I am not finished with the book, but per my desire to become a book reviewer, and my promise to start somewhere, here’s my review of Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, by Steven Lawson.
I started by reviewing chapter one, which you can read here if you want to.
After an introductory chapter, the book focuses in on individual Christian stalwarts. They are arranged chronologically. I am now on chapter 14, and I’ve read of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville.
Each chapter is arranged essentially the same way. It begins by setting the stage. Lawson writes of the main dilemmas Christians were facing, whether it’s government decreed persecution, discredit from the world of philosophy, or heresy. Once he establishes the scene, the hero takes center stage. What follows is a short biography: where he grew up, what influenced him, what he wrote, why he wrote, and what became of him. I found these sections to be the most interesting.
I also found that the chapters later in the book have gotten better. This is partially because the cumulative testimony of these witnesses to the doctrines of grace is so strong. Each chapter is like a brick being laid, and the total effect is a beautiful building.
The later chapters are better also because the farther we go through church history, the more biographical information we have. For example, the extant writings of 1st century Clement are infinitesimal compared to the voluminous writings of 4th-5th century Augustine. The more material, the better the biography and the greater understanding of who they were and what they taught.
After introducing you to the character, he briefly describes his most popular writings. In the chapter on Justin Martyr, he mentioned his Apologies, who they were written to and what they were about. The chapter on Irenaeus discussed the importance of his Against Heresies, what it was, why he wrote it, and what effect it had.
Because of Augustine’s incredible output of literature (242 books), Lawson focuses on the most popular ones (Confessions, The City of God, etc). For Isidore, who also wrote extensively, he makes sections (Biblical and Theological works, Dogmatic and Apologetic works, etc) and highlights the most important writings in each. These sections, combined with the comprehensive citations at the end of each chapter make for a great reference.
Doctrines of Grace in Focus
The chapter then turns to focus on their doctrine. He looks at them through five or six doctrinal categories, each category having its own section: divine sovereignty, radical depravity, sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible call, and divine reprobation. Lawson goes through each doctrine and shows what the father believed about it by citing original sources.
A few comments about this section. First, it tends to be dryer than the rest. It mostly consists of original source citation (which is helpful) and Lawson’s summarizing comments. Second, in some cases it seems difficult to truly understand whether the churchman in question was actually articulating the specific doctrine. In most cases, Lawson is right on by nailing down the father’s stance on an issue. In other cases, the father’s writings simply don’t offer enough information on the subject, and the few quotes offered aren’t very convincing. This is a small quibble, however, because it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, Lawson is quick to admit that the writings are blurry.
On the more positive side, Lawson makes it clear early on that these men are by no means infallible. In many cases, he critiques their view, shows how it contradicts Scripture, and offers an opinion as to what influences caused them to take that view. Lawson doesn’t make the Catholic mistake of unwittingly buying everything the fathers said.
After the doctrinal focus, Lawson ends with an exhortation for his readers. This section is short and pointed. He summarizes the life of the father and shows how it applies to people today– men need to rise up and proclaim strong theology, live with conviction, and do all for the glory of God while they have breath.
This book might be difficult to read lengthy portions in one sitting because it doesn’t tell a single cohesive story. It’s like reading a compilation of short stories– they’re not much related. In many instances, it reads like a series of lectures, which, according to the preface, it was– Lawson put together this material to teach the men of his church (I find this fascinating) and ended up editing it and publishing it as a book. This means that there are many repeated statements throughout (I have no problem with that, I need to hear something again and again for it to stick). With that being said, it doesn’t feel academic. Lawson is a preacher, and you won’t finish a chapter without being exhorted to faithfulness.
A great way to approach this work would be to read it devotionally. Since the chapters are around 10 pages each (except for a few longer ones, like Augustine’s and Luther’s), I think it would be a great exercise to read a chapter each morning, perhaps after your Bible reading and prayers. I continually find my soul soaring to great heights after reading reading of these men and the truths they proclaimed.
Through reading this book, I am convinced more than ever that pastors need to be familiar with church history. What we can learn by reading the pages of the centuries is far more important than what we can learn by reading the latest issue of Relevant Magazine.