Category Archives: John Bunyan

John Newton’s Preface to Pilgrim’s Progress

Early this year a publisher kindly approached me to write a book about John Newton, the slave ship captain turned pastor and hymn writer. At the time I was well on my way to developing a series of blog posts inspired by the letters of Newton (see the “Reading Newton’s Mail” series), and the book idea seemed to fit. So I began running with initial research to determine how I would organize a book about Newton’s understanding of the Christian life, the focus of the book.

I quickly discovered the challenges of organizing Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life, mostly because so much of his teachings have endure in volumes of collected letters addressing a wide variety of practical topics. Those letters are rich and deeply edifying, but they’re also hard to organize into a comprehensive scheme. So I sought a more creative angle.

I was aware that Newton had penned a preface to an annotated edition of Puritan John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress published by one of Newton’s friends in London in 1776. At that point Bunyan became a critical piece in my research on Newton.

I was also aware that for a season Newton lectured on PP on Wednesday nights (though those lectures apparently were not recorded!). Rumors through the years suggested the 1776 annotated edition of PP featured application notes in the bottom margin written by Newton himself. There were two evidences for it.

First, in his catalog of editions of PP, Bunyan’s esteemed editor George Offor wrote this:

There is no indication of who the notes are by; but there can be little doubt but that they are from the pen of the Rev. J. Newton, the friend of Cowper. The Editor has four editions of this interesting volume—1776, 1782, 1789, and 1797.

My hopes were high. Could these notes provide me with a more systematized narrative by which to organize Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life?

Perhaps.

In January I bundled up and set off for a few days in the rare book wing at the Library of Congress looking for clues that would indicate that Newton was the author of the footnotes. There for a few days I scanned through every fragile 18th century edition of PP they had in storage.

Eventually I uncovered a copy of the 1776 edition and sat down to read it. It was something of a holy moment for me. There in the text of Newton’s preface I read these words:

As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it.

Was this further proof that Newton authored of the marginal notes? Surely “the annotator” is a reference to Newton himself!

Nope.

From my reading – and from emailing every known Bunyan and Newton scholar – I failed to prove that all of those marginal notes were penned by Newton. In fact I now believe that is very unlikely. So once again I was left with the question of how to structure Newton’s thoughts. At the same time I was about to begin the final stages of editing Lit! so I decided to decline the Newton project (a most difficult decision). Nevertheless, for a book nerd/researcher, those few days at the LOC were precious.

From that experience I came away with a treasure: Newton’s preface.

To my knowledge it has never appeared online. So I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe (and to slightly modernize) Newton’s preface as it originally appeared in the rare 1776 edition of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s quite an honor to share it here on the blog.

Note particularly how Newton turns his attention from praise to the author to the soul of the reader near the end. Such direct pastoral words of care and warning are very Newtonian.

Here it is. Enjoy!

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PREFACE.

The writings of Mr. Bunyan need no recommendatory preface. The various editions they have passed through, and the different languages into which many of them have been translated, sufficiently prove that the gifts of God which were in him, have, by the divine blessing, been made very acceptable and useful to the churches. Though he was called to the knowledge and ministry of the gospel from a low state of life, as well as from a vicious course of conversation, and was unfurnished with human literature, the Lord, the great, the effectual, the only effectual teacher, made him, in an eminent degree, an able and successful minister of the New Testament. It is probable that only the people to whom he personally preached would have been benefited by his zeal and experience, had not the Lord permitted the rage of his enemies to prevail against him for a season. He lived in more trying days than those in which our lot is fallen. For preaching the word of life to sinners, he was sentenced to perpetual banishment, but what he actually suffered was imprisonment for more than twelve years. But his spirit was not bound. Though secluded from his public work, he could not be idle. He applied himself to writing books, and most of the treatises, by which being dead he still speaketh (in number about threescore) were composed during his confinement in Bedford Goal [jail]. Thus his adversaries themselves contributed to extend his usefulness by the very methods they took to prevent it. And (as in the apostle’s case) the things that happened to him, proved rather to the furtherance than the hindrance of the gospel.

