James R. White, Scripture Alone. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2004. pb., 221 pages. List $13.99
Reviewed by John Divito
Sola Scriptura (Latin for Scripture Alone) may have been the formal principle of the Reformation, but what does it have to do with evangelicals today? James White believes that this doctrine is continuously important—being essential for all true followers of Christ. As a result, he has written Scripture Alone, demonstrating the tremendous significance of this reformation principle. Written as an introduction for believers, he desires to reignite the church’s passion for the Word of God.
To accomplish this task, White analyzes various aspects of Scripture. “Some of the subjects we have addressed in this work—inspiration, inerrancy, canon, exegesis, allegations of corruption and contradiction—are considered too difficult to be discussed in today’s comfortable church. And yet if we do not put forth the effort to master these areas, we cannot claim to have a real and valid faith in the Scriptures” (215). Therefore, White addresses many topics necessary to become established in the sufficiency of Scripture.
His entire work is greatly beneficial. But there are two ways in which it is especially significant. First, White often utilizes fictional dialogues to define and demonstrate his points. In this way, the reader is pulled into a conversation, causing him to think through these issues in a more accessible way than normally allowed for in doctrinal study. While these dialogues may become overly technical at points (due to White’s extensive interaction with those of other religions), they still provide unique insight into the matter under consideration.
In addition, White’s treatment of the formation of the canon is especially valuable. Because “For many, the issue of the canon is the Achilles heel of scriptural sufficiency” (98), the author gives a clear and insightful overview of the canon. By dividing the canon into two aspects, canon 1 (the divine knowledge and understanding of the canon) and canon 2 (the human knowledge and understanding of the canon), he shows both the consistent nature of Scripture as well as the process of recognizing Scripture through the history of the church. By the end of the chapter, the reader should be better equipped with an understanding of and appreciation for the canon of Scripture.
White has done contemporary evangelicalism a service by writing this book. In a time when biblical Christianity is being challenged from without as well as from within, this work can assist the reader in trusting and defending the sufficiency of Scripture. Parts of it may be challenging to read for some, but working through the author’s arguments will prove itself worthwhile. As White maintains, this issue is simply too important to neglect. Thank God for the revelation He has given us in His Word!
Anthony Chute, A Piety Above the Common Standard: Jesse Mercer and Evangelistic Calvinism. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004. hb., 238 pages. List $45.00
Reviewed by Ray Van Neste
In a day when increasing numbers of thoughtful people are questioning the value of continuing in the SBC it is encouraging to be reminded of some of our heroes of the past, men whose lives are an encouragement and whose ministries can be models for us today. Jesse Mercer is such a man, and Anthony Chute has done us a great service in providing this overview of his life and work, especially since the last (and only!) biography of Mercer was written in 1844.
This book, a revision of the author’s PhD dissertation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, draws extensively from church records and primary sources to provide a stimulating introduction to Mercer with an intentional eye towards how he can serve as a model for today. Chute states clearly his goal in writing this book in his preface.
I hope this study on the life and labors of Jesse Mercer will inform lay Baptists of their Calvinistic heritage, particularly as to how theological convictions informed practical areas of ministry. There was no such thing as an ivory tower on the frontier, but much can be said for those Baptist preachers who prized theological debate as crucial to ministerial formation. Also, historians who refer to early Baptists as possessing a “modified” Calvinism may finding Jesse Mercer a challenge to their claim, as he consistently referred to himself as an “Old School Baptist” without at the same time becoming evangelistically impaired. Those who fear that a return to Calvinistic theology among Southern Baptists will sound the death knell of missions may be surprised to discover that the missionary spirit that they now champion was birthed at a time when Calvin’s understanding of salvation was in vogue. And it is hoped that those who appeal to the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention as examples of Calvinistic Baptists will carefully note the pitfalls into which Primitive Baptists fell and avoid them …. (xiii)
Chute succeeds admirably in his goal. I found myself mining many rich lessons from the life of this early and influential Baptist leader. It is encouraging to read of a time when associations were centers of profitable theological discussion, when theology was considered crucial for the practice of ministry. It is instructive to find in Mercer a model of one who affirms God’s sovereignty and leads the way in the mission enterprise, who is concerned about the excesses and errors of Finney and others in the Second Great Awakening but is unwilling to malign the whole movement. It is helpful to read of Mercer’s leading of the church in the careful disciplining of her members.
