Living for God’s Glory, book review

July 26, 2009

beeke

I recently read Joel Beeke’s Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Reformation Trust, 2008). Here’s my take:

I’m ambivalent about this book, but mostly negative. I’ll put what I like first, then what I didn’t like.

What I Like

Professor Beeke’s intention with this book is to present a full scale overview of the Reformed faith: her history, her theology, her philosophy, and her practice (worship, family life, vocations). This is a great idea, and much of the peripheral material was well done, such as the first two chapters on history and the confessions. Beeke enlists a few other writers for some excellent (though very brief) chapters, such as Ray Lanning on worship, Robert Oliver on preaching, and Ray Pennings on practical theology. Pennings’ three chapters were especially well-done. So, the thing I like most about the book is the breadth of material covered. Also, as a minor point, I highly appreciate the craftsmanship of the book: the binding, the typeface, the font size, the paper, the design of the cover — all excellent!

What I Didn’t Like

The bulk of the book is written by Beeke, and I have to say that I’m not a fan of his style. He is competent in his knowledge of the material covered, but it is less than cohesive or flowing. The reading is “jumpy,” largely because it reads like a series of quotations. There is no doubt that Beeke is well-read, but unfortunately he is too anxious to quote EVERY quote that he likes on any given matter. The quotes are often good, but they rarely serve to illumine the issues with any greater depth. It come across like a string of platitudes — nice sounding but largely ornamental. As a result, the sections on soteriology and piety are quite tedious, and this is the bulk of the book and the most important parts. Moreover, the arguments lack any frame or structure to guide them. The systematic skill to build on prior work in, for example, the doctrine of creation which is then arched back and forth with Christology and anthropology — there’s none of that here. Not only does it fail as a compelling system,  but there isn’t any real exegetical work done either. Scripture is quoted, but in a piecemeal fashion, much like the ubiquitous quotes from the Puritans. So, there are better places to go for an introduction to this material.

I was also highly disappointed by the chapter on philosophy by James Grier. I don’t think Dr. Grier had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with the chapter. It was very, very basic — far too basic, even for an introduction (yet, curiously, a lot of philosophical terms are undefined). Grier’s entire thesis is that Calvinist philosophy is governed by Scripture, thus metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics all require attention to the God of Scripture and His will. This is all well and good, but Grier completely avoids any of the issues that have made Calvinist philosophy unique from, for example, Roman Catholic Thomism. There is nothing about natural theology or the use of evidences. I didn’t expect a full scale treatment of Van Til, Brunner, or Barth, but I did expect at least some cursory acknowledgment of the issues. You won’t find it here. Reformed theology’s relationship to classical philosophy is an important issue, and it has shaped most of the important debates in Reformed theology for the last century (and it continues unabated). Unfortunately, the reader of Grier’s essay would not know this.

So, I probably won’t be recommending this book to anyone as an introduction to Calvinism. There’s better stuff out there, just not all in one book. I would only recommend it to someone who is already fairly well-read and wants to cover their bases (and perhaps be introduced to some areas that he may not be familiar with).

I’m ambivalent about this book. I’ll put what I like first, then what I didn’t like.

WHAT I LIKE

Joel Beeke’s intention with this book is to present a full scale overview of the Reformed faith: her history, her theology, her philosophy, and her practice (worship, family life, work ethic). This is a great idea, and much of the peripheral material was well done, such as the first two chapters on history and the confessions. Beeke enlists a few other writers for some excellent (though very brief) chapters, such as Ray Lanning on worship, Robert Oliver on preaching, and Ray Pennings on practical theology. Pennings’ three chapters were especially well-done. So, the thing I like most about the book is the breadth of material covered. Also, as a minor point, I highly appreciate the craftsmanship of the book: the binding, the typeface, the font size, the paper, the design of the cover — all excellent!

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

The bulk of the book is written by Beeke, and I have to say that I’m not a fan of his style. He is competent in his knowledge of the material covered, but it is less than cohesive or flowing. The reading is “jumpy,” largely because it reads like a series of quotations. There is no doubt that Beeke is well-read, but unfortunately he is too anxious to quote EVERY quote that he likes on any given matter. The quotes are often good, but they rarely serve to illumine the issues with any greater depth. It come across like a string of platitudes — nice sounding but largely ornamental. As a result, the sections on soteriology and piety are quite tedious, and this is the bulk of the book and the most important parts. There are better places to go for an introduction to this material. Off hand, I would sooner recommend Boice’s The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel or Hoekema’s Saved by Grace for soteriology or anything by John Piper for piety.