His books, though devoid of that art and those ornaments, on which writers who seek the praise of men lay so great a stress, have been, and still are highly esteemed by those who have a taste for divine truth; and greatly instrumental, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, to the awakening of the careless, and the encouragement of those who are seeking salvation. And we doubt not but they will be farther owned of God for these purposes, to many who are yet unborn. But as among the stars one exelleth another in glory, so of all our author’s writings, there is no one perhaps so universally and deservedly admired as his Pilgrim’s Progress, in which he gives a delineation of the Christian life under the idea of a journey or a pilgrimage, from the City of Destruction to the heavenly Jerusalem. In this treatise he appears not only as a writer well instructed in the mysteries of the kingdom, but a man of real genius. Though he had not a learned education, God had given him considerable natural abilities, a lively invention, a penetrating spirit, a strong judgment, and his style, though plain and simple, is remarkably clear, animated, and engaging. By the exercises through which the Lord led him, and a close study of the Word of God, he acquired a singular knowledge of the human heart, and its various workings, both in a state of nature and grace, and of the various snares and dangers to which a believer is exposed from the men and things of the world, and the subtlety of Satan. These fruits of his experience and observation he has exhibited in a very pleasing and instructive manner in his pilgrim, which may be considered as a map of the Christian profession in its present mixed state, while the wheat and the tares are growing in the same field. A map, so exactly drawn, that we can hardly meet with a case or character, amidst the vast variety of persons and incidents, that daily occur to our observation, to which we cannot easily point out a counterpart in the pilgrim. And he is peculiarly happy in fixing the attention of his readers: many have read this book with a kind of rapturous pleasure, though they have not understood the authors design, (which only they who have the eyes of their minds enlightened by the Spirit of God can fully enter into) and they who understand it best, and who have read it often, usually find fresh pleasure and instruction upon every perusal.

As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it. He hopes however that he has proposed no illustration but what will be found agreeable to the analogy of faith and the experience of believers.

The unusual demand for the Pilgrim’s Progress upon its first appearance, induced the author some time after to send forth a second part. In which there are many beautiful passages that sufficiently demonstrate it to be the work of the same masterly hand. But the plan of that which is now called the First Part, was so comprehensive, and so well executed, that the subject was too much exhausted to admit of a Second Part, capable of standing in competition with the former. It is upon the whole greatly inferior to it, though a few pages here and there might be selected, which, for their beauty, propriety, and energy, almost deserve the epithet of inimitable* [footnote: "* See the character of Mr Fearing, and Standfast's discourse when in the river."]. The first part therefore is only published with notes, which it is hoped may afford a sufficient key to the second.

There is a small book in print which bears the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It can hardly be necessary to inform any but those who have not read it, that this pretended third part, with Mr. Bunyan’s name, is a gross imposition on the public, and that the title is almost the only part of it which bears any resemblance to Bunyan’s Pilgrim, excepting when the writer has borrowed the same names. But Bunyan’s spirit and manner he could not borrow, and his principles he openly contradicts. A common hedge-stake deserves as much to be compared to Aaron’s rod, which yielded blossoms and almonds, as this poor performance to be obtruded upon the world under the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress.

Thus much concerning our book: Let the preface close with a word to the reader’s heart. If you are not convinced of sin, and led by the Spirit to seek Jesus, notwithstanding the notes, the Pilgrim will still be a riddle to you. A well-wisher to your soul assures you, that whether you know these things or not, they are important realities. The Pilgrim is a parable, but it has an interpretation in which you are nearly concerned. If you are living in sin, you are in the City of Destruction. O hear the warning voice! “Flee from the wrath to come.” Pray that the eyes of your mind may be opened, then you will see your danger, and gladly follow the shining light of the word, till you enter by Christ, the straight gate, into the way of salvation. If death surprise you before you get into this road, you are lost forever.

If you are indeed asking the way to Zion with your face thitherward, I bid you good speed. Behold an open door is set before you, which none can shut. Yet prepare to endure hardship, for the way lies through many tribulations. There are hills and valleys to be passed, lions and dragons to be met with, but the Lord of the hill will guide and guard his people. “Put on the whole armor of God, fight the good fight of faith.” Beware of the Flatterer. Beware of the Enchanted Ground. See the Land of Beulah, yea, the city of Jerusalem itself is before you:

There Jesus the forerunner waits.

To welcome travelers home.

JOHN NEWTON.

The Enchanted Forest

From John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress:

… I then saw in my dream, that they went on until they came into a certain country whose air naturally tended to make one drowsy, if he came a stranger into it. And here Hopeful began to be very dull, and heavy to sleep: wherefore he said unto Christian, I do now begin to grow so drowsy that I can scarcely hold open mine eyes; let us lie down here, and take one nap.

