To be honest, Nietzsche makes some good points. However, the version of Christianity he mostly reacts against is not the best. Some of what Nietzsche found unpalatable was simply the offense of the gospel, but some of it was simply offensive.
It seems like every few months or so, another title is released in IVP Academic’s New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Even as I work on this review, I’ve already started a more recent work in the series and just noticed that another title is coming this summer.
None of this should be construed as complaining however since it is one of my favorite theological series. Granted, it doesn’t have a ton of competition in its particular niche. But still, the titles in this series are consistent in expanding theological horizons while drawing you deeper into the text of Scripture.
Bradley Green’s Covenant and Commandment is no different. Green is associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University. If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you might remember The Gospel and The Mind, an earlier book of his, was one of my first reviews.
In this book, Green is exploring the connection between works, obedience, and faithfulness in the Christian life (hence the subtitle). As he explains, “My argument is that in the new covenant, works are a God-elicited and necessary part of the life of the converted person, a constant theme in the New Testament.” He adds, “In short, ‘works’ are ‘necessary’ for salvation because part of the ‘newness’ of the new covenant is actual, grace-induced and grace-elicited obedience by true members of the new covenant” (17).
Exactly how this fits together and work with sola fide has been a struggle going back to at least the Reformation. How can works be necessary if salvation is by grace through faith alone? It is a tension even in the New Testament where there is a constant expectation of actual obedience, yet also a strong emphasis on faith (and often the two are together). Green’s book begins there and eeks to answer the issue.
In the first chapter, Green surveys the key NT texts related to works, obedience, and the Christian life, summarized into several categories (24-37):
- Loving or knowing God linked with obedience
- The “conditional” nature of our future salvation
- Christians must “overcome” if they are ultimately to be saved
- The necessity of a great righteousness
- The requirement of the law being met “in us”
- God will efficaciously work “in” us, moving us to obey him
- The necessity of putting to death the old man, by the power of the Spirit
- “Faith” and “obedience/works” used as virtual synonyms
- We are truly judged, or justified, by our works
- The “obedience of faith”
- We were created and redeemed for good works
- Faith working through love
- The law affirmed; the law of Christ
- Persons do the works of their Father
From here, Green goes back to the Old Testament in chapter 2 and looks at passages that promised the new covenant obedience, and then back again to the New at the passages where that is described as reality.
With this biblical foundation in place, Green discusses the canonical issues in chapter 3. This of course brings up the issue of the relationship between law and gospel. Rather than affirm a radical law-gospel antithesis, Green follows John Frame on affirming that “across the canon God saves people by his grace. Then, once persons are in covenant relationship with the Lord, he then gives his people commands, statutes, laws, and so on. And he expects his people to obey what he communicates to them” (65).
From here, Green adds insights from Richard Gaffin and Geerhardus Vos before hitting Galatians 3 head on. In his discussion he notes perceptively that “There is no place in Scripture where the primary way of acceptance with God is law-keeping” (71). The law, where it has been present is approached in the context of faith, which is the basis of acceptance. Ultimately Green says, “If one chooses to approach the law apart from faith, or one believes one can obey all of God’s law in an autonomous way, then one has completely missed the place of the law and has misunderstood the priority and centrality of faith in approaching God” (72).
After finishing the previous chapter with an excursus on John Owen’s view of the covenant, Green turns to the relationship of the atonement to our works, obedience, and faithfulness. “It is crucial to link one’s ongoing relationship with the Lord, one’s ongoing quest for holiness, to the gospel,” (77) Green says. After wrestling with key texts and discussing imputation of Christ’s obedience he concludes, “Our works, obedience and faithfulness flow from his work on our behalf; so we remain in need of our perfect and faithful high priest. But at the same time, what Christ has done for us leads to a change in us, which includes the manifestation of works, obedience, and faithfulness” (91).
In chapter 5, Green returns again to Richard Gaffin, though the main focus is on the key texts relating union with Christ to works, obedience, and faithfulness. It is union with Christ which helps us to understand the latter’s nature, purpose, and reality (103).
