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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Getting the Reformation Wrong : Correcting Some Misunderstandings by James R. Payton Jr.


It seems like the worst place to learn about the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century is from modern evangelicals and the best place is often historians who come from outside of the Protestant tradition or even a secular position. Why so? I would say mainly because evangelicals largely don’t think God was active and working in the lives of the Christians during the Middle Ages. Secular historians, especially in recent years (Diarmaid MacCullogh’s The Reformation for example) paint a broader picture of the Reformation and point out that the Reformation is not a revival of moribund Catholicism, but part of wave of great religious interest at the end of the Medieval Age. I think in James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings we have the warmth of an evangelical scholar who is able put the Protestant Reformation and the Reformers themselves in historical and theological context. I also think Mr. Payton has a tremendous point to make: evangelicals misunderstand the Reformation because they are disconnected from the stream of thought that fed the Reformers, namely the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils. Aside from demonstrating from history that the Protestant Reformation was dealing with theological questions that had been dogging the church at large for nearly two hundred years, Payton addresses two places we modern Christians tend to largely misunderstand the intent of the Reformers. One such idea is Sola Fide (By Faith Alone). In modern America, frontier preachers and revivalists stretched this to mean that an act of momentary faith was all that was required to be saved. It is a handy way to close the deal quickly (which is very important in American religion) but was neither the teaching of the New Testament or the Reformers. Yes, by grace through faith, but scripturally faith is never alone. Real saving faith is always accompanied by a life of good works. The works don’t justify, but they demonstrate an active faith and impulse put there by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Another idea that is certainly confused is Sola Scriptura. This is taken today to mean the only authority in a believers life is the Bible and nothing more. Problem is, it simply is not true. The Holy Scriptures come to us with a two thousand year long rich history of interpretation (both excellent and ridiculous at times) by the church. Wonderful insights are brought out by modern exegesis, but these insights spring forth from a well of communal discernment which goes back through the church to the prophets and apostles. The Scripture is not the only authority, just the only unquestioned authority. Scripture has first rank, but it is valid to examine the traditions and teachings of the church in subordination. I also appreciated Payton’s insight that to a man, all the Reformers themselves thought their movement was a failed one. We call them heroes of the faith from a 400 year retrospect. It is a reminder to all of us that we live by faith and not by sight and God does not always let us see the full impact of our efforts this side of heaven. He wants us to be obedient and faithful and trust Him for the results which will always come because no service to Him is ever in vain.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed


I am neither Catholic nor interested in taking on a monastic vocation, but I have long been a student of the ideas and practices of the religious (monastic) life. Monasticism is attractive to me because it is so singular and focused on the spiritual connection to Christ. When Paul the Apostle spoke of the single vs. married life, he pointed out that while both are good, the vocation of marriage does distract from the spiritual life because one cannot be both married and only care about God. Of course I know people who are single that are also distracted from God, but that is because they have no calling to be single. They are just in an interim or pre-marriage state. In this book, Cheryl Reed, who is a journalist, puts together a lively narrative about her experiences as she traveled to different parts of America to meet different orders of nuns over a period of several years. She was curious about how they lived, what got them started on this vocation, what keeps them going, and is this still a living institution of the Christian faith or is it something that is dying out in our modern and increasingly secular society. Aside from some incredibly interesting characters she met along the way, what is unveiled in the book are some pretty interesting paradoxes within this institution. For instance many of the older nuns tended to have less loyalty towards the Catholic Church while younger ones tended to be more loyal. Another paradox was that orders that had given up the religious dress and sought to be more engaged in serving society tended to be smaller and shrinking, where orders that wore the habit (the religious clothing of the nun) and were cloistered (isolated from society to fully devote themselves to prayer) tended to be younger and experiencing the most growth. In my mind, this challenges the notion that younger generations are not up for rigorous discipline and challenges. Perhaps we have not because we expect not as a society in general. While the pressures of marriage and family are not present in the monastic vocation the challenge of living communally with other members of your order provided sometimes even more challenges to love unselfishly and unconditionally. What Reed found all around were women who were very devoted to their vocation and quite selfless in their service and while their numbers have certainly diminished in the USA since the high-tide of the 1950’s, Catholic nuns are a far cry from extinction.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Woodrow Wilson: Profiles in Power by John A. Thompson


