Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

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Recasting Sola Scriptura: Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity

Allen and Swain - Reformed CatholicityIn 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.

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What is the Church: A Review of Gerald Bray’s The Church

Gerald Bray, The Church

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.

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Johann Georg Hamann and Time

Johann Georg Hamann

Johann Georg Hamann

I have never been big on time travel movies. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of time travel is intriguing. But the convoluted nature of some of these films makes it hard to get past the many inconsistencies. I am more than willing to adhere to the film’s understanding of time, but when the storyline breaks its own rules, that’s when I bail ship (now I’m the one being inconsistent, but I did not mind About Time).

Theologians and theoreticians attempts at understanding time is nothing new and will surely continue in the future. One can turn to Augustine’s thoughts on the matter in the Confessions, or more modern discussions of A Theory and B Theory. Into this mix, I would like to throw in Hamann’s reflections on time.

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A Review of Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life

Mark Noll - In the Beginning Was the WordLiving in what some call a post-Christian society, one might expect the Bible to have receded from public life by this time. While it might still have some influence in small enclaves of believers, it would rarely be seen in the public discourse. And to some degree this is true. Yet even in recent presidential campaigns and inaugural addresses, the Bible still shows up. Its lingering influence points to a long, complex history of the Bible’s place in American public life.

Eminent religious historian Mark Noll traces the early part of this history in his book In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016; source: publisher). So much could be said about the Bible in America, and Noll seeks to narrow his discussion by focusing on how the Bible influenced public life—that is, “to show how such influences shaped the history of Scripture for political, imperial, and national purposes” (5).

As one expects from Noll, he provides a very readable account of how Americans used the Bible in public discourse. Inevitably, he must be selective, and many aspects of the history of biblical interpretation stand beyond the scope of the volume (e.g., exploring debates over principles of exegesis, examining shifts in the commentarial tradition). But his selections form a coherent tale that illuminates the shifts within the increasingly sticky relationship between the Bible and politics. Noll gives us an overarching view of the story of the Bible in American public life and provides insightful historical analysis along the way.

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Reformed Revival: A Review of Pentecostal Outpourings

Pentecostal Outpourings Reformed

Pentecostal Outpourings Reformed

The Reformed tradition is not the first thing that comes to mind when reading the words Pentecostal Outpourings (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016; source: publisher). When I came across the title I immediately thought, perhaps this is a historical work on the rise of the Pentecostal church. Maybe even a contemporary study of the globalization of Pentecostalism. It was a surprise when I read the subtitle, “Revival and the Reformed Tradition.”

In most Reformed circles, revivals are little discussed and unfortunately experienced even less. This is not universal across all Reformed traditions. Growing up in a Korean-American Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Chicago, revivals were very much real and ongoing. However, there does not exist a widespread Reformed discussion of revival in the current church. It seems that this is the first objective of Pentecostal Outpourings. The authors are reintroducing revival within a Reformed context.

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Martin Luther on the Lord’s Prayer

Luther's Prayers The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most recited prayer in all human history. Many churches recite it every week in their liturgy. Catechisms often devote a question and answer to each line of the prayer. Pastors preach sermon series on it. And countless families and individual Christians pray it regularly, even daily.

Martin Luther captures both the benefit of regularly feasting on the Lord’s Prayer and the danger of repeating it with a disengaged spirit:

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.[1]

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Kierkegaard and Religious Diversity

Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious DiversityOne of the courses I’m teaching this semester is World Religions. The course begins in India, moving to some of the Asian religions, before addressing the Abrahamic faiths. We cover history, theology, and contemporary issues of individual religions. In addition, throughout the semester we regularly return to the question of religious diversity.

How are we to understand seemingly mutually exclusive religious truth claims? Just last week we discussed the controversy at Wheaton College surrounding Larycia Hawkins. It is in this context that George B. Connell’s Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Diversity speaks to.

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John Owen on Trees and Trials

John Owen FrontispieceLife is filled with disappointments and difficulties. It doesn’t matter if one is religious or not. Many struggle to make ends meet. Even if one avoids financial woes, cancer can strike out of the blue. Tensions strain relationships. Dreams go unfulfilled. And the list can go on.

Such trials are an old problem—as old as the human race. But while trials are no respecter of persons, Scripture teaches that Christians can view them in redemptive ways. Thus the apostle James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4 ESV).

John Owen (1616–1683) knew his share of trials, living through the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) and the religious roller coaster of seventeenth-century England as power shifted from Anglicans to Puritans to Anglicans and nearly to Roman Catholics. Not until shortly after his death did things settle down a bit with the religious toleration of William and Mary (r. 1689–1702; Mary d. 1694).