In chapter 6, Green gives a similar New Testament theology treatment to the relationship of justification and the future judgment. He also includes a historical theological treatment by surveying Calvin, Owen, Edwards, and Vos. He shows continuity in the present tense by including Gaffin, Gathercole, and Beale. He closes with an excursus on N. T. Wright which is where there is a noticeable lack of continuity. As Green notes, “One can have all that Wright and others say about the importance and grandeur of human and cosmic transformation within what is called (perhaps unfortunately) the ‘old perspective.’ Additionally, there is a long tradition of such interpretation and affirmation within the Protestant tradition itself” (139). The difference then, it not that Wright affirms a relationship between justification, our obedience, and the final judgment. It is rather, how he puts the three together, and how it can come across as though we are justified (for real) in the final judgment which is ultimately based on works. One need not take that path in order to affirm the importance of work as well as the legitimacy of our present justified state.
The final chapter ties everything together, while also drawing in the relevance of Adam and the covenant in Eden. Here Green also relates Christ’s obedience to our own. He notes “it is only because of Christ’s obedience and because believers are united to him by faith that believers obey. And our obedience in no way impinges upon or diminishes Christ’s obedience. Rather, we obey because we are in Christ – the ultimate obeying one” (158).
Green’s epilogue summarizes his argument and conclusions much as I have hopefully done. In the end, this is definitely a book to pick up if you’re concerned about either of the following:
- Challenges presented by the New Perspective on Paul (particularly Wright) regarding the necessity of works in the Christian life
- Challenges presented by advocates of either free grace or “antinomians” in the Reformed world
Green effectively answers both by surveying the key texts of Scripture as well as notable Reformed theologians and exegetes. The book isn’t a long read, but it is a rich exploration of the importance of works, obedience, and faithfulness in the Christian life.
Bradley G. Green, Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience, and Faithfulness in the Christian Life (NSBT). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, November 2014. 208 pp. Paperback, $22.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
One of my on-going interests in Christian theology is the nature of sanctification. Some of it is no doubt stemming from interest in how to personally grow in grace. A larger part of it though is learning how to best shepherd and disciple others in their personal growth in holiness.
Helpfully, I was able to read through the collection of essays growing out of the Edinburgh Dogmatics conference. Edited by Kelly Kapic, Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice offers perspective from a wide range of scholars. As the subtitle indicates, it is more exploration than unified perspective or presentation of a new school of thought. It is split into three main parts, the first of which is focused on how we are sanctified by grace through faith.
This part of the book is opened by a homily by Derek Tidball on Colossians 3:5-17. From here, what I thought was the most interesting essay follows. In it, Richard Lints explains antinomianism through the relationship of sanctification and faith. Just as we are justified by faith, we are also sanctified by it. In his view, Christianity is less about moral progress and more about having our desires and worship restored to their proper form. In the end, I’m not sure there is a substantial difference between the two. Perhaps we could say sanctification is primarily about having our desires and worship restored to their proper form, but if that is happening, it would seem to also be a kind of moral progress. Maybe the issue is thinking of sanctification as first a heart orientation and second a hand co-ordination. If you aim for coordinating the hands first, the heart doesn’t necessarily have to be in-line.
Similar to Lints but moving in a different direction, Henri Blocher’s followup essay digs into the relationship of law and obedience in the Christian life. Here, he unpacks more of what is actually entailed by “sanctification by faith.”
Continuing on from here, the two following essays by Brannon Ellis and Bruce McCormack explore the importance of union with Christ and the relationship of Barth and Wesley on Christian perfection. The latter is more historical than the preceding essay, but was both interesting and approachable for those not steeped in Barth like McCormack is.
The next essay, by Michael Horton, begins the second part of the book which focuses on the relationship of sanctification and ethics. In particular, Horton’s focus is on the relationship of the Spirit and human agency in our growth in holiness. This section is rounded out by essays by Oliver O’Donovan and James Eglinton. The former gives an overview of the relationship in focus in this part of the book and the latter offers a discussion of Bavinck’s theology of sanctification and his unfinished Reformed Ethics that was to be a companion volume to the Reformed Dogmatics.
