A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan M. McGraw
With the modern resurgence of interest in the Trinity, the need remains to bridge the gap between the academy and the pew. Christians need the practical outcomes of how and why the Triune God is both fundamental to the gospel and integral to the Christian life. This little book makes some strides along this path, showing believers how to depend on, have fellowship with, and worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While some notable omissions mark this material, the church needs more of this kind of literature to show the beauty and relevance of the Trinity to everything she thinks, says, and does.
The book follows the general lines of John Owen’s treatise on communion with God. After introducing communion with God generally, parts 2-4 trace communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit distinctly. Retaining Owen’s ideas while summarizing him and making him more accessible to modern readers can be a challenging task. Owen is precise, clear, and devotional, though sometimes obtuse, due to the profundity of his thought coupled with his Latinate diction. This book seeks to present Owen’s most helpful ideas on communion with God, including quotations that will likely stand out to readers (4). The net result is that this book reads like the author telling readers in modern English, replete with contemporary and concrete examples and illustrations, what he has gleaned from Owen, and what we can do with his teaching. In fact, after noting the timelessness of Owen’s book on Communion with God (159), the author even expands his own application on how to live in communion with God with others in the church (160). Readers will find in these pages some key and profitable ideas appropriated from Owen regarding how to live the Christian life fruitfully today.
From a historian’s viewpoint, the title stands out. “Friendship with God” is an interesting heading for various reasons. Though modern readers may not be aware of the fact, the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), influenced Owen’s ideas in many ways. What Aquinas chose to describe in terms of friendship with God rooted in union with Christ, Owen appropriated in terms of Reformed covenant theology, with Christ as the bond of union between redeemed human beings and God through a covenant rooted in Christ. This title thus communicates perhaps more than readers, and possibly the author, know. It is well-chosen and pointed because the Christian church has always promoted genuine friendship with God and close fellowship with all three divine persons. “Friendship with God” is a happy choice of words to capture Owen’s key ideas about knowing God and being known by him in intimate communion.
One liability of this book is that the author does not fully convey Owen’s profound Trinitarian theology. While Owen went to great lengths to show the unity of the divine essence, flowing through the distinct personal relations in God, resulting in their undivided actions and mutual indwelling, the author largely leaves out such key ideas (though he notes this danger in passing on pg. 153). Although such lofty concepts may sound obtuse to modern readers, they are precisely the kinds of thoughts we need to hold the Trinity together while seeking to know God. Without them, focusing on communion with each divine person can easily run the risk of tritheism, thinking about three gods whom we know, instead of one God in three persons. McKinley seeks to remedy this issue to an extent on page 113, but this addition still lacks adequate explanation of what it means for God to be Triune.
Likewise, when Owen urged readers to reflect on Christ’s “personal grace,” he intended to captivate them with the glory of what it meant for Christ to be the God-man. Yet oversimplifying his terms, McKinley reduces this idea to “personal presence and appearance” (44-45; though see pg. 73), which is an unfortunate move, subverting the glorious truths Owen was presenting about the incarnation. Interestingly, McKinley entirely excises Owen’s copious references to Song of Solomon in his chapters on communion with the Son. While this material can be off-putting to modern readers, it nonetheless reflects an important strand of Christ-centered thinking about this book, which pervaded Christian history. The overarching point I am making here is that Owen’s devotional Trinitarian theology does not actually “work” without his deeper explanations of who the Triune God is in eternity and what he does in time as a result.
While this book has devotional value in its own right, and includes many great statements from Owen, readers should not expect to get much of the profundity of Owen’s thought on communion with the Trinity. Absent are the vital concepts of covenant, the Trinitarian underpinnings of the gospel, and a clear exposition of the incarnation. However, McKinley can still take most readers further than they are used to going in communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is an edifying, if incomplete, read. However, this reviewer hopes that many people will walk away from this little book wanting more, and maybe even learning to read Owen for themselves.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD: A PATH TO DEEPER FELLOWSHIP WITH THE FATHER, SON, AND SPIRIT, by Mike McKinley