Barnes’ Notes on Matthew 11:14 –

“The prophet Malachi Mal 4:5-6 predicted that “Elijah” would be sent before the coming of the Messiah to prepare the way for him.”

Albert Barnes, biblehub.com

This prophecy makes up the final words of the Old Testament. So here we see the prophecy as metaphorical because John the Baptist was the one being referred to as ‘Elijah’. As I have written before on this site, there can be multiple fulfillments of prophecies, so how do we not know that Elijah may appear before the second coming of Christ? See also Eccles 12:7, Matt 27:50, Luke 23:46 and Phil 1:23-24. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of verses that either hint at, or spell out, our immediate going to be with God in a conscious state at death. 

One of the most radical ideas that Randy Alcorn puts forward in his book is that when the Bible speaks of a “new Heaven and new Earth”, this does not mean “new” as in a “different” earth from our current one. His thesis revolves around the idea that references to the earth being one day destroyed does not mean “destroyed” as we commonly understand the word. See his explanation of “destroyed” below – 

“Still, many cannot reconcile the idea of redemption through restoration with the statements of 2 Peter 3:10 that “the heavens will disappear with a roar,” and “the elements will be destroyed by fire,” and “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” John Piper says of this passage, “What Peter may well mean is that at the end of this age there will be cataclysmic events that bring this world to an end as we know it—not putting it out of existence, but wiping out all that is evil and cleansing it by fire and fitting it for an age of glory and righteousness and peace that will never end.” I think the key to understanding the qualified meaning of these images of destruction in 2 Peter lies within the passage itself. The passage draws a parallel between the earth in the time of Noah, which was “destroyed” through the Flood, and the time to come when the present world will be destroyed in judgment again, this time not by water but by fire (2 Peter 3:6-7). The stated reference point for understanding the future destruction of the world is the Flood. The Flood was certainly cataclysmic and devastating. But did it obliterate the world, making it cease to exist? No.” …“But just as God’s judgment by water didn’t make the earth permanently uninhabitable, neither will God’s judgment by fire”.

and on the words, “burned up”, as quoted below, he has this to say –

“The King James Version translates 2 Peter 3:10 this way: “The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” But the word translated “burned up” does not appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts, which contain a word that means “found” or “shown.” The New International Version translates it “laid bare,” and the English Standard Version renders it “exposed.” God’s fire of judgment will consume the bad but refine the good, exposing things as they really are.”

And finally, on “a new Heaven and a new earth”, I again quote from the book –

“As we’ve seen, the expression “Heaven and Earth” is a biblical designation for the entire universe. So when Revelation 21:1 speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth,” it indicates a transformation of the entire universe. The Greek word kainos, translated “new,” indicates that the earth God creates won’t merely be new as opposed to old, but new in quality and superior in character. According to Walter Bauer’s lexicon, kainos means new “in the sense that what is old has become obsolete, and should be replaced by what is new. In such a case the new is, as a rule, superior in kind to the old.”130 It means, therefore, “not the emergence of a cosmos totally other than the present one, but the creation of a universe which, though it has been gloriously renewed, stands in continuity with the present one.”131 Paul uses the same word, kainos, when he speaks of a believer becoming “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The New Earth will be the same as the old Earth, just as a new Christian is still the same person he was before. Different? Yes. But also the same.”

I found this all interesting but I reserve judgement on my understanding of how the earth and heaven will be renewed, whether by restoration of what already exists or total annihilation of what exists in all spheres with God’s replacement of what is with a new heaven and a new earth. However God works to bring about the new, we believers live in hope of the return of Jesus when Satan and all realms of darkness and wickedness will be finally destroyed forever. Questions of course remain. Randy Alcorn has provided the church with a thoughtful and interesting understanding of our final, wonderful destination, to the end that we live our lives now more fully with an eternal perspective. We finish with Randy Alcorn’s explanation for his motivation in writing his book, a worthy motivation indeed –

“I believe there’s one central explanation for why so many of God’s children have such a vague, negative, and uninspired view of Heaven: the work of Satan. Jesus said of the devil, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Some of Satan’s favorite lies are about Heaven. Revelation 13:6 tells us the satanic beast “opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.” Our enemy slanders three things: God’s person, God’s people, and God’s place—namely, Heaven. After being forcibly evicted from Heaven (Isaiah 14:12-15), the devil became bitter not only toward God, but toward mankind and toward Heaven itself, the place that was no longer his. It must be maddening for him that we’re now entitled to the home he was kicked out of. What better way for the devil and his demons to attack us than to whisper lies about the very place on which God tells us to set our hearts and minds? Satan need not convince us that Heaven doesn’t exist. He need only convince us that Heaven is a place of boring, unearthly existence. If we believe that lie, we’ll be robbed of our joy and anticipation, we’ll set our minds on this life and not the next, and we won’t be motivated to share our faith. Why should we share the “good news” that people can spend eternity in a boring, ghostly place that even we’re not looking forward to?”

REFERENCES

Horton, M S 2011. For Calvinism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Olson, R E 2011. Against Calvinism, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Alcorn R C 2004. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

ESV Global Study Bible, Crossway. Kindle Edition.