Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

J. H. Bavinck Unraveling “The Riddle of Life”: A Review

Why are we here? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life?

These questions are common enough in our twenty-first-century context. And yet, the latest bestseller is not always the best place to find helpful answers to these questions. One place to go to think through these and related questions about the problems of our world is J. H. Bavinck’s The Riddle of Life (trans. Bert Hielema; Eerdmans, 2016).

This thin volume (less than one hundred pages) was first published in 1940 and was written some time before that. The author, J. H. Bavinck, was a Dutch missionary and missiologist who served in Indonesia and taught in the Netherlands. He was also a nephew of the eminent theologian Herman Bavinck, author of Reformed Dogmatics. And his book offers winsome wisdom on common questions from a past period to ours.

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A Review of Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church FathersThe history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.

Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.

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The Radical Enlightenment: A Review of Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground

Martin Mulsow, Enlightenment Underground (radical Enlightenment)Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground: Radical Enlightenment, 1680-1720 (University of Virginia Press, 2015; source: publisher) has at last been translated into English. For readers of German, Mulsow’s Moderne aus dem Untergrund. Radikale Frühaufklärung in Deutschland 1680–1720 (2002) has become a standard in early Enlightenment studies. Mulsow’s study of the radical Enlightenment has established one of the ruling understandings of the movement. Now, English readers can benefit from this work.

Mulsow’s methodology is not typical of a historical study of the radical Enlightenment. Rather than a linear presentation, Mulsow chooses to delve into several microhistorical chapters.

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How Flannery O’Connor Became Flannery O’Connor: A Review of Daniel Moran’s Creating Flannery O’Connor

Creating Flannery O'ConnorMy introduction to Flannery O’Connor happened later than for most others. While many became initiated to the writings of O’Connor in a college literature class, for me it was not until this past year. Perusing various audio books for my commute, I thought it was time to get acquainted with Flannery O’Connor.

What struck me first were the twisted yet relatable characters. Second, the themes of sin, redemption, faith, grace, etc., which lay as the foundation to O’Connor’s writings, had me constantly going back for more. Finally, her stories are the type that continually gnaw at you. Long after you stop reading, O’Connor’s words continue to work on you.

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Grammatical-Historical Exegesis in Historical Perspective

In his book Edwards the Exegete (see my review here), Doug Sweeney gives the following brief but illuminating description of the shift that took place with the rise of “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which holds sway in liberal-theological and many evangelical circles today:

As a host of theologians have bemoaned in recent years, Christians lost something crucial in the triumph of grammatical-historical exegesis and its rather new conception of the literal sense of Scripture. They lost their old conviction that the Bible hangs together by the power of the Spirit. Thus they lost their old facility for interpreting the scope and larger meanings of the canon. . . . Ancient history, not the knowledge and love of God has now become the holy grail of exegesis.[1]

In contrast, Sweeney suggests that Edwards, who was interpreting Scripture “on the edge of the Enlightenment,” can offer something that responds to this shift: “a learned and creative model of biblical exposition that is critical and edifying, historical and spiritual.”[2] Edwards is certainly not the only exegete to offer something. One could look to several biblical interpreters in church history and find examples of exegesis aimed at both the knowledge and the love of God. Edwards, however, is a particularly interesting example because he lived during a transition into more critical methods of reading the Bible, and yet while he found the new learning fascinating, he still read Scripture in ways that resonated with exegesis for centuries preceding him.

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Leo Tolstoy and Art

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.[1]  – Leo Tolstoy

In thinking about my Fall courses, I am working through some issues on the broad subject of art. One of my classes will be the seemingly impossible task of covering the entirety of art history. Of course, a semester will only allow broad sweeps with select moments of concentration if we are to get through pre-historic to the present.

In addition to a survey of art history, I periodically pause to define art and its role in society. I start with something like this video to get the conservation started.

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It’s Catholicism without Rome: A Review of Julie Byrne’s The Other Catholics

Julie Byrne, The Other CatholicsLike many, I have run into independent Catholics before, but I had never really grasped their existence. Eyebrows were raised when Mel Gibson established a church in California. I vaguely recall hearing about the ordination of Sinéad O’Connor. I completely overlooked the Santa Muerte reference in Breaking Bad, while my attention was fixed on Tuco’s bizarre cousins.

Independent Catholics are roughly split into 250 geographical areas, or “jurisdictions.” Since the 1890 United States census, where they were labelled “Other Catholics,” the best estimations put them at 1 million in the US. Julie Byrne’s The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016; source: publisher) takes a moment to study these independent Catholics.

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Take Him or Leave Him: A Review of Patrick Gray’s Paul as a Problem in History and Culture

Partick Gray, Paul as a Problem in History and CultureHave you ever wanted to know what people really think of you? What are they saying when you leave the room? What words are whispered when they think no one is listening?  Well, if you are Paul, here is your chance.

