Some books I’ve recently read

McBrien - The Church

Here are some book that I have recently read. I have written a mini-review for each.


Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (HarperCollins Publishers)

Richard McBrien (1936-2015) was a longtime professor of theology at Notre Dame and best known for his lengthy, textbook-like tome, Catholicism. McBrien is representative of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd in Catholic academia, causing some tension with those who preferred to stress continuity between V2 and the magisterial tradition of previous centuries — an emphasis found in the writings and actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In short, McBrien was a “liberal” in the relative sense of these post-V2 debates.

This book is well-written and engaging. As McBrien writes in the preface, it was written for theology students and seminarians, as a sort of guidebook to Catholic ecclesiology. It does, however, presuppose a fair amount from the reader, even though it is not a difficult book to read. If you have zero knowledge or interest in Catholic ecclesiological debates of the past two centuries, then you will probably snooze after the first few pages.

My major criticism is that McBrien is wholly invested in modern ecclesiology and the discussions surrounding Vatican II. The large majority of citations are from this council and from his favorite contemporary ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar. Why is this a criticism? Because it is very limited. McBrien doesn’t come close to communicating the breadth and depth of the Catholic doctrine of the church. There is very (very!) little resourcement of theologians, councils, popes, mystics, etc., prior to the 19th century. In this regard, McBrien is not nearly as satisfying as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd edition, WJK Press)

John Leith (1919-2002) was a longtime professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. This 700+ page volume is very helpful. You can see the table of contents at Amazon. I am not aware of a comparable single volume that includes this much material, expertly selected by Leith and including brief introductions. It can serve as an excellent companion to Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church, now in its fourth edition. Leith’s volume is focused on doctrine, including creeds, confessions, conciliar decrees, papal decrees, and the like. In addition to the wealth of Protestant documents, there is also a generous selection of “modern” Roman Catholic documents (Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, Vatican II) and less common documents such as The Confession of Dositheus from the Eastern Orthodox in the late 17th century.

Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press / Baker Publishing Group)

It is hard to evaluate this book. I am sure that there is an audience for this, but I found the shortcomings too significant for me. The book is formatted as a dialog between a Catholic and Protestant, who were in fact once classmates in college. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism and now a priest in South Carolina. Forewords are provided by Richard John Neuhaus and J. I. Packer. I greatly appreciate the civil tone throughout, and there is a genuine search for truth and clarity. But the dialog format, while perhaps increasing the accessibility of the volume for a larger audience, severely limits the scholarship necessary for arguing the points in dispute. However, for the Protestant who is new to Mariology (i.e., 99% of Protestants), I can see how this volume could be very helpful as an introduction and incentive toward further study.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was a prominent Dutch-American theologian and church leader in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his Systematic Theology, which is still widely recommended among Calvinists in America. Full disclosure: I did not read the whole volume, and I am sure that I never will. But I believe that I read enough to evaluate its merits.

There are indeed merits to this volume. It is eminently clear, concise, and sober. If you are seeking a one-stop shop for scholastic Reformed orthodoxy, then this is probably as good as you will find. My criticisms have much to do with my own prejudices. Insofar as the volume attempts to go beyond a mere restatement of received orthodoxy and venture into actual demonstrations and defenses of said orthodoxy, the shortcomings are massive. And when it comes to modern theology, including Barth in his early period, then Berkhof has little to offer and the little can be misleading. Admittedly, Berkhof was writing when the whole “dialectical” movement was nascent and not altogether coherent, eventually fracturing.

St. John of the Cross, John of the Cross: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press)

I had read John of the Cross years ago — his renowned Dark Night of the Soul. But this was my first time reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is featured alongside other important works in this volume from Kieran Kavanaugh, a disciple of John in the Discalced Carmelite religious order. I greatly benefited from Dark Night when I first read it. It is hard-hitting to say the least, but The Ascent is even more hard-hitting. At least, that was my impression. John of the Cross comes dangerously close to a Manichean obsession with creation’s propensity for evil by way of creaturely attachment. This is not uncommon among the most serious of mystics (not, by the way, your garden-variety Episcopal eco-feminist’s pseudo-mysticism). However, John has an aesthetic sense that is wonderfully expressed in the poetry upon which these writings are but commentaries. On the whole, John is as enigmatic as Simone Weil, with the same tension between the Cross and the Glory.


Maren Morris, “My Church”

I love this song! This is Maren’s debut single, and it has been moving quickly up the Country Airplay chart.



  1. As a note for myself:

    I’ve been mostly engrossed in non-theological works, but I read Stringfellow’s brief “Count it All Joy”, which is a brief interpretation of James. In 90~ pages I was hit hard by someone who truly understood the American soul in the mid 20th century. It was both a suckerpunch and a comfort.

    • I haven’t come across that book yet. Our seminary library receives large donations, so I’ll be on the lookout for it.

  2. Interesting. I read Do We Need the Church by O’Brien years ago. It had an interesting thesis, but yeah, he was fairly bitter toward his church.

