Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Author: David Barshinger (page 2 of 4)

John Bunyan (and Jonathan Edwards) on a True Work of Grace

John_BunyanWhen thinking of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time, you might not immediately think of this allegory as a work of theology. Some scholars, like Gordon Campbell, even suggest that “The Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious work rather than a theological work.”[1] To make this bifurcation, however, mistakenly suggests that the Christian life is somehow separate and distinct from the Christian mind. In fact, while John Bunyan (1628–1688) focused this renowned work on the journey of the Christian, he weaved his theology—sometimes subtly—throughout the narrative.

One way that theology shines through the story is in the conversation that the characters have with each other. The importance of Christian discourse to the volume even leads Michael Mullett to note that “the book is a dialogue at least as much as it is a travelogue.”[2] To give a taste of how Bunyan incorporates his theology into the story’s conversations, we’ll explore a section from The Pilgrim’s Progress on discerning a true “work of grace.”

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What Hath God to Do with Churchill?

God and ChurchillSeventy years after the end of World War II, we can look back with admiration for those who led the resistance against the human-killing, society-destroying machine that Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) built. Perhaps the most legendary and beloved leader resolved to end Hitler’s reign of terror was Winston Churchill (1874–1965). But what made Churchill so great?

Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley point to several aspects of Churchill’s greatness, from his character to his leadership style. But they contend that at the core of his greatness was his sense of divine destiny, which ultimately points to God’s sovereign use of Churchill as his instrument to bring the world back from the brink of disaster.

Their argument, however, goes further. This paradigm of divine intervention not only explains our past but also speaks to our present, extending hope in our own times, plagued by wars and brutality such as that manifested by the Islamic State. Thus they title their book God and Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours (Tyndale Momentum, October 2015; source: publisher).

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Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and America: A Review of Grant Wacker’s “America’s Pastor”

Grant Wacker - America's PastorMentioning the name Billy Graham evokes all kinds of responses. Deep respect for a faithful evangelist. Admiration for a life of unparalleled achievements. Anger toward a figure who failed to do what some subgroup wanted him to do. Disappointment over a man who appeared ever drawn to politics and presidents. Increasing ignorance of who he is.

While the sentiments toward Graham vary, of all these opinions, perhaps the most surprising—and least justifiable—is ignorance. But even if many pay less heed to Graham, who as of this writing is still kicking at age ninety-six, his legacy is palpable in evangelicalism and even American culture. So argues Grant Wacker in his masterfully written America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap, 2014; source: publisher).

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George Whitefield’s Preaching on the Holy Spirit

George_Whitefield_preaching (Joseph Belcher, 1857)In my previous post, I mentioned that John Owen devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We see that emphasis fleshed out further in the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. One eminent evangelical who manifested that focus on the Spirit was the renowned preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770).

Whitefield was especially known for preaching the new birth message; that is, he frequently discoursed on the doctrine of regeneration. It’s no surprise, then, that he was also very interested in the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the agent of regeneration. And we see evidence of this fascination in his sermons.

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John Owen: Why We Need a Robust Theology of the Holy Spirit

John Owen FrontispieceSome people refer to the Holy Spirit as the “neglected” member of the Trinity. Certainly, all three persons in the Godhead have been given short shrift at different times and among different groups in the church. But in their history, Protestants can find many who explored the nature and work of the Spirit, though perhaps none more thoroughly than the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683).

In his later years, Owen penned several treatises beginning in 1674 that were later drawn together in one volume under the title Pneumatologia, or Pneumatology. Some have called this book the best work on the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.

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William Ames on the Nature of Theology

William AmesTheology. What exactly is theology? Quite literally, we might say that it is a word (logos) about God (theos). One of the most renowned phrases employed to explain theology comes from the Middle Ages, when Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109), in his Proslogion, described it as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Generally speaking, when we think of theology, we think of thinking. It is something we conceive in our minds and believe.

