My 5 Favorite Books of 2018

It’s become a somewhat annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. But people love books lists as they consider last-second Christmas gifts or are looking for ways to spend their Amazon gift cards.

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 increasingly 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 share a lot of book photos on Facebook.

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

Hope and Suffering by Desmond Tutu

This collection of sermons and speeches give an inspiring glimpse into the mind of one of history’s most important civil rights activists. For a comfortable white evangelical American like me, Tutu’s theology and exposition challenged and sharpened my views on suffering and human dignity.


All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson

Hannah is one of the most clear and humble writers out there. Her previous book, Humble Roots, is a beautifully-written exposition of why humility matters. In All That’s Good, she is at it again. I’m not sure I’ve read a better book on discernment and wisdom. And it’s no surprise to me that Hannah’s the one who wrote it.


The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God by R. P. C. Hanson

Hanson’s book was recommended to me by my doctoral supervisor as the best treatment of the Arian Controversy and the development of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity. I’ve read several others that are fantastic — Nicaea and Its LegacyThe Quest for the Trinity, and The Way to Nicaea chief among them — but none are as painstakingly thorough as this one.

Dying and the Virtues by Matthew Levering

I reviewed this book as a judge for the Theology/Ethics category of the Christianity Today 2018 Book Awards and was taken aback by how much I ended up enjoying it. On my ballot it was virtually tied with the eventual winner, Seeing God by Hans Boersma, but Levering’s work (as usual) paired theological acumen with pastoral reflection uniquely and powerfully.

The Apostles’ Creed by Ben Myers

A few good books have been written about The Apostles’ Creed, including a helpful one by my Doktorvater, What Christians Ought to Believe. Myers’s is unique because it is super compact — 168 pages but 5×7 inches — and reads like a catechetical devotional more than a theological textbook. We have our elders and staff reading through it right now as we prepare to preach a series on the Creed in 2019.

Four Myths About Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead, expressed by the clause “He descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed, might be one of the most unpopular doctrines in evangelical churches today. I haven’t done a scientific poll to support that, but I’m pretty sure if I took one the descent would be down at the bottom with angelic metaphysics (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”). Instead of a biblically supported and Christologically important doctrine, many view the descent more like a medieval myth. But when I encounter opposition to the descent, the reasons given are more accurately called myths, since they don’t accurately describe the doctrine. Below I want to address four myths about the descent that are commonly (and incorrectly) employed to reject this doctrine.

1. The descent means Jesus was tormented in Hell.

Many evangelicals reject the descent because they believe it means that Jesus experienced torment and separation from the Father in Hell. This just isn’t true of the early Christian and medieval views of the doctrine. For the early Christians, Jesus’ descent to Hell (a term which was synonymous for them with “the place of the dead”) was victorious and the beginning of his exaltation. He was not tormented there, but rather went to the righteous place of the dead (Paradise) in his human soul. In other words, the doctrine first affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried in a grave, and his soul dwelt in the (righteous portion of the) place of the dead. But, second, by virtue of the hypostatic union, he descended as the God-Man, and so his descent is not just vicarious but also victorious. In experiencing death as the God-Man, he defeats it. Thus it is not a part of his humiliation, which culminated in the crucifixion, but is the beginning of his exaltation, which culminated in his ascension.

2. The descent entails either inclusivism or universalism.

A second reason evangelicals reject the descent is because they believe it necessarily supports a universal, or at least inclusivist, understanding of salvation. Some of this suspicion is, admittedly, warranted. The Eastern Orthodox view has developed along these lines, understanding the descent as the complete of Death and Hell and thus the completed rescue and healing of Adam’s race. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, came to view the descent as the inaugural event for the existence of Purgatory, so while they would deny universalism, they still see the descent as the means for their doctrine of inclusivism. We should acknowledge that these are problematic elements of the doctrine as held by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But the myth here is that the EO and RC understandings of the descent are equal to the early Christian understandings of it and the meaning of the creedal clause. On the contrary, while outliers like Origen saw the descent in universalist terms, giants like Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom are explicit that the descent’s effects (and Christ’s work generally) are only for the faithful. Neither inclusivism nor universalism are integral to the descent; they arose as aspects of the doctrine much later in the EO and RC traditions and are rightly rejected by the Reformers and now by (most) contemporary evangelicals. But rejection of aberrations of a doctrine doesn’t mean we have to reject the doctrine itself. In other words, don’t throw the descent baby out with the inclusivist/universalist bathwater.

