I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees.
In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today.
Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.
Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Doug Sweeney in putting together a new multicontributor volume on Edwards and the Bible, and I’m pleased to say that the book is now available. The volume is titled Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), and it includes contributions from a number of Edwards scholars who have helped further the conversation on this important topic.
The book builds on the work that Sweeney, especially, has done over many years in the form of lectures, articles, and books, culminating in his Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015)—see my review of it here. It also furthers some of my research on Edwards, particularly in my book Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014).
To give you a taste of this new volume, here’s an excerpt from my introduction to the book:
When thinking of the colonial period in American history, many commonly known stories and people likely come to mind, from Jamestown and the Pilgrims to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and the wars with the Indians to the Great Awakening and the colonial resistance to British rule. Yet the American colonial period is rich with all kinds of stories that often fail to get much attention: the West, the backcountry, slaves, women. Thomas Kidd’s American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016) treats readers to a full smorgasbord of early American historical fare, retelling the commonly known stories (with rich details and some corrections) and also enriching our understanding of the colonial period with narratives of the lesser known but equally important people from the time.
As Valentine’s Day rolls around, advice on love can be found not only in the seasonal aisle of the grocery store but also in the writings of the ancient past. One notable pastor from early Christianity to treat the topic of love and marriage is John Chrysostom (ca. 347–409), the “golden mouth” preacher of Asia Minor. Chrysostom’s best preaching on marriage is captured in his On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986), from the Popular Patristics Series (see also my discussion of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching from the same series). This volume by Chrysostom includes six of his sermons on the topic of marriage—aimed toward both those seeking marriage and those already married.
I was deeply privileged to contribute to a hefty book on historical theology that has just released: Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition. This volume, edited by Kelly Kapic and Hans Madueme, both professors at Covenant College, aims to introduce readers to some of the key figures and works in the history of theology.
To give you a sense of the work’s purpose, Kelly Kapic says this:
We know that most people don’t have the time to read thousands and thousands of pages, and yet a student of Protestant theology must become familiar with key authors and their works. Without such study they simply cannot begin to understand the dynamics of this tradition—or, more accurately, traditions. Therefore, in this volume we have chosen fifty-eight works that represent a reasonable set of selections from the past 2,000 years. (5)
How did the early Christians interpret the Bible? Should their mode of biblical interpretation say anything to us about how to interpret Scripture today? We have much to learn from studying the history of biblical interpretation, a field that speaks to both the unity and diversity of exegesis among Christians. One of the earliest discussions of biblical interpretation that we have comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140–ca. 200), in On the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
This month Eerdmans is releasing a landmark volume in Edwards studies: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. This book is edited by the Jonathan Edwards Center luminaries Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Adriaan C. Neele, and it makes a substantial contribution to the field by helping those interested in Edwards to get acquainted with various aspects of his life, thought, and context.
It was a privilege for me to be able to contribute three essays to this work, all related to Edwards’s biblical interpretation: “Hermeneutics,” “Inspiration,” and “Scripture.” These form a very small piece of a much larger volume that deserves the attention of Edwards experts and students.
Here’s what other scholars are saying about the volume:
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.
In Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.
A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).
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.
Fourth-century Christianity is perhaps best remembered for the Trinitarian controversies that flared with the rise of Arius early on and continued until the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the East, some of the key figures involved in that controversy were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Lesser known is the life of Saint Macrina (ca. 327–379), the eldest sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, yet her faith influenced her brothers in profound ways. And her brother Gregory memorialized her in an account of her life, The Life of Saint Macrina, which offers readers today a portrait of female piety in the early church.
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.
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.