While he didn’t suffer as much as many of his Puritan peers, Owen did endure difficulties, and he understood what the apostle James was saying. Owen compared the Christian in trial to a tree in a storm, and his description helps us understand Christian views of suffering as illuminated in Scripture and refracted in church history (I have broken up what appears as a single paragraph in Owen’s work into several paragraphs—a bit better for online reading):

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The Trinity and the Church: A Review of Adam Ployd’s Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church

Augustine, the Trinity, and the ChurchAugustine 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.

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Jeremiah Burroughs on Being Content When Abounding

Jeremiah Burroughs - Contentment, Prosperity and God's GloryThe Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs (1600–1646) is well-known for his treatment of Christian contentment, especially for being content when one has very little. His book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment explores that question at length. Burroughs himself experienced both times of poverty and times of plenty, and he appended a series of sermons to his Rare Jewel that focused on the second of these circumstances, a state that is applicable to many Western Christians today. This brief sermon series has been published by Reformation Heritage Books as Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory.

In this book, after describing what it means to be content when one is “full,” or prosperous, Burroughs warned readers that while a prosperous condition is desirable, it often has unexpected, negative effects on one’s spiritual state:

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Jonathan Edwards as Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Word

CredoMarch2016-1Credo Magazine has released its March 2016 issue, titled Preach the Word: Preachers Who Changed the World. This issue discusses the preaching of Saint Augustine, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and it also features my article, “Jonathan Edwards: A Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Word.” Here’s a brief excerpt:

Dangling like a spider over tongues of fire. Standing before floodgates holding back furious waters. Targeted with an arrow waiting to be drunk with your blood. These images of the sinner’s condition have both captivated and horrified listeners and readers ever since Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) preached his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in the hot summer of 1741. Those who heard him give this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8 of that year became so terrified that they screamed out in the middle of it, “Oh, I am going to Hell,” and “What shall I do to be Sav[e]d?” Their shrieking forced Edwards to stop preaching so he and the other pastors present could minister to the congregation.

While perhaps the most dramatic response to one of his sermons that Edwards ever encountered, this event was just one in a long preaching ministry stretching from 1720 to 1758. Edwards would eventually be remembered more for his contributions to theology, yet his preaching played an important role in promoting revival in his congregation and throughout New England.

Read the whole thing here.

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Humanizing Cotton Mather: A Review of Rick Kennedy’s Biography

Rick Kennedy - Short Life of Cotton MatherWhenever people mention the Salem Witch Trials, they tend to vilify anyone even remotely connected with them. Whenever people mention Cotton Mather, they tend to associate him with the Salem Witch Trials and summarily dismiss him. In reality, life is far more complex than either of these broad-brush strokes of the past suggest, and one of the great benefits of the historical discipline is that it helps us appreciate that complexity—it helps us understand.

In The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans, 2015), Rick Kennedy helps us understand Cotton Mather and taste the complexity of his life and world. For starters, Cotton Mather played a far lesser role in the Salem Witch Trials than is commonly assumed—while he preached one of the execution sermons, he never attended the trials and actually recommended a more hands-on, reparative approach to those charged with being witches. He was certainly more moderate than has been suggested.

Beyond this event, Mather’s life was filled with a fair bit of drama. Here we find a man who experienced tremendous loss. He buried two wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. He also was thwarted more than once from his ambition to become president of Harvard. And he failed to secure a publisher for what became his largest work, his Biblia Americana, a compendium of notes on the Bible (though this book is now seeing the light of publication). Despite these disappointments, Kennedy paints a portrait of a joyful, generous man who gave himself to loving people and to learning as much as he could. Kennedy thinks it is best to “embrace” Mather (xiii), and though he could bring out more of Mather’s foibles, Kennedy’s book is a delightful way to get to know the man Cotton Mather.

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Philipp of Hesse and the Reformation: A Review of David M. Whitford’s A Reformation Life

There is no shortage of works addressing the Reformation. Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand remains a must read, in addition to other standards such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The ReformationDavid C. Steinmetz’s Reformers in the Wing, and Michael Reeves’ The Unquenchable Flame. The field is crowded, yet scholars continue to find insightful approaches to Reformation studies (check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and my review). David M. Whitford’s latest work on Philipp of Hesse is no exception.

