Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Tag: church history (page 1 of 5)

Saint Macrina: A Portrait of Female Piety in the Early Church

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.

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Summer Reading List

As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!

Irena Backus, Leibniz, Protestant Theologian

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.

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What Makes Good Preaching? Some Thoughts from a Puritan

William Ames, by Willem van der Vliet (1633)

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.

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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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A Review of Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church FathersThe 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.

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The Radical Enlightenment: A Review of Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground

Martin Mulsow, Enlightenment Underground (radical Enlightenment)Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground: Radical Enlightenment, 1680-1720 (University of Virginia Press, 2015; source: publisher) has at last been translated into English. For readers of German, Mulsow’s Moderne aus dem Untergrund. Radikale Frühaufklärung in Deutschland 1680–1720 (2002) has become a standard in early Enlightenment studies. Mulsow’s study of the radical Enlightenment has established one of the ruling understandings of the movement. Now, English readers can benefit from this work.

Mulsow’s methodology is not typical of a historical study of the radical Enlightenment. Rather than a linear presentation, Mulsow chooses to delve into several microhistorical chapters.

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Take Him or Leave Him: A Review of Patrick Gray’s Paul as a Problem in History and Culture

Partick Gray, Paul as a Problem in History and CultureHave 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.

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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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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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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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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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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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