At the end of the year, I find it rewarding to reflect upon the books I read that year. Whether they be old favorites or new titles, the record of my reading serves as something of a playlist tracking the events of my life. I can remember what happened while I was working through many of the books. Some may be pleasant memories—others not so much. At the end of 2019, we bring you several suggestions that we hope will bring a little joy to you in 2020. While not all of these books have been published in 2019, the following contributors read them this year and continue to recommend them, which may demonstrate each book’s value all the more.
Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
—Charles Williams, pastor, Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois
It is a rare feat for a work of history to be both compelling and substantive, and Holland is here a hidden gem. I enjoyed Holland’s translation of Herodotus, and was familiar with some of his other historical books, and had thus been eagerly awaiting the release of this book for months. It just so happened that while on a trip to London, I stumbled across Dominion in a gift shop at the British Museum, and picked it up immediately. (Of interest, the cover to the UK edition is much more second-commandment friendly than its US counterpart.)
In short, Dominion is not so much a history of Christianity in the West as it is a history of Christianity’s impact on the West. Be it abolitionism, the rights of the unborn, the Civil Rights movement, or even (as he contends) woke culture, Holland demonstrates that these concerns for the worth of every individual are not found in classical Greece or Rome, but Judeo-Christian values. Worth noting is that Holland writes as a sympathetic unbeliever—not unlike Douglas Murray, Camille Paglia, or Jordan Peterson. Though himself agnostic, Holland comes to Christianity’s defense with the wit of Chesterton and the charm of Lewis.
The book, of course, is not without its shortcomings. For a work discussing the benefits Christianity affords, no space is given to the actual benefits of redemption: the pardon of sin, reconciliation with God, adoption into his family, or the cleansing work of the Spirit in the heart of the sinner. That said, Holland has a different focus in his purview, on what we might call the ‘collateral benefits’ of Christianity on the wider culture. How refreshing it is, however, to read an Oxford historian attest to the truth that the enemies of the cross are themselves operating from borrowed capital. As Holland asserts, not even the so-called “new atheism” can critique Christianity without resting on Judeo-Christian presuppositions.
And though there is plenty here for the reader to digest and learn, at the end of the day, Dominion is simply a lot of fun to read.
J. W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848–1914
—Carl Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania
The book I have read recently that I would recommend to others is a few years old but wide-ranging in its scope, profound in its analysis, and often witty in its manner of expression: The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848–1914 (Yale University Press, 2002) by J. W. Burrow which was brought to my attention by Mike Allen at RTS. Burrow offers a brilliant account of the emergence of Western modernity. He strives to avoid anachronism by not simply focusing on thinkers and ideas in this period which persisted but also on those which enjoyed great vogue in their time but were quickly consigned to the trash can of history. In doing so, Burrow implicitly relativizes the trendy orthodoxies of our own day while also giving us a much broader context for understanding the emergence and significance of modernity. If we Christians tend too often to have our minds mesmerized by the immediate and to treat cultural symptoms as if they were causes, then this book provides a great antidote. And surely it is worth reading anyone who can pen the following sentence: “It is hard not to feel that someone with the nervous system of Kaiser Wilhelm II should ideally never be allowed anywhere near a phrase like ‘the struggle for existence.'” Highly recommended.
Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus
—Glen Clary, pastor of Providence OPC in Pflugerville, Texas
For many Christians, Leviticus is a difficult book to understand. The redemptive-historical significance of the regulations for sacrificial worship, the dietary laws, the rituals for purification, etc. is not always easy to discern. Morales has produced a fascinating study of Leviticus that uncovers its literary setting as the centerpiece of the Pentateuch and traces its redemptive-historical message to its climactic fulfillment in Christ. Morales is especially sensitive to the cosmological typology of the tabernacle and its regulations for worship. His thesis could have been strengthened and advanced had he interacted with the insights of M. G. Kline. Aside from that unfortunate omission, Morales’s book is a strong contribution to the burgeoning discipline of biblical theology. I highly commend it to anyone wishing to understand the purpose of the tabernacle, the priesthood, and its sacrificial cultus.
—Jim Cassidy, pastor of South Austin OPC in South Austin, Texas
Cornelius Van Til’s Doctrine of God and its Relevance for Contemporary Hermeneutics by Jason Hunt is a 2019 Wipf and Stock publication. It joins the growing library of academic research works originating from outside the Westminster Seminary orbit on the thought of Van Til. Other studies that come to mind are Ralph Smith’s 2003 monograph Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity and B.A. Bosserman’s 2014 published dissertation (Bangor University) The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til. Rushdoony’s more popular treatment By What Standard (1983) deserves honorable mention. Even though “Rush” served in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for a time his education was entirely outside of the Westminster sphere. Other academic works were written by those coming under Westminster’s direct tutelage (think Bahnsen, Frame, Gaffin and Tipton).
Hunt shows how Van Til’s doctrine of God, particularly the Creator-creature distinction and the self-contained nature of the Trinity, may be leveraged for the purposes of refining our hermeneutic method. “Method and doctrine,” after all, belong together (p. 211). While Van Til did not write extensively on hermeneutics as such, Hunt makes explicit how a Reformed doctrine of God provides guidance on human interpretation. Specifically, he brings Van Til’s doctrine of God into direct conversation with “post-conservative evangelical” theologians like Pete Enns (among others). What is especially interesting is how Hunt brings Van Til’s theological insights to bear upon the issue of how to understand the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament (which has been a point of no little contention among evangelical exegetes over the last decade or so).