Reflections on Reading

I have always enjoyed keeping up with what other people are reading. One of the redeeming qualities about social media is that new books find you through friends and acquaintances as they talk about them. In years past I would share a picture of my favorite reads from that particular year on social media. This year I have decided to write brief reflections on each book I completed. I hope you enjoy!

1.) Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham. Confession: I read a vast majority of this biography in December of 2018, but I finished it in 2019. Meacham delivers everything you would want in a biography. It is based on sound research, well written, and informative. When readers reach the final page they will certainly concur with President Obama’s remarks that George H. W. Bush was “one of our most underrated Presidents.”

2.) Frederick Douglass: A Prophet of Freedom by David Blight. This was an early Christmas gift purchased while visiting the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The story of Frederick Douglass is truly fascinating. Douglass, who is often cited on social media to support a whole host of issues, was a much more complicated figure than social media allows. Various parts of his own life betray some tweets that hope to claim him. I can’t well represent the breadth of research and writing in one paragraph, but Blight’s book is informative as it is moving and I highly recommend it.

3.) The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. A breath of fresh air. Peterson wants pastors to be unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. He reminds pastors they are not God, but are called to minister the Word and Sacraments to the people of God. His instructions on prayer, small-talk, and poetry are challenging and edifying. This was my introduction to Peterson, but it certainly won’t be the last time I read him.

4.) The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. This book wrecked me and I haven’t quite recovered. Every seminary student should be required to read it.

5.) The Preacher’s Catechism by Lewis Allen. I read this book slowly at a chapter a day beginning in late 2018 and finishing it in early 2019. Based on the questions of the Westminster Catechism, Allen has given pastors a catechesis for pastoral ministry. I have already gifted it to other pastors and will do so for years to come.

6.) The Gospel-Driven Church by Jared Wilson. If I could somehow get every member of my church to read one book, this might be the one. Wilson reframes the church growth conversation around the gospel and encourages pastors to prayerfully labor for healthy growth that can only come from God’s work in the gospel. It is written with humility and a pastoral heart. The major strength of this book is that it is not merely theoretical. Often books will give you a gospel vision for ministry and never tell you how to move forward. Wilson offers his vision of a gospel-driven church and then offers an abundance of helpful counsel for how to lead with humility and navigate change. I highly recommend this book to anyone in ministry.

7.) The Greatest Fight in the World by Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon is never dull and always edifying. He encourages pastors to remember their armoury (The Bible), their army (the church), and their strength (Holy Spirit).

8.) The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F. H. Henry. Although published 72 years ago it is as relevant as ever. Evangelicals would do well to turn to Henry again in this “just preach the gospel” moment.

9.) Secular Sacraments by Dustin Messer. Each essay in this collection is clear and thoughtful. Some are hilarious. All are honoring to Christ. Buy a copy and let Dustin show you how to engage culture with a Biblical worldview.

10.) The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson. I read this the week I taught on the love of God during our Attributes of God series. God’s love is certainly a difficult doctrine and this a delightful exposition of it.

11.) A Theology of Mark by Hans Bayer. An excellent treatment of the biblical and theological themes of the Gospel According to Mark. Bayer’s explanation of Christian discipleship is challenging, but encouraging. His exposition of Mark 8:34 is well worth the price of the book.

12.) Mere Calvinism by Jim Orrick. Mere Calvinism accomplishes its goal of introducing the doctrines of grace to a popular audience. Orrick writes with a pastoral heart and he is sure to edify readers.

13.) Growing Up by Robby Gallaty. Offers a helpful model for cultivating a culture of discipleship. It is not a perfect book, but it is a helpful book for mobilizing people who might otherwise be intimidated by discipling another person. There are really useful appendices and we’ve already seen a benefit at Hermon after applying some of Gallaty’s ideas.

