Best Books of 2018 in one article
It’s time once again to list what I believe were the best books released in 2018. And it gets more and more difficult each year to keep the list to only ten. So, in addition to the ten, I’ll include a few who are deserving of “honorable mention.”
This was originally posted in two parts. Here I have combined them into one article.
(10) Gregg R. Allison, 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 426 pp.
Perhaps the best way to describe and recommend Gregg’s book is to cite my endorsement that appears in full on the inside cover:
“This is a much-needed resource for the body of Christ, especially for new believers or those who have not as yet delved into the “whole counsel of God.” Gregg Allison writes with insight on each issue and does a remarkable job of articulating multiple interpretations of each one. His presentation of the evidence and arguments for differing views is even-handed and displays both the Christian charity and clarity that we have come to expect of everything he writes. For those who are put off by massive volumes on systematic theology, this is the book for you. And for those who want more than a surface, superficial treatment of critically important biblical and theological doctrines, this is the book for you. There is no one in whom I have more trust to write a book such as this than Gregg Allison. From this day forward, when I’m asked: “What do Christians believe? How do I sort through the variety of positions? And why should I care?” I will send them to Gregg’s excellent volume.”
(9) Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 2 volumes, 1,325 pp.
Yes, you read that correctly: 1,325 pages! This remarkable two-volume work isn’t for everyone. Well, in a sense it is, in that it provides the most detailed articulation of universal salvation together with a thorough, biblical, and altogether persuasive refutation of that heretical notion. But in another sense, it is not for everyone. Many, if not most, will find it overwhelming and more than they can digest. But for those who have encountered the many forms of universalism, both in the past and present, this is an indispensable resource.
It’s difficult even to describe the contents of this two-volume work. McClymond attempts to describe and respond to virtually every form of the doctrine of universal salvation both inside the history of the Christian church and beyond it in various religions throughout the world. There is no stone left unturned.
It is in volume two, however, that I found the most helpful and insightful material. Here McClymond describes various expressions of universalism in German thinkers, Russian thinkers, in Karl Barth and his theological heirs, in Roman Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and especially in more recent theologians and philosophers such as Philip Gulley, James Mulholland, Carlton Pearson, Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Doug Frank, Rob Bell, and C. Baxter Kruger.
He even takes up the arguments of certain universalists who have emerged from within the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, such as John Crowder, Benjamin Dunn, Francois du Toit, and Andre Rabe. McClymond points out that “while there are variations in their teachings, they all reflect what is popularly called ‘the grace message’” (by which he means, the message of “hyper-grace”, 976).
He even includes appendices on universalism in “ultra-dispensationalism” and Mormonism! His bibliography of sources covers 91 pages!
As I said, few will be able to digest the totality of McClymond’s encyclopedic study. But we are all in his debt for providing us with a work that will easily become the standard on this subject for generations to come.
(8) Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 338 pp.
This isn’t a Christian book, but it should be read by all Christians. It addresses with remarkable clarity the problem in our society of coddling or overprotecting young people for fear that we might make them feel “unsafe.” The result is that we are producing men and women who are incapable of thinking critically and of weathering the storms of life that we all encounter. They write:
“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy” (29).
By “safety” or “emotional safety” we aren’t talking about protection from sexual assault or a car accident but protection “from people who disagree with you” (31).
The authors suggest that this is most clearly seen in the changes on our college campuses, dating back to about 2013. The outrage against lectures, persons, or books that present ideas with which students may disagree has grown to epidemic proportions. Almost weekly (if not daily) we read of yet another incident where a speaker has been shouted down or his/her presence on a campus has met with often violent and profane protests, ostensibly on the grounds that what they believe and plan to say make students feel “unsafe.”
They cite with approval Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, who offered this principle: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think” (50). Their point is simply this: “discomfort is not danger” (51).
Much has been written of late about the loss of free speech and healthy, open dialogue on issues that spark disagreement. But this is the best I’ve read so far. I only wish every college and university President and Academic Dean, indeed, every professor on every campus, would read it carefully, and then require it of all their students.
(7) John DelHousaye, John J. Hughes, and Jeff T. Purswell, editors. Scripture and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2018), 384 pp.
