For many today, Theologians on the Christian Life sounds like an oxymoron, not the name of a series of Christian books. There's a tendency in our postmodern era to privilege works over doctrine, even to pit them against each other, so that "theology" and "Christian life" are enemies battling for supremacy rather than friends that form a necessary bond.
But theology has not always been viewed this way, and the Christian life was not always divorced from belief and doctrine. In older, arguably wiser times, theology (orthodoxy) has provided the foundation for practice (orthopraxy), and theologians have been as valued for their insights into the mode of sanctification as for their knowledge of hard-to-understand concepts.
This series recovers that unity by examining not only what theologians believed and taught about life as a Christian, but how they lived out those ideals themselves. Obviously none of them were perfect, but it's reasonable to expect a man who teaches others about God to model virtuous character to some extent at least. The men profiled in these books were chosen both for their godly lives and their sound doctrines.
Each volume serves both as a short biography and as a fairly thorough exploration of the subject's views on sanctification and related topics, like vocation, the Sacraments, and the nature and purpose of the church. Because every theologian has a particular emphasis, specific themes emerge for each one: William Edgar's volume on Schaeffer focuses on apologetics and worldview, Carl Trueman's treatment of Luther looks at the centrality of the Cross to the Reformer's thought, Ortlund dwells primarily on Edwards's fascination with God's beauty, and so on.
For the most part, the authors write about towering theologians within their own tradition, but there are exceptions—for instance, Carl Trueman is a Presbyterian writing about Martin Luther, and Sam Storms is a Calvinistic charismatic writing about J. I. Packer, a Reformed Anglican. There is value in both approaches (especially for Trueman, a Luther expert), but the books written by theologians in the same stream as those they're writing about seem especially helpful.
One of the real joys of this series is that the books are often just as entertaining as they are edifying. Not only are the authors generally top-notch theological writers, we learn a lot of interesting bits about their subjects typically only present in gigantic intellectual biographies. For instance, who knew that John Calvin had an impressive wine cellar and loved bowling? Or that Francis Schaeffer wore his weird hair and clothes self-consciously out of a desire to be truly countercultural? Or that Martin Luther frequently told his wife about his bowel movements in love letters to her?
Casting the lives of men like St. Augustine and John Wesley in the light of their thought goes a long way toward helping us understand the men themselves as well as their theological teachings. But it goes further than that: it shows us that they were human, and it shows how they dealt with the trials, temptations, and disappointments of life in a way that we can imitate (or avoid!).
Readers won't always be terribly impressed with their heroes, at least not completely. For instance, John Newton is known primarily for his hymn "Amazing Grace," his fight against the slave trade, and his inveterate letter writing. What readers are likey less aware of is his own arduous journey of sanctification, one that was much slower-paced than many would imagine and involved sins many of us have only heard about.
But that's part of the point—the point isn't to hold up John Newton as a hero, or Herman Bavinck, or John Owen, or whoever. The point is to deepen our understanding of sanctification, to appreciate what we can in the lives of those who've preceded us, and to try to avoid the pitfalls that caused them to stumble by recognizing the danger their lives reveal. These books succeed admirably in helping us do all three, and they even keep us entertained as they do so. Put these on your must-read list whether you're super holy or only a little righteous.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Did you find this review helpful?