The Best of the Worst
'Tis the season for "best of/top whatever" posts. But instead of going about this in the usual way, I am going to list the best books which I completely disagree.
Confirmation bias is one of the worst hinderances to learning. Whether it be on the internet or in books, it puffs up our self-image, dulls our critical thinking, and makes us slow to listen instead of speaking. So in the spirit of "shut up and listen," I present the best books that are full of things I do not affirm.
Dispensationalism Today by Charles Ryrie
Like many good Baptists, I grew up under dispensational teaching. I did not know at the time it was a specific systematic theology I was under. I, as a young Christian, presumed it was merely the "biblical" reading. This eroded as I read theologians of other positions. I did not realize at the time that John Calvin wrote more than TULIP ... in fact, he didn't even write TULIP. Reading Calvin slowly moved me towards Reformed covenant theology. Premillennial thinking would eventually fall away as well but only many years later. If I agree with something in this book by Charles Ryrie, I do not know where to find it. And yet, I still find Dispensationalism Today to be the most compelling and best presentation of classic dispensationalism available.
Yes, there are probably other good books by modern authors. There have even been developments in the dispensational camp — namely progressive dispensationalism. However, Ryrie is a master at communication. And if one wants to critic dispensational thinking they should read and learn from the respected adherents. I have almost read this book completely through twice because of how often I reference it. I also own two copies. Reading a book such as this might help ex-SBCers understand better some of their background.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg
This recommendation might get under some people's skin. Marcus Borg is best known for his work with the Jesus Seminar in their search for the "historical Jesus." They were the guys who used colored beads to determine which of the Biblical sayings in the gospels were most likely to be historical and true. In so doing, Borg and the Jesus Seminar wound up rejecting orthodox Christianity. The supernatural was abolished. The deity of Christ was denied. The resurrection read mythologically. Essentially it was German liberalism 2.0 (a strict historical-grammatical reading of the Bible always leads people here). It is easy to see why people would naturally refuse to read the man.
However, I believe there is value in reading critics of the orthodox tradition. We certainly do not validate them by reading them. It is pretty easy to find a cheap used copy of the best-selling books so you aren't really "supporting them." So even in the darkness, there are hints of valuable insights available through God's common grace. These hints almost always come in the context of a larger incorrect argument, but this merely trains readers to be critical and gracious simultaneously.
I do not think we need to read all non-orthodox individuals equally. I am specifically singling out Borg because of his reputation. I have never heard an ill word spoken by any person who met Borg. He was not antagonistic and perpetually attention seeking like many today. If you feel uncomfortable reading Borg alone I would recommend The Meaning of Jesus, co-written with N.T. Wright.
The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns
I'm sure someone is laughing at this recommendation. Some might think of Enns as one of the antagonistic modern attackers of inerrancy. Yet, the gent continues to affirm the divinity of Christ and the bodily resurrection. He's okay in my book despite my disagreements with his understanding of the Old Testament. The Bible Tells Me So was one of my favorite reads last year. It is thoroughly enjoyable to read Enns. He is funny, descriptive, and provocative. The former professor of Westminster Theological Seminary is no technical slouch either. The man knows his stuff and this laymen-oriented book was pretty stinking fun to read.
I disagree with almost every one of Enns' conclusions, but I appreciate his concern about existing questions. These are questions that many in the church have. They are certainly the questions the world has. I find it unfair when conservatives simply shout "stop asking questions" — let's dig into the questions. In asking questions of the Bible, we affirm its authority not negate it. In disagreeing with Enns on the answers, we will learn how to speak more efficiently with our neighbor.
A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley
It seems like every single denomination has recently had debates over the role of sanctification, the law, and good works. It is and remains a heated debate particularly among the Reformed world in which I reside. I have engaged these discussions occasionally, but I normally refrain simply because of overblown rhetoric comes with the territory. Instead, from time to time, I pry open my copy of John Wesley's discussion on perfection and silently sigh to myself.
In my opinion, Wesleyan "Perfectionism" is one of the most misunderstood theological developments in recent memory. That people reject it out of hand is okay as far as rejection goes. Wesley was certainly wrong. But he deserves to be heard. The Biblical force with which he makes his arguments should not be ignored. But also, the qualifiers that Wesley himself wrote help to make the doctrine more manageable. Wesley did not argue for Christian sinlessness as many often portray. He argued for a state where the Christian did not consciously sin. To some, this is a splitting of hair. And yet, it is a hair that Wesley tried to split.
Wesley had a profound belief in the role of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of the Christian. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Wesley's understanding of God's promises to us concerning our sanctification should be taken to heart.
Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach Paperback by Kenneth Keathley
Time does not permit me to write everything I think about the soteriological system described as "Molinism." It will have to suffice that I have read and listened to many Reformed people discuss Molinism in such a way as to confuse me. I have done quite a bit of exploration into the philosophical system that undergirds Molinism, and frankly, I cannot recognize the straw-man Molinism that many reformed individuals burn down.
Keathley's presentation of Molinism is the most approachable. Keathley himself is on the more "Calvinistic" end of the Molinist community (unlike William Lane Craig). His writing style is lucid and accommodating for those unfamiliar with the technical jargon. However, his book presents a full system. This can sometimes exacerbate a common problem with Molinism — equating middle knowledge with Molinism. And while it is true that Molinism requires middle knowledge, the relationship does not work the other way. Middle knowledge as a concept has a long historical tradition and is worth studying for those who have a tendency to attack holders of Molinism. Those interested in a much higher level look at counterfactuals and middle knowledge would do well to read Thomas Flint's Divine Providence or Molina's On Divine Foreknowledge.
Honorable Mentions: The Sign of the Gospel by W. Travis McMaken, God's Being is in Becoming by Eberhard Jüngel, Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics by Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware