Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

Often, when reading Church History, I get the impression that things are pretty much the same as they ever were. This idea was brought to a head recently, when I read Christopher Hall’s book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Hall is an expert in Patristics. This is the fourth in a series of volumes that synthesize the thought of Church Fathers on particular aspects of Christian thought. The present volume is a book about ethics. Although technology has changed, the topics of concern for the early church often have close analogies to the topics of our day.

In this volume, Hall summarizes, compares, and contrasts the teachings of various early Christian authors on martyrdom, wealth and poverty, war, sex and lust, marriage, entertainment, and the development of character. There is little doubt that Hall has chosen his topics wisely, which saves us the work of weeding through contextually dependent passages, but it is also clear that the wisdom of the ancient has a great deal of benefit for contemporary readers.

In C. S. Lewis’ preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, he commends his readers to read old books to help break through the blind spots of our time. On the Incarnation is an excellent book for that introduction because it is a timeless work that both helps undermine the arguments about doctrinal innovation (at least with respect to core doctrines like the incarnation), but also because that particular volume is lucid and, in a good translation, exceedingly easy to read. There are, however, some Patristics works that are not as clear, no matter what the translation says. Also, as Phillip Schaff’s monumental set of the collected works of the early church shows, the volume of writings is more than most of us mere mortals can manage in one lifetime. Hall’s synthesis helps break through that feeling of being overwhelmed.

At the same time, Lewis also warns of reading books about ancient authors. On the surface, it seems like he is warning us against book like Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, but on further consideration that is not clear. First, Lewis did not argue against reading new books, but merely against not reading old books. Given that wrote a few new books himself and a masterful book about old books (his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature), that cannot have been his intent. Rather, he is arguing against reading new books about old books as the only point of contact with those earlier works. It is clear from Hall’s interaction with the Church Fathers that his desire is for his readers to go beyond his own works and to return to the sources. At the same time, he is offering helpful pointers to lead readers through the sometimes-tangled forest of antiquity.

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 In this volume, Hall serves as an advocate for the blessings of reading our theological predecessors. He does not gloss over the inconsistencies between authors and eras, but highlights the difference, showing, in part, how they arrived at opposite conclusions. By doing so Hall defeats the often triumphalistic proof-texting that goes one when someone finds an early author who agrees with them. One would think that tendency would have been defeated by Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but pacifists, abortion advocates, economic socialists, and their opponents still find pleasure in vindication when someone ancient says (or appears to say) exactly what their side is thinking. That becomes harder when one encounters opposing perspectives from eras adjacent or contemporary to those of the ancient author--clearly, there was more debate than many of allow. Hall points toward the consensus that arises at times and the need to read the full context to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier reasoning when disagreement exists.

What is clear, however, is that the most enduring writings from Church History pull people outside themselves and cause them to look for the common good. The value in reading Church Fathers is not to find the killer proof-text, but to figure out how someone with vastly different cultural blind spots arrived at the conclusion they did and how that can inform our own thinking. This book is helpful because it leads us to do just that.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Celebrating Reformation Day

I’m thankful for the Reformation. When October 31, 2017 comes around, I will be truly grateful that Martin Luther, Uldrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and many others who are less famous, were willing to risk their very lives to bring the Gospel of Christ back to the center of Christian faith and practice. It’s been 500 years since the Reformation started, but it is an important date in the history of the world that should be celebrated.

Taking potshots at the Reformation is relatively easy. There are aspects of contemporary culture that we don’t like: crony capitalism, hyper-sexualization, post-truth epistemology, environmental degradation, theological chaos. Those who dislike the Reformation tend to lay all of the flaws of contemporary society at the feet of the Reformers because Modernity and the Reformation were roughly synchronous developments. Whether the Enlightenment was progeny, parent, sibling, or classmate of the Reformation is far from a settled debate—that is, unless you want to blame a lot of bad stuff on something that you already don’t like.

It many cases, people within the Reformed tradition have latched on to various aspects of Modernity. Often, they have done so to the detriment of the Christianity they sought to reclaim from the hegemony of the Roman Catholic tradition. The unwitting desupernaturalization of Scripture into often bare, mechanical readings of the text by some within the Fundamentalist tradition is an example of the encroachment of modernity. This has led to sometimes culturally biased readings of Scripture being normalized as eternal truths upon which the reliability of the Bible depends. (Ask yourself why the culture in some churches looks like the 1950’s never ended.)

