Growing Stronger with Strong

strongI’ve just finished my latest reading project, and am now embarking on another. I’ve decided to read a good deal of Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology text. Strong’s work was the old standard in many Baptist seminaries for most of the 20th century. It was first published in 1886, and he released the last edition in 1907. It’s largely been replaced by Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology , which was first released in 1983 and recently went into it’s third edition (2013).

I spent a great deal of time with Erickson last year, and read through perhaps 50% of his systematic. This year, I plan to do the same with Strong. I haven’t read much from him. Strong’s ecclesiology (i.e. doctrine of the church) is, of course, superb. He still has the best systematic doctrine of the church I’ve read anywhere. Contemporary Baptist theologians from the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition still reference his work.[1]

In addition, Strong’s discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity was extraordinarily helpful to me years ago. It’s also the best discussion of that doctrine that I’ve ever read from a systematic theology. It’s better even than Erickson, who’s written on the Trinity at length in separate works.[2]

So, all that gives me good confidence that Strong will be well worth my time. Having said that, I thought I’d share these encouraging words from the preface to his text. This was clearly written in the context of the ongoing fundamentalist-modernist debates of his era, but Strong’s passion for theological truth and the “fundamentals” of the faith should be encouraging to any Christian:[3]

Neither evolution nor the higher criticism has any terrors to one who regards them as parts of Christ’s creating and educating process. The Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge himself furnishes all the needed safeguards and limitations. It is only because Christ has been forgotten that nature and law have been personified, that history has been regarded as unpurposed development, that Judaism has been referred to a merely human origin, that Paul has been thought to have switched the church off from its proper track even before it had gotten fairly started on its course, that superstition and illusion have come to seem the only foundation for the sacrifices of the martyrs and the triumphs of modern missions. I believe in no such irrational and atheistic evolution as this. I believe rather in him in whom all things consist, who is with his people even to the end of the world, and who has promised to lead them into all the truth.

Philosophy and science are good servants of Christ, but they are poor guides when they rule out the Son of God. As I reach my seventieth year and write these words on my birthday, I am thankful for that personal experience of union with Christ which has enabled me to see in science and philosophy the teaching of my Lord. But this same personal experience has made me even more alive to Christ’s teaching in Scripture, has made me recognize in Paul and John a truth profounder than that disclosed by any secular writers, truth with regard to sin and atonement for sin, that satisfies the deepest wants of my nature and that is self-evidencing and divine.

I am distressed by some common theological tendencies of our time, because I believe them to be false to both science and religion. How men who have ever felt themselves to be lost sinners and who have once received pardon from their crucified Lord and Savior can thereafter seek to pare down his attributes, deny his deity and atonement, tear from his brow the crown of miracle and sovereignty, relegate him to the place of a merely moral teacher who influences us only as does Socrates by words spoken across a stretch of ages, passes my comprehension.

Here is my test of orthodoxy: Do we pray to Jesus? Do we call upon the name of Christ, as did Stephen and all the early church? Is he our living Lord, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent? Is he divine only in the sense in which we are divine, or is he the only-begotten Son, God manifest in the flesh, in whom is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily? What think ye of the Christ? is still the critical question, and none are entitled to the name of Christian who, in the face of the evidence he has furnished us, cannot answer the question aright.

Under the influence of Ritschl and his Kantian relativism, many of our teachers and preachers have swung off into a practical denial of Christ’s deity and of his atonement. We seem upon the verge of a second Unitarian defection, that will break up churches and compel secessions, in a worse manner than did that of Channing and Ware a century ago. American Christianity recovered from that disaster only by vigorously asserting the authority of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. We need a new vision of the Savior like that which Paul saw on the way to Damascus and John saw on the isle of Patmos, to convince us that Jesus is lifted above space and time, that his existence antedated creation, that he conducted the march of Hebrew history, that he was born of a virgin, suffered on the cross, rose from the dead, and now lives forevermore, the Lord of the universe, the only God with whom we have to do, our Savior here and our Judge hereafter.

Without a revival of this faith our churches will become secularized, mission enterprise will die out, and the candlestick will be removed out of its place as it was with the seven churches of Asia, and as it has been with the apostate churches of New England.

I print this revised and enlarged edition of my “Systematic Theology,” in the hope that its publication may do something to stem this fast advancing tide, and to confirm the faith of God’s elect. I make no doubt that the vast majority of Christians still hold the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, and that they will sooner or later separate themselves from those who deny the Lord who bought them. When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against him. I would do my part in raising up such a standard.