    I am currently read True and False Reform in the Church by Yves Congar. It is an incredibly powerful work. Speaking truth to power. He was a great historian and ecumenist. My only criticism is that Congar tends to ignore the political aspect of theology. He quotes, for example, Pascal saying that it is unfair that Antoine Arnauld(a leading theologian of the Jansenist school) is condemned for something that came almost literally from Augustine. Congar figures that the difference between Arnauld and Augustine is that the former refuses to allow for the Molinist view. But was Augustine accepting of Pelagius’? Congar ignores the political tactics the Jesuits used to manipulate the Pope. He equally ignores the politics surrounding ecumenical councils. Vatican II was no exception. Still, Congar’s work is magnificent for proposing a model for Catholic reform without schism. I believe it immediately ended up on the Index but the future John XXIII read the book and was evidently inspired to start a council. I am not convinced by those who say there is no such thing as a Spirit of Vatican II. There certainly was. The drama is right there in Congar’s council journal.

    I have rambled enough.

    • Thanks, Fariba, for the Congar info. I know very little about him, but I’m sure I’ll get to his works sooner or later. His council journal does look fascinating.

  3. I have great appreciation for St. John of the Cross. His poetry is of the first order, and I’m talking about the English translation; I can only imagine its sublimity in the original, since I don’t know Spanish. His treatises/commentaries are difficult, but I think I have a good grasp on his mystical theology from secondary sources.

    But most of the Christian mystical tradition, including John of the Cross, flows from the teaching of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius was a Neoplatonist, after all, and Neoplatonism comes darn close to some forms of ancient Gnosticism in its depreciation of physical/material reality. Christian mystics have constantly had to go to great lengths to dig themselves out of the negation of physical/material reality into which Neoplatonic mystical practices and thinking leads them. The same goes for Saint John of the Cross.

    • Yes, John’s poetry is superb. And, yes, I can see the Neoplatonist commonalities with Gnosticism in regard to the physical world. Per usual, I relate everything to Simone Weil, because I know her mysticism better than anyone else’s — and Weil was a Platonist and spoke favorably of the Gnostics. She was basically a Marcionite as well. The Catholic mystics, like the Carmelites, are bound by orthodoxy, but Weil cared little what the Church thought and didn’t belong to any church. As such, her mysticism is generally unchecked and unbalanced by church doctrine. But even John of the Cross can be accused of going too far at times.

      • But the Roman Catholic Church calls John of the Cross a Doctor of the Church, a very high and rare honor indeed. That means that he is an exemplar and teacher of Catholic theology and doctrine, mystical theology and doctrine in his case. The RCC looks to him as a guide for the mystical life; I don’t think you will find many, possibly any, Catholics in authoritative roles agreeing that John of the Cross ever went “too far at times”.

        This kind of mystical theology, that deriving from Pseudo-Dionysius, is stitched into Catholic thought and life. The function of Purgatory in Catholic belief is as a place where those who have not been sufficiently purified in this life to behold the Beatific Vision may undergo the purging and purification necessary to do so. To reach that goal, all are ultimately thought to undergo just such a stripping away of creatures from the body, spirit and soul as described by John and the other mystics, so that they may behold God in the naked faith of which John writes. The mystic path, along with its pronounced Neoplatonic elements, is thought to be both normative and necessary in the soul’s progress toward the Beatific Vision; John, and the other Christian mystics, are thought to be guides for all those who will at some point have to traverse that path. His writings and thought are considered authoritative by the Church, in complete harmony with its dogmatic teachings.

      • Perhaps I should have added “seemingly” to my statement: “John of the Cross can be accused of seemingly going too far at times.” I am thinking of passages, e.g., in chapter 4 of the Ascent: “All the beauty of creatures compared to the infinite beauty of God is the height of ugliness.” And, “All the goodness of the creatures of the world compared to the infinite goodness of God can be called wickedness.” These statements could be interpreted as hyperbolic, I suppose, but it is something that John repeatedly emphasizes — namely, that any regard or affection for beauty and goodness in creation is wicked and separates us from God, the only true beauty and goodness. He often makes it a strict either/or. By contrast, every Catholic theologian I know would want to emphasis the analogy between God’s beauty/goodness and creation’s beauty/goodness, and the point of the analogy is to emphasize the reality of the latter because grounded in the divine attributes. That is certainly how Thomists speak, so I would be curious to read a Thomist response to St. John of the Cross.

        That’s a good point about how mystical theology underwrites the Catholic doctrine of purgatory — and the process of salvation in general. We must be purged of creaturely attachments. So the question seems to be: what exactly is an “attachment” of this sort? If it is an idolatrous attachment (where creation substitutes for God), then that is not problematic. But are all “attachments” idolatrous, and does detachment require us to disparage creation’s good attributes as ugly and wicked?

      • According St. John, all attachments are impediments to purification, even and perhaps especially the blessings and favors that God bestows upon the soul, because the favored soul inevitably comes to value the blessing over the One who blesses. So the soul must gradually be stripped of all experience of such favors both corporeal and spiritual, even though favors in fact continue, not least in the form of the current stripping process. When the soul stands before God completely bereft of the experience of receiving God’s gifts, in a condition very like despair though it is not despair, it is in the position of naked faith, wherein it learns to trust God without the mediation of the experience of his gifts. This is the state in which the Beatific Vision may be perceived, and full incorporation into the life of the Trinity (insofar as a creature may be incorporated) may be realized.

