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.
The history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.
Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.
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.
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.
Augustine is a common source for any discussion of the Trinity. It helps that he wrote a book called On the Trinity. For good or bad, the consensus understands Augustine as a pivotal figure in early Trinitarianism, especially in a post-Nicene context.
The Donatist controversy is not discussed at quite the same level as Augustine and the Trinity, but is a common area of Augustine studies. Geoffrey G. Willis wrote on the issue, and the matter is addressed in any of the standard biographies. What we do not see often is a study that combines the two.
Adam Ployd’s Augustine, Trinity, and the Church (Oxford, 2015; source: publisher) falls in line with works on the relationship between the Trinity and the church. Examples of such studies are Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity and Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom. Ployd’s study is not a progression of Volf or Moltmann, for to do so would be anachronistic. Rather, Ployd takes a look at Augustine within his post-Nicene context.
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.
It is hard to imagine a single text more influential than the Confessions. Of course there is the Bible or the Declaration of Independence, but, Confessions rivals any text apart from divine revelation or nation forming documents.
Contributing to the allure of the Confessions is the autobiographical nature of the work. Not entirely an autobiography, the first half recounts Augustine’s life. Secondly, there is a diversity of disciplines which are attracted to the Confessions. One only has to look at Rousseau’s Confessions to witness these two factors.
These elements are also present in Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography (Oxford, 2014; source: publisher). The perspective of these philosophers provides a welcome contribution to the study of Augustine’s Confessions.
When it comes to the origins of the ecclesiastical offices, established scholarship has long held episkopos and presbyteros as synonymous terms describing the same office. F. C. Baur’s understanding was established as the classic position in 1835. This position has become the standard, articulated in specialist and non-specialist literature alike.
Revisionist work has challenged the consensus to a limited degree of success. However, such studies have either failed to provide convincing evidence for their case or lacked widespread reception. That is, until Stewart’s The Original Bishops.
As 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.
A common placement of Gregory the Great (540-604) in his historical context has been to position him in the early stages of the medieval papacy. It has been argued that Gregory should be interpreted as the first medieval pope, initiating a trajectory which would develop over a number of centuries, and in many ways culminate in the Renaissance popes. As the first medieval pope, Gregory established the supremacy of Rome, laying the foundation for the institutional, political, and spiritual rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
In response to this assessment, recent scholarship has sought to better understand Gregory within his historical context. By bringing to light the continuity between Gregory and earlier periods of church history, it has been shown that the title of first medieval pope misidentifies Gregory in the wrong historical period. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but has great implications for the interpretation of Gregory’s theological, political, and literary endeavors as pope (590-604).
Over at First Things, Bianca Czaderna has an insightful piece on recording artist Hozier’s song “Take Me to Church.” In an open letter to Hozier, Czaderna questions Hozier’s juxtaposition of sexual liberation and worship in a church. She writes,
With lyrics like, “My lover’s got humour . . . I should’ve worshiped her sooner” and “My church offers no absolution . . . She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom,’ The only heaven I’ll be sent to . . . is when I’m alone with you,” you’re saying that sex is more freeing, more real, more human, more worthy as a site of worship than any church. Religion is stifling; sex is liberating. That’s the neat dichotomy you think you’ve set up.
For evangelical Christians, reading the Bible represents one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life. As heirs of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, evangelicals elevate Scripture above all other authorities.
Yet even Martin Luther never intended that Christians should read the Bible alone. Luther owed much in his biblical interpretation to Augustine, and he cast the Reformation movement as standing in continuity with the early church.
Michael Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, echoes Luther’s sentiment that Christians can gain much by interpreting Scripture in the light of earlier biblical interpreters in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Eerdmans, 2014). In this volume, Graves guides readers into the ancient world of early Christianity by exploring the intersection of biblical inspiration and biblical interpretation. For the early church fathers, what are the “entailments” of affirming the doctrine of inspiration, as they all did?
The challenges of addressing the entirety of church history within a single volume are well-known. Certain events must be passed over and discussions shelved for another time. Yet, if too much material is bypassed, we are left with an unbalanced history that fails to relate the flow and development of church history.
God’s Story: A Student’s Guide to Church History is Brian Cosby’s attempt at tackling this challenge. Not only does Cosby address the church from the Old Testament to the present, he does so in a concise volume intended for a brief read. In addition, his work is intended for the young, adding an additional level of difficulty.
The origins of the New Testament canon have become a point of contention in our day. What hangs in the balance is the validity of the Bible as Christians’ authoritative guide in faith and life. Some have claimed that in the fourth century, the group with the largest army and political power chose what books to include in the New Testament. Charles Hill argues that it’s not so simple.
Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, Hill recently wrote an essay for Christ on Campus Initiative (a nonprofit with which I serve) that addresses this question in detail. His essay, “Who Chose the New Testament Books? Politics, Praxis, and Proof in the Early Church,” explores the historical evidence for the origins of the New Testament and presents a fuller picture than we hear in popular media.