I would lead others to avow anew, as I do now, in spite of the supercilious assumptions of modern infidelity, my firm belief, only confirmed by the experience and reflection of a half-century, in the old doctrines of holiness as the fundamental attribute of God, of an original transgression and sin of the whole human race, in a divine preparation in Hebrew history for man’s redemption, in the deity, preëxistence, virgin birth, vicarious atonement and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, and in his future coming to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe that these are truths of science as well as truths of revelation; that the supernatural will yet be seen to be most truly natural; and that not the open-minded theologian but the narrow-minded scientist will be obliged to hide his head at Christ’s coming.

The present volume, in its treatment of Ethical Monism, Inspiration, the Attributes of God, and the Trinity, contains an antidote to most of the false doctrine which now threatens the safety of the church. I desire especially to call attention to the section on Perfection, and the Attributes therein involved, because I believe that the recent merging of Holiness in Love, and the practical denial that Righteousness is fundamental in God’s nature, are responsible for the utilitarian views of law and the superficial views of sin which now prevail in some systems of theology.

There can be no proper doctrine of the atonement and no proper doctrine of retribution, so long as Holiness is refused its preëminence. Love must have a norm or standard, and this norm or standard can be found only in Holiness. The old conviction of sin and the sense of guilt that drove the convicted sinner to the cross are inseparable from a firm belief in the self-affirming attribute of God as logically prior to and as conditioning the self-communicating attribute. The theology of our day needs a new view of the Righteous One. Such a view will make it plain that God must be reconciled before man can be saved, and that the human conscience can be pacified only upon condition that propitiation is made to the divine Righteousness. In this volume I propound what I regard as the true Doctrine of God, because upon it will be based all that follows in the volumes on the Doctrine of Man, and the Doctrine of Salvation.

The universal presence of Christ, the Light that lighteth every man, in heathen as well as in Christian lands, to direct or overrule all movements of the human mind, gives me confidence that the recent attacks upon the Christian faith will fail of their purpose. It becomes evident at last that not only the outworks are assaulted, but the very citadel itself.

We are asked to give up all belief in special revelation. Jesus Christ, it is said, has come in the flesh precisely as each one of us has come, and he was before Abraham only in the same sense that we were. Christian experience knows how to characterize such doctrine so soon as it is clearly stated. And the new theology will be of use in enabling even ordinary believers to recognize soul-destroying heresy even under the mask of professed orthodoxy.

Notes

[1] Rolland McCune, for example (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2010], 3:195 – 297) relies heavily on Augustus Strong’s Systematic in his own discussions on Baptist polity.

[2] See, for example, God Made Flesh: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) and Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).

[3]  Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), vii–xi.

What I Read in 2017

libraryWell, the title says it all! This list only includes non-fiction books, and (for the most part), they’re unashamedly nerdy. But, I don’t think that will be a surprise to too many people.

