Reflections on History and Theology

Tag: theology

“Jonathan Edwards and Scripture” Book Notice

Jonathan Edwards and Scripture Book CoverOver 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:

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John Chrysostom on Love and Marriage

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.

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Introducing “Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition”

Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant TraditionI 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)

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New Release: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia

Jonathan Edwards EncyclopediaThis 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:

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Martin Luther, Christian Freedom, and the Reformation

Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

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.

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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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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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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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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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Civil War, Contingency, and Christian Historians

Allen Guelzo - GettysburgI recently listened to Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (audiobook version; Vintage Civil War Library, 2014), and in following his account of this bloody battle, you can’t miss that it illustrates the role of contingency in historical study. That is, history is marked by asking the question, how would things have turned out differently if this or that event had not happened?

In the case of the battle at Gettysburg, the question often goes like this: what needed to happen in order for the Confederates to score a victory at Gettysburg? If only Stonewall Jackson had survived the friendly fire that wounded him two months earlier at Chancellorsville; if only J. E. B. Stuart hadn’t taken so long to get to Gettysburg and provide screening for Lee’s movements; if only Lieutenant General Dick Ewell had pressed forward on July 1 and taken cemetery hill; if only Lieutenant General James Longstreet had started his assaults on July 2 and 3 earlier in the day; if only George Pickett had received the cover he needed to conduct his charge; if only General Lee had pushed his generals to take more initiative or had backed away from a general engagement in early July to find better ground. If only.

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Kyle Strobel’s Reimagining of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology

Kyle Strobel - JE's Theology - A ReinterpretationWhat model of the Trinity did Jonathan Edwards employ in his theology? How did Edwards’ Trinitarianism shape the rest of his theological program? How did Edwards’ emphases on the end for which God created the world, religious affections, and the remanation of God’s glory cohere in this New England divine’s creative mind?

Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor at Biola University, explores these questions—and many related lines of inquiry—in his work Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, vol. 19 in T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, and Ivor Davidson (London: T&T Clark, 2013; source: publisher). In Strobel’s volume, readers will find an erudite treatment of Edwards’ theology that explores and reframes the details of his thought in the light of his Trinitarian and redemptive emphases.

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Doug Sweeney’s Wise Words for Graduates

doug-sweeney-222x296“You will never be smart enough.” For those who study church history and theology, these words by Dr. Doug Sweeney are some of the most freeing words you will hear. The constant pressure to know more and read more can drive a graduate student crazy, but embracing our limitedness frees us to pursue knowledge with a right view of God and ourselves.

In a commencement  given at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School last December, Doug Sweeney (my doctoral mentor) draws on some of the great theologians of the past to encourage Christian divinity students to approach their future ministry with three principles:

  1. Humility – We are limited creatures who can never know enough, and thus masters of divinity are not to master God, but to be mastered by God.
  2. A Learning Spirit – This humility should not cause us to stop learning, but should give us perspective as we become lifelong learners.
  3. Confidence in God – While we have much to learn, we can have confidence in God that we have been given enough in Christ and the enduring Word of God to minister to those in our care.

During this season of commencement speeches, Sweeney’s address (read the full version here) draws from Scripture and past theologians like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Jonathan Edwards to offer helpful perspective for graduates, challenging them not to get stuck on themselves and their limitations, but to live out their calling boldly in Christ.

Can Denominations Express Unity? A Review of Why We Belong

Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity

Take Protestantism, drop it in the American context, and what do you get? A proliferation of schisms and denominations.

Protestantism broke off of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and quickly formed different streams of Protestants after Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli failed to find agreement over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Fast forward to the early years of the United States when the young republic disestablished religion, and there you find Christian sects—and some not so Christian—forming even more rapidly.

Now in the twenty-first century, with the vast diversity of Protestant denominations, one wonders what unifies this colorful array of Christians? Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson suggest that denominationalism is not essentially at odds with evangelical unity, and in their book, Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Crossway, 2013), they probe this question from several angles, pooling the insight of evangelicals in several denominations to offer a helpful foray into the tension of unity and diversity in the church today.

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A Trek Through Time

We’re two historians and graduates of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who are interested in Christianity, theology, and history. We embrace an evangelical identity and value scholarly endeavors to deepen our understanding of the world in which we live.

In this blog, we hope to reflect aloud on the Christian past to help others think clearly about those who have preceded us and how they have shaped our world today. We believe that engaging the past offers beneficial perspective for the present and the future.

We invite you to join us in exploring church history.

~ David P. Barshinger and Hoon J. Lee