Some representative quotations may help the reader get a glimpse of Mercer and ways this book can be helpful. Mercer (and most of his contemporaries) are examples of the need and usefulness of doctrinally substantive sermons, including the doctrines of grace. Silas Mercer, father of Jesse, speaking of election wrote:
And we believe it [election] to be a doctrine which God generally owns and blesses to the conviction and conversion of sinners, and comforting of his saints. . . . For since it has been so clearly preached in our parts, and insisted upon, the work of the Lord seems to flourish in a more powerful manner than before. (p. 21)
Mercer’s own opinion is summarized by Chute, writing, “The doctrines of grace were not to be avoided, regardless of the tendency of some who misunderstood or overemphasized certain points.” Mercer, himself wrote:
The doctrine of divine grace, according to eternal purpose, which God [sic] in Christ Jesus before the world began, is a doctrine according to Godliness; and when rightly held and taught, tends to promote comfort, zeal, and perseverance in all holy obedience, from a sense of gratitude; and in nowise interferes with the obligations and responsibilities of men; but when made a party question, and run into extremes, (to which controversy leads), it becomes a snare to many souls—a nurse of inaction, and a conductor to the ruins of Antinomianism. The opposite extreme should assiduously be guarded against—dwelling on practical religion, and insisting on the duties and obligations of man, without keeping in constant view their moral and guilty disability, and the sovereignty of God in affording salvation to them, as unworthy, helpless sinners, as directly tends to the bogs of Arminianism. The truth of the gospel, rightly held and taught, is that which turns men away from darkness to light, and the power of sin to serve the living God, by faith which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (p. 81)
Chute summarizes Mercer’s view in a way that has much relevance to our work today, stating:
Jesse Mercer was no minimalist regarding the substance of evangelistic preaching. Rather, he advocated preaching from a Reformed perspective in which the doctrines of grace provided the foundation for exhortation to duty…. Preaching which, at the expense of sound doctrine, aimed solely at gaining converts could have the opposite effect than the one desired. If sinners were told that they could turn to God on their own then they would not deal with the real source of the problem—a rebellious heart. They would then experience frustration in their attempts to reform and thus become deaf to further gospel calls. (p. 80)
People today might wonder what the response to such preaching was, and Chute often provides us with first hand accounts of the response. One such account of one man’s response to a sermon by Jesse Mercer stated:
Here was given such a view of the nature and ends of the atonement, as nearly entranced us all. For myself, though no enthusiast on such occasions, it was with difficulty I could sit still, or refrain from shouting aloud. Not that the old gentleman was so eloquent as some would call it, or that he was stormy; but on account of the majesty of his thought. (p. 30, n. 16)
May we have more preaching that is riveting due to the majesty of the thoughts contained in it!
Another listener at a different sermon by Mercer, wrote:
As Dr. Mercer proceeded to unfold God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity and utter helplessness, his need of divine assistance to exercise repentance and faith, I was enabled to see the subject in a new light. . . . He had been speaking of God’s electing love. Just as he reached his conclusion, pausing for a moment, he suddenly exclaimed, ‘This is the ground of all hope.’ As he spoke, tears rolled down his venerable cheeks. The effect upon the audience was subduing. Evidently his meaning was this: Jesse Mercer would not have been saved if God had not called him with a holy calling, according to his eternal purpose and grace, given him in Christ Jesus before the world was. I could not fail to see that if this was true of Jesse Mercer, a fortiori it was true of me and everybody else. (p. 58)
This is true doctrinal, experiential preaching!
Lastly, since so many still believe that substantive preaching and passionate preaching are opposites, I include the following exhortation to fellow pastors which Mercer wrote for the state paper:
As ministers—have we been faithful? Have we been careful to declare the whole counsel of God—careful to make lucid and affectionate exhibition of divine truth? Have we been satisfied simply to present the truth to the minds of our hearers, or have we followed up our labors with earnest prayer, that God would bless us, and establish the work of our hands upon us? In short, have we been diligent in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord? Judging from the result of all our preaching, praying, and exhorting, we have good ground to conclude, that something has been lamentably wrong. Perhaps the solemn truths we have uttered, have not had the influence upon our own hearts, so much to be desired by every good minister of Jesus Christ. We may have been too professional. Our labors in the pulpit, and in other places, may have been regarded by us, too much as a matter of course. We have gone to our people, not as dying men; but, simply because it was expected we should meet them at the time appointed, and engage in certain modes of “bodily exercise,” under the color of religious devotion. Thus we may have performed our duties, as a task, in a cold, lifeless, fruitless manner. Now, if as ministers of the Gospel, we have been thus listless, and have not watered the seeds sown, with our tears, and earnestly besought the Most High to succeed our labors by his blessing, no marvel that sterility and drought have settled down upon our churches; that iniquity abounds, and that the love of many has waxed fearfully cold. (p. 107)
Space does not allow further exemplary citations, though many could be given on the need for ministerial education (as anti-intellectualism holds sway in many corners still today), concern about the Finney style invitation system, the necessity and value of church discipline, and the need for cooperation for the work of mission. Because this book is written in an accessible manner it can be given to a thoughtful lay person or pastor to challenge preconceived notions on a number of hot topics. This is a very useful book and I commend it warmly.