Newton on the Christian Life
May 23, 2015
Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015. $14.79
I imagine many will think this book tells an important yet familiar tale of a repentant man who writes an enduring, widely appealing hymn. Though I was acquainted with Tony Reinke's writing (see the review on Reformation 21 for his previous book, Lit!), and knew I would enjoy the prose of the book, I admittedly could not get fired up about Newton. Just look at some of the other giants of the faith Crossway features in their series on Theologians on the Christian Life--Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Francis Schaeffer, Warfield--those guys get people's theological blood pumping.
Lesson learned. My preconceived notions of what Newton (and this book) would be like turned out to be way off the mark, thankfully. I gained a rich appreciation for and fascination of Newton that was unexpected. In fact, Reinke doesn't allow the reader's preconceived ideas to shape the book's structure, but writes as if he is carefree of your expectations of Newton, which quietly strengthens the book. Rather than walk through its content and give a Cliff's Notes summary, a few key points deserve attention.
Reinke understands his assignment well. This Crossway series focuses on important church figures and their take on the Christian life. That means this book should not be a biography, though it will certainly contain biographical elements (see p. 31). It means this book should not attempt to describe systematically Newton's theology as a whole, though there would certainly be value in such a book. This title focuses on a particular figure, Newton, with a particular theological focus--the Christian life.
When writing on the Christian life, pitfalls can quickly crop up. Because of the nature of the topic, it can be tempting to focus solely on imperatives--"Do this in your daily walk, and don't do that. Repeat." There should be a vital place for emphasizing imperatives, and in employing Newton's works Reinke never shies away from proclaiming what we should and shouldn't do. But a crucial aspect to writing on the Christian life is placing it within its proper context of Christ's redemptive work and its application to the believer, and Reinke seems keenly aware of this context while he works through each chapter.
Reinke achieves remarkable balance throughout almost every aspect of the book, which takes both a competent pen and a competent mind. Though not an academic title, academics will find themselves at home through the many footnotes and bibliographic material on Newton that informs what makes the cut to the printed page. It will be an essential addition to the secondary literature on Newton for those who have an academic curiosity. But despite its potential academic use, the book stays within a popular-level frequency in content and tone, especially fitting for a book on the pastoral Newton. John Piper's opening words in his foreword capture this tone well: "One of the most remarkable things about this book is that the voice of Tony Reinke and the voice of John Newton have become almost indistinguishable." (p.15) Reinke knows when to get out of the way and let Newton speak, and Newton knows when to get out of the way and point to Christ.
A significant benefit of Reinke's writing comes from his sense of anticipating the reader's reactions and inner monologue while getting to know Newton. This comes through in various ways, even through seemingly throwaway lines. If the reader wonders what significance Newton's letters may have, aside from historical artifacts, Reinke provides historical translation with a quick, parenthetical explanation: "think blog, not e-mail" (p.22). Newton's "letters" were the social media of his day, meant to be read and shared with others.
The 18th century pastor also liberally used metaphor, which gives Newton's writings vibrant color and pointed application. But coupled with the situational nature of Newton's letters, some of his writing could appear off-balance in its pastoral application or even in its theology, when isolated. Having combed through all of Newton's vast published material (see p. 30), Reinke has done the work of presenting Newton to us topically, so that Newton's corpus as a whole becomes the context for what he says on particular occasions. You will find this evidenced by the footnotes, which reflect quotations and ideas gathered from all over Newton's writings. On page 100, for example, you find references to Newton's works in volume six, volume four, volume one, in a particular letter, finishing with a reference to Thomas Boston to round things out. The fourteen chapters are anything but a serial survey of Newton's thought.
