What covers CAN tell you about books

The other week I drew attention to some esoteric difference between Dispensational Theology, Covenant Theology and Christocentric Theology. Now, given the launch of Jesus Manifesto this week, I thought it might be timely to draw attention to how theological themes can practically manifest in book titles. Here’s some examples:

Reformed Influenced / Covenant Theology

Desiring God – John Piper

The Holiness of God – R.C. Sproul

The Pursuit of Holiness, The Practice of Godliness, Trusting God – Jerry Bridges

The Prodigal God – Tim Keller

Knowing God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, A Quest for Godliness – J I Packer

Anabaptist Influenced / Christocentric Theology

The Politics of Jesus, Discipleship as Political Responsibility – John H Yoder

Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor – David Augsburger

Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church – Alan Hirsch

Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World – Lee C. Camp

Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, Follow Me to Freedom: Leading As an Ordinary Radical
– Shane Claiborne

Notice the differences? I hope so, because they’re pretty obvious I reckon. The authors influenced by Covenant Theology show a distinct preference for God, godliness and holiness as keywords. It reflects their theological emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the pursuit of Godliness.

By way of contrast the authors influenced by Christocentric Theology show a distinct preference for Jesus, discipleship, politics and radical (wild, untamed, dissident, etc) as keywords. It reflects their theological emphasis on the lordship of Christ and the pursuit of Christlikeness.

Now, this is not to suggest that Covenant authors don’t write about Jesus or that Christocentric authors don’t write about God, for they both write about both. But their starting points are different and their word selection reflects their starting points. Christocentric authors tend to work from the particular to the general, from the historical to the transhistorical, from Jesus to God. It’s why they all love N T Wright, the Jesus historian. Covenant authors tend to work from God to Jesus … and that’s why they don’t like N T Wright … and see activism against injustice as an optional extra.

10 thoughts on “What covers CAN tell you about books”

  1. Very interesting distinctions. While I have enjoyed authors from both of these perspectives, I think my tendency is to lean more toward the Christocentric line. So the old adage, “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover” has weaknesses? How about the one, “actions speak louder than words”? Does this play into the theological distinctions? Just wondering… ; )


  2. First impressions do count.
    Why would anybody other than an already committed believer choose to even open of these books based on the covers?
    Most of these book covers do not even have any color. All of these authors and their publishers could do with a decent art department. Most of the covers are uniformly boring and mediocre, and of course very Protestant.
    There is no Beauty, and hence a communication of the Beautiful, in any of the covers.


  3. Dan
    My own leanings are Christocentric obviously. I’ve got books from Packer, Piper and Bridges sitting on my shelves and I’ve valued their insights over the years, but for all it’s strengths Covenant Theology has a number of weaknesses that I just can’t walk past. One of them is the “actions speak louder than words” issue. Covenant theologians too readily separate theology from ethics IMO. They rightly emphasize salvation by faith, but in their warnings against works theology they tend to underemphasize the obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:5) and the obedience that reveals faith (James 2:18). In practice, I find they preach grace relentlessly but not always graciously. Their idea of grace seems very one dimensional, there’s much emphasis on vertical grace but not so much on horizontal grace. To speak of “God’s standards” tends to brush over the fact that Jesus ushered in a new standard. To speak of “Christ’s standards” tends to highlight the New Testament shift.
    But, those criticism aside, I far prefer reading them to the Dispensationalists. Dispensationalists seem to excel in speculation and over complication (amongst other things). I can’t say I’ve got too many Dispensationalists authors on my bookshelves.
    Actually, on the actions speaks louder than words issue, another thing to notice is what actions Christocentric authors and Covenant authors do actually emphasize and again book titles can be instructive. Covenant authors tend to emphasize sexual purity. Homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity, marital fidelity, that sort of thing. Holiness is largely reduced to: keep it in your pants unless it’s your wife. Christocentric authors, by contrast, are far more inclined to associate holiness with social justice. Again note the emphasis on radical politics in the book titles. At times they may be just as conservative on sex, but they’d insist sin has both social and personal dimensions.


  4. John, I agree Protestant aesthetics can sometimes be dour, but I think you’ve missed the point. The issue we’re exploring here is language and what language can tell us. Given your religious leanings an equivalent observation would be to notice the http://www.adidam.org favours words like: avatar, adidam, free, dream and awaken.


  5. The ones in the Christocentric list often have a short title, a colon and a subtitle, while the Reformed ones don’t. Not sure what that means.


  6. Well said Matt, your observations on the theological and behavioral distinctions from the various theological perspectives are keen and helpful for those exploring a more spiritual theology. Have you thought of authoring a book? or a series of books?


  7. Al Hirsch has suggested the same. I’ve thought about it but I’m not sure I can stay focused long enough. Maybe one day, once I can figure out a topic that can be all consuming for a few months. Thanks for the encouragement Dan.


  8. Interesting Matt.
    I too have books from both camps, although my preference is for the Christocentric ones. My only quibble is with including Timothy Keller’s “The Prodigal God” in the Reformed camp. I found it to be quite Christocentric. Perhaps that’s just a digression from Keller’s usual stance.
    As for writing – you’ve got lots to say. I don’t think the problem is writing – I am working on a few ideas myself at the moment. The problem is getting published, which seems to be almost impossible.


  9. Well, I won’t quibble over Tim as, as I’ve said, it’s more a matter of general emphasis than of absolute distinction. I could just as easily have cited Colin Buchanan’s “Practice Being Godly” CD for my Aussie readers.
    As for writing, the problem is it’s too fragmented. Fine for a blog, not so fine for a book. I need to find a theme to tie it all together more coherantly. If you consider some of the major threads I’ve followed over the years – multicultural art, dialogical apologetics, peacemaking community, theistic meditation – it’s pretty diverse. Some common threads running through it all are listening (to God and others), contextualisation and discipleship, but I still haven’t nailed it. Sometimes I wonder if I should go for a ‘discipling intuitives’ kinda thing but the personality type angle will be lost on anyone who hasn’t done Myers Briggs. Hesitant to run with the blog title for similar reasons: too obscure. Need something that’s more easily understood by newbies to the conversation. Books don’t allow dialogue so I need to be clearer up front.
    What I do know is this: I’m interested in what it means to follow Jesus in a multicultural, multireligious, multimedia context. If you can come up with a snappy title that encapsulates that you may one day get a credit!


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