When it comes to learning the essentials of the Christian faith, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel (in fact, please don’t!).
Christians have covered the basics in a process of instruction and learning called “catechesis” for centuries. And documents used for this purposed (called “catechisms”) have frequently focused on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. (The Anglican Church in North America’s recent catechism, To Be A Christian, continues this honorable trend.)
Do we really need more “catechesis” books?
With this “catechetical” tradition in mind, then, why would anyone bother writing or reading more books about the essentials of the Christian faith?
It’s a fair question. But let me counter it with another: Have you ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer on autopilot?
I know I have. I can say the same for the Creed and the Ten Commandments.
It’s one thing to know what these foundational texts say (and for many of us that would be an excellent first step—memorize these texts!). It’s quite another to know, and to be able to explain to others, what they mean.
If you’ve ever prayed/said the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments on autopilot, this series is for you!
For that reason, I’m very thankful for books like those found in The Christian Essentials series from Lexham Press. In the publisher’s words, this series
passes down tradition that matters. The ancient church was founded on basic biblical teachings and practices like the Ten Commandments, baptism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Prayer, and corporate worship. These basics of the Christian life have sustained and nurtured every generation of the faithful—from the apostles to today. The books in the Christian Essentials series open up the meaning of the foundations of our faith.
As you can tell from that quote, the series is going to cover more than just the “Big 3” catechesis texts (looks like the next volume will be on Baptism), but they have wisely decided to start with The Apostles’ Creed (Ben Myers, 2018), The Lord’s Prayer (Wesley Hill, 2019), and The Ten Commandments (Peter Leithart, 2020).
Each of these three books is:
- Written by a trustworthy theological guide.
- Brief (under 150 pages; 5×7” trim size; decent amount of graphics/images)
- Designed to solve the following kind of problem: “The [INSERT TEXT HERE] has become so familiar to us that we don’t think about what we’re saying/praying.”
What’s more, these books strike an almost unbelievable balance between readability and theological depth. They cover a lot of theological ground and interact with some important interlocutors both ancient and modern, all while relating the discussion to modern life and avoiding getting bogged down in extraneous details.
Because of this “readable density,” if you will, I really don’t think I can summarize things any more briefly or clearly than the authors themselves! Instead, I’ll just give a couple highlights from each book.
Ben Myers is director of the Millis Institute at Christian Heritage College and a research fellow of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University in Australia..
His walkthrough the Apostles’ Creed is fantastic, setting the tone for the entire subsequent series. Consider the very first sentences of his Preface:
“The Christian faith is mysterious not because it is so complicated but because it is so simple. A person does not start with baptism and then advance to higher mysteries. In baptism each believer already possesses the faith in its fullness” (xv).
Discipleship, then, is a constant return to the “basics” at the beginning of the Christian faith. And that’s the approach that Myers takes to the ancient Apostles’ Creed.
But don’t let that use of the word “simple” fool you into thinking that there won’t be much theological substance in this book! Myers tackles several significant theological topics/questions in this book, from the use of masculine language to name God as Father to what the phrase “he descended into hell” means.
Consider how Myers discusses “born of the Virgin Mary”: “To understand the virgin birth we need to see how it fits into the whole story of Scripture—a story in which miraculous births play a starring role” (50). He then gives a mini biblical theology of miraculous births before concluding:
“The confession that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin isn’t just a bit of theological eccentricity. It’s not a random miracle story. It’s a reminder that our faith has deep roots in Israel’s story and Israel’s Scriptures” (54).
If you’d like a fresh appreciation of the Apostles’ Creed and, through it, the Bible and the gospel, read Myers’s book!
The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father (Wesley Hill)
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA). It was the release of his book on the Lord’s Prayer in 2019 that drew my attention to the Christian Essentials Series.
Just like Myers, Hill packs an incredible amount of theological engagement into a brief and very readable book! His main point when it comes to the Our Father is that
“the Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost about Jesus Himself. Each petition is not only His instruction to His followers about how they are to pray. More fundamentally, each petition is a window into Jesus’ own life of prayer—His reliance on and manifestation of the One He called Father” (4).