I was honored when asked to contribute a chapter to this book that we recently presented to our good friend Wayne Grudem. In fact, many of you have asked for a copy of my 2017 Presidential address at the Evangelical Theological Society. The reason I could not make it available is that it was derived in large measure from this chapter. But now it is accessible in full.
Not all books written to honor a scholar are good. But this one most certainly is. It is beyond good. It is quite excellent. My chapter, “Revelatory Gifts of the Spirit and the Sufficiency of Scripture: Are They Compatible?” is only one of 19. Others that I’ve read and greatly enjoyed are Jeff Purswell, “The Spirit and the Church: Priorities from 1 Corinthians 12-14,” Tom Schreiner, “Much Ado about Headship: Rethinking 1 Corinthians 11:3,” “The Spirit, the Word, and Revival” by Ray Ortlund, and “The Glory of God as the Ground of the Mind’s Certainty and the Goal of the Soul’s Satisfaction,” by John Piper.
All the contributions will undoubtedly prove to be extremely beneficial to the body of Christ. Get this book and read it, and you will also learn much about Wayne that you probably didn’t know.
(6) Oliver D. Crisp & Kyle C. Strobel, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to his Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 232 pp.
You should have known this was coming! I hardly ever post my best books of the year list without at least one that focuses on Jonathan Edwards. This year it is the collaborative work of Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel.
Don’t expect from this short volume anything approaching the nearly exhaustive treatment of every aspect of Edwards’s theology and philosophy that was provided by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott in their volume, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford). Crisp and Strobel are more selective, but not for that reason unworthy of your attention.
Their primary emphasis is on the nature of the Triune God and his relation to creation. If you’ve struggled to understand the Edwardsean perspective on such things as divine beauty, continuous creation, occasionalism, idealism, panentheism, and salvation as participation, this is the book for you. Don’t be surprised when Crisp and Strobel take Edwards to task for his doctrine of continuous creation. They are convinced that this idea effectively undermines any reasonable notion of secondary causality and makes God the author of evil.
I only wish they had addressed other issues, such as Edwards on redemptive history, revival and revivalism, original sin (they briefly talk about his views on freedom of the will), and especially the religious affections. But what they do address is incredibly stimulating. My recommendation is that for first-time students of Edwards you begin with McClymond and McDermott and then move into these more philosophical issues taken up by Crisp and Strobel.
Note: For those of you familiar with the disputes over Edwards, I should point out that Crisp and Strobel do not embrace the “dispositional ontology” advocated by Sang Hyun Lee and defended by Amy Plantinga Pauw, Michael McClymond, and Gerald McDermott, also known as the American school of thought on Edwards. They, instead, argue that Edwards was much more traditional in his theology and “was attempting to reconfigure classical theology in light of early Enlightenment thought” (5). For those of you who care, this latter approach to Edwards is known as the British school of thought.
(5) John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 328 pp.
As with Edwards, so with his student, John Piper; I rarely have a best book list that doesn’t include the most recent work of my good friend. Let me simply say that every one of you reading this article should immediately purchase this book and give a copy to your pastor or pastors. I will simply say here what I wrote in my endorsement of it:
“He’s written more than fifty books, so there is something a bit outrageous in suggesting that Expository Exultation is Piper’s best. But a case can be made. Perhaps that is because I, like John, am a preacher, and was profoundly instructed, rebuked, encouraged, and given even greater hope for my ministry through the insights he provides in this book. I trust John has many more volumes to come, but for my money, this is the culmination of his contribution to pastoral ministry. If you’re not a pastor or preacher, read it anyway. If you are in full-time ministry, dig deeply into this immense treasure trove of homiletical insight. I’m confident that if you do it will radically transform your approach to God’s Word and the passion with which you preach it.”
(5) Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 310 pp.
The most recent installment in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series may well be the best one yet. I can’t think of anyone else who could have written this book besides Joe Rigney, Professor of literature and theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. Joe has to be one of the leading interpreters of Lewis in the world today. I’m quite sure he has read everything Lewis wrote, or at least everything that is accessible.