The final part of the book i theological and pastoral meditations on the subject of sanctification. Here, Ivor Davidson offers some dogmatic reflections on gospel holiness. Kelly Kapic offers a theological meditation on suffering and sanctification, particularly poignant in light of his opening note about his wife’s battle with cancer and subsequent neurological disorder resulting in debilitating pain and fatigue. His essay is follow by Julie Canlis’s offering on our sonship and identity in Christ before Peter Moore’s essay on sanctification through the preached Word (with a particularly focus on John Chrysostom) closes the book.
Overall, I think this is a valuable collection of essays, particularly the first part, if you’re attentive to recent discussions in the evangelical/Reformed blogosphere. If you’ve wondered whether making a big deal of grace makes you an antinomian, Lints essay is here for you. Further, if you’ve wondered just how obedience and the Christian life cohere in light of grace, food for thought is to be found between the covers of this book. I found it a stimulating read and consider a valuable resource for future study. If you’re on the ground with discipleship there is much to be gleaned from the occasional lofty heights the author here attain. In the end, you’ll find helpful explorations into the theology and practice of growing in grace in the Christian life.
Kelly M. Kapic, ed., Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice. Downers Grove: IL: IVP Academic, October 2014. 300 pp. Paperback, $28.00
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
One of my favorite bands is Porcupine Tree. Yes, that’s right, Porcupine Tree. The conceptual and sonic architect of the band is artist and producer Steven Wilson. These days, he is more focused on putting out solo albums, but they more or less still sound like Porcupine Tree so it’s all good. The above video contains a playlist to stream his most recent album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Below is the live version of the opening track from his previous album The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). If you’re curious about Porcupine Tree, try In Absentia, Deadwing, and The Incident.
You might not know this, but I watch quite a few YouTube videos. You might have picked up on this recently with the addition of Music Monday and Philosophy Friday which are primarily video based. Now, I’m going to start sharing my favorite three interesting/humorous videos from the week on Saturdays. This week, it’s the highlight reel of the Chicago Bull’s mascot Benny, the World’s Tallest Roller Coaster, currently under construction here in Orlando, and a compilation of what I hope are the worst of the worst when it comes to Russian dashcam crashes.
This video offers a good overview of Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. If you haven’t read it, you might be surprised at how theological the capitalist work ethic is according to Weber. You might also be surprised at how he sees Calvinistic theology motivating the desire to work.
While the video is a good overview of Weber, he was wrong, both on Calvin and on the connection between capitalism and Calvinism. A better resource for the connection between the isms is Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economics. Calvinism correctly understood and applied is good for the economy, but you’ll have to read the book for yourself to see the whole picture.
For the last three years, theologians have gathered in California for the Los Angeles Theology conference. This past year the focal point was the atonement. The first year, it was Christology. Last year it was the Trinity, and thanks to Zondervan, I’ve the published copy of the papers presented.
The opening chapter is by one of the editors/organizers Fred Sanders. He explains what Trinitarian theology is for, and how it interfaces with the Christian life. Because I know you’re curious, here’s what Sanders sees the doctrine of the Trinity doing:
- It summarizes the biblical story
- It articulates the content of divine self-revelation by specifying what has been revealed
- It orders doctrinal discourse
- It identifies God by the gospel
- It informs and norms soteriology
Sanders essays is follow by a more philosophical one by Thomas McCall that zeroes in on the doctrine of divine simplicity (known by the cool kids as DDS). This particular doctrine has fallen on hard times in recent years and McCall explores options for articulating the doctrine. He ultimately suggests the case against the doctrine hasn’t been proved decisively (59), but is open to reviewing and revising the doctrine in light of contemporary challenges.
The next three essays did not particularly grab my attention. I’m willing to say the fault is mine and not a design of the authors. Respectively, the essays are on the inseparable operations of the persons of the Trinity (Stephen R. Holmes, whose book was more riveting), an apophatic approach to political applications of the doctrine of the Trinity (Karen Kilby), and thinking more deeply about the nature of the mystery of the Trinity (Lewis Ayres).