        It is a profound theology, that incorporates Neoplatonic understandings into its own overarching vision of faith, and grace.

      • No, good gifts are never thought of as evil, but they are thought of as impediments to full infused union into the life of the Trinity.

      • Why are the good gifts given if they eventually will become and impediment? Because they are necessary in building the relationship of trust that will support the soul as it undergoes the later stripping; the soul knows that the Giver is there, and has given, and is loving, and that makes it possible to traverse the Dark Night.

        This is where the counsel of a director who has been through this is invaluable; without that, real despair becomes a possibility. Maybe this is why God does not promiscuously impose this way on everyone who has faith on him in this life. Guides are necessary.

      • I don’t know the particulars on St. John, but being a Doctor doesn’t mean they always got everything right does it? Most Catholics take a more optimistic view of salvation outside the church than Augustine and think he went too far on disparaging sex, for example.

        It seems to me that Purgatory in its most responsible and sophisticated form (think Dante rather than Tetzel) is theoretically compatible with Protestant soteriology. Final sanctification could be necessary and not instantaneous but with justification by faith still guaranteeing the end result, right? But it’s just a nerdy academic question of course, not something that’s actually a live question in Protestantism.

        I want to write something about Dante’s understanding of Purgatory, but don’t have time right now. Maybe later.

      • I should have qualified the comments on Protestant soteriology and purgatory with “with some modifications.”

      • Sorry for the very late response, guys.

        Robert, thanks for the explanation. That’s well-stated. I still have questions, of course, that I’ll be wrestling with.

        Joel, there is actually the work of Jerry Walls on purgatory. He’s an evangelical — Wesleyan/Methodist I think. He has a trilogy on heaven, hell, and purgatory, plus a single volume distillation of the trilogy. I’ve been meaning to read the volume on purgatory. You can find videos on YouTube of him talking about it and why he thinks that Protestants can/should adopt the doctrine of purgatory. As a Wesleyan, however, his influence will be nil in the Reformed circles that currently dominate the evangelical intelligentsia and conference circuit.

      • Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Walls, though I’d forgotten about him when I wrote that. But so far as I know, he’s made no real traction in Protestant churches. I don’t really know what the Methodists are up to, but I get the feeling most moderately conservative Protestant churches would have walkouts if the pastor started talking about purgatory! Even NT Wright in Surprised by Hope is very close-minded about it.

        Now I’d forgotten about Dante and purgatory, but I guess I’ll say something now…Dante’s understanding of the nature and purpose of the trials of purgatory is quite sophisticated and beautiful. (It should be said that it didn’t really filter down to popular piety in the Middle Ages, which did sometimes resemble the worst Protestant suspicions.) The souls willingly and even joyfully go through it out of love for God because they want their love to be turned to God even more completely. When Dante reaches the end of Purgatory, Virgil says “you don’t need me anymore – just follow your pleasure.”

        I don’t see Dante promoting John of the Cross’s absolute detachment from the world (assuming Robert’s description is accurate) at all. Dante’s love for Beatrice is a constant motivator through his journey. She becomes his guide in Paradise and grows more beautiful the farther he goes. And Paradise is depicted as a journey through the solar system. Throughout all three canticles and especially Paradise Dante draws heavily on the best math and science of his day (which is outdated now, but you know).

        Also, Dante absolutely loves pagan antiquity – you can easily accuse him of loving the Roman Empire TOO much! In purgatory, the penitent souls are shown both biblical and pagan examples of the virtues/vices they need to form/lose as they undergo their sanctifying trials. So this is a more world-affirming vision of purgatory, I think.

      • Yes, you’re right, Joel, that Walls’ defense of purgatory has gotten no traction. I am not even aware of any of his fellow evangelical Arminians who follow him in this regard, though I assume that a few exist somewhere. Of course, in the Reformed world it is not even a topic for discussion, unless by way of bashing Catholics.

        That’s intriguing — your comparison of Dante and John of the Cross. Other than parts of Inferno, I still need to read Dante. I know it’s rather pathetic that I have not yet, and I’ve even been to the Dante statue in Florence! Do you have a recommendation for a translation of The Divine Comedy?

      • It’s kind of a pity most people associate Dante only with scary fire-and-brimstone punishments and not much else. Inferno is only a third of the Comedy, and even Inferno is more subtle and multi-faceted than many realize (though it also has a black comic interlude with farting demons).

        I used and enjoyed Mark Musa’s translation. It has great notes and reads well. Musa doesn’t try to rhyme and focuses on meter instead, since English doesn’t rhyme as easily as Italian. I’ve heard Ciardi’s is a good one that does partial rhyming where it fits and also has good notes.

      • Oh yeah, and if you find Purgatory rough going at first, keep reading – the first quarter or so is not as good as the rest.

      • Thanks, Joel, that’s helpful. I like the preview (through Amazon) of Mark Musa’s translation. I am also looking at Robert Durling’s translation. It might be good for me to get both and then compare at different points.

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