Patrick Gray provides us with an interesting take on an important issue. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) reads like a behind-the-scenes look at everyone who ever said something bad about Paul. The work is a thorough analysis of the who’s who of Paul’s critics.

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Recasting Sola Scriptura: Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity

Allen and Swain - Reformed CatholicityIn my review of Mark Noll’s book, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, I described Noll’s discussion of how American colonists transformed the sola scriptura principle of “the Bible supreme” into “the Bible only.” That story recounts some negative consequences of such a shift and also raises certain theological questions beyond the purview of Noll’s book. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015), Michael Allen and Scott Swain make a similar observation about Protestants, but they look at it from the viewpoint of theologians, pointing to dangers with sola scripture from a Reformed point of view and addressing some of the very theological issues raised in Noll’s book (though not interacting with his work directly).

What exactly do they mean by the term catholicity? They explain that they understand catholicity not in the narrower sense of Roman Catholic but in the early-church sense of the church catholic, or the church universal. As J. Todd Billings describes in his afterword to the book, this approach to theology is catholic in the sense that “it gives a Trinitarian (Nicene) account that holds to the cosmic centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator between Creator and creation (Chalcedonian)” (152). Those who appreciate the discipline of church history can likewise appreciate their desire to root their modern theological program in the theology of the ancient church councils.

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What is the Church: A Review of Gerald Bray’s The Church

Gerald Bray, The Church

Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.

On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.

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Johann Georg Hamann and Time

Johann Georg Hamann

Johann Georg Hamann

I have never been big on time travel movies. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of time travel is intriguing. But the convoluted nature of some of these films makes it hard to get past the many inconsistencies. I am more than willing to adhere to the film’s understanding of time, but when the storyline breaks its own rules, that’s when I bail ship (now I’m the one being inconsistent, but I did not mind About Time).

Theologians and theoreticians attempts at understanding time is nothing new and will surely continue in the future. One can turn to Augustine’s thoughts on the matter in the Confessions, or more modern discussions of A Theory and B Theory. Into this mix, I would like to throw in Hamann’s reflections on time.

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A Review of Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life

Mark Noll - In the Beginning Was the WordLiving in what some call a post-Christian society, one might expect the Bible to have receded from public life by this time. While it might still have some influence in small enclaves of believers, it would rarely be seen in the public discourse. And to some degree this is true. Yet even in recent presidential campaigns and inaugural addresses, the Bible still shows up. Its lingering influence points to a long, complex history of the Bible’s place in American public life.

Eminent religious historian Mark Noll traces the early part of this history in his book In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016; source: publisher). So much could be said about the Bible in America, and Noll seeks to narrow his discussion by focusing on how the Bible influenced public life—that is, “to show how such influences shaped the history of Scripture for political, imperial, and national purposes” (5).

As one expects from Noll, he provides a very readable account of how Americans used the Bible in public discourse. Inevitably, he must be selective, and many aspects of the history of biblical interpretation stand beyond the scope of the volume (e.g., exploring debates over principles of exegesis, examining shifts in the commentarial tradition). But his selections form a coherent tale that illuminates the shifts within the increasingly sticky relationship between the Bible and politics. Noll gives us an overarching view of the story of the Bible in American public life and provides insightful historical analysis along the way.

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Reformed Revival: A Review of Pentecostal Outpourings

Pentecostal Outpourings Reformed

Pentecostal Outpourings Reformed

The Reformed tradition is not the first thing that comes to mind when reading the words Pentecostal Outpourings (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016; source: publisher). When I came across the title I immediately thought, perhaps this is a historical work on the rise of the Pentecostal church. Maybe even a contemporary study of the globalization of Pentecostalism. It was a surprise when I read the subtitle, “Revival and the Reformed Tradition.”

In most Reformed circles, revivals are little discussed and unfortunately experienced even less. This is not universal across all Reformed traditions. Growing up in a Korean-American Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Chicago, revivals were very much real and ongoing. However, there does not exist a widespread Reformed discussion of revival in the current church. It seems that this is the first objective of Pentecostal Outpourings. The authors are reintroducing revival within a Reformed context.

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Martin Luther on the Lord’s Prayer

Luther's Prayers The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most recited prayer in all human history. Many churches recite it every week in their liturgy. Catechisms often devote a question and answer to each line of the prayer. Pastors preach sermon series on it. And countless families and individual Christians pray it regularly, even daily.

Martin Luther captures both the benefit of regularly feasting on the Lord’s Prayer and the danger of repeating it with a disengaged spirit:

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.[1]

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Kierkegaard and Religious Diversity

Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious DiversityOne of the courses I’m teaching this semester is World Religions. The course begins in India, moving to some of the Asian religions, before addressing the Abrahamic faiths. We cover history, theology, and contemporary issues of individual religions. In addition, throughout the semester we regularly return to the question of religious diversity.

How are we to understand seemingly mutually exclusive religious truth claims? Just last week we discussed the controversy at Wheaton College surrounding Larycia Hawkins. It is in this context that George B. Connell’s Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Diversity speaks to.

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