A pastoral and theological balance runs through the entire book's architecture. In articulating the importance and priority of Christian joy, Newton is not so naive as to think that joy comes to the Christian automatically (p.63). Christ is the focal point of everything for Newton, but that focus avoids slipping into reductionism or simplistic theology (p.64). Christian joy is a reality, but gets eschatologically qualified, only fully realized in eternity (p.87). In Christ we have eternal security, but this does not mean that God does not grieve our sin (p.123). Newton refuses to pit one of Christ's benefits--either justification or sanctification--over another (p.138), walking a soteriological fine line. The Christian is called to spiritual maturity but not spiritual self-sufficiency (p.148). Newton includes strong warnings against political manipulation from the pulpit, yet he was valiant against the slave trade (p.175). Indwelling sin remains in the Christian in this life, but extended periods of willful sin threaten assurance: If we love Christ, we will obey him (p.222). Reinke has done the work of providing balance for the reader, and through that has served us by revealing a more accurate Newton.
The book displays a refreshing literary sensitivity, and picks up on Newton's skillful use of metaphor (a "master craftsman," p.41) throughout his works. Newton's anthropomorphizing of "Seven Christian Blemishes" in chapter eight gives the reader much to think through, introducing us to figures like the chatty Humanus, the detached Cessator, and the nosy Curiosus. Newton describes the Christian life as a slow-growing oak tree, in contrast to a mushroom that sprouts immediately into full maturation (p.158). His skilled use of imagery applied to indwelling sin is particularly vivid, and Reinke's description is worth quoting in full:
Imagine a Christian sitting down with a blank page and pen. He begins to write out his perfectly scripted life, explaining how he would love others, how he would structure his prayer life, or how he would sanctify his life by the Word. But indwelling sin and Satan crouch at his elbow, disrupting every pen stroke and messing up every word and sentence as our Christian friend tries to write the script. At every point in the Christian life Satan jabs our elbow, and our pen skids across the page as our perfect plan is reduced to scribbles. This is a metaphor of the Christian life with indwelling sin. Yet the biggest problem is that sin is not at our elbow--our sin is in us! (p.112)
Aside from showcasing Newton's literary skill, Reinke intends to bridge past and present theological emphases through Newton. Seeing Christ throughout all of Scripture, including the Old Testament, is not a 20th or 21st century invention. Newton practiced a robust biblical theology (p. 208ff), which should not surprise us; you would expect a Christ-centered hermeneutic from such a Christ-centered focus. And he is clear that the reality and centrality of union with Christ informs all of the Christian (pp.46, 47, 55, 63, 68, 115, 139, 157, 199).
Newton also displays experienced wisdom when giving pastoral advice on the topic of controversy (p.256ff), timeless and relevant for today. For those who wish to offer something of substance to current polemical discussions, I suggest Newton's words for required reading.
But Newton would be the first to admit his own fallenness, and Reinke isn't afraid of pointing out some weaknesses. He saves his critique of Newton to the end of the book, which the reader should mentally bookmark, and which seems like a wise approach.
The reader should be aware that the book approaches 300 pages, which is, I believe, one of its strengths. None of the material seems unnecessary or superfluous, and in many cases we are only given a glimpse into what can be found elsewhere in Newton, whetting the appetite.
But the reader could have been better served by a few orienting markers. The book takes you through a rich landscape, and at times I found myself seeking a guidepost or two to help understand where I was located on the Newton map. When moving through the various chapters, what is the logic of moving from "The Discipline of Trials" to "The Goal of Bible Reading," for example? There is a nice logic to the book's structure, but readers would have been helped by a few reminders of the logic along the way.
Criticism aside, this book shines. I could have mentioned well-known facts about Newton's life like his friendship to William Wilberforce, his close call with being shipwrecked, and the connections to his famous hymn, but Reinke ably incorporates all those elements with skill throughout his work. The book's practical character gives rich, biblical, Christ-centered wisdom to the most seasoned theologian and the budding believer. Volumes that are not only useful but theologically rich and written with ease of style are unfortunately rare; this one succeeds at mixing those elements well, earning a steady place on your bookshelf. As Reinke says, "Think of this book as a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim" (p.32). I have no doubt the reader will do that.