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.
Living 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.
Whenever 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.
“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:
1517 and the posting of his 95 Theses has often been seen as Martin Luther’s breaking point from Catholicism to Protestantism. Certainly, the 95 Theses contained many Protestant elements and voiced his concern over indulgences. These grievances are a result of Luther’s study and subsequent lectures of various books of the Bible. However, the act of posting on the Wittenberg church’s door was a common scholastic practice, intended as an invitation to discuss these matters further. Furthermore, this act lacked some of the theological conviction central to Luther after 1520.
Following these early years in which Luther worked out his evangelical theology (“Protestant” being a term used after 1529 when a number of princes and other governmental officials protested against Emperor Charles V), Luther was put on the defense. Whether it was the 1518 Diet of Augsburg and his dealing with Cardinal Cajetan or the 1519 Leipzig Disputation and his debate with Johann Eck of Ingolstadt, Luther was occupied with explaining, defending, and justifying his beliefs.
Professor Gerald McDermott, a leading Edwards scholar and co-author with Michael McClymond of the monumental The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2011), has posted a gracious guest review of my book, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms, at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School website.
Check it out at this link: http://jecteds.org/blog/2014/09/23/jonathan-edwards-the-psalms-and-the-history-of-redemption/.
Our reading of the past can often be obscured by various factors. We all come with presuppositions and theological convictions. Other times our methodology causes us to arrive at conclusions different than others. The list goes on. Timothy J. Wengert advances a more simple reason why we misinterpret history.
For Wengert, our misunderstanding of someone like Martin Luther is due to the simple fact that we are not reading his writings. Our preconceptions of what Luther should say, or our assumptions of what he said, replace the act of reading his works and discovering what he actually said.
As the common story goes, the Bible lost its place of authority in the American mind when Darwinism and German theological liberalism cracked its foundations in the last half of the nineteenth century. In The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Michael J. Lee pushes back that timetable, arguing that the Bible began to lose authority in the early eighteenth century when, ironically, orthodox Christian interpreters unwittingly contributed to its demise.
In this well-documented account of Americans’ engagement with the rise of biblical criticism, Lee, assistant professor of history at Eastern University, explores interpreters from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and shows how they relied increasingly on historical evidence in their defense of the Bible’s authority. Influenced by European interpreters from Benedict de Spinoza, Jean Le Clerc, and John Locke to Johann Jakob Griesbach and J. G. Eichhorn, Americans increasingly employed historically based arguments in their biblical interpretation.
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.