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).