My 5 Favorite Books of 2019

It’s become an annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. There are a few reasons why I continue to compile this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good. Fourth, I’m regularly asked by folks what books I’m reading or “what’s a good book to read for X topic?” I think this is primarily because I sometimes share book photos on Facebook.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2019. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog, and my 2017 list and 2018 list posted here at Biblical Reasoning.

Works on the Spirit by Athanasius the Great and Didymus the Blind

I intentionally read several primary texts every year, always with at least a couple of patristic-era works included. This year I read this one for the first time. While Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit is a must-read classic, this work shows in particular the development of Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology as he defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit after Nicaea, while also revealing some of the distinctions in language between Athanasius and Basil. If you want an excellent introduction to patristic exegesis, definitely pick up Craig Carter’s latest, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Judging by the title, you might not want your boss to be aware that you’re reading this. But this isn’t a book about anarchy or revolution or antiauthoritarianism — it’s a book about nurturing creativity and elevating good ideas, using examples from business, sports, parenting, and more. This book helped me to feel more at-home in my own personality, as well as helped me better understand my peers.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by Daniel J. Treier

Perhaps the most underrated evangelical theologian publishing right now, Treier has written a fantastic introduction to theology that is built around the structure of the Nicene Creed. The first part of the book, which surveys the Creed as method, the Ten Commandments as moral formation, and the Lord’s Prayer as spiritual formation is worth the price of the book by itself. I hope to use this as a textbook sometime in the near future. I interviewed Dan at ETS for Church Grammar, so lookout for his return to the podcast soon.

The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations edited by Michael W. Holmes

At the urging of my Doktorvater, I read through this slowly over the last year. These writings reflect a sort of bridge between the New Testament writings and some of our earliest church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. My particular favorite is the collection of Ignatius’s letters.

Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus by Patrick Schreiner

Among the biblical studies books I read this year, Schreiner’s had me the most interested in returning to its pages (with an honorable mention to Carmen Joy Imes’s Bearing God’s Name). In short, Schreiner is a clear writer who tells a compelling story (with robust biblical-theological insights) about Matthew’s role in writing his Gospel for the sake of advancing the story of Jesus.

In Memoriam: Larry Hurtado Repost

A new season of Church Grammar is on the docket, so stay tuned!

Today, however, we are reposting our conversation with Dr. Larry Hurtado in honor of his recent passing. Larry was known by many as an eminent scholar, but some may not know that he was equally a devoted follower of Jesus and churchman. He will be missed. Make sure to buy some of Larry’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Timothy George on Historical Theology, Ecumenism, and Christian Higher Education

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School. We discuss being a Baptist and appreciating the Great Tradition (2:00), ecumenism and catholicity (7:35), the future of Christian higher education (22:35), and more. Buy Timothy’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Kevin Vanhoozer on Theological Interpretation and Pastor-Theologians

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:25), the rise of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) in evangelicalism (11:15), the good and bad of TIS (15:11), guardrails for doing TIS (17:39), doctrines Protestants should agree on (19:40), the relationship between the academy and church (27:47), pastor-theologians (29:23), and more. Buy Kevin’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Finishing up the PhD

Here is a quick note to update everyone on the completion of my PhD degree at Cambridge. Though I finished the formality of the PhD last year, I decided to delay the conferment of my degree until my family and I were able to fly back to England for a graduation ceremony. The fact that no one in Australia was going to call me Dr Wisley anyway made the delay not that big of a deal. 

I’m glad that I waited and was able to go through the ceremony. It was great to be back at my college Hughes Hall and to see and celebrate with many friends, especially my Doktormutter, Katharine Dell. We also had an opportunity to go up to Edinburgh for a few days which was also great. 

Here are a few pictures from the trip.

Patrick Schreiner on Matthew, the Kingdom of God, and Big Sports Moments

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Patrick Schreiner of Western Seminary. We discuss the relativity of hipsterdom (2:04), becoming a scholar (3:48), being Tom’s son (11:00), the Kingdom of God (14:20), the ascension (22:20), the Gospel of Matthew (33:50), sportsball (44:22), and more. Buy Patrick’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Heath Thomas on the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Heath Thomas of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss becoming a scholar (1:30), the OT as Christian Scripture (4:03), developing a Christian worldview (20:05), his renowned hair (26:53), and more. Buy Heath’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Life with God

 

milk way

Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.

But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?

The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.

The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.

Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.

But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).

So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).

What Kind of Person Do You Want to Become? Education as Formation

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Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. By Herrad of Landsberg – Hortus Deliciarum, Public Domain

In his brief but extraordinarily helpful book, Basic Moral Concepts, the late German Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann defines education as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led out of the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to be objective about his own interests and differentiate between them, in such a way that his capacity to experience joy and pain is increased.

For Spaemann, moral reasoning is fundamentally about “ordering one’s priorities into a correct hierarchy,” that is, being able to discern what we truly want out of life and making judgments between higher and lower pleasures based on objective moral truth. Making these kinds of value judgments however doesn’t come automatically; we must learn to “regard our own interests in an objective way.” And this is the role of education.

All this got me thinking about how far education—from pre-K through graduate studies—has strayed from this classical perspective Spaemann articulates. Just take a look (if you dare) at the reading lists in elementary and secondary schools, or colleges for that matter. Tweaking Spaemann’s definition, we might summarize the common educational philosophy of our own day as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led further into the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to have the skills and competencies (especially those associated with the STEM disciplines) needed to maximize his earning potential, in such a way that his capacity for consumption and self-gratification are increased.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But then again, maybe not. Even leaders of the supposedly “conservative” political party in the United States have a bad habit of denigrating the liberal arts. And stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education about schools cutting liberal arts programs are far too frequent. To be sure, the STEM disciplines are hugely important for our society and economy, and many people find their own sense of calling in precisely those fields. But even these students need the formation afforded by the liberal arts in order to flourish optimally in those callings. Employers are increasingly coming around to this fact.

When I sensed a calling to ministry as a sophomore at Auburn University, I decided to switch majors from chemical engineering to history as a better preparation for seminary (I learned classical Greek and honed my skills at researching and writing). I will never forget my first meeting with my new supervisor in the College of Liberal Arts, the charismatic and immensely popular medieval historian, Joseph Kicklighter. Dr. Kicklighter was eager to correct any misconceptions I had about what I could “do with a history degree.” He complained that he got that question all the time from students (and parents). I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to this effect:

The liberal arts aren’t about what you can do with them; they are about what kind of person you want to become.

Indeed.

John Behr on Nicaea, Trinitarian Language, and Vintage Bicycles

This episode is a conversation with Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:59), the beginning of the patristic tradition (8:30), Nicaea and Trinitarian language (13:22), John’s prologue (46:45), SVS Press (51:00), vintage bicycles (57:30), and more. Buy John’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.