The next essay revived my interest, both in the book and the subject. R. Kendall Soulen writes about the divine name, and particularly how Scriptures names the persons of God. He is inadvertently triperspetival when he offers his categories (116):
- Kinship terms – Father, Son (existential)
- Common nouns from everyday life – Word, Image, etc. (situational)
- The Tetragrammaton (normative)
We do well to keep all in mind says Soulen, and after reading this, I’m looking forward to getting a hold of his book on the subject.
The next essay is a discussion of obedience and subordination in Karl Barth’s theology (by Darren O. Sumner). It seems like a fairly significant study, but since I’m still getting my feet wet with Barth, I can’t really comment further. I mentally bookmarked the chapter and may return once I’ve waded through Hunsinger and some other works.
The longest essay comes next and is Kyle Strobel’s look at Jonathan Edwards’s (of course) Trinitarian aesthetic. I’m not sure I fully absorbed everything the first read through so I plan to return at a later time. His main point is that “Edwards’s conception of beauty is fruitful to ground the task of trinitarian theology as a distinctively affective discipline” (147). Or, “Edwards’s trinitarian aesthetics grounds theology as a contemplative discipline, ordered by the God of beauty, for the purpose of beauty.” The rest of the chapter develops and support this claim.
Much like chapters 3-5, I wasn’t incredibly drawn into the discussion in the final chapter. But, if you’re interested the interface of the doctrine of the Trinity and current discussions in missiology, you might find it of more interest (and though this chapter wasn’t attention grabbing for me, some of Jason Sexton’s other work is).
On the whole, this is not a very extensive read, but it’s a worthwhile one. I’m looking forward to the next batch of essays from this year’s conference and will probably procure a copy of the inaugural year’s volume. Everything is more or less stand-alone, but fits together to offer kaleidescopic views of the place of a significant doctrine in current scholarship. Whether you’re interested in constructive dogmatics in general or the doctrine of the Trinity in particular, you ought to check this volume out!
Oliver D. Crisp & Fred Sanders, eds, Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, November, 2014. 208 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
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Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!
Early in his work, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu notes, “While some excellent monographs have been written, few writers have embraced the task of writing a history of atonement theories” (xiii). In what follows, he doesn’t offer an exhaustive history, but does give a superb overview of the flow of thought. Vidu suggests, “the history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law” (xiv). As such, he attempts “to tell the story of atonement thinking by connecting it to the development of law-and-justice theories” (xiv).
He goes on to say, “the uniqueness of this book, then, is that it offers an interdisciplinary reading of the development of atonement theory from the perspective of its engagement with intellectual discourses relating to law and justice” (xv). Ultimately, “all atonement theories want to affirm that God preserves his justice in the process of redemption.” In that unity however, is the diversity of different conceptions of of justice as well as different philosophies of law. Vidu proposes to add some clarity to the current discussion by tracing the development of thought through church history.
In doing this, it becomes apparent that “conflicts over the meaning of the cross are in fact conflicts about the very nature and moral character of God” (xvi). Integral to understanding the character of God is understanding the divine attributes, and in particular the attribute of divine simplicity. Vidu explains:
In short, I will be appealing to the doctrine of divine simplicity and to the extraordinary import it has on the doctrine of the atonement. Thus the constructive dimension of this project consists in pointing out that understanding the “perfections of divine agency,” or divine simplicity, strictly qualifies the way in which we may ascribe actions to God. In relation to my own sympathies for penal substitution, divine simplicity rules out certain caricatures of this doctrine, both friendly and unfriendly (xvi).