Within the history of ideas, there is no question that many aspects of Protestantism have been influenced by the surrounding culture—including forces of capitalism, (at times) Marxism, nominalism, empiricism, secularism, etc. Such influences are both obvious and, in some ways, unavoidable. The Gospel never changes, but it will always be expressed in different ways based on the cultural context.

To claim that the Reformed tradition in invalid because it has been influenced by the surrounding culture­—as some apologists for Rome sometimes do­—is to ignore the fact that earlier Christian tradition was also influenced in its form by the culture around it. The shape of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and magisterium is driven more by the social structures of ancient cultures than by Scripture. This does not necessarily invalidate that ecclesiology, but it may cause contemporary Christians to question whether having one supreme leader of Christianity making authoritative proclamations that may or may not accord with Scripture is more consistent with late Roman polity than with any framework laid down in the Bible.

The defenses to the above comment are obvious and would be worth noting in a different essay. However, they are built on the assumption that what the Roman Catholic Church says is right and the tradition of the Church is on par with the special revelation given in Scripture. Such debates exceed the bounds of this post, though I recommend Matthew Levering’s book on the doctrine of revelation for a meaningful discussion.

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The point is that culture pretty obviously has influenced all eras of church practice. But the uniting theme for Christianity is not denim skirts or Latin services, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is precisely this Gospel that was greatly obscured prior to the Reformation and was subsequently returned to the focus of Christianity by the Reformers. They did not divide primarily over polity, veneration of non-divine humans, or liturgy. Rather, Luther and the other early Reformers recognized that salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone had been sidelined in favor of dependence of heuristic traditions. As a result, they advocated for the ultimate authority of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth, and sought to lead people to live for the glory of God alone. This, and not the petty squabbles between elder-lead and staff-lead Baptist churches, is the root and legacy of the Reformation.

Despite the failures of many Protestant traditions and even more Protestant people, I still affirm and celebrate the Reformation. It represents division—yes. But it represents a division that was necessary for the recovery of the Gospel of Christ which was, and often remains, obscured by the traditions of Rome. No matter how noble a tradition claims to be or how ancient its origin, if it obscures the Gospel, then stepping away from it to affirm the Gospel is warranted and good.

There are a lot of things to critically evaluate about the Reformation, but its heart—the recovery of the Gospel—is worth celebrating, even after 500 years.

Church History: A Review of Some Introductions

During my preparation for teaching a four-week Church History survey I read several single volume books on the topic and am here doing brief reviews to highlight the particular emphasis of each.

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition (2013)

Shelley’s book is one of the classic single volume Church Histories. It has weathered well and sold well. The book is very accessible and reads quickly. It is intended to introduce people in the pew to the topic. I’ve heard of it being used as a High School text for homeschoolers, so that is a plus. Shelley focuses on the history of the Western Church, which is the traditional approach, but which is a place where other volumes may have improved since he wrote this book. Still, this is a solid volume that would be a good place to start on the topic. Shelley passed away in 2010, so it unlikely this volume will be updated for too long in the future with other excellent entries into the field.


Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (2016)

Bray is an excellent writer and historian. His single volume introduction the Church History is a bit more theological than Shelley’s, which fits because Bray is a Historical Theologian. His interpretations are fair, though Bray’s Anglican bias comes through on multiple occasion when dealing with the issue of baptism. This is an intermediate volume, but could be helpful for pastors and those with some background in Church History to gain a deeper knowledge. One downside on Bray’s writing is that his chapters and sections tend to be excessively long, which makes interrupted reading somewhat more difficult.


Joseph Early, A History of Christianity (2015)

This is a solid volume from B&H, which present Church History in a very traditional framework, like Shelley. He improves on Shelley in two ways: (1) He retells history from a distinctly baptistic perspective, while still maintaining a reasonable balance in critiquing other traditions; (2) His volume is shorter than Shelley’s, with no apparent downside. In all, Early’s volume is an accessible volume should be useful in churches, secondary schools and introductory college courses.


Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (2017)

Shaw’s approach is unique. He lines up the various stages of change in the history of the Church in parallel with stages of human life. The analogy works better earlier in the book, but it is entertaining. A major strength of Shaw’s book is his emphasis on global Christianity rather than just the Western tradition. This means that, in the abbreviated format Shaw uses, there is sometimes less information about Western Church History than I would have liked. However, I think the tradeoff was in the whole worth it. I would recommend this one over other volumes because I think it better represents a broad picture of Christianity.