  1. The Holy Trinity by Carl R. Beckwith. A very thorough, scholarly work by a Lutheran theologian. I doubt I’ll ever read or find a more orthodox and comprehensive discussion of the Trinity. I was particularly blessed by his discussion of the opera ad extra, or the concept that all three Divine Persons actually work simultaneously in everything they do – thus Yahweh (in His simplicity) is fully and completely at work in every action. The author writes, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (KL 9443-9448). I’d never read this before. So wonderful!
  2. Battle Cry of Freedom – The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson. A standard, one-volume history of the years leading up to the Civil War, and a stirring account of the war itself. Probably the best, most comprehensive one-volume history you’ll ever find. I read it when I was 16, and just re-read it again.
  3. The Korean War by Max Hastings. A fascinating book by a solid journalist. I’ve read David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter and T.R. Fahrenbach’s classic This Kind of War in years past. This is a good book.
  4. Salvation by Allegiance Alone – Rethinking Faith, Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew Bates. Thought-provoking. His major thesis is that the concept of allegiance is inherent in the idea of faith. He discusses what the components of the Gospel actually are, dabbles a bit in the New Perspective on Paul, and tries desperately to find a via media between Biblical orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, with regard to works and their relationship to salvation. Thought-provoking book, even though I don’t agree with all of it.
  5. The Old Testament is Dying by Brent Strawn. The title says it all. An excellent book. The author draws a parallel between dying languages, and how many Christians know (or, actually, don’t know) the Old Testament. Pastors should read it.
  6. God the Son Incarnate – The Doctrine of Christ by Stephen Wellum. The best and most thorough book on Christology I’ve ever read. The author spends a great deal of time disagreeing with various flavors of kenotic Christology. He asks and discusses deep questions about Christology. Every thinking pastor (and, no – not all pastors like to think) should ponder this. I hope to read Gerald Hawthorne’s The Presence and the Power this coming year, which takes a kenotic view of the incarnation.
  7. The European Reformations by Carter Lindberg. A wonderful, balanced look at the various reformations in Europe.
  8. Fools Talk – Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness. One of the best books on apologetics I’ve ever read. Guinness writes for normal people, and his burden is for normal Christians to move beyond mere “arguments” and persuade people on the other side. He wrote, “Our urgent need today is to reunite evangelism and apologetics, to make sure that our best arguments are directed toward winning people and not just winning arguments, and to seek to do all this in a manner that is true to the gospel itself,” (pg. 18). You should read this.
  9. The Story of Reality – How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between by Gregory Koukl. An excellent book to give to seekers, who don’t know anything about the Christian faith.
  10. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson. This is a silly bit of satire about the culture wars. It’s fiction but, like all satire, it’s really not fictional, you know …
  11. Onward – Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore. I was disappointed in this book. It’s not because he doesn’t have good things to say; it’s more that I’ve just heard this before.
  12. Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This book is a classic for a reason. Liberalism (I personally prefer Guinness’ term “revisionism”) is not a form of Christianity; its a different religion entirely. Read it.
  13. The Conviction to Lead – 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters by Albert Mohler. A good book, even if some of the advice is too abstract to be practical. Mohler’s experience has been in Christian academia, and it shows. Some of his advice cannot be translated into the secular workforce, or even into a local church. Nevertheless, its a good book.
  14. A Passion for Leadership – Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service by Robert Gates. The best book on leadership I’ve ever read. Extraordinarily practical and realistic; never abstract. Gates headed the CIA, the Texas A&M university system, and the Department of Defense. I’d say he knows what he’s talking about. If you work in a bureaucracy, this book will help you. Mohler is undoubtedly a seasoned bureaucratic warrior, but Gates is a Jedi Grand Master – and it shows.
  15. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. The classic account of the international intrigue leading up to the First World War. The account culminates in a gripping account of the first month of the war, right up until the First Battle of the Marne. And, to top it all off, Tuchman didn’t even have a history degree. A massive work. Extraordinarily readable. I first read it when I was 15, and was delighted to read it again.
  16.  The Apostolic Fathers by Michael Holmes. A collection of very early Christian writings, which gave always been known by this title. Good stuff.
  17. Christian Theology by Millard Erickson. This is the standard systematic theology text at many conservative Baptist seminaries. This is a wonderful book, and it was the text I was assigned in Seminary. I didn’t re-read all of it, but I did go through significant portions of it. I don’t agree with everything, but it’s always good food for thought.
  18. The Book of Concord by Theodore Tappert. This is the standard compendium of Lutheran confessional thought. Good for reference.
  19. Baptist Confessions of Faith by William Lumpkin. The title says it all. Baptists stand on the shoulders of some great and godly men, who we can all learn from. The 1644 London Confession and the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, for example, are landmark documents.
  20. God’s Word in Our Hands – The Bible Preserved for Us edited by James Williams. This book was written for a fundamentalist Baptist audience, against a King James Only-ist view of the bible and preservation of Scripture. But, it’s excellent for everybody. Very, very helpful stuff.
  21. Workplace Grace – Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work by Bill Peel and Walt Larimore. A wonderful, practical book about how to, well … share your faith at work. Read it.
  22. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses Grant. Grant was (eventually) the lead Union general in the war, and later President of the United States. His memoirs are excellent.
  23. On the Incarnation by Athanasius. This man lived and ministered in the 4th century, and his thoughts about Christ’s incarnation are profound. Much better and more helpful than most of what you’ll read on the topic today.
  24. Encouragement isn’t Enough by Jay Adams. A short, helpful book about how to offer meaningful encouragement to fellow Christians who are struggling.
  25. Saving Eutychus – How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake by Gary Millar and Paul Campbell. This would be a helpful book for beginning preachers. I didn’t like it.
  26. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ina Paul and David Wenham. A collection of helpful essays on preaching from various genres in the New Testament. Thought-provoking, interesting, and helpful. Read it.
  27. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages by R. W. Southern. Good, accessible book. If I read it again, I’ll probably understand a whole lot more.
  28. The Challenge of Bible Translation – Communicating God’s Word to the World edited by Glen Scrogie, Mark Strauss and Steven Voth. Excellent book. If only more pastors who’ve had Greek and/or Hebrew training would read and ponder this book before pontificating on Bible translations …
  29. Why God Became Man by Anselm of Canterbury. The single best work on atonement, sin, and the purpose of the incarnation I’ve ever read, or will likely ever read. Anselm wrote this book at the tail-end of the 11th century. It’s structured in a discussion format around a fictional dialogue between he and a student, named Boso. Every theological student should read this. It’s better than most of what you’ll get in a standard systematic theology text.
  30. Retro-Christianity – Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith by Michael Svigel. This is really a book about ecclesiology, or the church. It’s written in a very accessible way for “normal” Christians. It’s probably the most helpful book I’ve ever read which explains the Christians life, and the role of the church, to a Christian.

Who knows what next year will bring …