This section reveals some of my reading from the same formative period as the last post (aged 16-26), but this time I am sharing some of the books I read to challenge the way I thought about particular issue. Sometimes I read them knowing I would most likely profoundly disagree with the authors. Sometimes I picked two books with opposing views deliberately to help me think through the issues. Sometimes I read not knowing much about the author, but knowing that I want to get to grips with the issue at stake.
My reading to work out where I stood on a controversial area began just before I went up to Durham as an undergraduate I read “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” by Stott, and “Joy Unspeakable” by Martyn Lloyd Jones, knowing they took different views of what Baptism in or with the Holy Spirit is, and hoping that reading both would help me make up my own mind. I’m very glad I did – I was most convinced by Stott’s exegesis, but “Joy Unspeakable” has really useful wisdom on spiritual experience, and reading that and some Jonathan Edwards helped me navigate the very different perspectives I encountered at uni. Also really important was a study I began, and never quite finished in my first Christmas holidays of every verse in the Bible relating to the Holy Spirit – I did manage to read every verse in the OT, and learnt a lot from that process – probably the most important thing was that being given gifts by the Spirit, having dramatic experiences and even being used to rescue others did not necessarily mean a change of heart.
One author I encountered others talking about a lot growing up in Guildford was David Pawson. David Pawson had been pastor of Millmead Baptist in the 1970s, and had established a very strong teaching ministry with distinctive emphases, that slightly defy easy categorisation. The areas where I felt most disagreement with him at the time were his views on baptism in the Holy Spirit, and his understanding of election (not to mention the whole issue of Israel). I am glad, however, to have read some of his books. His books on the Holy Spirit and new birth have really important things to consider – I like his emphasis on a fourfold initiation – repentance, faith, water baptism and spirit baptism, even if I’d differ somewhat at how these things relate. Reading what he had to say about the need for perseverance in faith was a good way of sharpening my understanding of what I thought, and the challenge in his book on hell that the people Jesus spoke most often about hell to were disciples has stayed with me.
Taking a similar position to Pawson on the Spirit, but the complete opposite on the area of assurance of salvation is RT Kendall (Book titles: “Once Saved Always Saved” – Kendall, “Once Saved Always Saved?” – Pawson). I think on practical Christian living Kendall is always good – he’s written on joy and thankfulness really well, and on matters to do with the Holy Spirit he has challenged me not to have a purely cerebral faith, and to be prepared for the Holy Spirit to intervene directly, and immediately in situations.
Other books I enjoyed on the work of the Holy Spirit, which I would definitely recommend were “Keep in Step with the Spirit” by Packer, “Showing the Spirit” – Don Carson (at the time I was rather surprised by how positive Carson was towards “charismatics”, reading in a very non-charismatic UK context), “4 views on Spiritual gifts” edited by Wayne Grudem and for a slightly wider ranging angle, but very thought provoking “The go between God” by John V Taylor is also very good.
Another issue that I’ve tried to read both sides of is that of what the Bible teaches, or doesn’t teach about different roles for men and women. I enjoyed comparing “Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood” by John Piper and Wayne Grudem and “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals” by William Webb around the end of this time period. The first book is “complementarian” in outlook, arguing that the Bible teaches that men in family and church should take the lead. The second argues that a lot of the Bible’s teaching in this area is a concession to the culture, rather like the Bible’s teaching on slavery – but wants to state very clearly that believing this does not lead to an acceptance of homosexual activity. The first contains the counter-cultural challenge, that I think in our culture men in the church need to hear, and which I always need to hear, a call to take responsibility and to take the initiative rather than just being passive, even if at times the authors run the risk of imposing a 20th century US culture on the Bible. The second contains the very real challenge, again much needed, to recognise that the Bible comes to us out of its cultures to speak to our cultures, and that reading it is not about stripping away the culture to find some nugget of truth underneath, but rather to do the hard work of discerning the implications of that cultural setting for our reading of its texts in a very different culture.
I found “After Eating the Apricot” by John Goldingay in this period too – and I loved its rather different take on a number of OT passages – I think it is a set of chapel talks from St Johns Nottingham, and it provoked lots of thought. I like the title (picking up on some suggestions that the fruit of Genesis 2-3 is better thought of as similar to an apricot than an apple), and was hooked by the first chapter – to this day I’m not sure exactly how one is “supposed” to read it – it is clearly an exercise in a feminist reading of Genesis 2-3 – but it is possible to assume several different intentions behind the chapter – which having read more Goldingay since may be exactly the point! The book is worth having for the line at the end of the sermon on the tragic life of Samson, who went wrong at almost every turn. Commenting on Hebrews 11 where Samson is listed among the heroes of faith Goldingay says “and if there is room for Samson, then there is room for you and for me”… Goldingay usually has a fresh taste and perspective on a text or issue, and usually provokes me to react and then think. Also really good is “To the Usual Suspects” – an A-Z (in random order) of reflections on the Christian life – most moving when he reflects on the struggles of his late wife Anne with MS.
This is just a taster – I deleted a few books from this list because I started being rather critical and I wanted to keep this positive. One of the key ways my thinking has been sharpened on various issues is by reading books by people I naturally disagree with – sometimes my mind has been changed, other times I’ve become more convinced, but it has always been a useful benefit to me. Ultimately even our favourite authors must be tested by the Scripture. We must always be Bereans:
Acts 17:11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Notice that the Scriptures here are what we would call the Old Testament, and notice their activity. Paul came and taught, they read and searched the Scriptures, digging deep to see if Paul’s message and the message of the Old Testament matched. Seeing if what Paul said shed new light on the truth they knew, or if it was actually a departure from the truth. How many of us know our Bibles well enough to test what we hear by what we read?
The next post will look at books I’ve enjoyed and benefited from in more recent years, and describe something of a changing relationship to books as more of life has happened.