Book Review: The 5 Solas Series (Zondervan)
December 20, 2017
David VanDrunen, God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
It may surprise some readers to learn that the Solas of the Reformation (God’s glory, Scripture, grace, faith, Christ) do not appear in this form in the writings of any early Protestant Reformer. A friend of mine, who has done substantial research in this area, struggled to find any explicit reference to the Solas prior to the nineteenth-century. The Solas represent the attempts of a later generation to summarize why the Reformation of the sixteenth-century was so important. Even though this fivefold description of Protestant teaching arose after the fact, it continues to be a useful summary of some of the central truths of the Christian faith.
If the Solas summarize the heart of Protestant teaching, then Soli Deo Gloria, “to God’s glory alone,” is, in some respects, the summary of this summary of Christian doctrine. However, as David VanDrunen illustrates well, our sinful hearts still make it possible to shift the emphasis of Soli Deo Gloria from God to us (171). His treatment of God’s glory as the heart of the gospel, and of all things related to faith and practice, is clear, simple, devotional, and refreshing. This volume is an excellent introduction to a God-oriented view of faith and life that focuses on what unites rather than what divides those who love Jesus Christ.
VanDrunen's book unfolds his exalted theme in three sections, treating God’s glory in Reformed theology and in Scripture, concluding with directions to live to God’s glory today. One of his primary aims is to promote “a shift in emphasis” (152) in how we approach Soli Deo Gloria. He contends that it is possible to study the glory of God in a self-centered rather than a God-centered manner (16). While this suggestion may appear to be surprising at first glance, he argues that Soli Deo Gloria first relates to who God is and what he does before it tells us how we should live in order to glorify God. This reorientation does not, however, detract from VanDrunen's overarching goal of teaching believers the implications of Soli Deo Gloria for every area of faith and life. Instead, he highlights the fact that it is possible to detract from the glory of God by putting how we live ahead of who God is and what he does. This makes VanDrunen's presentation of his theme both convicting and encouraging. It is far to easy for believers to lose sight of the fact that Soli Deo Gloria directs us, first, toward considering the glory of the Triune God and, secondarily, to how we should live before him. While we should never pit such things against each other, it is important to keep them in their proper order in light of Scripture. One of the primary ways that VanDrunen pushes readers in this direction is by emphasizing the glory of God as Triune, and especially as revealed in the person and work of Christ. This means that our primary response to Soli Deo Gloria should be worship. This emphasis pervades this book and it makes it convicting, edifying, and encouraging to read all at the same time.
VanDrunen's treatment of practical Christian living in light of God’s glory is highly insightful as well. In particular, he wrestles seriously with contemporary challenges that believers face in seeking to do all things Soli Deo Gloria. One of these challenges comes through the prevailing distractions accompanying modern technology (117-122). While not denying the value of technology, VanDrunen illustrates how the distractions accompanying it can militate against important Christian duties, such as prayer and meditation (122). His counsel in this regard is pastorally sensitive, balanced, and timely for those who desire to live for God’s glory in a contemporary world. His practical treatment of his subject include a number of other useful directions including areas such as self-control (123), developing good communication with our families (125), honoring the Sabbath (125-126), cultivating the fear of God (chapter 7), and other areas. Such teaching makes VanDrunen treatment of Soli Deo Gloria a careful God-centered approach to faith and life that prioritizes public worship without neglecting the cultivation of personal godliness in Christ.
God’s Glory Alone is suitable for Christians of all levels of growth in Christ. It is non-technical and largely non-controversial. Even where VanDrunen introduces potentially controversial issues, such as the so-called two kingdoms theology (155-157), he does so broadly enough to secure agreement from most readers. The result is that this book presses something important that should unite all Christians. We must learn to marvel at the glory and beauty of the Triune God as well as to live in light of his glory. This book consists in a helpful set of meditations and encouragements that will help us do so.
Carl R. Trueman, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).
The grace of God stands at the heart of the gospel. Carl Trueman is a gifted scholar and pastor who is able to write for a general audience just as effectively as he can for an academic one. The combination of these things make his book on grace alone an excellent introduction to the grace of the Triune God in saving sinners. This book will strengthen the faith of believers who desire better to appreciate the depths of God’s grace and to live in light of it in a fallen world.