In the overview that follows, Vidu divides the history of christian thought into five periods:
- Patristic (chapter 1)
- Medieval (chapter 2)
- Reformation (chapter 3)
- Modern (chapter 4)
- Postmodern (chapter 5)
In each chapter/period, Vidu selects key theologians that represent the thought of that period. While some may lament this approach, it makes the whole thing more manageable. Also, within each period, Vidu doesn’t seek to do constructive theology or provide biblical justification for each theory (xvii). Instead, his main focus is how the authors from each period interact with their legal context or prevailing philosophy of law. Because of that, this is much a survey of the thought on atonement as it is a survey of the development of legal philosophy.
Because of that, it is a rather dense read. This is a combination of the topic studied and the length of the chapters. But, as with many things, diligence in wrestling through Vidu’s work is rewarded. In particular, taking the time to work through the survey chapters prepares one best for his constructive conclusion in chapter 6 which focuses specifically on the relationship of divine simplicity and the atonement.
In the final chapter, Vidu notes several conclusions from his study (235-236):
- Politics and law deeply affected the historical development of the atonement
- Illuminating this connection leads to better recognizing the relationship between atonement and ethics
- Systems of justice and political configurations rest on explicitly theological assumptions
- The history of debate around atonement theory is really a debate about the nature of God
Flowing directly from this last point is the need to discuss in more detail how divine simplicity relates to the atonement. While on the surface it may seem that justice and love are the most pivotal attributes for understanding the atonement (239), understanding the atonement is attempting to understand how God acts, and God acts as a simple agent. Vidu explains:
To put it simply: God is not an agent like any other agent. In other words, God does not “do things” the way you and I do things. He has a unique relation to his actions. His actions spring uniquely from his nature. Finally, his actions have a unity about them not shared with other human actions. Often, however, when atonement theologians have sought to describe and explain the cross, they have made anthropomorphic assumptions about divine agency. The result has been idolatrous in ascribing to God certain qualities of human actors (240).
From here, Vidu goes on to unpack a fairly traditional understanding of divine simplicity and then relate it to our understanding of God’s action in atonement. He defines divine simplicity as in relation to aseity and notes “the doctrine holds that, unlike human beings, divine attributes are not components of his being, but rather God is identical with all of his attributes” (241). Ultimately, “simplicity is an implication of the absolute aseity and sovereignty of God” (246). He then deals reasonably with some detractors to the doctrine before revisioning simplicity with three points (252-254):
- Simplicity is grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity
- Simplicity is a second-order doctrine (i.e. a way of holding attributes together)
- Simplicity does not have to be conceived in terms of pure act
He then begins his closing section by saying, “The thesis of this book is that in general we ascribe responsibility and describe actions in part on the basis of considerations about an agent’s character, his or her assumed intentions and possible reasons, power, and so on” (255). He then notes, “God is does not act in the same way we do. His agency and his actions are unique.” He then draws out some consequences for the doctrine of atonement given the simplicity of God:
- God never enacts certain traits more than others (257)
- We are not able to distinguish between parts and components of divine action in the same way as we do for human actions (258)
- God is not moved from wrath to mercy (262)
- The crucifixion cannot be separated from and given priority over the resurrection (263)
There is certainly much to wrestle with here. I’m not sure I’ve fully digested and appropriate Vidu’s insights, but the last chapter was certainly worth the price of the book in my view. I found this a hard book to work through in the early chapters but I was fairly captivated in the final chapter. This perhaps because I’m more naturally interested in discussions of divine attributes, particularly the more difficult and philosophical ones. A virtue then of this book is that it takes what may seem to be a merely philosophical discussion (“Is God simple, and what does that mean?”) and show how it relates to the atonement, which is hardly a mere philosophical discussion.
Because of that connection, I’d highly recommend this book for readers interested in the attributes of God and atonement theories. It is heavy slogging in the earlier historical chapters, but it helps provide a context for the constructive conclusions in the final chapter. I’ll be interested to see how this book affects future discussions when it comes to God’s action in Christ in the atonement. I’ll also continue to digest and return to Vidu’s work in my own labors to better grasp the nature of the atonement.
Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, August 2014. 304 pp. Paperback, $24.99.
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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!