Christian: By no means, said the other; lest, sleeping, we never awake more.

Hopeful: Why, my brother? Sleep is sweet to the laboring man; we may be refreshed, if we take a nap.

Christian: Do you not remember that one of the shepherds bid us beware of the Enchanted Ground? He meant by that, that we should beware of sleeping; wherefore “let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:6).

Hopeful: I acknowledge myself in a fault; and had I been here alone, I had by sleeping run the danger of death. I see it is true that the wise man saith, “Two are better than one” (Ecc. 4:9).

Christian: Now, then, said Christian, to prevent drowsiness in this place, let us fall into good discourse.

Hopeful: With all my heart, said the other.

Christian: Where shall we begin?

Hopeful: Where God began with us. But do you begin, if you please. …

Pilgrim Musical Performance Package

A while back on the blog I commended a wonderful DVD of the musical production Pilgrim that was filmed at Covenant Life Church, featuring the high school talent in the church. The Pilgrim DVD is a two-hour long modern interpretation of Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrims Progress set to music. Pilgrim is a brilliant and theologically rich adaptation. My entire family enjoyed the production and I commend the DVD to you.

Pilgrim was originally developed with the goal of adapting Bunyan’s story to modern culture. Christian Theatre Publications, the folks who wrote and produced the original musical and DVD, have now released a performance package for churches and schools. The package includes a reproducible script, piano score, 30 vocal books, a music CD with full vocals, and an optional accompaniment CD/backing track. The original production DVD is also available. The script can be shortened as needed and can accommodate various cast sizes. I’m told the first step in bringing Pilgrim to your church or school is to apply for a performance license. You can do that here.

It’s worth checking out.

Related:

You can read my original review of the Pilgrim DVD here.

Even better, you can read Justin Taylor‘s review of the Pilgrim DVD here. Writes the überblogger extraordinaire: “I give the whole thing a high recommendation!”

And you can watch the Pilgrim DVD trailer here:

O It Makes Me Wonder

John Bunyan, The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (London, 1708), 183:

Sometimes when my heart has been hard, dead, slothful, blind, and senseless, which indeed are sad frames for a poor Christian to be in, yet at such a time, when I have been in such a case, then has the blood of Christ, the precious blood of Christ, the admirable blood of the God of Heaven, that run out of His body when it did hang on the Cross, so softened, livened, quickened, and enlightened my soul, that truly, reader, I can say, O it makes me wonder!

Pilgrim

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was originally published in 1678 and it has never been out of print in the 332 years since. So it’s not a big surprise that this is one of the bestselling books in the English language. And it should be.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is the allegorical story of a man named Christian, all the way from conviction to conversion to glorification. Once Christian finds forgiveness for his sins in the cross, he begins a lifelong pilgrimage as a child of the King on his way to the Celestial City. An array of spiritual themes permeate the book, including worldliness, pride, humility, and friendship. Treacherous spiritual temptations are presented in pictures of monsters, giants, and deceivers. It is a brilliant fantasy, richly adorned with symbolism and penetrating spiritual insights.

But as popular as the book has been in church history it’s not a common read today. Its author—John Bunyan—was an uneducated, kettle fix-it-man and pastor from the 17th century whose book would likely have never been published except for his friendship with John Owen. Still, for all his success Bunyan is largely a stranger even among Christian folk. (I know this firsthand because I named my son Bunyan and 99 in 100 people find it odd that I would name my child after a common foot deformity.)

Of course it’s not a perfect book, but John Bunyan’s masterpiece is an important book. And thankfully there are many publishers working to keep the book available and accessible to modern readers. Not long ago Crossway released a beautifully illustrated version of the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (my preview here). This latest edition joins several now in print, ranging from reprints of the original text, modernized revisions, and this nice version for kids.

But I doubt any product has more potential for introducing the themes of Bunyan’s classic to a new generation of Christians quite like the new DVD of the musical simply titled Pilgrim. The Pilgrim DVD is a recording of a performance at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD (disclosure: that’s my church). The high school students from the church performed all the acting and their work is exceptional.

But the real brilliance of Pilgrim is the theology of the script. One of my favorite scenes is between Goodwill, played by an energetic Irish woman, and Christian. Christian has not yet been to the cross. Watch how the theology unfolds:

Christian: I’m a mess. I need get myself cleaned up before I get there [to the cross].

