Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A Book Review

Kevin Madigan, Medieval ChristianityIn Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.

A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).

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Am I Forgiven? Exploring the History of the Forgiveness of Sins

The forgiveness of sins, on the one hand, is presented as an objective reality for Christians. Jesus Christ, the God-man, accomplished redemption through his life, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit applies that to those who trust in him. Yet life is messy. And the history of the doctrine of forgiveness underscores that the subjective element has rendered it difficult for the church to articulate this doctrine in such a way that covers the varied experience of individuals. Said another way, sinners plagued by guilt for their wrongdoing often cannot escape the doubts they have about whether or not they are truly forgiven. This question, then, is by no means merely metaphysical. Rather, it bears directly on the daily lives of individuals, and it arguably touches the life of every human being who has the capacity to feel shame.

In considering the question of the forgiveness of sins, I picked up an old book by Cambridge theologian William Telfer, The Forgiveness of Sins: An Essay in the History of Christian Doctrine and Practice (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960). While the book has its shortcomings,[1] it nonetheless presents a valuable discussion of how Christians have understood the doctrine of forgiveness and practiced it throughout history.

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The Biblical Accommodation Debate in Germany is Now Available

I’m pleased to announce that The Biblical Accommodation Debate in Germany: Interpretation and the Enlightenment (Palgrave Macmillan: 2017), has been published.

Here is the back cover:

 

 

This book redresses a misunderstanding in the history of biblical interpretation. Hoon J. Lee provides the first study of the biblical accommodation debate of the Enlightenment. The heavily contested doctrine spurred numerous biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers to debate the nature of divine revelation communicated through human words. As biblical accommodation was coupled with historical criticism, the participants in this literary debate fought over the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible.

Examining the wide range of writing on the doctrine of accommodation, Lee surveys the Dutch discussion of accommodation that leads up to the German debate. In doing so, he provides the historical development of Augustinian and Socinian accommodation.

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John Calvin on the Christian Life

At times, old historical writings get the reputation of being impenetrable. This may be due to historical differences, the foreign style of writing, a poor translation (or lack of any translation), or the overwhelming options for historical writings. This is quite unfortunate, as these writings are rich with insight and continue to be relevant for the present.

John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017; source: publisher) is a simple remedy to these types of concerns. Extracted from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, this little work has continued to be published as a standalone work since Calvin’s lifetime. Through the editorial and translation work of Burk Parsons and Aaron Denlinger, we have a very readable translation of this short but perceptive work on the Christian life (the previous English translation was less than acceptable).

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Saint Macrina: A Portrait of Female Piety in the Early Church

Fourth-century Christianity is perhaps best remembered for the Trinitarian controversies that flared with the rise of Arius early on and continued until the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the East, some of the key figures involved in that controversy were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Lesser known is the life of Saint Macrina (ca. 327–379), the eldest sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, yet her faith influenced her brothers in profound ways. And her brother Gregory memorialized her in an account of her life, The Life of Saint Macrina, which offers readers today a portrait of female piety in the early church.

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Summer Reading List

As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!

Irena Backus, Leibniz, Protestant Theologian

1. Irena Backus, Leibniz: Protestant Theologian

Though best known for his philosophy, Backus offers a different perspective by examining Leibniz’s theology. Backus works through the relationship of Leibniz’s Lutheran theology and his philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment.

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The Biblical Accommodation Debate in Germany: Interpretation and the Enlightenment

I’m pleased to announce that The Biblical Accommodation Debate in Germany: Interpretation and the Enlightenment will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Since the days of the Enlightenment, one of the most significant aspects of interpreting the Bible has been the question of how God accommodated his revelation to humanity. Since God is infinite and humans are finite, God had to somehow communicate with his creatures in a way they could understand. Ever since the time of Augustine, accommodation has been a crucial doctrine for interpreters of the Bible who also seek to understand the Bible’s authority, and it remains so today. However, the contemporary discussion of the doctrine is hampered by an ignorance of its history and how a seventy-five-year debate reshaped accommodation for the modern era. My book aims to redress this misunderstanding.

In this book I set out to fill a lacuna in the history of biblical interpretation. To date, there is no work on the doctrine of accommodation during the Enlightenment. Given that eighteenth-century Germany witnessed the greatest concentrated discussion of accommodation, all in the context of historical criticism, this void in the history of biblical interpretation is quite unfortunate. My book meets this need by examining the accommodation debate of 1761–1835 in conjunction with the German Enlightenment and the rise of historical criticism.

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What Makes Good Preaching? Some Thoughts from a Puritan

William Ames, by Willem van der Vliet (1633)

William Ames, by Willem van der Vliet (1633)

In seminary classes on homiletics, aspiring pastors receive all kinds of advice on how to effectively communicate to their audience. Start with an unforgettable story. Sprinkle your sermon with humor. Offer plentiful encouragement and inspiration. Deliver a line that listeners won’t be able to shake out of their heads.

These and other homiletical tactics no doubt reflect the context in which we live. Preachers are told that contextualizing not only their message but also the form of their sermon is essential to changing the lives of hearers. In some cases, preachers no doubt use such tools and principles effectively. Yet sometimes such contextualizing can veer so far away from Scripture that it morphs into mere pep talks or social commentary. And other times the sermon retains a respect for the Bible but unintentionally distracts with verbal embellishment.

Because we are contextual beings—and thus are steeped in the thinking of our age—we benefit from hearing how those from other times have discussed the topic of preaching. The Puritans elevated the preaching of God’s Word to such a high degree that it bears listening to their concerns. To attend to a seventeenth-century Puritan, of course, is to eavesdrop on another context with its own unique issues. And just because someone who died a few centuries ago recommended a particular approach doesn’t automatically make it right—whether for that time or ours. With such caveats in place, we can perhaps gain something from a theologian whose text The Marrow of Theology (1629, 3rd Latin ed.) was heavily influential on divinity students in the century that followed.

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Lancelot Addison and the Enlightenment: A Review of William J. Bulman’s Anglican Enlightenment

William J. Bulman, Anglican EnlightenmentA while back, Emily Rutherford posited that studies on the Church of England in the eighteenth century was the “biggest gap” in current historiography. Rutherford goes on to identify Carolyn Steedman’s Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age as the best exception to this lacuna. In addition to Steedman, one could also add Brent Sirota. With William J. Bulman’s Anglican Enlightenment; Orientalism, Religion and Politics in England and its Empire, 1648-1715 (Cambridge, 2015; source: publisher) we can now include a pivotal study that perhaps fills this gap.

At first glance, Anglican Enlightenment seems to have a couple significant limitations. First, is not Anglican Enlightenment an oxymoron? It has long been argued that early Enlightenment in England has stood in opposition to conformist Church of England. The term Anglican Enlightenment is thus rendered nonsensical. Second, despite its title, Bulman’s work is a study of Lancelot Addison, and not the broader overview of the Church of England. This begs the question, could one case study give us a fair assessment of an entire movement such as the Anglican Enlightenment?

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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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