On My Shelf: Life and Books with Scott Swain

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Scott Swain—president and professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and author of Trinity, Revelation, and Reading and The God of the Gospel—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, books that have most influenced his thinking, and more.

What books are on your nightstand?

For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been on something of an Augustine kick. Of late, I’ve been reading three of the bishop of Hippo’s treatises on the nature of marriage, celibacy, and Christian sanctification: The Excellence of Marriage; Holy Virginity; and Continence (New City Press). Though not without his own idiosyncrasies and mistakes, Augustine has much to teach both conservatives and progressives on the nature of sex and sanctification.

Other theological books on my shelf include:

For work and pleasure respectively, I’ve also been reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, but when I get the chance I enjoy authors such as John Updike and P. D. James. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country was an early favorite that deeply affected me as a teenager. More recently, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead probably sits at the top of my list of favorite fiction books.

What books have most influenced your thinking and how?

I read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion during my first Christmas break in seminary. Though I wasn’t raised in a Reformed context, Calvin’s Institutes offered me pastoral, exegetical, and theological mentoring from afar that defined my approach to the Bible, theology, and piety.

D. G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America introduced me to the category of “confessional Protestantism,” not only shaping my self-understanding at an early stage of theological development, but also suggesting a model for the renewal of Protestantism through investment in the institutions of historic, confessional Christianity.

Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine influenced the way I think about the subject matter of the Bible and, consequently, about the nature of biblical interpretation. It was Augustine, not modern books on biblical interpretation, who taught me that the Bible is about the blessed Trinity, about the humility and glory of Jesus Christ, and about nurturing a community devoted to the love of God and neighbor.

Though not (yet) a book, John Webster’s unpublished Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology—the manuscript of which he kindly shared with me a number of years ago—crystalized my thinking on several theological issues and continues to inform my prayer, thinking, research, and teaching.

What three books on the doctrine of God have you found most helpful?

Three of the most helpful books for grasping the basic “grammar” of Christian teaching about God are:

The first is a series of sermons delivered around the time of the Council of Constantinople. The latter two are academic works, by no means easy reads, but sure to reward the patient and studious reader with deeper, more intelligent adoration of the God we worship.

What’s the last great book you read?

Paul J. Griffiths’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures is the most stimulating work in theology I have read in a while. Both formally and materially, this book is a model of excellence in the craft of theology, promoting insight in every paragraph—even when it provokes profound disagreement, as it does at several junctures in the argument.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

Like John the Baptist, pastors are “friends of the bridegroom” (John 3:29), charged with contemplating and commending the beauty of Jesus Christ to the church, which is his bride. John Owen’s The Person of Christ: Declaring a Glorious Mystery—God and Man will serve the pastor well in fulfilling this delightful duty. (Christian Focus has recently published an unabridged, reader friendly edition of this classic Christological text.)

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I’m always learning and relearning one of the most basic lessons of the Bible: that “the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8) and that our lives, in their greatest extremities of joy and sorrow, as well as in their smallest details, are governed by the sovereign goodness of “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17).

I’m also continuing to learn that there is great joy in self-forgetful service of God and neighbor, that denying ourselves, for Christ’s sake, is the path to finding ourselves (Matt. 16:25).

Finally, I’m learning the painful lesson that unlike houses, cars, coats, and ties, persons are irreplaceable. For this reason, their losses in this life are worthy of lament. For this reason also, our reunion with lost mentors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones in the next life will be essential to our eternal happiness in God.

Also in the On My Shelf series: Chad Bird • Sam Chan • Matthew Lee Anderson • Melissa Kruger • Isaac Adams • Denny Burk • Vermon Pierre • Jake Meador • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Robert Smith • Tony Merida • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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Clergy Consider Handing Out Abortifacients in Church

The Story: Progressive clergy are preparing for the end of Roe by considering how to make abortion available in the pews. Is the pro-life community similarly prepared for the next step in the fight for life?

The Background: The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, was asked in a recent interview what clergy should be thinking about now as we consider the possibility of Roe v. Wade overturned and the issue of abortion returned to the states.

The first thing I want to say is that if men bore children, abortion would be a sacrament. It’s sexism that doesn’t allow a woman to use a perfectly ordinary reproductive technology. I’ve had two abortions and was back to work in the afternoon. That doesn’t mean they were inconsequential to me. They were profoundly positive experiences of exercising my humanity and my freedom.

In the late-1960s, Schaper was a member of the Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), an international network of mainline Protestant and Reform Jewish clergy that helped women obtain legal and illegal abortions. Schaper says she and other liberal clergy plan to take up that mission again if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade:

So where do we go from here? It’s almost like the Do-It-Yourself movement. We’re going to have to encourage birth control because unwanted pregnancies will have no solution for many people in many states.

The thing most of us have been talking about is to encourage the use of medical technology, the morning after pills and very good new drugs. We need to get some wise pharmaceutical company to make money off distributing them so people don’t need abortions, and/or smuggling the drugs in from Mexico and Canada.