This book has many strengths. It is well written and compelling. After demonstrating what the grace of God means in light of Scripture, Trueman draws lessons on the grace of God from the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. He argues that none wrote about the grace of God more fully and with as wide-reaching influence as Augustine did. Any theology of the grace of God must reckon with his work. Trueman then adds that Aquinas is an unexpected ally for Protestants in unfolding the grace of God. While Protestants will reject many points of Aquinas’ sacramental theology, he introduced important concepts into theology, such as the distinction between habitual and actual grace. He also rooted all grace from God to man solidly in the person and work of Christ. Trueman’s critical evaluation of Aquinas illustrates usefully that, even where an author provokes disagreement at points, Christ has always faithfully preserved the grace of the gospel in every generation of church history. His treatment of Luther an Calvin is more expected in a Reformed context. After an insightful analysis of Luther, Trueman contends that, even though predestination was not a central dogma in Calvin’s theology, his writings on this subject, coupled with his emphasis on union with Christ, highlight the nature of God’s grace to sinners exceptionally well. Both in Trueman’s biblical treatment of grace and in his historical analysis, he explains the glory of God’s grace in Christ to sinners from eternity to eternity, while stressing the Spirit’s work in uniting us to and keeping us in Christ. The last section shows that God communicates his grace to sinners primarily in the context of the church through the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer. This results in a carful balance between the corporate means by which God communicates grace to his people and the need for individuals to know Christ personally. The theological and historical balance in this book is particularly helpful and readers across confessional boundaries will likely profit from reading it.
There is always room for disagreement with even the best authors on this side of glory. In this case, such disagreements are relatively minor. Trueman relegates the grace of God to human beings after Adam’s fall into sin (48, 101). This assertion stands in contrast to medieval authors, such as Aquinas (99), as well as to post-Reformation Reformed theologians, such as Francis Turretin and Patrick Gillespie (101). Older Reformed authors, in particular, taught that while the terms of the covenant of works between God and Adam were legal, the promise of everlasting life was gracious in that the promised reward was disproportionate to the obedience that God required of them. In light of such nuances, it does not seem necessary to remove grace in every sense of the term from our pre-fall condition in order to safeguard the distinctive nature of God’s redemptive grace, which is Trueman’s primary concern (102). The grace of God may be radically different under the covenant of grace than it was under the covenant of works, but this reviewer is convinced that our Reformed (and medieval) forefathers were correct in appealing to God’s grace in both settings. This is a relatively minor issue, however, since there is no question that the Scriptures stress the free grace of God in redeeming sinners in Christ.
Trueman’s Grace Alone is a good introduction to the grace of the Triune God, which is central to the gospel. He prevents us from truncating the grace of God or from transforming it into a nebulous concept devoid of meaning. The grace of God encompasses every aspect of the gospel, all parts of Christ’s person and work, and the Spirit’s work in every step of the Christian life. Reading this book will promote useful meditation and Spirit-filled prayer and worship in all believers.
Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
Scripture has served as the cognitive foundation of Reformed theology for centuries. Apart from Scripture, there is no saving knowledge of Christ and, ultimately, no true knowledge of God. The importance of Scripture in Reformed theology cannot be overstated, since Scripture is the means by which the Spirit of God brings us into saving union with Christ. It should be no surprise, then, that the doctrine of Scripture has come under assault in every generation of the Christian church. Approaching his topic with particularly solemnity, Matthew Barrett has written one of the best books that this author has read on the doctrine of Scripture. His treatment of the authority of Scripture is well-rounded, carefully nuanced, biblically sensitive, and eminently practical. His heavily research account coupled with his clear and simple writing style makes this volume accessible to the widest possible audience.
God’s Word Alone accomplishes many things in a single volume. Barrett traces the church’s view of the nature, authority, and attributes of Scripture from the early church up to the present day. His treatment is up to date by including an extensive analysis of postmodern and other assaults on the intelligibility of language in relation to the Bible’s view of itself. This includes striking statements, such as, “Even though I walk through the valley of Postmodernism, I will fear no subjectivism, for your Word and Spirit help me” (303). He makes the nature, authority, sufficiency, perspicuity, and other attributes of Scripture inescapably clear by presented both biblical theological and systematic analyses of his themes. Throughout the book he illustrates that, far from being a construct of “fundamentalism,” such a high view of Scripture is integrated into the pages of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Those familiar with his others writings will rightly expect large amounts of careful research behind this book. In addition to these things, Barrett’s trinitarian focus enables him to stress the gospel of Christ throughout this book. He also interacts fairly, yet critically, with modern theologians, such as Karl Barth, on the question of the nature of Scripture. Barrett’s treatment of such authors is charitable, recognizing what they got right, yet it is bold, clearly distinguishing between truth and error. As a whole, God’s Word Alone is a clear and forceful defense of the self-attesting and self-authenticating authority of Scripture, with its resultant attributes, and the foundational nature of these things for Christian faith and life.