One thing that struck me after reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer was how much importance he placed on meditation. Not just meditation in the abstract, or even the secular benefits of it, but the practice of meditating specifically on Scripture as a prelude to prayer. He spent a good portion on the topic, but I could have used more, or at least a wider look at the subject.
Thankfully, David Saxton has supplied that study. In his God’s Battle Plan For The Mind, readers are offered one part historical theology and one practical theology. The goal, as Saxton explains, is
to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation. This book will motivate the believer to begin this work; teach practically how to meditate on divine truth; and guide in right patterns of thinking throughout the day. (2)
He then clarifies that while he is unpacking the Purtian practice, they are but a secondary source to the biblical teaching on the subject. The rest of the opening chapter explains the importance of recovering this habit in our Christian lives. Without meditation, we are ultimately taking in truth like someone who eats without chewing. Unless we take the time to meditate on what we read and listen to from God’s word, we won’t properly digest and apply the truth to our hearts.
In chapter 2, Saxton tackles unbiblical forms of meditation. He is primarily seeking to distinguish the biblical practice from Roman Catholic contemplative forms on the one hand and mystical Eastern religious practices on the other. Having done that, we then offers a positive definition of biblical meditation in chapter 3. It is essentially a spiritual activity of heart and mind which centers on dwelling on and delighting in God’s word (26).
Chapter 3 transitions briefly into the Puritan practice, but it chapters 4 and 5 that do the primary unpacking. In the first, Saxton uses Puritan writings to explain “occasional meditation” which can occur any time and anywhere. This kind of sporadic practice is subordinate to the more important “deliberate meditation” which is the focus of chapter 5. This is more in line with what Keller discusses and takes place at a specific place and time that one deliberately plans out. Ideally, in Puritan thought, this is part of one’s morning ritual to start the day. Or, in evangelicalese, it would be part of one’s morning quiet time.
This is dealt with in more detail in chapter 6 which gets down to the brass tacks of practicing meditation. The steps for effectively beginning this are (59-64):
- Praying for the Spirit’s help for fervency
- Choosing a Scriptural thought by Bible reading
- Questioning, considering, and examining oneself
- Concluding with personal application, resolution, and prayer
In chapters 7 and 8, Saxton discusses importance times for meditation as well as subjects for meditation. The latter primarily includes the examples of sin (in order to overcome it) and God (in order to find grace and help). Chapters 9, 10, and 11 give reasons, benefits, and enemies of meditation respectively. Reasons for meditation include (95-103):
- The Christian’s work and duty is to think upon God with praise
- Meditation follows the example of Christ and other godly people
- Meditation is God’s own command given for a believer’s good
- Meditation is necessary for a believer to know God’s Word well
- Meditation assists believers in the duty of prayer and all other means of grace
- Meditation applies the Scripture to redeeming the time with one’s mind
- Without meditation, one cannot become a godly, stable Christian
- Christians meditate because God’s Word is a love letter to his people
Benefits of meditation include deepening of repentance, increased resolve to fight sin, and inflamed heart affections for God among other reasons. As for the enemies, Saxton does a fine job of detailing the typical excuses/reasons Christians might have for not pursuing meditation, as well as reasons working against us that we might not be consciously aware of. I’ll let you read for yourself to see what those are. The final formal chapter (12) offers further motivation to begin the habit of meditation and the conclusion explores briefly the connection between meditation and growth in godliness.
On the whole, I found this book very helpful. It filled out more of what Keller was saying in his book by focusing on the breadth of Puritan teaching on the subject, as well as just in general giving more detail about the practice of meditation. While some might complain that this book is overly fixated on the Puritans, I would say (a) it is keeping with the aims of the book, and (b) they seem to be the ones who both took the practice most seriously and gave the most detailed instruction and encouragement for actually implementing it into one’s daily life. I personally need to grow tremendously in this area and will look forward to integrating the insights from Saxton’s book in the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to do the same, I’d highly suggest picking up a copy for yourself!
David W. Saxton, God’s Battle Plan For The Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, January 2015. 160 pp. Paperback, $18.00.
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Thanks to Reformation Heritage Books for the review copy!