Doctrine according to Godliness: A Primer of Reformed Doctrine. Ronald Hanko. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association. 2004. xiii + 338 pages. $28.95 (Hard cover). [Reviewed by Prof. Russell Dykstra.]
Doctrine according to Godliness is a significant publication by the Reformed Free Publishing Association. I would describe it as a Reformed Dogmatics for the common man. As such it complements the other solid doctrinal and biblical studies published by the RFPA. It is a valuable book with the potential for benefiting the broader Reformed church world and beyond. Doctrine according to Godliness sets forth the truth of Scripture, that is to say, Reformed doctrine, in a clear and logical form, and it does so in a manner that is not intimidating. This is doctrine in a form that every believer can grasp, can understand and embrace.
The book consists of a series of nearly 240 different topics, from “General Revelation” to “The Covenant of Grace” to “Heavenly Glory.” The topics are divided under six headings, roughly corresponding to the six divisions commonly used in Reformed theology: 1. God and His Word; 2. Man and His World; 3. Christ and His Work; 4. The Covenant and Salvation; 5. The Church and the Sacraments; 6. The Return of Christ and the Last Things.
Each section is, for the most part, a self-contained discussion of a particular doctrine. The sections are brief—under a page and a half. To place together in one book that many brief selections is difficult to do. This effort succeeds very well, producing an interesting, united whole. It is that because of the many commendable features of the book.
First of all, the book is well written. Hanko’s evident abilities as a writer enabled him to avoid the danger of “sameness,” that is, producing numerous brief articles that follow the same pattern, and soon all begin to read the same. He has a knack for drawing the reader into the topic immediately so that, though one may have intended to stop “after this one,” a glance at the next section leads to reading another, and then a few more. In addition, the author uses a variety of methods to explain the various doctrines, and he writes a conclusion appropriate to the doctrine treated.
The genuine earnestness in the message, together with a winsome spirit, add to the pleasure of reading this book. Rev. Ron Hanko is a pastor with twenty-five years of experience, who also served as a missionary for many of those years. He writes to the people. He asks the reader, also those who may disagree, to consider carefully what he writes. He obviously has the heartfelt desire that others will have the same convictions about the truth.
A second notable feature of the book is the capable and copious use of Scripture. Rev. Hanko is unashamedly committed to the infallibly inspired Scriptures. Each and every section is based on Scripture. Hanko weaves Scripture into the discussion naturally. One never has the feeling that he is simply “proof-texting.” Hanko consciously employs the Reformation principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. As one example, consider his use of the words of Jesus to demonstrate that evolution is incompatible with Scripture (86).
If you believe that man “evolved,” then consider what Jesus says in
Matthew 19:4, 5:
“Have you not read [in
] that he which made them in the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?” Jesus obviously believed the first two chapters of Genesis to be true. Should not we believe them also?
But all those commendable features of the book would be of no account if the doctrinal content of the book were poor. It is, after all, a book of doctrine. In fact, the doctrinal substance is the best feature of the book—it is of the highest quality of theological, Reformed writings. Hanko is an able and knowledgeable theologian with a thorough understanding of Reformed theology. He not only knows the doctrines, he knows the topics that are debated, and he addresses controversy, though, again, not in a manner that intimidates the reader.
The doctrines are clearly and concisely expressed. Terms are defined, or carefully described. Notice how the difficult term “God’s simplicity” is introduced (56).
In books of theology, you will sometimes read of an attribute called God’s “simplicity.” The word is confusing, and since it is not found in Scripture, it might be better to use a different word—perhaps “perfection.” In any case, what we are talking about when we speak of God’s simplicity is part of his oneness—that he is one in all his attributes and works. There is no disharmony, no conflict, no contradiction among his works or attributes. They are all one. God is perfect and without weakness or flaw in any way.
