The following five books make up this quarter’s selection of Choice Books—those special titles CHRISTIANITY TODAY feels are worthy of a thoughtful second look. They are provided as a starting point from which to begin your own pursuit of the best in today’s writing—and thinking.

Heresies, by Harold O. J. Brown (Doubleday & Company, 1984, 477 pp.; $17.95)

Prof. Harold O. J. Brown sets his 477-page discussion of heresies against the backdrop of the four creeds historically accepted by believers: Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian. Throughout history, Brown says, when people have been unable to accept these specific statements of belief—and yet have been equally unwilling to abandon their allegiances to Jesus—heretical doctrines have resulted that were espoused openly by literally millions of people.

Among these heretics were: the Gnostics, who accepted Jesus as Savior of the world yet incorporated into their beliefs a mystical spectrum of nonbiblical ideas of Near East origin; the Modalists, who upheld the deity of Jesus yet abandoned the diversity of persons within the Godhead; the Monophysites, who insisted that Jesus could not have had two distinct natures; and the Bogomils, who taught that God was supreme and a totally spiritual being, but that he had two sons: Satanael, the elder, and Jesus, the younger.

Heresies leaves the reader with sharp portraits of these heretics, as well as historical glimpses of heresy fighters, reformers, and the meanings of orthodoxy, and it shows how each fits into the overall picture of Christianity’s history

Five terms best define the nature of this hefty book and the shades of the author’s scholarship. First, the book presents a realistic perspective on the larger effects of heresy. While its terrible, negative power must be realized and understood, heresy has also had a positive effect on Christian orthodoxy—that of clarification and documentation. “It is heresy,” says Brown, “which offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy.”

Second, the book is unique in its wholeness, intricately discussing both heretical groups and “radical” Christian groups often overlooked in such histories. As Prof. George Williams of Harvard University says in his foreword, “The author also accords much more space than is ordinarily the case to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and other radicals usually bypassed in disdain or scorn.”

Third, the book reads well and seems uncluttered even amid the enormous cast of characters and happenings. The nonintellectual is not totally overwhelmed, and can feel that Brown is conscious of the fact that non theologians may well venture into his historical trek.

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Fourth, the book includes a dimension of compassion, as Brown castigates the cruel ways heretics have been tortured and abused in history.

And fifth, though Brown’s compassion softens and tempers a document that could otherwise be biting and hard in the wrong hands, he remains unwavering in his depiction of heresy as a negative thing.

An Excerpt: Creeds played a prominent part in the daily worship and life of early Christians. To a degree that is hard for twentieth-century people to grasp, the early church believed that it was absolutely vital to know and accept some very specific statements about the nature and attributes of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It was so important that all Christians were required to repeat them frequently, to learn them by heart. The modern dichotomy between faith as trust and faith as acceptance of specific doctrines—usually coupled with a strong bias in favor of faith as “trust” without the need for “rigid doctrines”—would have been incomprehensible to the early Christians, who could trust Christ in the midst of persecution precisely because they were persuaded that certain very specific things about him are true.

Beyond Forgiveness, by Don Baker (Multnomah Press, 1984, 102 pp.; $7.95)

The situation could hardly be more shattering. An assistant pastor, married for 28 years, is found to have committed adultery with ten women, at ministries in three churches, over the past 13 years. The pastoral staff must respond. But how? Surreptitiously send the man away? Ignore the incidents? Or put Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 (“If a brother sins …”) into action?

Pastor Don Baker’s church decided to discipline, with love, the fallen pastor; and his book recounts this difficult period of confrontation and decision making. (It was an unavoidably emotional time, of course; and not every church member agreed with the process or its outcome.) The book includes a practical, but theologically respectable, overview of the relevant biblical texts, then follows with a moving account of the disciplinary probation and eventual restoration of the fallen assistant pastor.