Goodwill: You can’t. Oh, lots of pilgrims put off going to the cross so they can clean themselves up first, but you can’t do that on your own. The King is the only one who can make you clean. He loves you, despite your dirt.

Christian: I guess it’s good to know He loves me …(shrugs) … makes me feel better about myself.

Goodwill: Oh, laddie! He doesn’t love ye to make you feel better about yerself. He loves ye because that’s WHO HE IS. He died for ye to purchase ye back from the Prince of Destruction. He plans ta do a work in ye, Pilgrim, ta conform ye to His lovin’ image. And He wants to make sure ye git home safely.

Christian: Home?! NO! I want to go to the Celestial City.

Goodwill: Once you git to the cross, the Celestial City becomes yer new home.

Christian: Oh, right. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I made my decision.

Goodwill: Your decision.

Christian: Yeah, you know, to come down this road. I’m glad I’m finally doing it.

Goodwill: (chuckling) Ah, lad, ye think yer desire to walk this road began with you? No, Laddie. It began with the King. He put that desire in ye. He started it! On yer own, ye wouldn’t have come this way. And I’ll tell ye somethin’ more. It’s a blessed promise from that book [the Bible]. Since this wasn’t your idea but His, the same One who started His good work in ye will carry it through. Right to the finish.

The Pilgrim DVD is just under two hours in length and currently sells online for $18.00. I make no hesitation in saying this is a must-have addition to your family library. We recently enjoyed the presentation for our family movie night, and we used the theology of the film as a means of further discussion on the various spiritual themes. The allegory is brought forth in striking imagery and acting and singing. And while it is a serious and sobering production—how could an allegory about the Christian life not be serious and sobering?—there is some delightful humor at times, too.

Taken together I would say Pilgrim is an epic achievement in the long Bunyan legacy.

If you’d like more detail you can watch a brief trailer for the DVD here:

It’s also worth mentioning that Pilgrim was intentionally developed with the goal of helping other local churches to stage their own production of the play. Work is being completed on a performance package that will include the DVD, a reproducible script, chord charts, music, and lyrics for all songs, a music CD with full vocals, and the option to upgrade to an accompaniment CD/backing track. The performance package is now available. See here for details.

Bunyan’s Blunder

Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon “Christ Crucified” (No. 2673), said the following:

…let me tell you a little story about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I am a great lover of John Bunyan, but I do not believe him infallible; and the other day I met with a story about him which I think a very good one.

There was a young, man, in Edinburgh, who wished to be a missionary. He was a wise young man; so he thought, “If I am to be a missionary, there is no need for me to transport myself far away from home; I may as well be a missionary in Edinburgh.”

Well, this young man started, and determined to speak to the first person he met. He met one of those old fishwives; those of us who have seen them can never forget them, they are extraordinary women indeed. So, stepping up to her, he said, “Here you are, coming along with your burden on your back; let me ask you if you have got another burden, a spiritual burden.”

“What!” she asked; “do you mean that burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Because, if you do, young man, I got rid of that many years ago, probably before you were born. But I went a better way to work than the pilgrim did. The evangelist that John Bunyan talks about was one of your parsons that do not preach the gospel; for he said, ‘Keep that light in thine eye, and run to the wicket-gate.’ Why—man alive!—that was not the place for him to run to. He should have said, ‘Do you see that cross? Run there at once!’ But, instead of that, he sent the poor pilgrim to the wicket-gate first; and much good he got by going there! He got tumbling into the slough, and was like to have been killed by it.”

“But did not you,” the young man asked, “go through any Slough of Despond?”

“Yes, I did; but I found it a great deal easier going through with my burden off than with it on my back.”

The old woman was quite right. John Bunyan put the getting rid of the burden too far off from the commencement of the pilgrimage. If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.

We must not say to the sinner, “Now, sinner, if thou wilt be saved, go to the baptismal pool; go to the wicket-gate; go to the church; do this or that.”

No, the cross should be right in front of the wicket-gate; and we should say to the sinner, “Throw thyself down there, and thou art safe; but thou are not safe till thou canst cast off thy burden, and lie at the foot of the cross, and find peace in Jesus.”

The Pilgrim’s Progress (now in living color)

I named my second son after John Bunyan (1628—1688). Bunyan is a literary giant from the Puritan era. His classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is one of the best selling books of all time and has undergone dozens of editions and translations over the centuries. The newest version is set to hit bookstores at the end of September in a deluxe, updated, 240-page, colorfully illustrated version from Crossway ($16.49 over at Amazon).