As the above quotation also indicates, the treatment of the doctrines is fresh. This freshness is partly due to the fact that the application of the doctrine is so apt. Consider how Hanko demonstrates the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity in a section entitled “The Trinity and the Family” (pp. 59-60). It begins, “Nothing shows the importance of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity so much as its connection to family life. It is the foundation of the family and of our various callings in the family.” After supporting that assertion from Scripture, he continues:
This has many practical implications. For one thing, it explains the deterioration of the family and of family values today. Created to be a reflection of God’s own trinitarian family life, the family cannot prosper apart from him.
Moreover, the Trinity is where we learn to live as families. That we go to God to learn about family life does not only mean that we go to his Word in the Bible. It also means that we go to him as Father to learn about being fathers (and mothers) to our children. It means that we bring our children to his holy child Jesus to learn about their calling as children. It means that we go to him as Holy Spirit to learn about peace, unity, love, fellowship, and all the other blessings of family life. Only the Spirit can teach us these things. He is the source of these blessings.
Hanko is at pains to demonstrate the interrelatedness of various Reformed dogmas. He does this in the various discussions as he shows how the one doctrine affects others. He also does this in the combinations of doctrines. For instance, there are six related discussions on the doctrine of justification (pp. 197-204). They are entitled: “Justification”; “Justification by Faith”; “Justification and Election”; “Justification and the Atonement”; “Adoption” [which Hanko regards as “the first and greatest of the benefits of justification, (p. 202)]; and “Peace.” This is most beneficial for the believer, for it helps him to know not only the given doctrine, but also its relationship to other cardinal truths.
Since the book contains much application of the truth to practical matters, Hanko takes clear stands on many concrete issues. This will mean that not everyone will agree with every implication that he brings out. My own disagreements were few and far between. However, I did have a few. At least twice Hanko asserts that Isaac was told that Esau was a reprobate (pp. 70, 271). Although Isaac was told that the elder would serve the younger, and that two manner of peoples were represented in the womb of Rebekah, I doubt that these covenant parents had such a burden laid upon them, namely, that their firstborn son was explicitly labeled a reprobate. That does not take away from the statement of Romans 9that God (always) hated Esau. But the Old Testament narrative (Genesis 25) does not record that those words were spoken to Isaac and Rebekah.
In addition, can we know with such certainty that Ham was reprobate (p. 271)? Not he directly, but his son Canaan was cursed, though granted, Ham is presented in a most unfavorable light in Genesis 9. Yet Ham was one of the eight souls of whom the Bible records that they were saved by water (I Pet. 3:30).
And finally, Hanko maintains, on the basis of I Timothy 2:11-14, that Eve’s fall was the reason that she must be in submission in the church (p. 110). I’ll have to think about that some more. I Timothy 2:11-14 certainly teaches that the woman is to be in subjection in the church. Actually, two reasons are given for that subjection, and one has nothing to do with the fall, but rather with her creation. It seems to me that the reference to Eve’s fall might serve a somewhat different purpose. It demonstrates that exactly when Eve usurped the authority of her husband in answering the serpent, she fell into sin.
Three other criticisms I have of the book as published. First, the index is too limited to be of any real value, being only an index to words in the headings, and not of the body of the work. I hope that a more complete reference will be made for the next printing. Second, and this is admittedly picky, but what is the point of the odd numeration of the page numbers in the table of contents (007, 008, 024, etc.)? It makes the book resemble a sort of home computer publishing endeavor and serves no useful purpose that I can see. Third, there is some overlap of treatment in the doctrine of the covenant. Fourteen sections are devoted to the doctrine of the covenant. However, the doctrine is treated in three different sections. It is unavoidable, then, that some repetition of material is found in these various sections.
However, these are relatively minor matters, and this book is highly recommended to all our readers. I know personally that it is already being read with enjoyment and profit by readers young and old, and by some who are not so quick to pick up a book, let alone a book on doctrine. Doctrine according to Godliness is an excellent resource for the ministers and elders who teach catechism. They can gain ideas and insights as to how to introduce specific truths, and how to apply them concretely to the youths. Societies could profitably use it for study. Evangelism committees could be guided by the content and style of the book in their promotion of the truth. And, above all, any and all believers who take it up to read will be edified, encouraged, and comforted by the precious knowledge of the truth.