3. The descent clause is a late addition to the Apostles’ Creed.

Often evangelicals cite the lack of attestation of the descent clause in the earliest version of the Apostles’ Creed in support of their rejection of it. Again, there’s a hint of truth to this objection; myths tend to have at least a tenuous connection to reality. But once again this objection distorts the historical facts. The descent clause is found as early as 390 AD in the confession of the Council of Sirmium, only nine years after the Council of Constantinople affirmed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed. There are a few other clear attestations in the textual history of the Apostles’ Creed, but many point to its inclusion in a 650 AD version as the clear demarcation of when it is clearly and finally inserted.

There are two ways to interpret this. First, we could argue, as this myth does, that the clause is just a later addition that was inserted as this doctrine was invented toward the end of the sixth century. The other option is that the early church did not dispute this doctrine or doctrines related to it and so felt no need to explicitly include it. We are not left without evidence in this regard. The famous quote of Rufinus, that “he descended to the dead” is synonymous with “he was buried,” clarifies the situation. Contrary to the misinterpretation of this Rufinian prooftext by Erasmus, Calvin, Schaff (great historian as he was), and Grudem, Rufinus does not mean here that the descent is just a reference to bodily burial. On the contrary, what he means is that the phrase “he was buried” was understood by the early church to contain within it not only an affirmation of bodily burial but also an affirmation of the descent doctrine.

The descent was ubiquitously affirmed from the second century. In other words, it is one of the earliest and least contested views of the ancient church. It didn’t need to be parsed out in a creed because it wasn’t contested, but it was also implicitly included in the Apostles’ Creed from its inception in the clause, “he was buried.” The probable reason for its explicit inclusion at the places where we see it further clarified (i.e. 390 AD, 650 AD) is that it is at precisely these moments that the church is combatting Apollinarianism. This heresy maintained that the Logos assumed only a human body, not a human soul, or mind. What better way to combat this doctrine than to bring out in an explicit clause an ancient belief of the church that necessitates that Christ have a human soul? Far from a situation in which the church gradually came to believe this doctrine, the history of the creedal clause is one in which an ubiquitous and ancient doctrine was implicitly affirmed in “he was buried” but then explicitly brought out in “he descended” in order to combat a persistent and pernicious heresy. [1]

4. The descent has no biblical support.

Of course, for evangelicals, the most important critique of the descent is that it has no biblical support. Many would point to Augustine’s rejection of 1 Pet. 3:18–22 as teaching the descent, and, assuming that this is the only text on which the descent stands, see it as warrant for rejecting it wholesale. The problem is, again, twofold. First, the descent does not stand or fall on 1 Pet. 3:18–22.[2] It wasn’t even cited in support of the doctrine until 200 AD, and at that point the descent was already being affirmed by the likes of Ignatius, Polycarp, Melito, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. These second century theologians, along with ones throughout the early Christian period, did not turn primarily to 1 Pet. 3:18–22 to understand and support the descent. Instead, they turned to texts like Matt. 12:40; Luke 23:53; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; and Rev. 1:18. 1 Pet. 3:18–22 certainly wasn’t ignored, but it also wasn’t the crux of the doctrine either.

It would take longer than we have space for here to exegete each of these texts. Suffice it to say that they all refer to Jesus going to the place of the dead. In Second Temple Judaism, this had a clear meaning – the place of the dead was a compartmentalized (at least two, righteous and unrighteous) place where all human souls went upon death, waiting for the universal judgment and general resurrection. When these texts talk about Jesus in Hades, the lower parts of the earth, the abyss, Paradise, and the like, they aren’t just references to the grave. They’re references to the place of the dead, where human souls reside. And in fact, at this point, we could add a biblical pattern in support – Christ in the incarnation assumed our entire human nature and experience, including our composition as body and soul and our experience of death. The descent affirms this and that, in doing so, Jesus defeated death. Praise God!

There are, of course, other topics to discuss with respect to the descent, such as what it would mean for Christ to “preach” to the dead, what it would mean for him to “release” Adam and Eve, how the descent is connected to other dogmatic loci, and why this doctrine matters for believers. I’m hoping to address those in my forthcoming book on the doctrine. In the meantime, Justin Bass’ The Battle for the Keys is an excellent resource for a biblical and historical explanation of Christ’s descent to the dead.

[1] The argument made in this section is in many ways a summary of an excellent article published last year, Jeffrey L. Hamm, Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists,” WTJ (2016): 93 – 116.

[2] The argument in this section is dependent upon Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Wipf and Stock, 2014), especially 45–96.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.