There are already very interesting groups of women my age feeling we could take the risk of loading up our vans to take road trips and give them out at churches. We’d see what kind of legal trouble one could get into because the drugs would be given away and are legal in Mexico and Canada.

This kind of civil action, I don’t even know if it’s civil disobedience—would be like the old Jane Collective. This would be Jane with drugs as opposed to Jane with forceps.

(The Jane Collective was a radical feminist organization that performed more than 11,000 illegal abortions in two apartment homes in Chicago from 1969 to 1973.)

When asked how the task of “pastoral care” will change for clergy if abortion is re-criminalized in many states, Schaper says,

It’s very hard to say. It’s going to have to be legislated. Before Roe, it was understood that counseling someone to have an abortion was illegal. Many clergy were picked up for it. I have a feeling that civil disobedience may be required, like the baker who won’t bake cakes for same-sex couples. We may have to say, “we will not not provide counseling” using a religious freedom argument.

Why It Matters: You might be tempted—as I initially was—to dismiss this interview as the insignificant views of an unknown apostate in an obscure radical publication. But I think Schaper is showing us the mirror image of the the pro-life cause. After the Roe decision in 1973, pro-lifers mobilized churches and fellow believers to protect the unborn. Similarly, progressive forces are preparing to use the power and rhetoric of religion to protect abortion after the next decision about Roe.

For Schaper, abortion is a religious sacrament. She’s willing and ready to hand out abortifacients along with the communion wafers. Her fanaticism is loathsome, but she’s willing to take genuine risks to protect an individual’s right to kill their children in the womb. While the pro-life community is ready for a break from this nearly five-decade fight, pro-abortion activists like Schaper are becoming ever more committed and motivated.

Whether Roe will soon be overturned is debatable. But for the first time in decades there is the possibility that we can roll back abortion on demand. In future articles, TGC will explore the legal ramification of ending Roe. For now I want to consider why it might not be the total victory we pro-lifers have been expecting.

Many of have grown weary fighting the endless culture war and believe that in rectifying the injustice of Roe, we will finally find some relief. If nothing else, we believe, the removal of Roe will lead to a reduction in the number of abortions. Unfortunately, neither of those beliefs is likely to be true.

Polls and surveys about the issue are often misleading, but they consistently show that few Americans are absolutists when it comes to abortion. Large percentages support restrictions on late-term abortions (second and third trimester) and support keeping abortion legal in the early stage (first trimester). When the legal issue of abortion is returned to the individual states that “compromise” will be the median outcome. A few states may ban all abortions, and a few others will make abortion legal throughout pregnancy. But for the most part, Americans will think they have reached a “moderate” position by banning abortion only after the first few months of fetal development.

From a legal perspective, a patchwork of inconsistent state laws is preferable to a consistent national precedent of abortion on demand. From a legal perspective, the death of Roe cannot come soon enough.

But if we look at the issue from a societal and political perspective, we can see the pro-life movement is unprepared for the next phase of the battle. We’ve convinced ourselves of the misleading half-truth that many, if not most, Americans are beginning to share our pro-life convictions about the value of unborn children.

The harsh reality is that most Americans—including many Christians—are only pro-life when the unborn looks like a newborn baby. That’s why they value unborn life more at later stages of pregnancy, during the stages when the child looks like a baby.

For decades, we in the pro-life community quietly acknowledged this fact and even used it to our advantage. The reason pro-life organizations so frequently display pictures of newborns or late-stage ultrasound photos rather than images of embryos and early-stage fetuses is because of the effective emotional connection of equating “unborn life” with “a being that looks like a baby.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, though, we realized the flaw in this approach. The debate over embryonic stem-cell research revealed how unprepared we were in making the case for all unborn life. Many “pro-life” evangelicals who opposed abortion supported research that required destroying embryonic human life. Most didn’t even recognize they were being inconsistent. They simply couldn’t muster up much emotion for groupings of cells that do not look like a baby.

A decade and half later, we still haven’t been able to convince all Christians that early human life in all locations and in all stages of development is equally worthy of dignity and protection. A couple that would be ashamed to admit to their church family they had an abortion would have no qualms talking about the dozens of “frozen” embryos they’ve abandoned in an IVF clinic. Their fellow believers would consider it sinful and tragic for a child dies in an abortion clinic—and yet shrug when “spare” children die in an IVF clinic.

Molech’s insatiable hunger for the flesh of our children haunts both types of clinics. And increasingly, Molech is being invited into our homes in the form of “morning-after” pills. How are we going to oppose clergy handing out abortifacients in churches when we can’t even convince our fellow Christians not to sacrifice their children (Lev. 18:21)?

We should thank God that the end of the Roe era may be within sight. But we also need to ask the Lord to give us a vision for the next phase of the struggle, and ask that he prepare pro-life believers for what comes next.

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