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.
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).
As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!
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.
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.
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.
Have 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.
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.
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.
John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology
Full disclosure, I am not a philosopher. Far from it. However, the history of philosophy has always been an interest of mine. Whether it was working my way through Frederick Copleston’s history or the intricacies of the Hamann-Kant dialogues, the history of philosophy has been a topic I regularly return to.
John M. Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P & R Publishing , 2015; source: publisher) is a reminder both of my love for the history of philosophy and my inadequacy as a philosopher. Frame provides a wide sweep of the discipline, yet detailed attention to key philosophers and philosophies.
This is all standard fare for a history of philosophy. What distinguishes this history is the author. Frame, known more for his work in theology, offers a uniquely Christian and theological perspective on the history of philosophy.
“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:
In the first of a two-part series, I will discuss Johann Georg Hamann’s Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage (1775) and his theology of sexual holiness.
Wedding gifts run the gamut from fine china to kitchen appliances, from cheese domes to French presses. I am not sure what one gets someone in eighteenth–century Prussia, but what Johann Georg Hamann gifted Johann Friedrich Hartknoch is as good as any. In the early hours of August 26, 1774 Hamann was awaken by Hartknoch and his bride, Albertine Toussaint. Overjoyed by their visit and recent good news, Hamann welcomed his guests with a promise of an essay to commemorate their nuptials.
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.