(This is the first in a series of year-end posts in which Commission members highlight some key books they read in 2021. Note that not all of these titles were published in 2021. Rather, they were ones Commissioners read this year.)
One of the books that I read this year that has most impacted my thinking about the relationship between the church and the state is the work by James K. A. Smith entitled, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017). This is the third volume in his widely acclaimed Cultural Liturgies Series. I would recommend especially volumes 1 and 3 from this collection (the second is more philosophical in nature and less accessible to the average reader).
The topic of the work was especially poignant given the backdrop of the 2020 election and the ongoing political debate in ecclesiastical circles. His thesis in the series that it is our “loves” as much as our minds that shape our lives and the active engagement of our churches. In volume three, he turns to discuss the relationship that the individual Christian and the gathered community of faith should have with its broader community.
Couched against the backdrops of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, he raises questions about the political allegiances of believers. He attempts to inhabit a space between common Evangelical perspectives on political theology. Smith argues contra Rod Dreher that political engagement is important. But it is not the political engagement that motivates reformed programs and structures, it should be instead the kind of community involvement that embodies the gospel reaching out to broken people in a broken world. He argues contra Stanley Hauerwas (albeit tepidly) that sectarian fidelity need not prevent us from working for good goals even with those with whom we might disagree. At the same time, he recognizes with Hauerwas the need to identify and avoid the deforming liturgies of liberal democracy and an unfettered, modern capitalism.
Smith’s most helpful point, he draws from Augustine: Worship is the heart of any polis. As such it serves as a helpful reminder (and corrective) in the midst of these politically trying times. May our love for God and neighbor be the basis for all our political engagement. And may we be engaged in proclaiming the Gospel so that the kingdom reality might come into the hearts of the broken.
Some of my other reading this year has been focused on the attributes of God. I have been forced to select a new textbook for one of my systematic theology courses. My previous selection, Millard Erickson’s God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes was going out of print. This had been an important contribution to the course because of its wedding of biblical material, philosophy, and constructive theological application. It is worth your time if you can find a copy. I had previously used Gerald Bray’s The Doctrine of God. While this book was excellent and serves as the introductory work to the highly commendable series Contours of Christian Theology, some of my students had struggled with it.
If the course were entirely devoted to theology proper there could be no better text than John Frame’s The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship. Alas, I simply couldn’t add more than 700 pages to the existing reading load of my students. I first worked through Matthew Barrett’s None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. The work was highly readable and engaging. It is a wonderful antidote to a modern Evangelical church world that has gotten lost in God’s immanent love and lost sight (or ignored) God’s divine transcendence. Barret reminds his reader that God is the supreme essence, alone in his “self-excellent, perfect, supreme, absolute being…(and is)…the good without which there is no good, … the beauty without which there is no beauty, the wisdom without which there is no wisdom, the righteousness without which there is no righteousness” (67-68). While my ultimate conclusion was not to adopt this work, it is a winsome, pastoral, and theologically driven exploration of the God who is to be worshipped. Barrett engages challenges and explores many different questions about God’s engagement with humanity, while peppering and illustrating his work with numerous biblical illustrations and exempla. This is a wonderful book for pastors and could even form the background for a church study on God’s attributes.
Instead, the work I selected was Gerald Bray’s The Attributes of God: An Introduction (Crossway, 2021). This work is part of Crossway’s Short Studies in Systematic Theology series edited by Graham Cole and Oren R. Martin. Unlike Frame’s work which has its place, Bray has condensed his earlier work to highlight his discussion of a traditional theology proper. He follows theological tradition by dividing God’s attributes into “essential” and “relational.” Older theologians often referred to these as the “incommunicable” and the “communicable” attributes of God, or as in Erickson, “attributes of God’s greatness” and “attributes of God’s goodness.”
In just over 100 pages, Bray outlines the traditional attributes of God with precision and concision. His definitions are helpful and drawn from the evangelical giants of the Church. Replete with biblical references, Bray weaves his discussion together in what feels like a series of pastoral lectures on the topic. The heart of this historical theologian was also warmed to see a thirty-page historical appendix on “God’s Attributes in Christian Tradition.” Perhaps my personal prejudices for the historical drew me to this work, but I think instead it was his basic argument. Though modern Christians often think of a discussion of God’s attributes as a theological (or worse philosophical) abstraction, in truth they are the only antidote to a material world in which sinful humanity can find no meaning (and no solutions). God is transcendent as well as immanent and his being intersects with his actions. “We understand our relationship with God more clearly when we see not only how he differs from us, but also how we can relate to Him in spite of that” (109).