The Baptist Story - A Review

There has been a need for a new textbook on Baptist History for some time. Leon McBeth’s book, The Baptist Heritage had its day, but his presentation of Baptists was slanted toward his perspective on a number of issues. Also, McBeth’s book was published in 1987 before the culmination of the SBC’s conservative resurgence.

As such, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement is a welcome volume. Three historians collaborated to write this 300-page volume. Anthony Chute serves at California Baptist University, Michael Haykin teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Nathan Finn recently left Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for Union University. The collaborative effort is helpful on a textbook that covers hundreds of years of data because each man has a different area of expertise.

The Baptist Story aims to tell the tale of Baptists from their beginnings to the present in an irenic matter. Besides eating, Baptists excel at quibbling over seemingly trivial matters. The priesthood of all believers (or freedom of conscience) has at times given rise to a contentious spirit in some. The three authors of this work seek to give an even handed explanation for the origins of Baptists, the historic soteriology of the Baptists, and some of the social ills that Baptists have tolerated or even aggravated. This is neither a whitewashing nor an exposé.

Summary

The book contains three sections. The first section deals with Baptists in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is the period of Baptist beginnings, through a time of persecution and possible extinction. At the end of that period, however, Baptists were growing and beginning the modern missionary movement in hopes of taking the gospel to all parts of the globe.

In section two, the authors trace Baptist History through the 19th century, which was a time of rapid expansion and rise to prominence of the Baptists. In particular, the low-church approach of Baptists with little requirement of formal education of clergy allowed a more rapid growth. It also led to theological ignorance, which made Baptists subject to fragmentation and heresy in the face of the challenges of Modernism.

Section three documents the twentieth century through the present. The impact of the World Wars, the Social Gospel, and Liberation Theology are all documented in these chapters. So is the continued growth of Baptists in most lands. The book would be remiss if the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention were neglected, so thankfully the coverage of that important topic is adequate.

The fourth section outlines some of the basic beliefs of Baptists: those things that make Baptists distinct from other denominations. This final section is the only prescriptive section of the volume; the remainder of the volume is fairly even-handed historical description. Even in this prescription, though, the authors are attempting to describe what has historically made Baptists different. It is apparent, though, that many of these things are also held to be good by them.

Analysis

The greatest contribution of this volume is that it provides an updated resource for those seeking to teach or understand Baptist History. Nearly thirty years after McBeth’s book was published, it was beginning to fall out of favor in many circles. Bebbington’s volume, Baptists Through the Centuries, will likely remain popular. However, The Baptist Story provides a different perspective on Baptists that may be more helpful for American students and better adapted to the college level.

This volume has explanatory power. It is readable and informative. It explains the Baptist movement without devolving into petty critique and promotion of factions. This is a book that explains the Baptist story in a global context, shedding light on the 1/3rd (or so) of worldwide Baptist believers that live outside of the United States. As such it serves to explain the American story and illuminate the global story beyond a missionary narrative. This is a book worth owning.

The Baptist Story aims to be a college level textbook and to provide visual cues along the way. There are textboxes with primary source quotes and pictures of key individuals and locations throughout the text. In addition to these graphics, it would have been beneficial for the volume to include charts and timelines that provide visual representations of the historical progression of Baptists. The Baptist history is complex, so that there is a constant battle between sorting information topically and chronologically. Timelines and charts would have helped readers navigate the transitions.

Another potential improvement for a second edition would be to add a glossary with some of the key theological terms. This is not a theology textbook, it is a history. Still, when concepts like the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology are mentioned, it would be convenient to have a brief explanation close at hand. It is impossible to understand the history of a religious movement without a firm understanding of some contours of the theology. A future edition could be enhanced by supplementing the text with a brief theological glossary.

Conclusion

This is an outstanding overview of Baptist History. I wish it had been published when I took my Baptist History nearly a decade ago. I read thousands of pages of primary sources to gain a similar understanding of the sweep of Baptist History. It is my hope this book will find a prominent place in theological education of Baptist students in the future, as well as in local churches as a means to explain how we got where we are.

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement
$36.99
By Dr. Anthony L. Chute, Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Michael A. G. Haykin

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Printer and the Preacher - A Review

The recently released book, The Printer and the Preacher, promises to explain how the friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield helped to “invent America.” The author, Randy Petersen, has an extensive list of publications including a number of co-authored volumes. He has written on sports, psychology, history, various Christian topics, and more. Petersen appears to have an eclectic appetite for writing projects and the ability to finish them.