In addition to Hill’s theological acumen, I was struck by his pastoral approach in this volume. At the end of his discussion of “Our Father in heaven,” he has a brief yet profound section on the difficulties that many people face with calling God “Father.” He defends the traditional title for God, but does so in a way that clearly acknowledges the real pain that people feel due to the frequent failures of earthly fathers.
Perhaps more relevant now than when he first wrote it is Hill’s section on “deliver us from evil,” in which he discusses the modern Western hesitancy to admit the reality of “personal” forces of evil—“Jesus taught His followers to pray for deliverance from the evil—that is, the one who is evil, the ancient adversary of God” (82). According to Hill, we might be catching up with the Bible, because “one of the fascinating developments in recent science, both in the hard sciences as well as the social sciences, has been the focus on how human beings are at all times at the mercy of powers greater than themselves” (83). He then discusses the structural aspects of racism as a manifestation of this:
“The prince of racism—and of so many other forms of evil—hinders even the most virtuous white people from ending their own racist habits of mind by sheer decision. Stronger medicine is needed. And that is what Jesus urges us to pray for: we must, in the end, appeal to God to deliver us from the grip of the Evil One. Christians who worship whiteness don’t just need education; we need exorcism” (85).
Indeed. If you’d like some help and guidance in really praying the Lord’s Prayer today with Jesus, instead of coasting through it on autopilot, you should read Hill’s book!
The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty (Peter Leithart)
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute (theopolisinstitute.com), a Christian study center and leadership training institute in Birmingham, Alabama.
Should we read the Ten Commandments (AKA the “Decalogue,” AKA the “Ten Words”) as Christians today? If so, how? According to some, these words were for ancient Israel alone, not for followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century! According to others, the Ten Commandments basically boil down to “be a nice person,” and reflect the basic ethical teachings of all the major world religions. Are the Ten Commandments for us today?
Now, before I go any further, you should know that Leithart’s style, right from his Introduction, is a bit denser that either Myers or Hill. You might need to read a paragraph multiple times or very slowly to really catch the canonical connections that Leithart is almost constantly making. Don’t let that scare you away! Instead, let’s all take it as a challenge to get as familiar as Leithart is with the contours and patterns of Scripture!
Just as Hill makes the overall case that the Lord’s Prayer is about Jesus, Leithart makes the opening argument that “The Ten Words are a character portrait of Jesus, the Son of God” (6). “Is the Decalogue for us? We might as well ask, Is Jesus for us?” (6).
From there, it’s a whirlwind tour of the Ten Words. At every turn, Leithart describes the connections between the Ten Commandments and:
- themselves (he sees a parallel structure between the two “tables” of five commandments each),
- the rest of the Old Testament,
- Jesus and the New Testament,
- the Church within our culture today.
Most of the connections Leithart notes are, in my opinion, true and profound. At other times, they seem a bit forced and I’m not sure if things are really that neatly and symbolically connected. Consider the following explanation of the Ten Commandments’ structure, drawn from James B. Jordan’s lecture notes on Exodus:
“The first and second halves of the Decalogue match one another: idolatry is a species of murder, murder a kind of idolatry (first and sixth); worshiping images is spiritual adultery (second and seventh); bearing God’s name lightly steals his glory (third and eighth); the Sabbath is for renewing covenant vows (fourth and ninth); coveting undermines hierarchies necessary for healthy family, social, and political life (fifth and tenth)” (76).
Perhaps this is just my ignorance and lack of exegetical insight, but I’m just not so sure the two tables line up that neatly. In any case, Leithart’s work (here and elsewhere) is a salutary reminder that there is much more to Scripture than first meets the eye.
Furthermore, Leithart’s prose is far denser and his tone far harsher than either Myers or Hill. But perhaps that has as much to do with differences between the texts at hand as it does with the differences between the authors!
In the end, if you’d like a far richer understanding of the Ten Commandments and how they relate to both biblical ethics and life today, read Leithart’s book!
The Christian Essentials series by Lexham Press is well worth your time. It would make an excellent supplement to a catechism like the Anglican Church in North America’s To Be A Christian.
I know of no better, briefer illustrations of how the basics of catechesis should lead to ongoing theological reflection, and I eagerly await the remaining volumes!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received these books free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.