Whitford’s A Reformation Life: The European Reformation through the Eyes of Philipp of Hesse (Praeger, 2015; source: publisher) begins with a conclusion. As Whitford states, wherever he looked he ended up running into Philipp of Hesse. The landgrave of Hesse had his hand in all matters of the Reformation. It was clear that all roads led to Philipp, but the how and why remained unanswered. A Reformation Life explores these routes.

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Social Learning in Colonial America

By Peter Pelham, artist (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/law/witt/images/lect3/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Pelham, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Postmodern Western culture is marked by individualism. It upholds the value of “thinking for oneself” and embraces the right of private judgment.

But that has not always been the case in America. In his biography of Cotton Mather, Rick Kennedy describes the social thrust of learning in seventeenth-century colonial America, whether in the homes of ministers or in the halls of Harvard. The contrast sheds light on our culture and suggests potential benefits with a more social approach to learning and thinking:

Increase Mather . . . probably advised his son that there had long been philosophers who disparaged [the] rules of social thinking. He could give many examples to his son of theologians and scholars who insisted on thinking for themselves, by themselves. On the other hand, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and Quintilian had taught the necessity of learning the art of social thinking. They asserted that people think best in groups and within long traditions. First things first: an aspiring young scholar needs to learn the social arts of listening and appropriate trust.

. . . [At Harvard v]arious types of logic were taught to students in a multi-year, multi-layered system of classes and textbooks. These logic textbooks were most often titled either Logic or Dialectic, or, sometimes, The Art of Thinking. The Harvard curriculum placed a high value on teaching “reasonableness.” This felicitous term described something both bigger and softer than hard and narrow rationality. Cotton learned at Harvard that knowledge, like politics, was a fellowship.

Cotton learned in his logic classes that a lone and anti-social boy could be a great mathematician, a rational genius, and even a brilliant thinker, but no such boy could be the wise leader of a state or the pastor of a church. The most common analogy used for teaching reasonableness was courtroom jurisprudence: witnesses introduce external information into the court, prosecutors and defenders analyze the information, judges set rules of evidence and certainty, and a jury decides by consensus. Truth rises out of the interaction of many people. Jurisprudence—like the leading of a state, a church, or a family—was too important to leave up to a lone individual thinking rationally.[1]

This may raise questions in some minds about Mather’s role in the Salem witch trials, which was actually far more limited (he actually never attended any of the trials, though he preached at one execution) and much more moderate (he recommended personal care, not execution) than is commonly assumed. And that moderate approach was driven by this very social model of learning, drawing from the past and the aggregate of present witnesses who were known to be of reliable character. Kennedy clears this up in his book, which I have reviewed here.

But again, the point here is to recognize that Mather illustrates the general approach to gaining knowledge and discerning truth from error in seventeenth-century America, one that rested on a social rather than an individualistic model of learning. This social learning model raises cautions for a day when everyone is expected to have an opinion about everything, whether he or she is knowledgeable about a given topic or not (see Alan Jacobs’s striking comments along these same lines).

 

[1] Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 22.

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Sweeney’s “Edwards the Exegete” and “the Real Jonathan Edwards”

Edwards the ExegeteDouglas Sweeney - Edwards the Exegete represents a crowning achievement of a dozen years of studying Jonathan Edwards. Doug Sweeney, who was my doctoral advisor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and who runs a helpful blog on Edwards, has done Edwards scholars and followers a tremendous service in this volume, pulling back the curtain on a foundational aspect of Edwards’ life and thought that has generally been ignored. As Sweeney puts it succinctly, “We fail to comprehend Edwards’ life, thought, and ministry when viewing them apart from his biblical exegesis” (ix).

This monograph offers readers the first synthesis of Edwards’ exegesis across his entire corpus. Other volumes have explored aspects of Edwards’ corpus—particularly Stephen Stein’s fine introductions to Edwards’ biblical manuscripts printed in Yale University Press’s Works of Jonathan Edwards—or examined Edwards’ approach to particular parts of the canon. But Sweeney offers a truly groundbreaking study in analyzing the whole, based on a remarkable mastery of the primary and secondary literature on Edwards and his world, visible in the length and detail of the book’s notes.

As indicated by the volume title, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015; source: publisher), Sweeney aims to present Edwards in his broader exegetical and cultural context without outright commending or denigrating Edwards as a biblical exegete. He admits, “I am not an Edwardsean,” and he instead seeks to approach the topic “as a historian, . . . transport[ing] thoughtful readers into Edwards’ biblical world, helping them understand and sympathize with Edwards’ exegesis, from the inside out, before resuming critical distance and evaluating his work from a late-modern perspective” (ix). He accomplishes this goal well.

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