This is a book review with a bit of a difference. Normally you would expect me to be reviewing a new book that few people have heard of yet in order to let you know why you should buy it and read it. In this case, there’s a good chance that you’ve already heard about, bought and probably devoured this book. Gently and Lowly by Dane Ortlund has been a phenomenal best seller over the past year. However, if you haven’t heard of it yet, I’m encouraging you to read it but if you have already got it my aim is to explain why you should still read and enjoy it.
Why would I need to do that? Well, a little while back I got the book because I thought it might be a nice present for Sarah and I duly gave it to her. She’s been reading it thoughtfully and meditatively. Then the other day I heard that it had been given a review, absolutely trashing it as border line heresy and generally unhelpful. You can read that review here. So, I thought I’d better check the book myself, just in case I’d got Sarah a duff present.
Gently and lowly describes itself as “The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers.” The primary thrust of its message is taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30.
Ortlund describes this as
“the one place in the Bible where the son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who he is. “
We discover there “not that he is ‘austere and demanding in heart’” or “that he is ‘exalted and dignified in heart’” but rather “that he is ‘gentle and lowly in heart.’”
This is a book then for those who are weary and struggling. It is a book for believers (Ortlund points out that the promise in Jesus’ words are not to anyone and everyone but specifically to those who come to him for rest) who are struggling and need refreshment and encouragement. It’s a book that points to the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. In it, Ortlund shows that we particularly experience this love through the person Jesus with regard to his human nature. However, he is also quick to show that The Father, Son and Spirit are united in this. It is no surprise that in the midst of a global pandemic and in the face of recent reports about the abusive behaviour of some high profile leaders and the bullying culture of some churches that this book has proved so popular with so many.
Primarily the book is pastoral but as well as applying Scripture, it is also a work of historical theology taking us to the writings of puritans like Thomas Goodwin, Great Awakening preachers like Jonathan Edwards and later theological giants like BB Warfield. The depth of engagement with such a range of historical reformed figures within such a short book is impressive, particularly given that at no time does Ortlund sacrifice pastoral warmth for this.
So, why did it get such a negative review from Grace To You? Well, this arises out of two problems. The first is a concern that Ortlund has provided an unbalanced view of who Jesus is, his character and mission. The second, is that he has fallen away from classical theism in his description of God and his attributes.
Let’s take these in turn. First of all, the reviewer, Jeremiah Johnson says :
But does Ortlund’s thesis really yield an accurate understanding of the character and disposition of Christ? Are “gentle and lowly” categorically more definitive of the eternal character of Christ than His fierce contempt for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, or His threat to wage war against the church at Pergamum? Are the words of Matthew 11:29 truly more authoritative and illustrative of the divine perspective on sin and sinners than, say, Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”) or Luke 12:49 (“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!”)?
I have to say that this is a rather bizarre complaint. I am rather reminded of the occasion on Britain’s Got Talent when an Irish dance troupe performed. Now, a lot of people assume that Irish dancing is a form of tap. It isn’t. Piers Morgan after the dance complained “It was okay but I wished that they had included some tap dancing.” At this point Simon Cowell responded despairingly “but Piers, they are not tap dancers”
The first point is that of course, Christ deals fiercely with the Pharisees and of course as God he comes with justice. Indeed, Ortlund takes time to talk about God’s wrath and point out that anger is not in itself sinful. Johnson has to acknowledge in his review that
“To be fair, Ortlund begins with a nod of recognition that Jesus did indeed have a “harsher side” (p. 28). “
Personally I’d have a greater problem with the use of the phrase “harsher side” though I note that Ortlund uses it in a specific context. However, the key thing to remember here is that the audience of the book is believers, those who have come to Christ for rest and its purpose is to offer them that rest and comfort. It is not a survey o f every aspect of New Testament teaching on the God The Son. However, even if it were, I still would struggle more with the reviewer than the book here. You, see Ortlund is to my understanding doctrinally correct on this.
