The Best Books of 2015December 28, 2015
This year my list of the best books in 2015 will be released in two parts. Today I provide my selections for numbers 10 to 6. Tomorrow I’ll list numbers 5 to 1. Following that I hope to post an article with my “honorable mention” books, of which there are many. Continue reading . . .
This year my list of the best books in 2015 will be released in two parts. Today I provide my selections for numbers 10 to 6. Tomorrow I’ll list numbers 5 to 1. Following that I hope to post an article with my “honorable mention” books, of which there are many.
(10) Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, Thomas Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 288 pp.
Countless books on the doctrine of justification have been published in the last 25 years, but this one is far and away the best. There are several things that make it so good, not least of which is its comprehensive focus. Tom takes up such issues as justification in the history of the church, from the ancient fathers up through the Protestant Reformation, culminating in Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. He has extensive treatments of the righteousness of God, imputation, and the relationship of good works to justification by faith alone.
I also greatly enjoyed his interaction with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the New Perspective on Paul and Justification as found in the writings of N. T. Wright.
To gain insight on the point of view defended in this book, consider the comments of John Piper who wrote the Foreword. In response to the question, how can a person be right with God? Schreiner’s answer, as you might expect, is sola fide, by faith alone. “But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely,” notes Piper. “He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship with God” (11).
The faith that alone saves, says Piper echoing Schreiner, is never alone. “Such faith always ‘works by love and produces the ‘obedience of faith.’ And that obedience – imperfect as it is till the day we die – is not the ‘basis of justification, but . . . a necessary evidence and fruit of justification’” (11).
So, if you are struggling with the meaning and means of justification, or with how it relates to the Christian life in general, this is the book for you.
(9) Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment, Douglas A. Sweeney (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 391 pp.
You might expect that I would have at least one book on Jonathan Edwards on this year’s list. Honestly, I could have listed several, such as Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 198 pp.; or, The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards’s Theological Anthropology and Apologetic, Jeffrey C. Waddington (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2015), 243 pp.; or, Jonathan Edwards and the Life of God: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Participation, W. Ross Hastings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 524 pp.; or, The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians, edited by Kyle C. Strobel (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), 257 pp.; or, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture, David P. Barshinger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 470 pp.
But Sweeney’s volume stands above them all. You need not be a fan of Edwards or an Edwardsean scholar to benefit from this book. Sweeney dives headlong into Edwards the exegete, that is to say, Edwards as a defender and interpreter and preacher of Scripture. It is Edwards’s view of what the Bible is and its essential role in all of life that Sweeney undertakes to explain.
Edwards did not read or preach the Bible in precisely the same way that most evangelical pastors do today. He did not preach verse by verse, expositionally, through a book of the Bible. He preached doctrinally. Of course, all his doctrine was derived from and based on the biblical text, and he never failed to conclude each message with extended practical application (what he most often referred to as “Use”). But Edwards was not afraid to employ allegory and extensive typology in his reading of the inspired text. And as far as he was concerned, all of Scripture (yes, literally, all of it) was concerned with the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The two chapters that I found most helpful focused on his interpretation of the Song of Solomon (“Let Him Kiss Me with the Kisses of his Mouth,” pp. 113-133), and his understanding of the book of Revelation (“Things Which Must Shortly Come to Pass,” pp. 160-183). What may come as a surprise to those not familiar with Edwards is that he interpreted both of these books in a manner that rarely is found among evangelical scholars and pastors today.
Edwards stood in the long tradition of those who believed that the Song of Solomon was not directly about human sexuality but Christ’s love for the Church. “He said that Solomon composed it, using his own, royal love life as a metaphor that magnified the love of Christ and the church” (120). Sweeney cites Edwards as describing the Song as “representing the great love between Christ and his spouse the church, particularly adapted to the dispositions and holy affections of a true Christian’s soul towards Christ, and representing his grace and marvelous love to and delight in his people” (125).
Before you too quickly disregard Edwards on the Song, never forget that it wasn’t until the late 18th century that reputable Christian scholars began to read the Song as a portrayal of human sexuality. Virtually the entire Church preceding Edwards read it as metaphorical or perhaps even allegorical treatment of Christ’s deep and passionate love affair with his people.
The chapter on Edwards’s view of Revelation is excellent, but again he interprets the book in a way rarely found or defended today. He takes the historicist reading of Revelation in which the many symbols and sections of the book describe the unfolding of events between the two comings of Christ. Edwards believed that “the Roman Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon and the history of redemption was the history of its overthrow by Christ and the saints in advance of the turning of the world to the Savior, the great millennial period, the final, public Judgment, and the life of the world to come” (170).