The book is readable and there are some interesting anecdotes, but I found it to be a disappointment overall. There are pointers along the way that indicate that both Franklin and Whitefield influenced the founding of the United States, but Petersen never really explains why their friendship was pivotal. I walked away with a better understanding of the long-term correspondence that existed between these two men, but without seeing how it really matters in the grand scope of history.

Analysis and Critique

Petersen’s writing style is light. The book uses endnotes, so it is not encumbered by the distractions (welcomed by many) that footnotes often provide. He tells the story well. There are points, however, where Petersen is excessively informal, in ways that may be deemed disrespectful by those who engage in academic pursuits. He consistently refers to people by their first names (George and Ben), which is atypical for serious historical work.

There is a connection between the two men. Franklin and Whitefield corresponded for decades and met several times, particularly while Whitefield was preaching through America. Franklin printed news about Whitefield and many of his sermons. Whitefield attempted to convert Franklin from his self-created Deism to a Calvinistic Christianity. He was unsuccessful. There is a story worth hearing here.

However, after reading The Printer and the Preacher, it isn’t clear that there is enough of a story to make a book length treatment. At times Petersen lapses into conjecture, trying to describe conversations they were likely to have or occasions they might have met while both were in London. This has the dangerous potential to present as surmise as fact, if the reader is not careful. The concept of a surprising friendship that is essential to the formation of America is intriguing, but in my mind at least, there needs to be a better case made.

This is a popular level historical book, but at times the history gets jumbled because Petersen tries to organize the parallels by topic instead of by chronology. He also jumps back and forth between accounts of the lives of two men born eight years apart on different continents. There are certainly some parallels between the two, but at times the presentation seems strained.

 The greatest benefit of the book is Petersen’s demonstration that two men with vastly different foundational beliefs could get along, work together, and have meaningful dialog for a number of years. Whatever other weaknesses the book may present, this is a good thing to understand and I appreciate Petersen’s efforts to tell the story well.

Conclusion

The Printer and the Preacher is a quick read. It would be worth taking to the beach or on an airplane. It is has weaknesses, but it is an entertaining book that some history buffs may enjoy.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Guy on a Buffalo

Sometimes the internet is the bane of human existence, demonstrating how low we as a race have stooped. Meme's relating to the defense of Brittany Spears' public breakdowns, grumpy cat pictures, and defiant babies keep our social media news-feeds full. The occasional misquote of Abraham Lincoln gets thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

Still, there have been few items of high culture shared with the internet population. Of those few items of high brow culture, there are none to rival the "Guy on a Buffalo" videos that came out a few years ago.

I've embedded each of the five videos below for your viewing pleasure. Also, this makes for a quick way to find them again in the future. They are really worth watching repeatedly, much like fine movies such as "The Princess Bride" and "The Three Amigos." I might throw "Goonies" into that mix, too, though something really was lost when the octopus scene didn't make it through the final cut.

In any case, if you missed Guy on a Buffalo years ago I will explain the basic premise to you. First, there is a guy who rides a buffalo. Then a folksy singer provides a musical narration of the events in the short videos. Guy on a Buffalo gets chased by a bear, chases a bear, finds a baby, wrestles a cougar and such like.

I've heard these are authentic videos from early nineteenth century American frontier life, which truly represent how things were. They are, according to some, authentic representations of historical realities known only to some that are experiencing lasting effects of 1970's drug usage. (cough, cough)

Whatever your understanding of their historicity, I hope you find these videos entertaining and will share them with your friends. As a caution, don't consume any beverages while watching these videos, unless you are prepared to have it come out your nose.

Contrary to my tongue in cheek comments above, these edited videos with the humorous songs over the top are made from a 1978 movie called "Buffalo Rider." The premise that a man rescues a buffalo that was going to be eaten by coyotes, raises it and tames it. The movie has, apparently, passed into the public domain. It has made its way to the Internet Archive, a repository for much of our cultural sludge.

The movie itself is poorly made, relies on a narrator, and appears to have actually harmed animals in the making. (This last is really not a good thing.) That being said, the movie is made and I post it here more so you can see where the humorous videos above came from than with hope that anyone will celebrate anything about the original film (which is awful based on the 15 minutes that I was able to watch). 

Here is a link to the original movie at the Internet Archive.

Is Charles Finney the Prototype for Evangelicalism?