Beyond Forgiveness does not address the legal pitfalls of church discipline. It does, however, deal with matters ultimately more sensitive and crucial, if less visible: the holiness of a church, and the sure but healing correction of a repentant sinner. As commented Earl Radmacher, president of Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, the story proves that it is “possible to maintain love and purity in balance.”

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In times so wildly out of balance, that proof is significant indeed.

An Excerpt: [Greg stepped into the pulpit before the congregation.] “I stand before you as an example of what Pastor was preaching about tonight,” Greg said. “I stand here to ask your forgiveness for inexcusable behavior. I have resigned, I am surrendering my ordination, because I have been unfaithful to my wife, here and in two prior churches.…

“I beg your forgiveness—I plead for it—and I do pray that if any of you are considering some similar course of action, that you will see what it’s costing and turn away from it and allow God to cleanse you. I believe He has cleansed me, but the scars will always remain.”

… Greg lost control … and sobbed openly before the people. I felt clumsy for him. I wanted to stand and help him, to support him … but, no, this was not the moment for me to interfere with the sacred act of confession. The deep, deep struggles that ensue when sin and repentance lock themselves together in a struggle to the death must be allowed to continue. Sin must be destroyed—it cannot be comforted.

Beacon Dictionary of Theology, edited by Richard S. Taylor (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1984, 559 pp.; $29.95).

The fact that this dictionary is the first of its kind written from an unabashedly Wesleyan-Arminian perspective makes it noteworthy. The fact that it is a work of intellectual integrity makes it choice.

The Beacon Dictionary of Theology is a comprehensive volume featuring 954 topics addressed by 157 writers, including Dennis Kinlaw and Donald Joy of Asbury Theological Seminary, and Paul Bassett and Alex Deasley of the Nazarene Theological Seminary. In addition, the contributions of noted non-Wesleyans are also represented throughout, including those of Harold J. Ockenga and Donald G. Bloesch.

Edited by Richard S. Taylor, a Nazarene, whose own efforts liberally pepper the book, the BDT makes a more than admirable attempt at making its subject matter editorially accessible to the Ph.D. and pew sitter alike. The use of “theologisms” and muddied terminologies has been restrained; and those decidedly few foreign words used have been ably transliterated into English. All subjects are alphabetically indexed and are extensively cross-referenced. “If the reader encounters more verbal fog than he can comfortably handle,” Taylor writes in the preface, “he should glance at the cross-references and proceed to a related article. Perhaps by following through in this way the fog will be dispelled.” It usually is.

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The book’s upfront bias does occasionally get in the way. For example, in his article on Calvinism, Taylor writes: “Calvinism can be faulted for its inadequate conception of the present possibilities of grace for both inner and outer holiness. Strange grace, that can overwhelm the will in conversion but cannot energize it against sin!” Such polemic will make the BDT open season for those insisting on objectivity in a dictionary of theology.

Another qualified weakness is the breadth of subject matter. One cannot always determine the rationale for including such topics as “Apostolic Canons and Constitutions.” One also wonders about the rationale for matching author to subject. For example, how objective a look at women’s ordination can be gotten from Christian feminist Nancy Hardesty?

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book is a solid piece of scholarship from a segment of evangelicalism whose theologies have long been overlooked.

An Excerpt: Salvation: … Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ who offers his own sinless life as a substitute for the guilty. He died that believers may live eternally. This idea of a sinner, treated as though he had never sinned because his guilt is borne by the Son of God himself, is the central and most distinctive feature of the Christian religion.

Thus salvation from personal sin involves the removal of guilt and also the sentence of death. Positively it bestows the new status of “joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17; cf. 1 Pet. 3:7). It may be experienced immediately when one believes. It is also a continuing process as one grows in grace and in the knowledge of Christ (2 Pet. 1:3–11). Finally, salvation occurs when one receives the commendation following the Last Judgment, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; … enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21). The climax of the salvation theme, and of the Bible itself, is found in Rev. 21:3—“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them”; God and man in at-one-ment.…

What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism, by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (Word, 1984, 336 pp.; $13.95).

