Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others.

The Protestant response published as an appendix to the book (“A Mere Protestant Response”) by Kevin J. Vanhoozer managed to capture my own feelings about the book quite well. Rather than attempting to show how their doctrine is not unbiblical, the Protestant Reformers insistence upon sola scriptura works to allow Scripture to speak for itself. Doctrine must be found within and built upon Scripture rather than brought into some sort of strained relationship with it. The Protestant principle of sola scriptura establishes a “distinct mode of biblical reasoning” and a “pattern of theological authority” that begins in a different place (213). Protestant thought argues that, “Catholic doctrine falls short of being biblical in the way that most mattered to the Reformers, namely, by according supreme authority to the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures even in matters of interpretation” (228).

The other book from 2017 that I want to mention is Free Will Baptist biblical scholar and theologian Robert E. Picirilli and his new book Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards (Wipf and Stock, 2017). Picirilli defines a basic Reformed Arminian libertarian view of freedom that he argues is a constitutional aspect of the imago Dei. He then contextualizes this view with the deterministic worldview perspectives found in naturalism and certain theological camps promoting a deterministic view of compatibilism. Picirill lays the groundwork for demonstrating why compatibilism is in many respects “offers no freedom at all” (17).

Picirilli works deftly in such theoretical and philosophical circles and particularly shines when he introduces the exegetical material of his third chapter. Here he reviews a number of biblical accounts and related passages that shed light on the question of freedom. He clearly demonstrates that Scripture teaches the responsibility of humans for the choices they make, that Jesus teaches that some will come to him and others will reject him, and that repentance, belief, and trust in God are the avenues to salvation. The holiness and the love of God are the backdrop for salvation wherein God “by his gracious and Spirit-empowered invitation mak(es) it possible for dead persons, though deaf and blind, to hear and see and understand and so to believe or disbelieve” (33).

Part two of the work outlines the basic teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards on the subject of human freedom. All of these theological giants argue against libertarian freedom. Luther wanted to safeguard the sovereignty of God and depravity having placed humankind in slavery to sin and Satan. John Calvin, in similar biblical and theological fashion, argued for determinism based on the totality of depravity and his emphasis upon preserving God’s glory by recognizing his sovereignty and role as the active agent of all good graces. Edwards, in a more rational and philosophical argument, stated that because humans are not self-existent they cannot be self-determined.

The remainder of the book moves forward from this locus to outline both a response to this material and brief outline of a Reformed Arminian expression of libertarian free will. Picirilli argues in distinction from Luther, Calvin, and Edwards that God’s foreknowledge, though absolute, is not determinative. He discusses the nature of depravity and provides an incredibly helpful discussion of the role of prevenient grace in (re)establishing the capacity for human freedom. He argues convincingly here that this grace flows from the proclamation of the Gospel accompanied by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit that presents the sinful hearer with the promise of liberty (see 2 Corinthians 2:17).

While Picirilli recognizes the ultimate mystery associated with how God’s sovereignty and human liberty work together, he asserts that human freedom “actually serves to enhance or magnify the sovereign government of God” (117). Instead of a cause and effect relationship, God has endowed humanity with the capacity to fully engage relationally with other personal subjects. This creation means that humans are not self-existent but this does not necessitate, contra Edwards, that they are not (in some ways and to some extent) capable of self-determined acts. While choices are influenced, sometimes strongly so, by experiences and temperament this does not mean that they are not ultimately our own.

Picirilli has done all Reformed Arminians a great service in this small work. It encapsulates some of the best arguments for theological determinism and answers them in turn. The argumentation is biblically and philosophically responsible while focusing upon the overall tenor of a holy and gracious God who created us for Himself and continues the process of recreating our broken wills so that we might become what we were created to be. Salvation is provided for all and extended to all, according to the Scriptures. “Whosoever believeth on Him shall not be ashamed…faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:13, 17).

Rodney Holloman

One of my goals for 2017 was to clear my shelves any of the books I have been meaning to read and continue to prune the long list of those fine volumes that have been recommended to me by others. My selection of books was chosen by how much they affected me and not just the fact that they were extremely helpful and well written.