14). A Peculiar Glory by John Piper. This is perhaps my favorite book by John Piper and that is saying a lot. He begins with some introductory matters on the cannon, transmission, and translation but he then moves on to a robust treatment of the doctrine of Scripture. I agree with John Frame, “Perhaps only John Piper could have written this book, and I’m delighted that he has done so.” I can’t imagine someone finishing this book not having grown in their love for the Bible.

15.) In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador. In his first book Meador gives us a thoughtful diagnosis of our fractured communities and offers hope for Christians living in society. Meador teaches members of the city of God to seek the common good while living in the city of man.

16.) The Pastor and Counseling by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju. A helpful apologetic for why pastors need to be counseling the flock of God. The authors provide practical guidance on everything from scheduling to note taking to homework for the counselee.

17.) An Approach to Extended Scripture Memorization by Andrew M. Davis. This booklet is a game changer. It is has significantly impacted my spiritual formation and I now give it to all our new members at Hermon.

18.) Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals by Gavin Ortlund. This book is excellent and easily one of my favorite reads of the year. I said a lot about this book in a previous post, so let me just say here that I highly recommend it.

19.) The Care of Souls by Harold Senkbeil. It is hard to put into words how much this book meant to me this year. I will return to it again and again as I hope develop my pastoral habitus. In a space filled with books on how to be the next church growth guru with a billion twitter followers, Senkbeil gives us a vision of the pastoral life focused on the ministry of the Word and the Ordinances. To use his words, we are merely sheep-dogs for the Chief-Shepherd.

20.) On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria. Excellent. Cyril tackles a number of questions about Christ’s incarnation with biblical and theological fidelity, exposing the Nestorian error for what it is: heresy. It should also be said that the Popular Patristic edition includes an informative and well written introduction by John A. McGurkin. I wish I would have read it years ago.

21.) What Christians Ought to Believe by Michael Bird. This is an excellent introduction to the Christian faith through the Apostles’ Creed. As always, Bird writes with wit and humor without sacrificing substance. I imagine using it for discipleship directly and indirectly throughout my ministry

22.) Affirming the Apostles’ Creed by J.I. Packer. A helpful commentary on the Apostles’ Creed by one of most thoughtful and influential theologians in evangelicalism, J.I. Packer. At times Dr. Packer’s book reads more like a book on reformation theology than a commentary on a creed given to the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Nevertheless, Packer is always worth reading and this is no exception.

23.) The Apostles’ Creed by R. Albert Mohler. A very well written book. The strengths of this book are its introduction and conclusion. At times Mohler falls into the same trap Dr. Packer does. His neglect to give the descent clause a fuller treatment is disappointing. But as I said of J.I Packer, Dr. Mohler is always worth reading and this is no exception. The closing pages of this books nearly made me cry. What a privilege it is to stand and confess this great tradition.

24.) The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to Ancient Catechism by Ben Myers. This a true commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. The new Lexham series in which this book is a part is beautifully done.


I am including the commentaries I read cover to cover as I preached through the Gospel of Mark.

25.) Mark (BECNT) by Robert Stein. Good. Stein is overly dismissive of OT allusions and echoes, but all in all this is a treasure of research and information.

26.) A Gospel of Mark (NIGTC) by R.T. France. The single best commentary on the Gospel of Mark in print.

27.) The Gospel According to Mark (PNTC) by James Edwards. This is a really great commentary on Mark. Edwards isn’t allergic to OT allusions and echoes, does good biblical and theological interpretation, and includes helpful excursus on difficult passages and special themes.

28.) Exalting Jesus in Mark (CCE) by Danny Akin. A great homiletical commentary with helpful application.

Tolle Lege!

The Perils of Theological Retrieval in Pastoral Ministry

Normally I am years behind on reading new books, but I purchased Gavin Ortlund’s book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals the moment Amazon would allow. I did so because of my own personal theological journey. A few years ago I came to realize that even as a Bible College and Seminary graduate I lacked an adequate appreciation for my own Christian tradition. In school I read a lot about church history, but not a lot of the Christian writings that are a part of that history.