Threatening collapse at the slightest misunderstanding or show of insensitivity, interfaith bridge building is nevertheless the consuming passion of a growing number of evangelicals and Jews. Little wonder, then, that the carefully researched and highly readable What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism receives praise and commendation from a broad range of evangelical leaders.

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Adding to the book’s credibilty (and visibility) is Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s own avowed passion for strengthening Jewish-evangelical relations. His call to cooperate comes through loud and clear in an earlier “primer” written to the Jewish community, entitled Understanding Evangelicals: A Guide for the Jewish Community, and now actively made manifest in his teaching post at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Throughout the first, and largest, section of this, his most recent book, Eckstein gives evangelicals a greater appreciation for the Jew’s commitment to Jewish law, Israel, and tradition. In the concluding chapters, he reminds Christians of the painful lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, all the while examining the potentials and pitfalls of Jewish-evangelical dialogue.

Of particular interest to evangelicals will be Eckstein’s views on missions. “Whatever the motivation,” writes the author, “Christian missions that single Jews out for conversion are regarded by Jews as a form of anti-Semitism—yet another attempt to destroy them.”

While evangelicals may disagree with these and certain other assessments (for example, Eckstein refers to “messianic Judaism” as an “assault against the quintessence of the Jewish faith—the uniqueness and oneness of God”), the sensitive reader cannot help but come away feeling that greater compassion and sensitivity are at hand.

In the final analysis, Eckstein’s carefully placed brick in the interfaith bridge will do much to make evangelicals more aware of their own Jewish heritage. It will also give the reader the perspective of a man who seeks conciliation—more than compromise—between Christians and Jews.

An Excerpt: Some Jews view theological conversations with Christians as futile, or even worse, as potentially divisive and harmful. They believe that the sole intent of Christians in such forums is to convert them and that “dialogue” under such conditions will accomplish nothing.

Still others treat dialogue as an act of civility in a pluralistic society, something one engages in gracefully, albeit ephemerally.…

Christians come to dialogue with Jews for a variety of reasons, as well.… Personal experience has taught me that some Christians view dialogue as a means of reconciliation, a healing bridge, enabling them to make amends for their tradition’s past and to become sensitized to issues of anti-Semitism in the present and future.… For others, dialogue provides a respectable forum within which they can fulfill their Christian obligation to preach the gospel.

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The Search for Christian America, by Mark Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden (Crossway Books, 1983, 183 pp.; $6.95).

There is a puzzling dichotomy developing between constitutional lawyers and historians over the nature of America’s religious past. Harvard law professor Harold Berman writes that where laws are disengaged from underlying moral values, civilizations fall. And attorney-author John Whitehead quotes justice after Supreme Court justice in his writings who acknowledge that America was founded on religious values, and that its people are a religious people.

But does that religious fervor equate with biblical Christianity? That is the cautionary message of The Search for Christian America.

Its authors, all highly regarded evangelical professors of American church history, tell us forthrightly what they turned up in their search: “We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominantly Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.” Tough words, indeed; but there is more. The authors also conclude that the very idea of a “Christian nation” is harmful to the work of the church.

These claims notwithstanding, Noll and company do argue for America’s deep religious roots—roots nurtured, not surprisingly, by Christianity. They moreover make distinctions that many need to be reminded of.

As a whole, the book is orderly, well edited, and intended for the layman. It will make readers think a bit more carefully before employing the term “Christian” in a political debate. And it makes an apt counterbalance in this year of fundamentalist politics.

An Excerpt: Was Puritan New England such a model Christian culture? The Puritans thought of themselves as a “city on a hill” for the world to imitate. In fact, their culture did display many admirable features. Yet their achievements were flawed in some basic and most ironic ways. The corruption of the best often becomes the worst. And in this case, some of the best Puritan principles were transformed for the worse in the actual historical setting. Most ironically, probably the principal factor turning the Puritan cultural achievement into a highly ambiguous one was the very concept that is the central theme of this chapter—the idea that one can create a truly Christian culture.

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