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On My Shelf: Life and Books with N. Gray Sutanto

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

I asked N. Gray Sutanto—assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and author, editor, or translator of various books including Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction—about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite neo-Calvinism books, and much more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

Alistair McFayden’s Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin—since I’m writing on the doctrine of sin.

What are your favorite fiction books?

In recent memory, I deeply enjoyed Stephen King’s The Institute, but I try not to read in my spare time because the activity reminds me so much of work, so I keep up with some movies from trusted studios for storytelling. A24’s Past Lives recently was, to me, a perfect movie.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

Augustine’s Confessions, because it’s a model of how to reflect theologically on one’s life; John A. D’Elia’s A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, to remind me that it is the church that nurtures theology and not to idolize academic work; and, of course, James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography—it was cathartic to read this work and to see in full color the person behind the writings with which I have been working.

What are some books you regularly reread and why?

I reread Herman Bavinck’s earlier essays quite often, especially his 1894 “Common Grace” and his 1888 “Catholicity of Christianity and the Church”—his logic of why it is that Christianity is truly universal and how to engage and care for the world without sacrificing distinctly Christian convictions are formative for me. As a third culture kid, I’ve always grown up with a sense of the cultural contingencies and localized intuitions of each new place, and Bavinck taught me that one can be a faithful Christian in different contexts and in different ways.

We tend to mistake cultural differences for theological differences and thus end up antagonizing one another. His vision of how to distinguish between culture and sin—and his point that grace is only against sin and not against culture as such—spoke deeply to my own experience and how I envision Christian theology and ministry.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

The Westminster Standards—a truly holistic Reformed confession that I think the church needs, which conveys a summary of the whole Bible in a persuasive fashion. I think good preaching requires the exposition and persuasive demonstration of our confessional standards so that our churches can see the beauty and harmony of reading the Bible in light of church history and tradition.

Darryl Hart and John Muether’s Seeking a Better Country—though a history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, its subtle theological message therein is that one should never dilute one’s theological or confessional commitments for the sake of some secondary issue.

Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God and Preaching—he models, in both of these, an affective approach to preaching and apologetics that doesn’t merely tell us what to believe but also shows us why Christian beliefs are not only true but beautiful.

Bavinck’s many reflections on the image of God and the doctrine of revelation—that we are affective creatures exposed to God’s revelation, and that the image of God refers not just to individuals but to humanity as a whole in all of its diversity. This is why I ended up writing on the topics of theological epistemology for my first book and anthropology for my second (forthcoming) work. I’d point to volume 2 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics here and chapter 3 in his 1908 The Philosophy of Revelation.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

I’m going to cheat here and mention six texts.

Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, especially volume 1, and especially the sections on the doctrines of God, Trinity, and providence and human freedom. I still remember the first time I pored over Turretin during seminary; it was life-giving as he went through profound distinctions that helped me understand the wholeness of Scripture.

Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear—which is a potent, Kuyperian introduction to the issue of Christianity, pluralism, and culture. I assign this regularly when I teach classes on apologetics and Islam, and it’s a needed work that invites us to drink deeply from the wells of our Reformed tradition and, simultaneously, to practice hospitality toward those who have deep differences with us.

Hart and Muether’s Seeking a Better Country—to show us that our confessional commitments must remain the heart of our ministries.

Bavinck’s 1894 “Common Grace” and 1888 “Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” to develop that holistic vision of the universality of the Christian faith.

Bonaventure’s Reduction of the Arts to Theology, because he models for us how contemplation and action go together, and how all domains of life are “reducible” or “traceable” back to God. John Webster’s essay “Regina Artium: Theology and the Humanities” in his The Domain of the Word is also the single best essay on Bonaventure’s text and theology’s relation to the other sciences that, I think, anticipates some of the moves we see in Bavinck’s Christianity and Science. No domain of life is separable from the revelatory pressure of God’s Word.

What are your top three books on neo-Calvinism?

Go to the primary sources: the two essays I mentioned above from Bavinck, Bavinck’s Christian Worldview, and Bavinck’s Christianity and Science.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

Jesus is good, even when life goes up and down, and through the unpredictability of life. I find myself often thinking of Jonathan Gibson’s wonderful book for children The Moon Is Always Round—the moon is always round, even when we can’t see it. God is always good, even when I don’t feel it, can’t see it, or don’t perceive it. What a comfort.


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