While this may be the common perception, many in Christian history have, in fact, connected theology with practice. The English Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) does this quite starkly in the opening of his highly influential The Marrow of Theology, which became a standard theological textbook in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century New England, leaving its imprint particularly on the likes of Jonathan Edwards. In his Marrow, Ames defines theology as “the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God.”

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Americans and the Color of Christ

Blum and Harvey - The Color of ChristToday, if we ask the question, what color was Jesus?, we will most likely hear that he was dark or brown, like the color of a Middle Easterner. But in America, even if people recognize this likelihood, most envision a white Jesus in their mind’s eye. We, of course, have no known images of Jesus. So how did this view come about?

In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Edward Blum and Paul Harvey trace the differing visual portrayals of Jesus from the colonial era to our day. I recently listened to the audiobook version of this volume and found that they recount a fascinating—though, at times, disturbing—tale that brings out the diverse ways people have reimagined Jesus and used him for their own purposes in American history, often in ways with tragic racial consequences.

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American Evangelicalism and Education: Perspectives

J.G.MachenAmerican Evangelicals today debate the value of one form of education over another. Some see public education as a mission field; others decry it as both intellectually lacking and spiritually eroding. Some see private Christian schools as a sophisticated effort to nurture a well-rounded Christian worldview in children; others find them overpriced or uneven in quality. Some see homeschooling as the premier form of instilling family and faith values in one’s children; others charge it with being insular or infeasible.

To some degree, all of these claims resonate with reality. One will find positives and negatives with any school system. But that doesn’t make them all equal. Wherever one stands on these issues, it is interesting that two towering evangelical figures in the 1920s and 1940s highlighted the important role of education in a society while warning of the dangers of an unchecked state-run education system.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) and Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) wrote in the throes of Christianity’s displacement from mainstream American society—Machen during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that led to several denominational splits and Henry during the postwar years. As Christianity’s influence in the U.S. diminished, they raised questions about the role of public education.

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Ancient Arguments for the Resurrection

Cervo066As we reflect on the events of Holy Week, we are reminded that the theme of resurrection has long been a driving force for Christians throughout the history of the church. Just as Christians today seek to provide a defense for the resurrection—from apologists like William Lane Craig (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?) to surgeons like William Miller (Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? A Surgeon-Scientist Examines the Evidence)—so did Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.

Of course, one thinks first of the Gospel writers, who laid out the initial written accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. We can also point especially to Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 15 adduced evidence for Christ’s resurrection from the Scripture and early eyewitnesses, including Cephas (Peter), the twelve, and “five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Cor. 15:6). He highlighted the centrality of the resurrection as the lynchpin of Christianity: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” for “[i]f in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17, 19).

But Paul—and all orthodox Christians to follow—believed that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). And thus we find a long history of defending both the reasonableness and the reality of the resurrection.

One early Christian in this tradition is Athenagoras, who wrote the second-century De Resurrectione (On the Resurrection), which you can read online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. In De Resurrectione, Athenagoras lays out a reasonable argument in defense of the resurrection of the dead, responding to objections and offering positive supporting evidence.

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Perspective on Intellectual Pursuits

Richard Mouw - Called to the Life of the MindPursuing an active life of the mind offers both intriguing possibilities and inevitable perils. The study of church history is no exception to this reality. Those who have engaged in the exploration of the past know what a fascinating world it holds and yet also the danger that an overwhelming mass of artifacts and writings might bury the historian.

In Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014), Richard Mouw offers some perspective to those delving into intellectual endeavors. This short book of seventy-four pages includes nineteen “chapters”—perhaps better called “reflections”—on the work of scholarship. For busy evangelical professors, researchers, and doctoral students, this format offers an opportunity to steal away for a few minutes and think about the craft of scholarship.

