Tuesday, December 18, 2012

History's Greatest Sermon

J. Stephen Yuille, Living Blessedly Forever: The Sermon on the Mount and the Puritan Piety of William Perkins. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012. 151 pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This book is wonderfully devotional. It will greatly interest ministers and average Christians. It combines historical reflection on William Perkin’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount with contemporary application. This mixture makes this work particularly suited to helping ministers prepare sermons on this portion of Scripture.

The book consists of nine chapters. After a brief historical introduction including reasons why we should study Perkins, Yuille treats Perkins on the Sermon on the Mount in general. This chapter presents helpfully the general structure and flow of argument of Christ’s sermon. Chapters 3-8 unfold the bulk of Perkins’s treatise. These chapters summarize the material under the headings of blessedness, repentance, righteousness, sincerity, contentment, and faithfulness. The last of these synthesizes Perkins’s seven final observations under the rubric of “faithfulness.” This is the most analytical portion of Yuille’s investigation. He largely summarizes, digests, and condenses Perkins for a contemporary audience. Chapter 9 closes by exhorting us to lead godly lives that flow from our living union with Christ (143-144).

The greatest strength of this work is its potential to foster piety and sound preaching. It is well-written and gripping. Its use of a wide range of historical and contemporary sources serves as a compendium of sound material for understanding Christ’s sermon. Moreover, Perkins brought different theological assumptions to the text of Scripture than many do today. For instance, he assumed that the statement “you are the salt of the earth” applied primarily to ministers (41). He also applied Christ’s exhortation against casting our pearls before swine to church officers exercising disciple and excluding offenders from the public means of grace (116-117). The assumptions and assertions made by men of another age can challenge our interpretation of Scripture and even surprise us at times. This is one of the primary benefits of historical theology. The contrasts that Yuille draws between Perkins and modern interpreters are frequently illuminating. Whether or not Perkins is right or wrong, such observations make us ask fruitful questions that we might not consider otherwise.

The greatest weakness of this book is as a work of history. The primary problem is that it is often unclear whether the author is presenting Perkins’s thought, his own reflections, or those of contemporary authors. Failing to distinguish clearly between these elements makes it hard to distinguish between what is historical and what is contemporary. For example, after citing Calvin on page 42, Yuille refers to the view of “most commentators.” The reader does not know whether he means “most commentators” in Calvin’s time or most commentators since his time. This difficulty is prevalent through this work. The author complicates the matter by citing at least as many contemporary Bible commentators as he does Puritan authors. This means that readers with a historical interest will frequently be unable to distinguish Perkins from the rest of the material. However, this will not likely hinder readers whose primary goal is contemporary application. The book is still edifying and spiritually fruitful.

Read this book to help you preach on the Sermon on the Mount. Use it prayerfully to become a godlier Christian. And may the Lord bless it to drive us back to read spiritual giants such as William Perkins.

This review is scheduled to appear in The Puritan Reformed Journal  January 2013 issue.

Baptism in the Light of Old and New Testaments

Robert Letham, The Christian’s Pocket Guide to Baptism: The Water that Unites (Geanies House, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2012). 120pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

It has been said that the doctrine of the sacraments serves as a litmus test for the strength or weakness of any system of theology. This is true because our theology of the sacraments draws upon our broader conception of the grace of the gospel and how the Triune God communicates Christ and the benefits of salvation to us (see pp. 102-104). In particular, the sacraments serve as a window into what are often referred to as “the means of grace.”

Robert Letham’s contribution to the new Christian’s Pocket Guide series is an outstanding addition to a series that promises to serve the church well for years to come. This short book is a great achievement. It is one of the most profound, simple, and compelling treatments of the subject of baptism in a short space that this reviewer has read. Letham’s treatment is comprehensive without being overwhelming. He has rooted the doctrine of baptism into an entire biblical theology that is confessionally Reformed and accessible to readers who have no prior knowledge of the subject, yet he addresses virtually all questions that are pertinent to his topic (including a refutation of Karl Barth and others in less than six pages! pp. 62-67).

