Reflections on History and Theology

Tag: church history (Page 2 of 3)

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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Social Learning in Colonial America

By Peter Pelham, artist ( [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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Peace on Earth: Reflections from Jonathan Edwards

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Glory to God in the highest,
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:[1]


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Edwardseana Book of the Year Awards

JEC@TEDS LogoThe Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School just released their first issue of Edwardseana. In their inaugural issue they gave Book of the Year awards for two volumes: Rhys Bezzant’s Jonathan Edwards and the Church (Oxford University Press, 2013), and my book, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2014).

The issue includes interviews with both me and Dr. Bezzant—who serves as Dean of Missional Leadership and Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College and as Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia—as well as reviews of both books. In addition, it spotlights Ryan Hoselton, the winner of the best graduate student paper on Edwards, which will be published in the Jonathan Edwards Studies journal. Check out Edwardseana as well for other noteworthy publications on Edwards from the last year and for happenings with the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS.

I’m honored to receive this award and to share the stage with such a fine scholar like Professor Bezzant. Many thanks to the Edwards Center for this recognition and for all the work they are doing to promote resources on Edwards for the academy and the church.

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John Bunyan (and Jonathan Edwards) on a True Work of Grace

John_BunyanWhen thinking of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time, you might not immediately think of this allegory as a work of theology. Some scholars, like Gordon Campbell, even suggest that “The Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious work rather than a theological work.”[1] To make this bifurcation, however, mistakenly suggests that the Christian life is somehow separate and distinct from the Christian mind. In fact, while John Bunyan (1628–1688) focused this renowned work on the journey of the Christian, he weaved his theology—sometimes subtly—throughout the narrative.

One way that theology shines through the story is in the conversation that the characters have with each other. The importance of Christian discourse to the volume even leads Michael Mullett to note that “the book is a dialogue at least as much as it is a travelogue.”[2] To give a taste of how Bunyan incorporates his theology into the story’s conversations, we’ll explore a section from The Pilgrim’s Progress on discerning a true “work of grace.”

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Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and America: A Review of Grant Wacker’s “America’s Pastor”

Grant Wacker - America's PastorMentioning the name Billy Graham evokes all kinds of responses. Deep respect for a faithful evangelist. Admiration for a life of unparalleled achievements. Anger toward a figure who failed to do what some subgroup wanted him to do. Disappointment over a man who appeared ever drawn to politics and presidents. Increasing ignorance of who he is.

While the sentiments toward Graham vary, of all these opinions, perhaps the most surprising—and least justifiable—is ignorance. But even if many pay less heed to Graham, who as of this writing is still kicking at age ninety-six, his legacy is palpable in evangelicalism and even American culture. So argues Grant Wacker in his masterfully written America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap, 2014; source: publisher).

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George Whitefield’s Preaching on the Holy Spirit

George_Whitefield_preaching (Joseph Belcher, 1857)In my previous post, I mentioned that John Owen devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We see that emphasis fleshed out further in the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. One eminent evangelical who manifested that focus on the Spirit was the renowned preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770).

Whitefield was especially known for preaching the new birth message; that is, he frequently discoursed on the doctrine of regeneration. It’s no surprise, then, that he was also very interested in the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the agent of regeneration. And we see evidence of this fascination in his sermons.

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John Owen: Why We Need a Robust Theology of the Holy Spirit

John Owen FrontispieceSome people refer to the Holy Spirit as the “neglected” member of the Trinity. Certainly, all three persons in the Godhead have been given short shrift at different times and among different groups in the church. But in their history, Protestants can find many who explored the nature and work of the Spirit, though perhaps none more thoroughly than the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683).

In his later years, Owen penned several treatises beginning in 1674 that were later drawn together in one volume under the title Pneumatologia, or Pneumatology. Some have called this book the best work on the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.

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William Ames on the Nature of Theology

William AmesTheology. What exactly is theology? Quite literally, we might say that it is a word (logos) about God (theos). One of the most renowned phrases employed to explain theology comes from the Middle Ages, when Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109), in his Proslogion, described it as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Generally speaking, when we think of theology, we think of thinking. It is something we conceive in our minds and believe.

While this may be the common perception, many in Christian history have, in fact, connected theology with practice. The English Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) does this quite starkly in the opening of his highly influential The Marrow of Theology, which became a standard theological textbook in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century New England, leaving its imprint particularly on the likes of Jonathan Edwards. In his Marrow, Ames defines theology as “the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God.”

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Americans and the Color of Christ

Blum and Harvey - The Color of ChristToday, if we ask the question, what color was Jesus?, we will most likely hear that he was dark or brown, like the color of a Middle Easterner. But in America, even if people recognize this likelihood, most envision a white Jesus in their mind’s eye. We, of course, have no known images of Jesus. So how did this view come about?

In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Edward Blum and Paul Harvey trace the differing visual portrayals of Jesus from the colonial era to our day. I recently listened to the audiobook version of this volume and found that they recount a fascinating—though, at times, disturbing—tale that brings out the diverse ways people have reimagined Jesus and used him for their own purposes in American history, often in ways with tragic racial consequences.

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American Evangelicalism and Education: Perspectives

J.G.MachenAmerican Evangelicals today debate the value of one form of education over another. Some see public education as a mission field; others decry it as both intellectually lacking and spiritually eroding. Some see private Christian schools as a sophisticated effort to nurture a well-rounded Christian worldview in children; others find them overpriced or uneven in quality. Some see homeschooling as the premier form of instilling family and faith values in one’s children; others charge it with being insular or infeasible.

To some degree, all of these claims resonate with reality. One will find positives and negatives with any school system. But that doesn’t make them all equal. Wherever one stands on these issues, it is interesting that two towering evangelical figures in the 1920s and 1940s highlighted the important role of education in a society while warning of the dangers of an unchecked state-run education system.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) and Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) wrote in the throes of Christianity’s displacement from mainstream American society—Machen during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that led to several denominational splits and Henry during the postwar years. As Christianity’s influence in the U.S. diminished, they raised questions about the role of public education.

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C. S. Lewis a Half-Century after His Death

Alister McGrath - Lewis - A LifeA decade after his death, C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) mark was fading away. But five decades after Lewis passed physically from this world, his intellectual and imaginative influence holds powerful sway. In fact, some have even called him the patron saint of evangelicalism. Surely countless American evangelical pastors have quoted the ever-quotable Lewis in a Sunday morning sermon.

So what led this academic specialist in medieval English literature to rise to such revered status today? Alister McGrath—who, like Lewis, grew up in the Belfast region of Ireland and became a professor at Oxford University—offers an incisive interpretation of Lewis’s life and legacy in his book C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013).

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