With the recent publication of the second edition of a book from the 1970’s, Douglas M. Strong has repackaged Donald Dayton’s theory that evangelicalism is defined by faith experience and right living, rather than by doctrinal fidelity. 

 Dayton’s book uses Charles G. Finney and those closely tied to him as the exemplars of this trend. While it cannot be denied that Finney preached the gospel (or at least a form of it) widely and pointed many to Christ, there is significant doubt that Finney’s belief system is a viable foundation for a sustainable Christian faith, much less being at the heart of historic evangelicalism.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

 Finney’s intellectual hubris was his theological undoing. As a trained lawyer, and by all accounts a very intelligent man, Finney assumed that he could, without cultural influence, rightly interpret Scripture. Based on a likely limited library at his teacher’s house, Finney rejected all historical Christian teachings because he did not like the way they were argued. Instead, he committed himself to a “no creed but the Bible” approach, without the aid of theological conversation with contemporary or historical peers. This unfortunate confidence was enabled by Finney’s quick wits and premature promotion to public ministry. In truth, Finney’s belief that he could rightly interpret Scripture without any external influence affecting the outcome rests very close to what is known as the “fundamentalist fallacy.”

Misunderstanding the Atonement

 In his autobiography, Finney records his opportunity to debate with a Universalist while he was still in his ministerial training. His teacher was ill and Finney stood in, ostensibly to defend orthodoxy. Finney writes,

I delivered two lectures upon the atonement. In these I think I fully succeeded in showing that the atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense in which the Universalist maintained; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under the obligation to save anybody; that it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom he died deserved to suffer; that no such thing as that was taught in the Bible, and no such thing was true; that, on the contrary, Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of God’s forgiving sinners, so as to render it possible for him to proclaim a universal amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation that instead of having satisfied retributive justice, and borne just what sinners deserve, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honoring the law, both in his obedience and death, thus rendering it safe for God to pardon sin, to pardon the sins of any man and of all men who would repent and believe in him. I maintained that Christ, in his atonement, merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying for the indebtedness of sinners. (Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography [Westwood, N. J.: Barbour Books], 38)

Finney rejected the notion of election, divine calling, and substitutionary atonement in Christ’s death on the cross.

In truth, Christ’s death on the cross as a human in human form was only necessary because it is substitutionary. If all Christ did was make possible salvation in a general way, it could have as simply been done by fiat as by self-sacrifice. Without extending this post with further discussion on the atonement, it is clear that Christ came as a redeemer not as an enabler. Even taking a thematic view of Scripture, rather than pursuing a verse by verse defense, it does not seem that Finney’s perspective on the atonement is helpful. In short, even without accepting a fully Calvinistic theological paradigm, Finney’s reasoning seems better suited to win an argument against Universalism than to be considered biblically faithful.

An Unsound Foundation for Evangelicalism

 In all this, I am not making the claim that Finney was not converted, nor that he did not have a profound impact on many people. Finney preached a form of the gospel that enabled many to come to faith in Christ through repentance of sin. He was also instrumental, as Dayton and Strong rightly argue, in ending the evils of American slavery.  All of these things could have been, and were otherwise, done while still maintaining doctrinal integrity.

 By basing their image of historic evangelicalism on individuals on the fringe of orthodoxy, more subject to their culture than to Scripture, Dayton and Strong have undermined their own case.

 In fact, most of the organizations and theological movements cited in this volume have tended to cut their mooring to Christian orthodoxy in the years since Finney’s influence. Wheaton University has maintained fidelity to its evangelical doctrine. On the other hand, the Salvation Army is no longer concerned with salvation in any meaningful sense. Oberlin College, where Finney was president, is no longer distinctly Christian.

The track record of Finney’s theology demonstrates a failure to thrive in the long term. In the first generation, the theological content is assumed, in the second it is unknown, and by the third it is rejected.

This should point present day evangelicals toward the need to be active in pursuing social justice while adamant about maintaining the doctrinal orthodoxy of our Christian heritage.

Sam James - Missionary Hero

The fact that Sam and his wife Rachel served for 51 years is impressive in and of itself. I dream of being that faithful for so long.

That they served in Vietnam for many of those years makes the feat even more astounding. James recalls of his decision to serve in Vietnam:

"I didn't know any Vietnamese people. I'd never heard the Vietnamese language. . . . It was just something the Lord laid on my heart that I couldn't get away from. . . . Sometimes I think the call of God is something of a mystery."

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