No God but One: Allah or Jesus?: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. This is the companion to his first book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Seeking is the first book (the “why” he left Islam) and this book is the “what” (the differences between the two systems.) Nabeel died just a short time before I was at the RZIM headquarters to attend a conference. Almost every speaker spoke lovingly of this man and shared their own insights into his conversion and how God used him to speak His truth so powerfully. Ravi Zacharias spoke of going to dinner with Mr. Qureshi’s Muslim family the night before his funeral and discussing how much it cost Nabeel to follow Christ. It is simply appropriate to say that “doctrine divides” but for this man “doctrine had a cost.” After the conference, I knew that I simply had to read this man’s story. No God but One begins with the story of a young woman active online in a restricted country who is a Christ follower but can only share her faith in secret. She is discovered by her brother who ultimately sees to her execution for desertion of her faith. With this emotional story as the bookends of the book, he systematically examines the points of agreement and disagreement with critical historical research, rational, and careful respect, so as not to portray an opposing view with caricature. This is not a dry book of polemic and apologetic discourse. It is a very rare glimpse in the heart and mind of a scholar as he explains the differences between Islam and Christianity. He set out all those years ago to strengthen his faith in Islam while unwittingly beginning his journey to the cross of Christ. This is a tremendous book (both of them) for you or someone who is involved in Islam.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was the book I was most surprised by this year. This book is the autobiography of former marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance. However, it is the story of much more than his life and upbringing, it is a powerful narrative on the destruction of white working-class Americans. The author brings the statistical data to life as he opens up about the tremendous toll of drugs, alcohol, abuse, marital infidelity on his own family and the communities where he lived. The stories are vivid, the language is coarse and occasionally vulgar, and the emotions are raw. On more than one occasion, I found myself with tears streaming down my face as I hurt for this family and the thousand more just like them. To paraphrase a famous quotation, every pastor should “exegete the Scriptures and exegete their communities.” This book offers a profoundly moving and disturbing portrait of this section of our country as they are, not as we hope them to be. It is hard to put into words the deep sense of loss and sorrow I felt working my way thru this Hillbilly Elegy and the renewed commitment it fostered in me to reach people with the Gospel. I highly recommend this book.

Matthew Pinson

The first book I would like to recommend is the heavier of the two books I’m going to discuss, but I strongly recommend it to those who are interested in apologetics. It’s Bernard Ramm’s Varieties of Christian Apologetics. Originally published by Baker in 1961, it has recently come out in a reprint edition by Literary Licensing. I’d come across the book back in the early nineties when I was cutting my theological teeth, but it was brought back to my mind recently when I heard it highly recommended in a talk on apologetics by the Australian Anglican Phillip Jensen.

This book combines two of my loves: apologetics and history, because it introduces three broad types of apologetic systems and discusses three historical individuals who represent each of those types. The three types of apologetic systems are (1) “systems stressing subjective immediacy,” (2) “systems stressing natural theology,” and (3) “systems stressing revelation.”

Type One: Subjective Immediacy

Ramm begins the book with a chapter that offers a brief introduction to Christian apologetics. Then he launches into a discussion of the three types of apologetic systems. The first type of apologetics, which stresses subjective immediacy, is represented by Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Emil Brunner. The characteristics of this type are as follows: “(a) A great stress is laid upon the inward and subjective experience of the gospel; (b) there is frequently a marked hostility for traditional philosophy and a sympathy for an existential philosophy; (c) much emphasis is placed on the supra-rational or paradoxical character of Christian teaching; (d) there is a rejection of natural theology and theistic proofs; (e) there is an emphasis on the transcendence of God and the hiddenness of God; and (f) there is a strong doctrine of the blinding effects of sin” (15-16).

Type Two: Natural Theology

The second type of apologetics, which stresses natural theology, is represented by Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler, and F. R. Tennant. The marks of this type are: “(a) a robust faith in the rational powers of the mind to find the truth about religion; (b) an effort to ground faith in empirical foundations; (c) a belief that the imago Dei (image of God in man) was weakened but not seriously damaged by the Fall and sin; and that (d) religious propositions enjoy the same kind of verification that scientific assertions do. Therefore faith in God is just as rational and credible as faith in confirmed scientific law” (16).

