Ten or twelve life-changing books: #10

10. 1990 John Murray, Principles of Conduct [1960]

It’s funny, As we creep closer to the present, I am less certain of the precise date. A typical sign of senility. Or, more charitably: some books attract subsequent re-readings and study.  The effect is more like a fermenting wine than a sudden tipping over the barrel. Once the wine is fully seasoned, it is easy to forget the exact moment that the ingredients were first assembled. I’m giving a probabilistic date.

Murray’s work is simply magnificent. One great virtue is brevity. My paperback version is less than 3/8 inch thick.  It does it by getting right to the point, with dense argumentation.

At the time of discovering this book, I was quite the antinomian theonomist, having succumbed to two grave errors: rejection of the Sabbath day, and embracing of “non-culpable deception.” Murray cured me of both. The Sabbath is rooted in creation, so it cannot be wriggled out of as a mere typological or ceremonial excrescence for Israel. All the passages marshaled to justify lying — and there are far more than just Rahab — are dealt with systematically and relentlessly.

The exposition drives more deeply than the Sunday School result. The fourth commandment does not merely treat of the seventh day, but of the other six as well: the importance and requirement of good work. Truthfulness is rooted in the character of God himself ultimately. Consequently, even inadvertent falsehood involves one in sin, even if the “charge” falls short of what is called lying. Asserting something as true that one does not know to be true involves sin as well — and how our life in the church would be changed for the better if every Christian took that to heart existentially!

The chapter on the marriage ordinance is surprising in its breadth. Watch for the discussion of when imagination has its legitimate place.

The chapter on “Our Lord’s Teaching” puts the center in spirit rather than mere law.

There is an odd appendix on the passage in Gen. 6 about the “sons of God” and “daughters of men,” and the giants. Murray argues for the non-mythological view, but is surprisingly tentative.

There are a few defects. Notably, Murray ratifies the common analogy of master: slave to employer:employee. This I think is dubious. Typically, the employer has a leg up on the employee in terms of the power wielded, but this can be seen as a problematic that a just society needs to resolve, not an ontological reality. Whether the correct solution is more libertarian or fascist, I feel in any case it is not master-slave.

Epochal books like this define the starting groundwork for how the discussion can continue. Now, let it continue.

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.