God is simple which means that we should not describe God as having one or two dominant and essential attributes. This is something that Ortlund clearly brings out in the book as he emphasises that we should not see God’s wrath and justice in competition or conflict with each other. God is love, God is just, God is holy. However, this does not mean that we should describe everything that God does as an attribute in the same way. I think for so many reasons, it is obvious to say that whilst we say that God is love, we would not say that God is wrath. Wrath is not something that God is, it is something he possesses. Similarly, God may be grieved and sad, but he is not grief and sadness. We recognise that God’s wrath, mercy and his grief at sin flow out of his proper attributes, out of his love, justice and holiness. God shows anger because he is love, holy and righteous. God show mercy because he is love, holy and righteous.
In that regard, Ortlund is right to emphasise Christ’s love to his own as something worthy of greater attention in a book to Christ’s own than a lengthy discourse about his wrath towards the Pharisees.
Secondly, Johnson has a problem with Ortlund’s treatment of God and emotions. Classical Theism teaches that God is impassible. This means that God cannot be overcome by his passions or emotions. This is important because if God were then he might change his mind and he might be overcome by outside circumstances. God would become changeable and vulnerable. Ortlund is clear that this is not the case. However, he also wants to avoid a dry functional view of God. God is impassible in the sense that he is not subject to his emotions but that does not mean he isn’t emotionless without compassion, joy, sadness so as to make him cold, unloving, unapproachable, joyless. Yet, Johnson in his review sees a theological weakness here and believes that Ortlund is denying an essential doctrine here. He says
“Ortlund also makes far too much of anthropomorphic language. Regarding a passage from Hosea, he writes, “We are given a rare glimpse into the very center of who God is, and we see and feel the deeply affectional convulsing within the very being of God. His heart is inflamed with pity and compassion for his people” (p. 73). It’s hard to believe Ortlund really means what he’s saying here. “Convulsing,” by definition, lacks self-control. Certainly such uncontrolled emotions are not characteristic of the immutable God of the Bible, nor would they be a source of comfort and security to His people.”
Now, a couple of readers have said that they were uncomfortable with Ortlund’s language here and I agree that we should always have a look back and check the language that we have used. However, throughout, Ortlund is clear that he is describing these things within the context of the doctrine of divine impassibility. In other words, his intention is to use anthropomorphic language to talk in analogous terms about how Christ relates to us. That’s the whole point of such language, to enable communication about what God is like to us.
And if we need a discussion about how to talk in theologically precise terms, we also need to talk about how to use language that runs with the grain of Scripture. If I’m going to try an dfind the best language to describe God, then I want language that talks about God in the way that the Bible talks about him. And Gentle and Lowly does just that. If we have problems with how Ortlund talks about Christ, then they perhaps reflect the discomfort we feel at how Scripture itself talks and perhps that’s where we need to give our attention to.
So, what do I make of the review? Well, all I can say is that it’s bizarre. It seems that the reviewer has decided to treat the book negatively, to take a few sentences out of context and to ignore its overall thrust and purpose. It’s as though Ortlund writes to tell apprehensive people tha they can draw near to Jesus and find in him someone kind, gentle and loving then someone else has come along and said “Don’t you dare go thinking about Jesus in that way, he is scary and distant and you had better mind your ps and qs with him.”
If Ortlund openly declares that he isn’t giving a balanced account of everything that could be said the reviewer although claiming to be balanced offers us something that is itself unbalanced and in effects delivers a distorted view of Christ which hollows out completely his identity as mediator, advocate, brother and friend. It is right to say that Christ is more than gently and lowly but I vbelieve the review offers us a vision of Christ that is less than those things.
In the week that it all kicked off about Gently and Lowly, we were also treated to pastors online telling us that empathy is a sin and that people shouldn’t bring their emotional trauma with them to church. There seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment. So, I’m not surprised that a vison of Christ as the one who empathises and who welcomes the traumatised to come and find rest in him has provoked such a response.
And yet it is exactly that vision of Christ the one who is “all compassion” that so many need at the moment and that’s why I commend Gently and Lowly.
What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer,
 Dane Ortland, Gentle and Lowly, 18.
 Dane Ortland, Gentle and Lowly, 18.