Monday, August 18, 2014

Covenant Theology in the Reformation Era

Jordan J Ballor, Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus, vol. 3, Refo500 Academic Studies. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012. 270pp. Hardcover. $117.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Covenant theology is a vital component of historic Reformed theology. As historians have increasingly recognized that Calvin was not the founder of a tradition, but an important figure among other significant theologians, some of these lesser-known theologians are becoming the subject of Ph.D. dissertations. Jordan Ballor contributes to this trend in his study of the theology of Wolfgang Musculus, who was the first Reformed author to include a distinct locus on the covenant in his theological system. Musculus was a well-known German contemporary of Calvin who was widely read in his time. Ballor renders a great service to English-speaking readers by writing the first book-length study of Musculus’s covenant theology in English.

As the title suggests, Ballor’s work shows the interrelation between covenant, causality, and law in Musculus’s theology. After introducing the Medieval and Reformation context of each of these ideas, the main chapters of the book trace them through Musculus’s Loci Communes and his relevant biblical commentaries treating each theme in turn. Each section compares Musculus’s exegesis primarily with one representative each from the Early Church, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox periods. He concludes that Musculus’s general and special covenant scheme was not identical to the later covenant of works and covenant of grace construction, but represented a broad covenant of nature (Noahic) and a special covenant of grace (Abrahamic). The section on “Causality” treats divine power and the divine and human wills. The last section addresses Musculus’s views of law in relation to natural law, covenant theology, and the power of civil magistrates. Musculus was a precursor to the later Erastian movement, in which the state exercised discipline and appointed ministers in the church. Ballor concludes that the connection between these topics in Musculus’ thought illustrates that some authors have wrongly pitted the categories of covenant, predestination, and law against each other in describing various strands of Reformed thought.

The general weakness of the book relates to an inadequate development of Musculus’s historical context. Ballor barely makes reference to the social and political context in seventeenth century Germany or to who Musculus was, how he became a professor of theology, etc. Neither does he define key historical terms, such as “scholastic” or “Reformed orthodox.” It would have been helpful to know if Musculus had any theological opponents or personal struggles with individuals that might have affected the topics he treated or how he treated them (For instance, like Tim Cooper’s study on why John Owen and Richard Baxter did not like each other). Ballor’s treatment of Musculus’s four divisions in his exegetical work on Genesis provides a tangible example of such contextual deficiencies. Two of these divisions included a “spiritual sense” and a “moral application” of the text (81). This would have been a fruitful opportunity to mention the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (quadriga) from the Medieval period and how Reformed authors collapsed this fourfold sense into varied applications of the single sense of Scripture. This omission is striking since he later describes Musculus’s comments as predominantly “tropological” (143), without any reference to the fact that this represented one fourth of the quadriga. Ballor explains what Musculus thought and how his thought related to the Reformed tradition in general terms, but he does not adequately demonstrate why Musculus chose to develop a distinct locus on the covenant, while Calvin and others deemed it sufficient to incorporate covenantal ideas where appropriate into their writings. He does not ignore the context entirely, but he leaves many questions unanswered.

This study introduces readers to an important figure and a key component in the development of the Reformed tradition. Readers will need to fill in the historical and theological context to some extent, but this book is a good introduction to English-speaking readers who are interested in the development of covenant theology to an under-appreciated Reformed author.

This review is also appearing in print in The Puritan Reformed Journal.

The Breath of the Soul

Eric J. Alexander, Prayer: A Biblical Perspective. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014, 91pp. Paperback. $12.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Prayer is essential to the Christian life. It is the breath of the soul. A living Christian, therefore, is a praying Christian. Yet prayer is, for many, the most difficult duty of the Christian life. It is relatively easy to sit and read several chapters of Scripture. It is often difficult to focus our attention on prayer exclusively, and even more difficult to “pray without ceasing.” The secret about prayer is that even the most seasoned veterans in the faith still feel as though they are only beginners when they are on their knees in prayer. We need all the biblical help we can get to learn to pray and to persevere in prayer.

For this reason, this reviewer continually seeks to read as many books on prayer as he can. This small book by Eric Alexander caught his eye, both because of its author and because of its size. It is an excellent introductory treatment that is helpful, gripping, and well-suited to use for leading prayer meetings. It is clearly outlined and lends itself easily to discussion. After introducing the subject, the book treats Christ’s teaching on and example of prayer, followed by the examples of the Apostles and others in Scripture.

The emphases on the Spirit’s work in prayer, the necessity of corporate prayer, and the interconnection between prayer and preaching are notes that most desperately need to be sounded in the church today. Alexander relates that a friend once asked a man, “‘Do you have a prayer meeting?’ … The reply was, ‘No we do not have such a meeting, but we have just invited a fine preacher to be our minister.’ My friend responded, ‘If you do not have a prayer meeting in your church, you have no business inviting a minister into your pulpit’” (90). This is why Alexander notes rightly, “the strength of a church can only be measured by its prayer meeting” (42).

For seasoned Christians, this book will not likely teach you something new about prayer. Yet experienced Christians likely know well that the most important elements of the Christian life do not consist in gaining new insights into old truths, but in fostering fresh affections for the triune God. Younger Christians should begin with a book like this to learn the ABC’s of biblical prayer. For all of us, this book is solid food to sustain our spiritual lives.

This review is also appearing in print in The Puritan Reformed Journal.

Friday, August 1, 2014

B.M. Palmer: Quintessential Pastor, Scholar and Theologian

C.N. Willborn, ed., Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014. 205pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

B.M. Palmer
Reading Benjamin Morgan Palmer is like finding a rare jewel. His gripping style, theological acuteness, pastoral brilliance, and warm sympathy with sinners combine in a way that makes his kind scarce, even among great authors. He is in the list of my top four “mighty men” in the faith whom we should prioritize reading above others (the others in that list include Calvin, Owen, and Edwards). While I read many authors who are worth reading, in my opinion, they cannot attain to these first four.

This small collection of Palmer’s writings has many strengths. It consists of short articles that Palmer wrote for the Southwestern Presbyterian from 1869-1870. These include brief sketches of pastoral conversations that he held with people in various spiritual conditions, a five-part passionate plea for foreign missions, a brief exposition of the Beatitudes, four “Christian paradoxes,” and three miscellaneous articles on Christian experience. It is impossible to convey the pathos, theological balance, and pastoral wisdom contained in these brief pieces.

My only disappointment with the book is that it is so small. For readers who hunger for more, I recommend reading Palmer’s sermons. The theological depth coupled with simplicity, warmth, and skillful application makes these the best sermons that I have read. However, his Shorter Writings uniquely reveal a more intimate side of Palmer’s personality. After reading them, you will simultaneously marvel at and understand why believers and unbelievers alike in New Orleans loved him. You will marvel that they loved him because he is so direct, but you will understand why they loved him because he is so kind and tender.

Palmer is the kind of author that, as a pastor, I need. In contrast to much of the shallow pastoral counsel and evangelistic techniques that prevail today, he gives us something great to aspire to. Palmer always drives me to pray fervently that I would learn something from his skill with people and that I would, in some measure, learn to imitate him as he imitated Christ and the apostles. We need authors that push us beyond our conception of normal ministry to prevent us from becoming satisfied with the mediocre precedent that is all too common today. May the Spirit of God richly bless this little book to stir up our compassion to dying sinners, to inflame our love to Christ, and to provide us with acute examples of how to interact with people frankly yet wisely as we seek the good of their souls.

This review appeared in the July 2014 issue of Banner of Truth.