In the Introduction, Joe speaks to “Why We Read and Love Lewis.” One quote will suffice:
“Lewis is a master of the soul. He understands the human heart, in all its deceitfulness and grandeur, both in its good design and in its twisted corruption. He is a master of revealing the secret springs of our actions, of unveiling the true motivations underneath the lies we tell ourselves and others. He knows that our motives are complex; yet he can untangle them and sort through the knottiest bundle with unusual clarity. And because we have the sense that he discovered these secret springs through his own painful introspection (or apocalypses), we are not put out by his candor. Lewis speaks not from abstraction but from experience. He knows that of which he writes. He has had the severe mercy of his insights thrust upon him, so that he knows his matter from the inside and out” (22).
(4) Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (New York City: Viking, 2018), 1105 pp.
Every so often I feel compelled to include a book that I’ve only partially read, due largely to the subject matter alone. I’ve never read much about Churchill but I’ve dipped far enough into Roberts’ new biography that I feel justified in listing it in the best books of the year. There are few figures in the 20th century who’ve had more biographies written of them than Winston Churchill. And this may well end up being the best of the lot.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 1,296 pp.
When I was first asked to write an endorsement of Grudem’s massive work on Christian Ethics, this is what I said. It was slightly revised for inclusion in the book itself, but I thought it best to give you my original comments:
“It would be entirely unrealistic to expect that everyone will agree with everything that Wayne Grudem says in this incredibly clear and erudite volume. But to disagree with Grudem one must be prepared to dig deeply into the biblical text, as he himself seeks to ground every argument in the inspired and inerrant text of Scripture. This nearly-exhaustive treatment of Christian ethics is destined to become the standard evangelical text for many years to come. It is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and unafraid to engage with controversial issues and with those who take a different approach. Regardless of whether one can side with Grudem on each topic, all of us can benefit immensely from his lucid presentation. There is hardly an ethical issue he doesn’t address, and I will be consulting his work regularly for wisdom and guidance on a variety of matters that the church faces in a morally-decadent and confused world. Highly recommended!”
Few people will read Grudem all the way through. That would require a monumental commitment and considerable time and patience. Most will find it helpful much in the way one makes use of a dictionary or encyclopedia. Whatever topic interests you or is a challenge to your current way of thinking, turn to Grudem to get an in-depth biblical analysis. Given the volatile conditions in our society today regarding the many ethical dilemmas we face, Grudem’s work will prove to be immensely helpful. Quite honestly, I can’t think of a significant moral issue that Wayne doesn’t address. Get it. Use it!
(2) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978, Book 1, translated from the Russian by Peter Constantine (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 451 pp.
This is the first of two volumes that contain Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs of his years in the West. Volume 2 will cover the years 1978-1994. I’ve only begun to dig into this work, but I’m already persuaded that it will prove to be one of the best and most absorbing books I’ve encountered in quite some time. A quote from the Foreword, written by Daniel J. Mahoney, will give you a sense for what is contained in it.
“For a time, Solzhenitsyn was the most famous man in the world. Yet he found himself adrift in the West, hounded by journalists and reporters and trying to find his bearings in a completely new situation. This book describes all of this in fascinating detail. He could now speak freely, but he wanted to marshall his words, make sense of his new surroundings, and remain as much as possible ‘within the bounds of literature’ rather than political activism. The Western press saw only prickliness and ingratitude and a failure to be frank with a Western public that had ‘the right to know.’ Solzhenitsyn was indeed caught ‘between two millstones’: a totalitarian regime in the East that posed a grave and immediate threat to humanity, and the often frivolous forces of Western ‘freedom’ that had lost a sense of dignity and high purpose. He had a new tension-ridden mission: to write with force, clarity, and artfulness about the Russian twentieth century while doing his best to warn the West about the pitfalls of a free society caught up in the cult of comfort and increasingly unwilling to defend itself against the march of evil. However much he wished to subordinate politics to literature, in the first few years of exile he felt compelled to speak to a sometimes uncomprehending West. From his first base in Zurich, he traveled to the Scandinavian countries, France, England, and Spain, imploring his listeners to defend their best traditions and to find the civic courage necessary to defend freedom worthy of the name.
