Best Books of 2018 (Part One)
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.”
Instead of trying to list and briefly describe all ten in one article, I will break these down into two posts, beginning with numbers ten through six, and concluding with numbers five through one.
(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.”