It is difficult for this reviewer to praise Barrett’s God’s Word Alone adequately. He hopes and prays that this book will not get lost or overlooked due to its inclusion in a series of books on the Solas. This is an excellent piece of historical, biblical, systematic, and practical theology. As such, it is not only a highly readable and non-technical treatment of the doctrine of Scripture, but it is a model of what sound systematic theology should look like. The best part is that it is accessible to believers at every level. Reading this book will bolster your confidence in the Bible and drive to adore and worship the God who reveals himself in its pages.
Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).
Jesus Christ did not merely proclaim the gospel. Christ himself is the gospel. We must receive Christ and, in him, all the benefits of redemption, if we would receive those benefits at all. While some of those benefits, such as justification by faith alone, are central to the gospel, we can never reduce the gospel to anything less than Christ himself. The burden of Stephen Wellum’s Christ Alone is to press home such great biblical themes, largely in light of biblical theology and historical reflection. He does so persuasively in a way that honors the Savior and that invites all of his readers to do so as well. Like the other volumes in this series, this book aims to reach a broad readership.
Wellum’s basic contention in this work is that, “Who Christ is determines what he does; what he does reveals who he is” (107). This simple distinction between Christ’s person and work drives his entire treatment, making his arguments clear and easy to follow. After unfolding the plan of redemption from Scripture, he turns his primary attention to Christ’s threefold office and his work of atonement. Reflecting standard Protestant Christological formulations, he notes rightly that Christ’s priestly office stands out as preeminent (157). While Christ must be our prophet and our king as well as our priest in order to save us, his priestly office marks the climax of his work for us and it informs his other two offices. After defending the penal substitutionary view of the atonement and showing how this aspect of Christ’s work on the cross encompasses all other biblical images related to it (193, 214, 221, 228), he closes his work by defending the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation (276). The author’s treatment of Christology is biblically robust in many areas, though he lacks depth and clarity regarding Christ’s two natures in one person and the bearing that both of his natures have upon his work in relation to his person. Overall, Wellum’s treatment is a helpful introduction to who Jesus is and what he has done.
The primary area that requires expansion in this volume relates to the author’s development of historical theology. His treatment of historical figures depends heavily on secondary rather than primary source material. While this is a partial necessity in a series like this one, this leads to a lack of precision in relation to some historical terms and movements. For example, the author asserts that some people reject penal substitution in favor of a governmental atonement theory while remaining orthodox (180). He cites the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius as an example. Since this reviewer has some familiarity with Grotius in the context of seventeenth century views on the atonement, he found this assertion puzzling. Grotius denied that Christ was a substitute for sinners, arguing instead that Christ died to restore God’s moral government over the world. It was precisely this aspect of his thought that led some authors, such as John Owen, to associate Grotius with the Socinian heresy. However, careful readers will soon discover that Wellum appears to confuse the Grotian (and Arminian) governmental theory of the atonement with the hypothetical necessity of the atonement (184). Yet many who taught the hypothetical necessity of the atonement retained the idea that Christ was a substitute for his people. Such authors argued that Christ’s atonement was not necessary in an absolute sense on the grounds of God’s essence, but rather it was necessary on the grounds of God’s decree. By contrast, Wellum conflates a governmental view of the atonement with hypothetical necessity, arguing that the latter position broke with “the central theological insight of the Reformation, namely, that God cannot forgive sin without the full payment of our sin by Christ as our penal substitute” (184). While it is true that the governmental view rejected the absolute necessity of the atonement, it is not true that all who rejected absolute necessity adhered to a governmental view or that they denied penal substitution. Examples of those who did not do so include Reformed authors such as William Twisse and Samuel Rutherford. The early John Owen taught hypothetical necessity as well, though he later rejected this view during his disputes with the Socinians. This example illustrates the general limitations that characterize Wellum’s historical analyses.
