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.
I 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)
How 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.
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.
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, it nonetheless presents a valuable discussion of how Christians have understood the doctrine of forgiveness and practiced it throughout history.
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.
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.
In 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.
“Glory to God in the highest,
Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
~ Luke 2:14
In a sermon on this text, Jonathan Edwards reflected on how Christ brings peace on earth. As the following excerpts from his sermon (available in this volume) show, Edwards celebrated the incarnation of God in Jesus and the peaceful effects of his coming to earth, which brought peace between man and God, peace within man, and peace between men:
When 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
Some 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.
Theology. 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.”
I 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.
What 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.