The book’s text has been edited and updated by C. J. Lovik and the book’s 30 illustrations were contributed by award winning painter Michael Wimmer. As the release date approaches for this book I’ll have a full review. But for now, I wanted to post two illustrations. Crossway permitted me a sneak peak into the book a few days ago. Here is an exclusive look at two of the paintings.

Pilgrim's-Progress-18

Illustration copyright © 2009 by Michael Wimmer. Posted by permission of the publisher. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Crossway 2009), p. 18.

Pilgrim's-Progress-129

Illustration copyright © 2009 by Michael Wimmer. Posted by permission of the publisher. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Crossway 2009), p. 129.

Nice illustrations! … I’ll have more for you in a later review.

Critiquing the Missional Movement

tsslogo.jpgNow that all the Sovereign Grace Ministries messages are free, I’m slowly feasting message-by-message in a long and delicious buffet of audio. Today I finally arrived at Dave Harvey’s message from the SGM Leadership Conference this Spring (at the time, I was on the other side of the wall listening to Dever speak on his annual reading schedule).

Harvey, the author of the excellent book When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press: 2007), is also an expert church planter and apostolic leader within SGF. This Spring in his session “Watch Your Mission: To Be, or Not to Be, ‘Missional,’” he assessed the strengths and weakness of the missional movement. In part, he argues the MM muddies the Cross-centered focus of the Church and misunderstands the apostolic context of the Great Commission.

Here’s the heart of his outline:

1. What are the Strengths of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Have a Commendable Passion for Evangelism.
B. Missional Churches Have a Laudable Commitment to Engaging Culture.
C. Missional Churches Have a Profitable Impulse for Reexamining Church Tradition.
D. They Also Possess an Admirable Devotion to Social Impact.

2. What are the Weaknesses of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Tend to Be Mission-Centered Rather Than Gospel-Centered.
B. Missional Churches Tend to Have a Reductionistic Ecclesiology.
C. Missional Churches Tend to Confuse Culture Engagement with Cultural Immersion.
D. Missional Churches Tend to Downplay the Institutional and Organizational Nature of the Church.
E. Missional Churches Tend to Have an Insufficient Understanding of Apostolic Ministry.

Free: Get the full outline here and the mp3 audio here.

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Update: It should be noted SGM believes in a continuing apostolic gift: “present-day apostles plant and build local churches for the sanctification of the believer, the expansion of the mission, and the exaltation of God.” For more on why they use the term, what it means and does not mean, see the SGM booklet by Harvey titled Polity: Serving and Leading the Local Church (2004), pages 17-26, 49-50.

Banner of Truth Tour (Carlisle, PA, Wed. PM)

2007-banner-of-truth-confer.jpg

Banner of Truth Tour
Carlisle, PA, Wed. PM

One personal highlight from the trip East was a tour of the Banner of Truth warehouse in Carlisle, PA (about 30 minutes from the conference). The tour was pushed back until late Wednesday night. But it was worth the wait.

Steve Burlew, who manages the US branch of the Banner of Truth, has become a close friend through months of electronic fellowship by way of email and our blogs. Steve was gracious enough (at 11:00 PM last night!) to drive me down so I could see the warehouse. It was a great treat.

The Banner of Truth offices and warehouse in Carlisle are sandwiched by condos in what seemed to be a residential area. The Banner building itself is a very long and narrow with two levels of offices in the front and warehouse in the back. The first books you see in the entry are the damaged volumes (most only slightly damaged). These volumes sell at 50-percent off. Also in the entry are a few desks (one of another Banner friend, Beth). Another set of offices is directly upstairs. From the entry you walk back to the packing room. This room holds a handful of copies of each Banner book and a table outfitted for packaging. From this packing room and through an industrial door, you enter in to the large warehouse. The warehouse is mainly a large metal structure where the pallets and bulk stacks of individual volumes are stored. The paperbacks are stored on the second level and the hardcover books on the main level. The warehouse was very tidy. To the far back of the warehouse and along one of the walls were the new arrivals from Edinburgh. Many of these volumes were on crates and simple boxes.