Christ Alone is a helpful introduction to what the Bible says about who Jesus is and what he has done to save sinners. While it has some limitations in relation to systematic and historical theology, the church always needs more books directing her to meditate on the glory of Christ. The greatest strength of this volume lies in its engagement with relevant passages of Scripture. The author will help readers better know and love Christ as the Word of God presents him.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
Justification by faith alone in Christ alone is not the only theme of the gospel. Yet it must always remain central to any biblical articulation of the gospel. Without the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and unless we receive Christ through faith without works, we cannot be saved. Schreiner’s Faith Alone is a solid and exegetically satisfying defense of justification through faith alone in Christ alone. It is written clearly and its conclusions have the potential to bring much joy and comfort to all who read it. His treatment is full and persuasive while being simple enough for readers of all levels.
This book has many virtues. The author treats his topic in relation to historical reflection, biblical and theological development, and contemporary challenges. He introduces historical figures from the early church, from early Reformed and Roman Catholic theology surrounding the Protestant Reformation, and from post-Reformation thinkers including John Owen, Richard Baxter, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. The obvious omission in this list is any reference to medieval theology, but the author notes repeatedly the limitations of his historical sketch. In addition, the material treating early church views of justification is too dependent on secondary literature to be convincing. However, the general effect of this brief survey of historical theology is useful in getting readers oriented to the subject of justification by faith alone.
Schreiner’s greatest strength in this work lies in his biblical and theological treatment of his subject. He shows decisively the forensic nature of justification as a response to human sin. He argues, both from the Old Testament and from the New, that faith justifies because Christ is the object of faith and that justification involves the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He excludes the works of the law and human obedience from the grounds of justification in every respect, directing his readers to rest exclusively on Christ in his person and work. He tackles key biblical words and phrases carefully and accurately without limiting his theology of justification by faith in Christ alone to mere word studies. He includes critical interaction with contemporary Roman Catholic authors as well as N.T. Wright in a manner that is simultaneously critical at key points and graciously appreciative of the insights these authors have to offer at others. The tone of Schreiner’s critiques of false views of justification is as refreshing as his fidelity to biblical doctrine. It is not enough to hold to the right things if we do not hold to them in the right way. Schreiner shows readers how to do both at once throughout his book, making him a model scholar and Christian all at once.
Schreiner’s treatment, however, will likely raise questions for some readers at points. For example, he correctly argues that good works are a fruit and evidence of faith. However, he does not adequately make a conceptual distinction between faith and works. He stresses rightly that faith must be living and active in order to be true faith. However, some may conclude from this explanation that faith is equivalent to faithfulness, which differs from treating faith as receptive of the promises of God in Christ. While nothing that Schreiner says in this regard is unorthodox, it runs the risk of being unclear to some extent.
Some readers will also be concerned about Schreiner’s emphasis on justification as eschatological (chapter 12). Yet they should bear in mind that he argues that believers are presently justified through faith in Christ, in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them. Whether readers agree with the author fully in relation to his assertion of eschatological justification, he argues that the reason why believers are justified by faith alone in Christ alone in this life is that God announces the sentence of the last day to them beforehand (156). It is important to understand that Schreiner maintains that justification is through faith in Christ alone and that believers stand in Christ’s righteousness as a present reality and not merely an eschatological one. The issue of eschatological justification relates to some of his statements regarding the relationship between works and our justification. While he often makes statements that may alarm readers initially, such as “good works are necessary for justification,” he clarifies these assertions by adding, “these good works aren’t the basis of justification” (210). Faith alone justifies because faith alone lays hold of Christ, who is our righteousness (185, 264). It would have been clearer to state that good works always accompany justification rather than saying that they are necessary “for” justification. Similarly, it is more accurate to say that justification does not depend on good works, but only those who show their faith by their works are justified before God. In evaluating such statements, readers should imitate Schreiner by reading his views in the best light possible even as he does towards those with whom he disagrees.
While Schreiner may provoke disagreement at points, this reviewer believes that it is an excellent introduction to and forceful defense of an issue that is an essential component of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you read this book correctly, then you will walk away not with a great confidence in faith but with a great confidence in Christ. This is ultimately what justification by faith alone is about. Faith, strictly speaking, does not save. Faith unites us to the Christ who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This book made this reviewer more thankful and joyful in his walk with Christ by reading it. May the Lord use it to lead others to worship and bow before him as well.