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Civil War, Contingency, and Christian Historians

Allen Guelzo - GettysburgI recently listened to Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (audiobook version; Vintage Civil War Library, 2014), and in following his account of this bloody battle, you can’t miss that it illustrates the role of contingency in historical study. That is, history is marked by asking the question, how would things have turned out differently if this or that event had not happened?

In the case of the battle at Gettysburg, the question often goes like this: what needed to happen in order for the Confederates to score a victory at Gettysburg? If only Stonewall Jackson had survived the friendly fire that wounded him two months earlier at Chancellorsville; if only J. E. B. Stuart hadn’t taken so long to get to Gettysburg and provide screening for Lee’s movements; if only Lieutenant General Dick Ewell had pressed forward on July 1 and taken cemetery hill; if only Lieutenant General James Longstreet had started his assaults on July 2 and 3 earlier in the day; if only George Pickett had received the cover he needed to conduct his charge; if only General Lee had pushed his generals to take more initiative or had backed away from a general engagement in early July to find better ground. If only.

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Kyle Strobel’s Reimagining of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology

Kyle Strobel - JE's Theology - A ReinterpretationWhat model of the Trinity did Jonathan Edwards employ in his theology? How did Edwards’ Trinitarianism shape the rest of his theological program? How did Edwards’ emphases on the end for which God created the world, religious affections, and the remanation of God’s glory cohere in this New England divine’s creative mind?

Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor at Biola University, explores these questions—and many related lines of inquiry—in his work Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, vol. 19 in T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, and Ivor Davidson (London: T&T Clark, 2013; source: publisher). In Strobel’s volume, readers will find an erudite treatment of Edwards’ theology that explores and reframes the details of his thought in the light of his Trinitarian and redemptive emphases.

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C. S. Lewis a Half-Century after His Death

Alister McGrath - Lewis - A LifeA decade after his death, C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) mark was fading away. But five decades after Lewis passed physically from this world, his intellectual and imaginative influence holds powerful sway. In fact, some have even called him the patron saint of evangelicalism. Surely countless American evangelical pastors have quoted the ever-quotable Lewis in a Sunday morning sermon.

So what led this academic specialist in medieval English literature to rise to such revered status today? Alister McGrath—who, like Lewis, grew up in the Belfast region of Ireland and became a professor at Oxford University—offers an incisive interpretation of Lewis’s life and legacy in his book C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013).

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Mark Noll on the Global Christian Story

Noll - From Every Tribe and Nation

The journey of life takes us all in directions we don’t anticipate. And that is true even for academic historians. In From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014; source: publisher), the renowned American religious history Mark Noll tells how his journey took him from a parochial view of history focused on Western Christianity to a truly global perspective of the Christian past. And he does so in the engaging form of a memoir.

Noll’s volume is the third in Baker Academic’s Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity series, edited by Joel Carpenter. The other volumes include Nicholas Woltserstorff’s Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South and Susan VanZanten’s Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa.

In his contribution to the series, Noll alerts readers to the undeniable shifts that have taken place in the nature and extent of Christianity especially in the last century. Far from a Western religion, Christianity has spilled over into Africa, Asia, and Latin America in remarkable and explosive ways, and with more and more literature available on these shifts, Christians in the West have less and less reason to keep their proverbial head in the ground about world Christianity.

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Jonathan Edwards as Mentor

Jonathan_EdwardsWhen we think about Jonathan Edwards as a pastor, we tend to conjure up a fairly negative picture: a lackluster preacher and bookworm who preferred spending as much as thirteen hours per day in his study over mingling with his congregants—a group of people who ultimately ousted him from his pastoral post in Northampton.

Rhys Bezzant does us the favor of offering a corrective to Edwards’ reputation as a pastor in his article “‘Singly, Particularly, Closely’: Edwards as Mentor” [Jonathan Edwards Studies 4, no. 2 (2014): 228–246]. He contends that “Edwards was actually a very skilled mentor and expert trainer of leaders for the church” (229). And he offers incisive recommendations for the church to learn from Edwards’ mentoring style today.

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