As these pages make abundantly clear, Solzhenitsyn was never anti-Western (as superficial critics repeatedly charged) but rather a tempered friend of the West who felt obliged to convey the Soviet tragedy to all who would listen so that historical catastrophes would not be unnecessarily repeated” (ix-x).
And my choice for best book of 2018 is . . .
(1) Gerald R. McDermott, Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 212 pp.
This excellent book by Gerald McDermott was largely inspired by the influence of Jonathan Edwards who, as McDermott notes, “believed that every last bit of the cosmos is a sign that speaks and shows” (8). Said Edwards:
“I am not ashamed to own that I believe that the whole universe, heaven and earth, air and seas . . . be full of images of divine things . . . [so much so] that there is room for persons to be learning more and more of this language and seeing more of that which is declared in it to the end of the world without discovering [it] all” (9).
According to Edwards, as stated by McDermott, “the purpose of imprinting the entire creation is for the sake of God’s glorifying himself, but that happens only when his creatures find their greatest joy in seeing his beauty” (9). McDermott, following Edwards, believes that God has embedded types of himself and his glory in virtually everything, even “in religious systems that are finally false” (11).
This book, then, is a fascinating (and largely persuasive) case for the notion of general revelation, that gracious work of God by which he has declared or made known his own glory in “the heavens” and in “the sky above” (Ps. 19:1). Indeed, as Paul so clearly stated, God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).
In this wide-ranging book, McDermott explores the reality and truth about types or images of divine things in the Bible, in Nature, in Science, in Law, in History, in Animals, in Sex, in World Religions, and even in Sports! He wants us “to see all the world as full of God-implanted images” (185). But Gerry also knows from Scripture itself,
“that only the eyes of faith can see all this. The skeptic cannot see most of the types and will rightly understand none of them. He or she needs the spectacles of Scripture, which alone contains the grammar for the language of types. Apart from that grammar, the language of types is gobbledygook. So the seeker or skeptic needs an eye operation to be able to use the spectacles. That operation must be accompanied by a heart operation that transplants what is there with something made in another world. Only with that new heart can the eyes properly see so as to learn the language of types. That ‘s why believing is seeing” (193).
I strongly urge everyone to get and read and absorb this book. If you do, you will never see the world as a whole and its many parts the same way again.
Jack Deere, Even in our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 283 pp.
Here is my endorsement of Jack’s book:
“I’ve known Jack Deere for nearly 45 years. Or, at least I thought I knew him. After reading his memoir, I became truly acquainted with my long-time friend for the first time. I cried. I gasped for air. I laughed. And I worshiped God. For Jack’s story is really a story about friendship with a God whose love and faithfulness are constant, whether we are on top of the mountain or walking through the valley of the shadow.”
Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 153 pp.
A brief, but fascinating defense of the reliability of the four gospels. Bart Ehrman, you’ve finally met your match!
Jeffrey S. McDonald, John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 263 pp.
Many of you may be unfamiliar with Gerstner, but few have exerted a greater influence on me than he has. I first met him when, in the late 1970’s, he came as a guest speaker to Believer’s Chapel, in Dallas, Texas, where I was serving on staff. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who so thoroughly lived, breathed, ate and drank theology with such energy as John Gerstner. His love for all things Jonathan Edwards may also account for why I esteem him so highly.
Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 242 pp.
I first became acquainted with John Stuart Mill while doing my doctoral studies. His short book, On Liberty, was utterly captivating. Tim Larsen was my colleague at Wheaton and still teaches there.
Alastair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 176 pp.
Much has been and is still being written on the Exodus theme in Scripture. This is a short introductory survey of how the principle of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt reappears throughout the Scriptures and gives shape to much of redemptive history.
Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 256 pp.
Michael Kruger, President of Reformed Theological Seminary, in Charlotte, North Carolina, has done us a great service with this treatment of the major developments in second-century Christianity.
Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 234 pp.
Douthat, himself a Roman Catholic, does a marvelous job of asking whether or not the Pope, in particular Pope Francis, either has the authority or is actually in the process of changing the Roman Catholic Church. If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning and aftermath of Vatican II, this is as good a treatment as you’ll find.
Elio Guerriero, Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 706 pp.
I’ve only read one other biography of Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI. I’ve only just begun to dig into this one, but it looks to be exhaustive and informative.