So I made it a goal to read many of the theologians I only read about in school. My ignorance is not the fault of my alma maters. I went to wonderful schools and had wonderful teachers. I didn’t deserve their time and kindness. I am simply noting that curriculum restraints and my own shortsighted priorities kept me from first hand knowledge of my own Christian Tradition.

This survey of church history made me aware there was a rich treasure of theological reflection in my family, but that I was largely ignorant of it. This combined with my own experience in non-liturgical congregations left me yearning for “rootedness.” Ortlund describes this feeling well when he writes,

“Particularly among the younger generation of evangelicals today, there seems to be a profound sense of emptiness and dislocatedness and consequent malaise. We are aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidarity and substance. And many of us simply aren’t finding that in our evangelical churches and institutions.” (52)

My interest in theological retrieval grew as I began collecting and reading some of the popular patristic volumes and following the content from sites like Center of Baptist Renewal and the Center for Ancient Christian Studies. But it is one thing to be interested in retrieval. It is another to know how to rightly pursue it. This is why I am so grateful for Ortlund’s book.

Pastors who grow in their understanding of biblical, historical, and systematic theology often want to share that knowledge with others. There is nothing wrong with this. It is ok to be excited about theological retrieval. It is ok to be passionate about giving your flock a firmer grasp on their own Christian history. It is natural to want to share what we are excited about with the ones we love.

The problem is that most pastors are not specialists. I understand that there some who’ve specialized and have earned a PhD, but generally speaking most pastors are not trained historians or biblical scholars. Most pastors are generalists who are striving to be faithful shepherds. Pastors interested in retrieval can become passionate and zealous to teach the church that, “one of the greatest resources for navigating her present challenges is her very past–indeed, her entire past.” (20) Yet zeal and passion not checked with diligent attention to detail can lead to misrepresentation.

This is why I am so thankful that Dr. Ortlund provided the “perils of retrieval” section in his new book. Although these perils are addressed to all who will read his book, I am especially grateful for how this section offers warnings to me as a non-specialist.

The Perils of Retrieval

Here are direct quotes from Ortlund:

1.) “…we must be weary of the danger of distortion, in which we move too quickly to the present issue without sufficiently “doing our homework,” such that the historical resource being retrieved is somewhat caricatured or misconstrued . To the extent that our retrieval of the past is motivated to confirm present opinion or advance a polemical purpose, we may be especially in the way of this danger.” (73)

2.) “A second danger is artificiality, in which past resources are pressed into the service of present needs in a way that is forced or inauthentic.” (73)

3.) “…repristination, in which retrieval becomes merely a way of exercise in restating the past, under the impression that classical sources represent some kind of grand, immovable, final verdict on all matters they address.” Ortlund also says, “If in our efforts at retrieval we never or rarely find ourselves in disagreement with the resources we engage, we must be especially on the alert to whether we have fallen into this danger.” (74)

4.) “A final danger is minimalism, in which all the difficult or cacophonous elements of the past resources are flattened out in the search for a common denominator of unity.” (75)

There are many reasons why you should buy and read Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, but this brief section speaks to the care and thoughtfulness with which Ortlund wrote. More than encouraging his readers to engage with patristic and medieval theology, Ortlund shows us how to do so. You may not need those warnings, but I do and I’m grateful for them.

Although I think he misses his audience here and there (some chapters were previously published in peer review theological journals) I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is especially helpful that Ortlund teaches us both theory and practice. Chapters 4-7 are test cases where he models theological retrieval. The chapter interacting with Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius on the atonement is worth the price of the book.

In his preface Ortlund writes, “I have written this with pastors, theology students, and interested lay Christians in mind. This is a sort of lay level book that engages the scholarly machinery but ultimately hope to influence a broader readership.” (14)

I can only hope it does.