The book consists of two primary sections and a conclusion that comprise nine brief chapters. The first two chapters address the theological method that we bring to reading our Bibles as well as how we view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Then, using the Noahic covenant as an important precedent, Letham stresses in Chapter 3 the manner in which sacraments are God’s actions in making promises to us and not merely the badges of our professions of faith. Chapter 4 helpfully illustrates the relationship between individuals and the corporate body of the church. These four chapters masterfully set the stage for all that follows by challenging our Western individualism with the biblical balance between the corporate and the individual. The following two chapters demonstrate what baptism means in terms of cleansing from sin and union with Christ. Union with Christ encompasses every aspect and benefit of salvation, and this is what baptism signifies, seals, and applies in the lives of believers. After addressing the efficacy of the sacraments in light of several Reformed confessions in Chapter 7, Chapters 8 and 9 address the proper subjects of baptism as well as how Christians should regard and treat their children. Woven within these chapters are treatments of the mode of baptism, the relation of sacraments to faith and repentance, and virtually every other question that is relevant to this subject.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that its treatment of the subjects of baptism is situated in a wider view of the both testaments of the Bible. The discussion of the baptism of infants clearly does not drive the discussion, but it is a natural outworking of God’s dealing with households throughout redemptive history. God has always dealt with his people and their households. In this regard, I have always told my congregation that I do not believe in infant baptism, but that I believe in household baptism. Households are mentioned in the New Testament in connection with baptism because households are the subjects of the Abrahamic covenant. Letham points out that the Baptist view of asking for express mention of the children in these examples would be entirely out of accord with the manner in which the Bible treats the households of believers in both testaments: “Since the household remains the basis of administering the covenant, there is no need to mention its individual constituent members unless there is a reason pertinent to the argument of the book. The first century apostles were not operating with modern Western individualistic assumptions” (86). The sections on the efficacy of the sacraments will also challenge many to realize that even Reformed churches have often lost a Reformed view of the manner in which the Spirit confers grace to those who use his means through faith (72, 77-78). This book will challenge you to consider whether you have come to the text of Scripture with biblical or non-biblical assumptions. (See pp. 103, 105.)

This work has a few minor flaws that should not detract from its overall value. One typographical problem is that while endnote 55 is listed in the text (68) it is absent entirely in the list of endnotes. Letham mistakenly asserts on page 60 that the grace of regeneration and union with Christ are received by faith. While this is true with regard to union with Christ, it is not true of regeneration which precedes faith and produces faith following our effectual calling. This appears to be an unintentional error in the text. On page 70, he asserts that while baptisms administered by non-ordained persons should not occur, they are nevertheless valid baptisms if they are Trinitarian. This is an unusual view among Reformed authors, both past and present. The primary problem with his assertion is that it appears in a section treating the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This implies that this is the confessional position, but there is no proof to this effect in that document.

This book should profit ministers in their teaching as well as every church member who has questions about baptism. Finally, I have found a brief inexpensive yet comprehensive book to give to people who do not understand the Reformed view of baptism. This work will not only help people recover what it means that baptism is a means of grace, but it will serve as a window into the entire Reformed view of how the Triune God meets with sinners through his own appointed means of grace.


The preceding review is scheduled to appear in The Puritan Reformed Journal January 2013 issue.

Defending the Content of the Faith We Are Defending

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Edition, ed. Scott K. Oliphint. Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008. Paperback. 427pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Reformed systematic theology and a Reformed method of apologetics are intertwined. In a changing world where the Reformed faith is challenged both from within and from without, it is more important than ever to be equipped to return to a defense of the Reformed faith that is rooted in Reformed theology. This makes this annotated reprint of Van Til’s Defense of the Faith timely.

I initially passed by this book largely because I had already read the third edition of the same book. This is a reprint of the entire first edition of the text with added explanatory notes by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint. What I had not realized was that the first edition was substantially longer than subsequent editions because the first edition was written largely in order to defend Van Til’s views against a string of critics connected with Calvin Theological Seminary. In many respects, this book is misnamed. Instead of a defense of the Christian faith, it contains primarily Van Til’s defense of why he defended the faith in the way that he did.

Rather than presenting a full critical review of the book itself, I will point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book for understanding Van Til’s method and how this book can help us think about apologetics in relation to the Reformed system of theology.

First, in some respects, this reader is undecided whether he likes better the fourth edition of The Defense of the Faith or one of the older and shorter versions of the same work. Dr. Oliphint’s notes are extremely valuable in explaining terms, but Van Til’s interaction with his critics reads as though the reader is overhearing parts of a conversation that has occurred behind closed doors. Other editions largely omit this material in an attempt to turn the book into a more positive statement of Reformed apologetics. In the full version, Van Til got off to a rocky start by beginning with a twenty-five page introduction which consists of little more than block quotations from his critics. The critics themselves are highly philosophical in their approach, which makes this one of Van Til’s more complicated works. However, lest I run the risk of dissuading the reader from picking up this book, it is important to note that the original introduction makes the remaining structure of the book clearer than later editions do. In the first major section, Van Til rehashed the basic structure of his apologetic in order to add clarity in the face of opposition. In the second section, he reviewed this apologetic structure again by confronting his critics head on. The later omissions explain why the structure was confusing to me when I read the third edition of the book. These editions come across as presenting a conflict without a context. Another interesting feature of this work is that it is largely Van Til’s own hand-selected compendium of his other major works, since he chose to defend himself largely by commenting upon what he had written already. This gives us a window into what he considered to be the most significant features of this method.

Second, this book is extremely valuable in clarifying many misconceptions that surround Van Til’s method to the present day. For instance, Van Til consistently argued that the Christian’s “point of contact” with the non-Christian resided in the fact that all men are created in the image of God and inescapably reveal their Creator. In this sense, they have an internal witness against themselves that the Triune God of the Bible created them. They “know him” through this internal witness, although the unregenerate will never acknowledge that this is the case. The non-Christian, whether he realizes it or not, presupposes that man is ultimate in determining the nature of reality, but because he is created in the image of God, he cannot live consistently with his principles. He does not know God truly because he is suppressing the knowledge of God that he has imprinted on his heart by nature. The Christian must show the non-Christian that any position that he holds will always be inconsistent because he has treated himself rather than the Triune God of Scripture as the ultimate first presupposition of his reasoning. The principles upon which he thinks are sinful and rebellious, and he needs to repent and believe in Christ. This is what Van Til meant when he asserted that we must begin our thinking with God. The only two choices for an ultimate (and presupposed) first principle of reality, knowledge, and ethics are either the Triune God of Scripture or the idea that man is the measure of all things. This is what makes this approach “presuppositional.”