Type Three: Revelation

The third of type of apologetics, which stresses revelation, is represented by Augustine, John Calvin, and Abraham Kuyper. The common themes in this type are: “(a) The conviction that faith precedes understanding; (b) that once we do believe we are to seek understanding as comprehensively as we can; (c) that the personal experience of the gospel is anchored in the objective work of Christ, the objective justification of God, and the objective word of God; (d) that a special act of the Spirit is indispensable for Christian faith and enlightenment; (e) that human depravity has made human reason as it functions within a depraved soul untrustworthy; and that (f) the issue of truth in religion must suffer no dilution” (p. 17).

One might categorize the three types or families as representing points along a spectrum between faith and reason, as follows:


Subjective Immediacy              Revelation              Natural Theology

 Modern Expressions of the Three Types

The three apologetic systems correspond to modern apologetic approaches in evangelicalism. The systems stressing subjective immediacy are represented by the more-existential approaches of those influenced by the thought of Karl Barth. The natural theology approach is represented by Thomists and evidentialists such as Norman Geisler and William L. Craig. Ramm’s Revelational approach is represented by the rational-presuppositional approach of modern-day thinkers such as Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and Ronald Nash.

Though Ramm mainly discusses the representative thinkers and doesn’t give his own opinion much, his early approach, when he wrote this book and for most of his career, represented the Augustinian model above. Later in life he became much more interested in Karl Barth and was somewhat of a hybrid between the existential and revelational approaches.

Like Ramm and other luminaries of the Evangelical Renaissance like Henry, Schaeffer, and Edward Carnell, I think the rational-presuppositional model best fits with biblical categories of faith and reason and the apologetic strategy of Jesus and the apostles. But I also think it’s the best strategy for combatting unbelief in university settings in our postmodern cultural matrix.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in apologetics and epistemology. Looking at the major representative thinkers will enable readers to hone their hone his knowledge of apologetic method and epistemology, thereby helping them be better apologists in contemporary culture.

The second book I would like to recommend is Rob and Amy Rienow, Five Reasons for Spiritual Apathy in Teens (Nashville: Randall House, 2015). This book may seem like an untheological book at first glance, yet this little book packs a theological punch in a practical way. Rob and Amy Rienow model before us Paul David Tripp’s counsel that Christian families need to be little “theological communities”—that we need to unshackle theology from its crusty “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” associations. We desperately need to re-wed theological thinking to everyday practice, imbuing everyday life and ministry with a sense that we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him.That’s what Rob and Amy Rienow do in this book.

As a parent of two teenagers myself, what they wrote was both encouraging and convicting. The five factors related to spiritual apathy in teens are, in brief: the parent’s heart, the teenager’s heart, the presence of secret sin, a lack of spiritual nourishment, and a spirit of rebellion. These five reasons each get their own chapter, followed by a sixth, concluding chapter on “heart-changing prayers.”

Stressing Proverbs 23:26 (“My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways”), the Rienows emphasize that effective Christian parenting is all about the heart. It is imperative that “the hearts of fathers and mothers are fully engaged with their children, and the hearts of children are turned to their parents.” If parents’ hearts are “centered on our work, hobbies, friends, fitness, smartphones, bank accounts, or with whatever game is on TV, our kids will sense it” (14).

The authors not only discuss principles, but they also give helpful action steps to bring those principles to bear in everyday actions with teenagers. Furthermore, they emphasize how important open lines of communication are between parents and children. This is necessary to engaging the hearts of teens and uncovering secret sins or resentments that stand in the way of this heart engagement.

The Rienows believe that one of the greatest culprits for spiritual apathy in teens is a home that lacks spiritual nourishment. One of the things that is especially unique about the chapter on spiritual nourishment is its emphasis, not just on a privatized spirituality, as is common in modern evangelicalism, but on the communal and “churchly” aspects of spirituality. Thus they emphasize not only “personal prayer and scripture time” (46), but also “family worship at home” (48) and “worship at church” (53). These are what they call the “three square meals” of family spirituality.

