I’ve been plunging into several William Cowper biographies lately, and I’m amazed at how bitterly many of his biographers hate John Newton. As I’ve read the perspectives of, say, Hugh l’Anson Fausset or David Cecil, I see transparently festering contempt for Newton. So, when I received this volume on John Newton in Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series, I was ready for a refreshing change. I knew Tony Reinke has a sincere appreciation for this man and his legacy. After such unveiled contempt, even a little hagiography would be excusable!
In this series, thus far I’ve read the volumes on Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I generally appreciated and enjoyed them, though I also found some weakness in each of them. I had no desire to nitpick, I just really expected more. And, so, beginning this book, I’ve been very interested to see how it would measure up.
John Newton (1725-1807) made a lasting contribution to the Christian church when he penned the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” However, there is a rich store of resources from the pen of John Newton which have gotten much less fanfare over the last three centuries. Newton’s placement in history at the point at which “the Post Office had developed to the point where letter delivery was more affordable and reliable than ever” allowed him build a substantial letter writing ministry. These one thousand or so letters rivaled his sermons “in both substance and usefulness.”
Tony Reinke has submerged himself into this vast quantity of letters in an attempt to show that Newton was, indeed, a theologian, and then presents for a popular audience the essence of his theology. Reinke shows Newton as a “spiritual doctor,” or more specifically an expert in “cardiology,” a student “of his own heart and the hearts of others.”
The first and most enduring impression I had upon reading this book was that Newton exalted the supremacy, centrality, and glory of Christ. Christ, to him, is the “priceless treasure” that seeps through all of what he writes. “Like an unceasing echo, the theme of Christ’s super-abundant grace is heard in everything Newton writes” Newton “will not allow us to abstract the Christian life from Christ” and so, a book on Newton’s view of the Christian life is largely a book about Christ. This emphasis seeps through all of what Reinke writes about Newton! Here you can really see how Reinke has steeped himself into Newton’s work and does a fantastic job of bringing this emphasis out.
I would like to highlight a few portions that were especially helpful: There is an excellent discussion of “gospel simplicity” (Simplicity of Intention/Dependence). The discussion of seven types Christians with character flaws is excellent and convicting (Austerus, Humanus, Prudens, Voatilis, Cessator, Curiosus, and Querulus). Don’t let the Latin trick you, the observations in this section are extremely concise and simply explained! The chapter on “Discipline of Trials” is also excellent and very thought provoking!
Upon reflection, I’ve concluded that this is the best book in the series, a fair amount better than the works on Edwards, Luther, and Bonhoeffer. Each has remarkable strengths, but none I have read in the series yet measures up to this one.The only notable weakness I would point out is perhaps connected to it strong points. Reinke has submerged himself in Newton’s letters and masterfully described his theological thinking, but he has perhaps not given enough space to show how that theology worked itself out in practice, both in his life’s decisions and also in his pastoral advice on specific topics. Some of the exploration of Newton’s theology could have been tied a little tighter into concrete events in his personal or pastoral life. At one point towards the end of the book Reinke intimates that there is much more to be said about Newton on topics such as friendship, fellowship, marriage, discerning God’s will, etc. I think that rings true, and I am left wishing Reinke devoted some space to these subjects if he could do so without too severely truncating his coverage of Newton’s theological thinking.
Reading this book is certainly profitable from a devotional perspective. It also is a helpful volume if you want to better understand the theological emphasis of 18th century evangelicalism. On both accounts I can sincerely recommend it and I hope many Christians read it, not only to know John Newton, but ultimately Jesus Christ, who he so vigorously pointed to.
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