In spite of this fact, a popular Reformed apologist asserted recently that beginning with God in our thinking is impossible because only God can begin thinking with God – therefore, I must begin thinking with myself. This speaker missed the fact that Van Til was not so much concerned with the manner in which we think as the principle upon which we ground the possibility of thinking itself. Van Til never taught that we cannot begin an apologetic conversation with a human subject rather than a divine subject. He wrote, “If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation” (100). To this, Dr. Oliphint adds, “This point needs to be emphasized. Van Til affirms that the proximate starting point for all our thinking is, of necessity, the self. The apologetic point, however, is that the ultimate reference point with respect to predication is the triune God” (100, fn 31). Here, as in many cases, Van Til asserted the exact opposite of what he is accused of saying.

I have not yet read a critic of the basic tenets of Van Til’s method who has given sufficient evidence that he has carefully understood that method. Most arguments against him are a straw-man of one kind or another. With Oliphint’s help, this book has the potential to clear up several other misconceptions of the presuppositional approach. Examples include: To presuppose the Triune God of Scripture does not mean refusing to argue for the truth of the Christian faith. It means that without this presupposition, nothing else is (legitimately) intelligible. Also, reasoning within a circle (in this case the Christian world-view) is not the same thing as the fallacy of circular reasoning. Our view of the world is determined by our most fundamental (presuppositional) commitments. The Christian always presupposes the Triune God and the authority of his Word (though not perfectly in practice) and the non-Christian always presupposes that this same God does not exist and that He cannot speak to mankind (also imperfect in practice). These basic commitments determine what kind of system of thought we can hold to consistently. The heart of Van Til’s method, that is so widely misunderstood even at present, is that the basic unconscious presupposition of the non-Christian rests upon sinking sand, while the believe alone stands upon solid rock. It is our goal, apologetically, to show him that his presupposition is hopelessly untenable and that ours is necessary. This is an ethical problem that requires redemption in Christ and it is not simply an intellectual difficulty. Though Van Til’s writings can become clouded by philosophical terminology, this is the method that is essentially used every time the gospel is preached faithfully from a Reformed pulpit (read the book for more about this point).

Third, whatever readers think of Van Til’s apologetic method, we should commend him for seeking to develop an approach that is self-consciously Reformed. He developed his apologetic from a classic Reformed systematic theology and his approach is irreversibly dependent upon that Reformed system taken as a whole (see esp. chapter thirteen). In this writer’s view, his position is the only one that is consistent with classic Reformed systematic theology. If Van Til teaches us anything, it is that the manner in which we defend our faith must depend upon the content of the faith that we are defending: “Only in the Reformed faith is there an uncompromising statement of the main tenets of Christianity. All other statements are deformations. It is but to be expected that only in the Reformed faith will we find an uncompromising method of apologetics” (134. See also 273.). Later he added, “I seek to oppose Roman Catholicism and Arminianism in apologetics as I seek to oppose it in theology” (253. See also 299.). In a day where the system of Reformed theology is eroding in many instances, it will be a question as to whether or not Van Til’s method can survive. Recent Reformed systematic theologies have, among other things, denied the imputation of Adam’s sin, sought union with Greek Orthodoxy, radically restructured the very idea of systematic theology, or made systematic theology subservient to biblical theology. A Reformed system of apologetics will only be as strong as the Reformed system of theology upon which it is built. We cannot experience radical changes in our system of theology without radically changing our approach to everything. Van Til’s work should cause us to take pause, not only as we decide how we should defend the faith, but as we decide what that faith is that we hope to defend.

Lastly, in light of the modern renaissance of studies on the doctrine of the Trinity, Van Til’s method is explicitly and thoroughly Trinitarian. In contrast to other approaches to apologetics, the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely essential to his apologetic method. In the seventeenth century, the Tri-unity of God was regarded as one of the principia, or first principles, of theology (Scripture is the other principium of Reformed theology). This says more than asserting that the Trinity is an essential doctrine. It means that the rest of the doctrines of the Reformed system rest upon the God who is Triune as a principle upon which every other doctrine rests. Over time, as the church began to argue for a generic conception of God from reason, the Trinity became something that was added later to the system of theology rather than standing as the very foundation of theology. Readers will need to consult a work such as Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics to fill out the details on this point. However, it could be argued that Van Til presented the first genuine practical development on the Reformed doctrine of the Trinity since the high period of Reformed orthodoxy. This means that Van Til has a lot to say, not only to modern apologetics, but to contemporary theology.

This review was first published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, July 2012.