This outward look—this freeing of spirituality from the privatized and individualistic spirituality that has become more and more common in our day—is so refreshing. It’s also countercultural when compared to certain aspects of evangelical megachurch culture. Our authors think, for example, that regularly segregating teens in their own worship services is spiritually dangerous. They think segregation of teens in their own “teen-style” worship services is precisely one of the big reasons so many young people leave the church after they’re grown (54). So when they say “worship at church,” they’re talking about intergenerational worship—the eight-year-olds worshiping alongside the eighty-year-olds. This reassertion of the wisdom of all Christians of all cultures for twenty centuries is refreshing and needed in our uprooted culture.

The Rienows’ insights on teen rebellion are spot-on. To deal with teen rebellion, parents must put equal emphasis on both grace and truth (John 1:14, 17), “cranking up the volume” on both, up to 10! They suggest writing two columns on a piece of paper. One column is a “grace” column. The other is a “truth” column. The grace column is the “I love you” column. The truth column is the “I am concerned” column. This helpful corrective is so needed.

The authors’ “turn up the volume on both” emphasis reminds me of a Harvard psychological study Melinda and I learned about before our daughter Anna was born. It said that parents who produced well-adjusted children that didn’t “go wild” emphasized two things: “a high degree of control” over their children’s behavior and “a high degree of warmth” and affection to their children. Parenting adolescents, who are often prone to rebellion, is a tricky business. But turning up the volume on grace and truth is an absolute must in helping teens avoid rebellious attitudes. Turning up the volume on truth without grace results in legalism. Turning up the volume on grace without truth results in license. We must turn up the volume on both. And, as the last chapter reminds us, we must make prayer a deep and abiding priority.

Kudos to Randall House for publishing this book. I heartily commend it to all those who minister to teens, especially their parents!

Jackson Watts

Much of my reading this year was oriented around research for my dissertation. This meant that many of my selections related to the themes taken up in that particular project. However, this did allow me the opportunity to explore many of the significant titles of the last forty or fifty years that pertain to Christianity and society, or what we might simply call “Christianity and culture.”

Still, I end 2017 thinking of a few titles that had nothing to do with this field. Rather, I think about books that spoke to my heart and mind simultaneously. I’ll mention a few, but highlight one.

First, I read (or listened to in audiobook format) Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp (Waterbrook, 2008). The basic premise of Allender’s book is that all Christian leaders carry in them some flaw or weakness that can be perceived as just that: weakness, a burden to hinder us. Yet he wants us to see how leadership involves brokenness. Allender’s ideas about leadership, especially as it concerns vulnerability, doing hard things, and seeing ourselves as our “organization’s chiefest sinner” really challenged a great deal of convention wisdom concerning leadership that I had imbibed in years past.

Second, Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Viking, 2008) continues to be on my mind even months after I read it. In an earlier post I wrote about reading this book and the one which made me aware of Everett’s story. This was by far the most unconventional missionary memoir I had ever read, and probably the saddest, too. I’ve been interesting in the nexus of theology, linguistics, and science for several years, and so I commend this book to anyone with similar interests.

But ultimately the book that ministered most to my mind and heart this year was actually book that originated as a series of sermons preached by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, probably the most famous Protestant British preacher in the twentieth century. A series of sermons he preached were published in 1965 as Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Eerdmans). Though one can definitely discern the sermonic tone and flow of each individual chapter, it doesn’t read like a series of sermons. It reads like a kind, spiritually wise, older mentor walking through familiar passages of Scripture.

Yet I stress that it is more than conventional Bible study. Lloyd-Jones makes numerous observations from the text of Scripture that might not naturally occur to readers. Moreover, throughout the book there are many practical nuggets that a reader could immediately put into practice.

Lloyd-Jones, a physician-turned-pastor, takes a more comprehensive view of what is meant by “depression.” While certainly clinical psychology has evolved a great deal on this topic since 1965, I don’t think Lloyd-Jones would want to deny the bio-chemical dimensions of this problem. But he focuses the reader on how fear, doubt, pride, anxiety, trials, and more are all implicated in this subject.

In many ways, Lloyd-Jones approaches the issue similarly to modern Christian counselors like David Powlison and Ed Welch. Yet as a masterful preacher, the author of the classic Preachers and Preaching no less, he offers a distinct voice to an especially relevant subject. I commend this book to all Christians. It functions as a great companion to daily Bible reading.

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