I was greatly surprised at the volume of works warehoused and (by consequence) gratefully surprised at the amount of books the Banner must sell on a regular basis. So having personally seen the impact of authors like John Bunyan in my own life, it was an especially moving experience to see a stack of hundreds of copies of his works. Or to see thousands of copies of Expository Thoughts on John by J.C. Ryle or stacks of boxes of the Works of John Owen or a pile of Spurgeon’s autobiography or to see 10,000 copies of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Walking through the Banner warehouse was a powerful experience — not merely as a bibliophile – but as a Christian who has experienced the powerful content of these works in drawing me closer to Christ and His Cross.

What will become of this stack of John Bunyan or Jonathan Edwards? This will be left in the hands of our Sovereign God. But we can be sure there will be new readers who, through the work of the Banner staff, will be introduced to a new world of reading, to new authors and new books. And through this introduction these readers will be eternally changed for the glory of God. My personal experience of these volumes and my expectations for a new generation of readers is what made a tour of the Banner warehouse so special. It was a great experience, even if it was midnight before we returned to Grantham.

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A few choice pictures. Here are some books in the packing room.

Stacks of boxes filled with Spurgeon’s autobiography.

The Works of John Bunyan. Isn’t this beautiful?

Two crates filled with Edwards’ Religious Affections (perhaps 10,000 copies).

The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray.

Ryle on John (vol. 3).

The warehouse.

And my friend Steve Burlew (Steve wanted me to let everyone know this picture was taken at midnight after a long day at the conference. Apparently he’s more handsome in the daytime or something).

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Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.

Mark Dever’s Canon of Theologians (Annual Reading Plan)

Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #2
Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”

GAITHERSBURG, MD – Being one who loves to read the books of dead theologians and preachers, Mark Dever’s session was a personal highlight. The point was to encourage us to broaden our theological and biographical reading to at least 12 different authors, each to be read for one month annually. Dever himself uses a yearly reading plan where he reads a specific author each month of the year (like Augustine in February). Then every April he moves on to John Calvin, reading a new biography or theological work. Each year the reading plan starts over.

For readers of the Together for the Gospel blog, this will sound familiar. On February 1, 2006 Dever wrote a short post titled “An apostolic agenda” outlining this very thing. On Thursday morning at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Leader’s Conference, Dever filled out the details.

Dever began with a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation which outlines some reasons why old books are important. Lewis writes,

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. …

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

With this introduction, Dever launched into his “canon of theologians.” He encouraged us to read on theological issues that are not a particular struggle at the time. Let the theologians talk about what they want to talk about. Dever then outlined his own personal reading plan.

The ‘canon of theologians’

JanuaryEarly church writings (1st-3rd centuries). Recommended reading: Many and various works and authors were mentioned like the Epistle of Dionysius, The Didache, Clement, The Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Penguin paperback, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (0140444750). When asked if he used the early church writings in his expositional research, he said ‘no.’ He is familiar with the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but has not found them exegetically beneficial. [This helps answer an important question we asked earlier this year]. Dever’s use of the early church fathers is predominantly theological and historical.

FebruaryAugustine (354-430). The most influential extra-biblical theologian in the West. Recommended: City of God and The Confessions (Henry Chadwick edition). Dever’s disagreement: That the church is the conduit of salvation. “Augustine got it bad wrong on ecclesiology.”

MarchMartin Luther (1483-1546). Lessons learned: 1. Justification is by faith alone, all of sheer grace. Luther “cleanses the church from the barnacles of traditionalism.” 2. Luther’s boldness. Read biography Here I Stand. Recommended reading: 95 Theses and Bondage of the Will. You can read Bondage of the Will out loud to children and they will be engaged because of the vigorous prose and Luther’s name-calling towards Erasmus (Dever is very funny). Best bio being Here I Stand by Roland Bainton (0452011469).

AprilJohn Calvin (1509-1564). The greatest theologian of the Reformation period. Lessons learned: 1. God’s glory at the center of everything. The world is the “theater” of God’s glory. 2. Centrality of man’s depravity, shown especially in the heart’s perpetual idol production. 3. He was careful with Scripture. Calvin had a very rare combination of gifts that balanced the theological, linguistic, pastoral, and exegetical. 4. He filled both the offices of pastor and scholar. 5. The diligent training of his spiritual children even as he knew sending these pastors back into France would mean certain death [see the concept of “Calvin’s School of Death”]. Disagreements: That the state is responsible for the church. He confused the church and state, a distinction we take for granted today. Recommended: Sermons on the Ten Commandments, commentary on 1 Cor. 12-14, The Institutes of the Christian Religion and anything written by T.H.L. Parker. He does not recommend modern bios of Calvin and especially warned against McGrath.

