Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography,” George Whitefield, and Early American Religion

"Portrait of Benjamin Franklin," by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington

“Portrait of Benjamin Franklin,” by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington

One engaging way to get a taste of eighteenth-century America is to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (You can buy countless editions on Amazon, or you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg website.) The Bostonian-turned-Philadelphia-printer is a classic story of a young working-class man who makes something of himself through hard work and industry.

In the Autobiography, one can discover much about British colonial America, from the dynamics of the economy and the dependence of the colonies on Great Britain to the politics of colonial life and the ongoing threat and reality of war in America. Franklin’s life touched on all kinds of issues in his day, making this primary source a valuable read. As one would expect, it also wades into questions of religion.

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John Chrysostom on Love and Marriage

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, advice on love can be found not only in the seasonal aisle of the grocery store but also in the writings of the ancient past. One notable pastor from early Christianity to treat the topic of love and marriage is John Chrysostom (ca. 347–409), the “golden mouth” preacher of Asia Minor. Chrysostom’s best preaching on marriage is captured in his On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986), from the Popular Patristics Series (see also my discussion of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching from the same series). This volume by Chrysostom includes six of his sermons on the topic of marriage—aimed toward both those seeking marriage and those already married.

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Introducing “Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition”

Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant TraditionI was deeply privileged to contribute to a hefty book on historical theology that has just released: Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition. This volume, edited by Kelly Kapic and Hans Madueme, both professors at Covenant College, aims to introduce readers to some of the key figures and works in the history of theology.

To give you a sense of the work’s purpose, Kelly Kapic says this:

We know that most people don’t have the time to read thousands and thousands of pages, and yet a student of Protestant theology must become familiar with key authors and their works. Without such study they simply cannot begin to understand the dynamics of this tradition—or, more accurately, traditions. Therefore, in this volume we have chosen fifty-eight works that represent a reasonable set of selections from the past 2,000 years. (5)

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Irenaeus on Biblical Interpretation

Irenaeus - On the Apostolic PreachingHow did the early Christians interpret the Bible? Should their mode of biblical interpretation say anything to us about how to interpret Scripture today? We have much to learn from studying the history of biblical interpretation, a field that speaks to both the unity and diversity of exegesis among Christians. One of the earliest discussions of biblical interpretation that we have comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140–ca. 200), in On the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

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Book Notice | Between Wittenberg and Geneva: A Study of Lutheran and Reformed Theology

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation saw a plethora of works which commemorated the birth of Protestantism. Naturally, many of these works address in some way Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theses. As the catalyst, Luther’s action set in motion a reform that developed not only a break from the Roman Catholic Church but numerous Protestant branches.

Making sense of these various Protestant traditions is no small matter. For example, when looking at two of the largest traditions that came out of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed, on which theological issues do they find commonality and how are their differences significant? If you have ever struggled with these types of issues, Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology (Baker Academic 2017; source: publisher) may be the book for you.

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Herbert Bayer, “Reason Is Language, Logos” (Johann Georg Hamann)

From 1950 through the middle of the 1970s, Herbert Bayer, then director of the Container Corporation of America, commissioned a series of works under the title “Great Ideas of the Western Man.” The works were inspired by the who’s who of Western philosophy, literature, science, religion, and politics.

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Religious Change, 1450-1700, The Reformation at the Newberry

The Newberry Library in Chicago is currently running the Religious Change 1450-1700  project. In addition to over a hundred objects from their collection on display, the program is hosting a series of lectures on the impact religion and print, had on society. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend two such talks on the Reformation.

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New Release: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia

Jonathan Edwards EncyclopediaThis month Eerdmans is releasing a landmark volume in Edwards studies: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. This book is edited by the Jonathan Edwards Center luminaries Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Adriaan C. Neele, and it makes a substantial contribution to the field by helping those interested in Edwards to get acquainted with various aspects of his life, thought, and context.

It was a privilege for me to be able to contribute three essays to this work, all related to Edwards’s biblical interpretation: “Hermeneutics,” “Inspiration,” and “Scripture.” These form a very small piece of a much larger volume that deserves the attention of Edwards experts and students.

Here’s what other scholars are saying about the volume:

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Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World: A Book Review

If you have not yet come across Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017; source: publisher), I strongly recommend that you take a look. Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes have done a wonderful job of addressing a lacuna in patristic studies. Through a series of separate chapters, the authors examine the lives of Christian women in the period immediately after the apostolic age through the Post-Nicene period.

As one would expect, discussions of motherhood features throughout the Christian Women in the Patristic World. Motherhood is examined through the lives of Helena and Monica. As mothers to Constantine and Augustine, their critical role in the lives of their respectively sons are important case studies. However, just as significant is Pulcheria’s decision to pursue life as a virgin, rather than produce a possible heir to the Byzantine Empire. An ascetic life of prayer and holiness superseded not only motherhood, but also the giving birth to one within the imperial household.

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Martin Luther, Christian Freedom, and the Reformation

Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

October 31, 2017, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Historians debate whether Luther nailed the theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, whether he had a university beadle do the deed, or whether he simply mailed them to the archbishop of Mainz. Regardless, the date nonetheless stands as a pivotal point in church history—and indeed, in the history of the world. The Reformation had begun.

Reform, of course, wasn’t new. Many had called for all kinds of reform in the Middle Ages. But the reform of the sixteenth century took on new overtones; it struck deeper into the heart of Christendom. And one of the best places to see the nature of the new calls for reform is to read Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.

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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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