I was also highly disappointed by the chapter on philosophy by James Grier. I don’t think Dr. Grier had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with the chapter. It was very, very basic — far too basic, even for an introduction (yet, curiously, a lot of philosophical terms are undefined). Grier’s entire thesis is that Calvinist philosophy is governed by Scripture, thus metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics all require attention to the God of Scripture and His will. This is all well and good, but Grier completely avoids any of the issues that have made Calvinist philosophy unique from, for example, Roman Catholic Thomism. There is nothing about natural theology or the use of evidences. I didn’t expect a full scale treatment of Van Til, Brunner, or Barth, but I did expect at least some cursory acknowledgment of the issues. You won’t find it here. Reformed theology’s relationship to classical philosophy is an important issue, and it has shaped most of the important debates in Reformed theology for the last century (and it continues unabated). Unfortunately, the reader of Grier’s essay would not know this.

So, I have to say that I probably won’t be recommending this book to anyone as an introduction to Calvinism. There’s better stuff out there, just not in one book. I would only recommend it to someone who is already fairly well-read and wants to cover his bases (and perhaps be introduced to some areas that he may not be familiar with). Like I said, some of the essays are good — good enough for me to rate the book at three stars instead of two.

Advertisements

6 Responses to “Living for God’s Glory, book review”

  1. Bobby Grow said

    Thanks for the mini-review, Kevin!

    Who do you think the intended audience of the book is?

    1) New Calvinists

    2) People who aren’t Calvinists

    3) People who are Calvinists, but aren’t sure of its history

    And another question, you said:

    . . . This is all well and good, but Grier completely avoids any of the issues that have made Calvinist philosophy unique from, for example, Roman Catholic Thomism. . . .

    In what ways do you see Calvinist philosophy different than Roman Catholic Thomism? I am under the impression that both swim in the same conceptual scholastic stream. Not looking for a debate, here; just curious on how you might provide some distinction (broadly construed of course).

  2. Bobby,

    The intended audience is the neophyte — either the newly-minted Calvinist or someone just beginning to look into Calvinism. (It does presuppose a Christian background and knowledge of simple Sunday school theology.) It is also a “fill-in-the-gaps” type of book for someone who is already knowledgeable on basic Reformed theology but may not know much beyond the 5 points. Since I didn’t find the book very compelling, I think it works best for filling in the gaps. But, like I said, on philosophy, the book is absurdly worthless.

    Speaking of philosophy, and your second question, there are different schools of Reformed thought on the role of philosophy in Calvinism. Some Calvinists indeed do judge the generous limits of philosophy in roughly the same way old school Thomists do. This optimistic approach believes that special revelation is not required to prove God’s existence and certain of his attributes. Likewise, special revelation is not required to know (imperfectly) the moral law and our dissonance vis-a-vis this law — a perfection which inheres in God. There have been some books published in recent years on this Reformed natural law tradition, which has historical foundations in most of the Reformers and the Reformed scholastics.

    Nonetheless, a lot of 20th century Reformed theologians picked-up on the Reformed emphasis on man’s depravity and need for a radical transformation by grace, which subverts all (or most) of his beliefs about God and man. Apart from special revelation, our view of God is necessarily a God without Jesus and without covenants — thus, not the true God — just an idol. Karl Barth and Emil Brunner are significant representatives of this pessimistic view of philosophy. Barth is the most extreme, in that he rejected all knowledge of God outside of special revelation. Brunner, however, allowed for a small “point of contact” between our moral sense outside of Christ and our regenerate sense within Christ; i.e., we can have a genuine knowledge of right and wrong through our sense of responsibility toward others. This can issue forth in a genuine, though incomplete, knowledge of God’s will. Brunner argued that without this prior understanding of responsibility, then the gospel, as it is proclaimed to us, would make no sense. It’s a good point, which I pretty much agree with, though Barth can probably be read to agree with Brunner, just in different terms.

    This debate about natural theology dominated much of continental Reformed dogmatics, as well as Britain and the States. However, America had its own little quarrel about natural theology, thanks to Cornelius Van Til and his presuppositional apologetics. This is also a pessimistic view of philosophy, but one which I’ve never found interesting. You can google and learn all about it, but I think you’ll find greater illumination with the continental debate.

  3. Bobby Grow said

    Kevin,

    Thank you for your response!

    I’m very aware of these issues myself, I just wasn’t sure what you were getting at with the point I brought up.

    I claim to be “Reformed,” but in line with T. F. Torrance’s “critical realism” and the themes he picks out of the Scottish Reformation (see his book “Scottish Theology”). I affirm the Barthian reification of the “Reformed” supralapsarianism, and most of the attendant metaphysic that flows from (albeit critically so, through folks like Gunton and TFT).

    As far as Van Til, I’ve never found any of this stuff (Bahnsen, et al) interesting either; so we have something in common there :-). In fact it appears we have alot in common, theologically (I’ve been reading you for awhile, thanks to the linkage from Travis [WTM]).

    Keep up the good work, and it looks like this book, unfortunately, isn’t the best way to introduce neophytes to the labryrinth known as Calvinism — thanks for the review!

    • You’re welcome, Bobby. Glad to have a reader with a fine theological palate.

      I’ll read Torrance’s Scottish Theology when Continuum decides to publish it anywhere near a reasonable price range.

  4. Viagra said

    I think the idea is good but you need to modify it a little.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: