Reflections on History and Theology

Category: Modern European Church History

Understanding the Life and History of Eastern Orthodoxy

McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History - cover

For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book. 

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C. S. Lewis, Screwtape, and Devaluing Old Books

C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters* (1942), describes how history has been devalued in the modern age. The notorious Screwtape, a master demon writing to his younger protégé Wormwood, says this about the intellectual climate in Western Europe:

Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.”[1]

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Living a Theologically Engaged Life with Abraham Kuyper

When one thinks of the Dutch churchman Abraham Kuyper, one likely thinks of his most cited quotation: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (8). This powerful statement is a challenge to anyone who wants to be in control of some part of his or her life—which, of course, is everyone. It also captures a driving theme in Kuyper’s life: sphere sovereignty. The idea that Jesus is Lord of every sphere reorients humans in all areas of life, and Kuyper untiringly devoted his life to seeing how Christ’s sovereignty could be applied to every sphere of human existence. 

Michael R. Wagenman explores these themes in his book Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper* (Lexham, 2019). This is one of the first books in a new series by Lexham Press called Lived TheologyMichael A. G. Haykin, who writes the series preface, is presumably the series editor, though he is not explicitly identified as such. According to Haykin, the series is meant to put flesh and bones on theological convictions, showing how beliefs about the Christian God have led people to live out their faith in diverse contexts. The series seeks to introduce readers to well-known and lesser-known figures in church history through accessible books, all with this goal in mind:

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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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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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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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How Religion Shaped and Was Shaped by World War I

Jenkins - The Great and Holy WarThis year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the launch of the Great War. As we look back, many will cast the massive conflict in political, economic, and social terms, and they will be right to do so. But if they ignore the religious aspects of the war—as many will be tempted to do—they will fail to treat it fully and fairly. In fact, as Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, shows, religion played an essential role in the war, even as the war shaped religion worldwide.

In Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), he transports us back a century ago to explore how religion colored the broader political, cultural, and intellectual issues driving the war. Among the major national players, Christian imagery and language infused the move toward war and sustained the military conflict. But the four years from 1914–1918 also remapped the modern world, drawing new geopolitical boundaries in ways that reflected and heightened religious tension.

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