One more thing. The actual text of Sweeney’s volume is only 223 pages in length. This is followed by 153 pages of end notes! Most of you will never bother to read them, but it is a glorious treasure trove of secondary literature and observations on Edwardsean research.
(8) Killjoys: The Seven Deadly Sins, edited by Marshall Segal (Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2015), 97 pp.
This is the shortest book on my list this year, but not for that reason one to ignore. The book begins with “A Brief History of Iniquity” by Ryan Griffith, and is followed by treatments of “Pride” (Jason Meyer), “Envy” (Joe Rigney), “Anger” (Jonathan Parnell), “Sloth” (Tony Reinke), “Greed” (David Mathis), “Gluttony” (Johnathon Bowers), and “Lust” (John Piper). Each of the authors is either a team member of Desiring God or on the faculty of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis.
You may not be inclined to read a book on sin. Yes, it is very convicting! But please don’t skip this one. Each chapter is incisive, well-written, and of immense practical value.
(7) The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, edited by D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 2,880 pp.
Although I much prefer the English Standard Version of the Bible, this new study Bible is a remarkable accomplishment. To say that it is massive is a massive understatement! Yes, it is 2,880 pages!
In the Editor’s Preface, D. A. Carson points out some distinctives of this volume. He explains that
“in addition to the notes on the biblical text, this study Bible provides an excellent collection of charts, maps, brief essays providing the historical circumstances when each biblical book was written, and many photos and illustrations.”
“this study Bible emphasizes biblical theology. By this we mean that we have tried to highlight the way various themes develop within the Bible across time. We hope to encourage readers to spot these themes for themselves as they read their Bibles, becoming adept at tracing them throughout the Scriptures.”
I had the privilege of writing the article on Prophets and Prophecy. It is only one of twenty-eight articles on a wide variety of biblical and theological subjects.
If you already have the ESV Study Bible (and if you don’t, you should get it!), the NIV Study Bible will provide you with an excellent companion volume that will greatly enhance your reading and study of God’s Word.
(6) Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Richard B. Hays (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), 155 pp.
Although this book was released late in 2014, I didn’t get around to reading it until early in 2015. In any case, it’s simply too good to allow a minor technicality to keep it off my list of best books. This is a wonderful book! I can’t tell you how excited I was after each chapter and how hungry to move on to the next.
This is a deep and challenging book, but not overly technical. One need not read Greek to profit from it (but it helps). I assure you that if you read it and take its argument seriously, you will never understand the Gospels and the life of Jesus in the same way again. So, what does Hays mean by “reading backwards”? Here is a simple definition, but it is only by working through the book and observing how he re-reads the gospel narratives with an eye “backwards” to Israel’s Scriptures that you will appreciate fully what Hays has done. This is a book, says Hays,
“that offers an account of the narrative representation of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scripture, as well as the ways in which Israel’s Scripture prefigures and illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories” (x).
You may not be familiar with his use of the word “figural” in the sub-title. Figural reading refers to “the discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondence between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream” (93). This is more than simply a book on how the NT authors cite, refer to, or allude to OT texts and individuals. Says Hays, “from the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets [of the OT] as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story” (94).
Let me cite just two other paragraphs in this book to give you a better sense for what Hays has in mind when he speaks of “reading backwards”. Take, as but one example, the Gospel of John:
“John reads the entirety of the OT as a vast web of symbols that are to be read as figural signifiers for Jesus and the life that he offers. The Temple is a proleptic sign for Jesus’ body. Israel’s cultic practices and the great feasts of Israel’s liturgical calendar are replete with signs and symbols of Jesus: the pouring of water and kindling of lights at the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth); the rededication of the Temple by the good shepherd who truly feeds and heals God’s people; the Passover Lamb whose bones are not broken; the bread that comes down from heaven to Israel in the wilderness. All these events and symbols point insistently to Jesus, who embodies that which they signified. When we read the story of Moses lifting up the serpent on a staff in the wilderness, we are to understand that we are reading a prefiguration of the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross. The words of Moses are to be understood, then, in postresurrection retrospect as figural foreshadowings of Jesus” (101).
Again, in summary:
“A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic necessarily entails reading backwards, reinterpreting Israel’s Scripture in light of the story of Jesus. Such a reading is necessarily a figural reading, a reading that grasps patterns of correspondence between temporally distinct events, so that these events freshly illuminate each other. This means that for the Evangelists the ‘meaning’ of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. Rather, Scripture was a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it has multiple senses. Some of these senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively” (104).
Trust me. You will never read (or preach/teach) the gospels again in quite the same way after reading Hays. This is a remarkable book that I will turn to again and again as I ponder the meaning of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the intertextual relationship between Old and New Testaments.