MayRichard Sibbes (1577-1635). Lessons learned: 1. The tenderness of Christ. The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax a great example of Jesus’ tenderness and it makes for a great read together with your spouse. Sibbes was able to point out evidences of grace very well. 2. “Diagnostic evangelism.” Sibbes continued to hold out the biblical truth of what a genuine Christian looks like and, by consequence, sorted out those who nominally professed faith. By authenticating the Christian life he naturally separated the sheep from the wolves and goats. He was clear that one’s salvation does not come through assurance but rather assurance comes from genuine salvation. Sibbes pointed those who were never converted to run to grace in the Cross. Disagreement: Infant baptism. Recommendations: Sibbes stuttered in his preaching so he kept his sentences relatively short and this makes him easier to read than his contemporaries. Start with the sermons in volume seven of his collected works.

June John Owen (1616-1683) and John Bunyan (1628-1688). John Owen is known for his argument on limited atonement in Death of Death. It’s a good book to scare Arminians, but there exist better exegetical ways to argue for limited atonement. Lesson learned: Linger with Scripture. “Diligent meditation reaps great rewards.” Dever especially recommends the Owen volumes by Kris Lundgaard (The Enemy Within and Through the Looking Glass) and those by Kapic and Taylor (Overcoming Sin and Temptation). … John Bunyan was a “pot-repairer with extraordinary preaching gifts.” Bunyan clearly expresses himself without the use of long, Latin sentences. His life was marked by a sincere pastoral concern. Recommended: Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (autobiographical) and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress being a “great systematic theology” built around the “centrality of heaven.”

JulyJonathan Edwards (1703-1758). There are many lessons and warnings from the life of Jonathan Edwards. Lessons learned: 1. Diligent meditation. “Edwards can stare at an idea” and has “a powerful ability to think out and illustrate” that idea. An excellent example of this is Edward’s sermon The Excellency of Christ. 2. Edwards demonstrates a zeal for the purity of the church. 3. Understands the connection between his ministry and his congregation. In his Farewell Sermon, after Edwards was fired, he tells his congregation “I’ll see you before the throne.” Disagreements: 1. Infant baptism. 2. The logic of God’s centrality seemed a bit philosophical rather than always biblical. 3. He shows some pastoral carelessness especially with the “young folks’ Bible” controversy [see chapter 18 in George Marsden’s biography]. Nevertheless, Edwards demonstrates a powerful ability to think out and illustrate. Read his sermons and especially his sermon The Nakedness of Job which he wrote when he was 18 years old! As an interesting side note, Dever has preached an Edwards sermon to his congregation. On October 5, 2003 he took Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked up the manuscript as he would his own and preached it. You can listen to the final product here.

AugustC.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Lessons learned: 1. Evangelism. Spurgeon preached the gospel from any and every text. “More than anyone else, I think of Spurgeon when I prepare my sermons.” Preach each sermon as though someone may be converted. 2. His life is filled with stories of God’s kindness upon his ministry. Read Spurgeon’s autobiography and be amazed at the stories. Spurgeon’s autobiography “may be the most fun thing to read apart from Scripture.” It will encourage you to see that we have a glorious God. 3. He had a lively faith. Spurgeon had “a heightened God-consciousness.” Even in the midst of a prolonged depression, Spurgeon shows that depression drives a faithful Christian to God. Read his Morning and Evening devotional.

SeptemberB.B. Warfield (1851-1921). “Warfield strengthens my faith.” Like John Calvin, Warfield had a wonderful mix of scholarship and piety. Disagreements include infant baptism and Presbyterian polity.

OctoberMartyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). Not much in disagreement. Lessons learned: 1. Gave his life to preaching and lived confident in the power of God’s Word. 2. Deadly earnest. It was no light thing for him to preach. The pulpit was the “desk of God.” Recommended: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Preaching and Preachers, Spiritual Depression and his biography by Iain Murray.

NovemberC.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003). Because time ran short, Dever simply finished off his list of writers he reads in November and December without further comment or recommendation.

December – Contemporary authors like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, R.C. Sproul and John Piper.

Conclusions

This breakout session encourages me to pursue the study of the early church writers, although I’ve become more convinced that they will not prove as helpful in my expositional research and sermon preparation as others. It also encourages me to narrow my focus to a handful of great writers and focus attention on their writings each year. I’m in the process of creating my own “canon of theologians” for annual study.

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