I figured it was time to read something on Woodrow Wilson. Any person Glenn Beck hates with such a passion as to mention him nearly fortnightly as the cause of every problem in our democracy, has got to be interesting at the very least. President Wilson was guilty of being a progressive, but he was hardly alone in his era. Wilson’s tenure as president (1913-1921) was at the tail end of a long progressive movement in politics and the Social Gospel movement in America’s churches. Every man and every politician is the product of the attitudes and possibilities of his times. What is often called socialism in today’s emotionally charged environment just 50 years ago (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon) was politics as usual in the view of a majority (a slim one though) of Americans. All that to say, Wilson was hardly remarkable as a progressive in the second decade of the 20th century. What I found fascinating about Wilson was how he could convince the nation we wouldn’t be entering WWI, run on this for re-election, and then turn this around and make the war a just and moral crusade for reasons that were hardly a major provocation. Of course from that time forward the Wilsonian idea that America can engage in wars overseas if it is to promote democracy has been at times a difficult burden to bear even if it can be justified. Wilson won that war and then had a Waterloo of his own over the League of Nations which was a noble idea but obviously devoid of reality. What is shocking and almost nauseating is his neglect of the country after the death of his first wife Ellen and then his widower whirlwind romance with his second wife Edith along with a debilitating stroke at the end of his term. The demands of the office along with the electronic media would not permit such a luxury in today’s environment. But Wilson was a deft politician and a leader of men even when he was going against the tide of his time. It was part arrogance, but I think mostly destiny in the case of our 28th president.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Puzzle of Ancient Man: Advanced Technology in Past Civilizations? By Donald E. Chittick


I have read two books this year that have opened my eyes to a different reality of ancient man. The first book is 1491: New Revelations about the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and The Puzzle of Ancient Man by Donald E. Chittick. Both books overlap in their factual analysis, but 1491 clearly is presented from a secular world view while Puzzle connects with the ancient records of Genesis and a Christian world view. In essence both men bring forth archaeological evidence that points towards mans devolution from an advanced technological society to a primitive one in ancient times. Just a few examples are the building of stone cities in the mountains of Peru where the rocks that were cut and put into place have weights that exceed the capacity of any modern cranes and are high enough that workers today would need to be on supplemental oxygen just to be able to exert themselves. Another example is that worldwide phenomena of pyramid building with them lining up with astronomical observations. Navigation computers and even small models of what look like airplanes have been discovered. What does it mean and how should it be interpreted? Certainly one idea that would be supported by uniformitarian naturalism would be the advancement and recession of civilization through local ecological disasters or wars. Mass displacement of people, chaos, and epidemics certainly do their share of slowing the development of a society down. So does mass migration although people typically bring their know-how and technology with them if at all possible. Another direction this may go is a worldwide disaster such as the flood described in Genesis where all but a few were saved while most of the world and their knowledge were wiped out at once. In this scenario, the world does rebuild and then in scattered by God from Mesopotamia to all points of the compass through the scrambling of languages. This would explain in part both a great loss of previous knowledge and a scattering of the same knowledge over the globe by migrating peoples. In either case, it seems that the facts lead to the idea that man’s great technological advancement of today is not totally new ground, but ground that has been plowed at least once before.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream by Edward Humes


In an era of government bailouts for Wall Street and stimulus packages that no one is sure even works, it’s good to read that at least one time in American history our congress got something right: The G.I. Bill that followed World War II. Determined to not fail our returning vets as was the case in all prior wars, then President Franklin Roosevelt started the legislative ball rolling in the early years of the war to offer benefits to the nearly 17 million soldiers who would be returning. What finally came out of Congress (after Roosevelt’s death) was a plan to offer G.I.’s a guaranteed home loan with nothing down and finances for attending college (along with a stipend for living expenses). The impetus behind the bill was the fear that if that many soldiers came home to no opportunities as was the case before the war, America would be ripe for socialism and communist influence. But, as Roosevelt said, a nation of homeowners is unconquerable. So what did our government do? They made a 110 Billion dollar (in today’s money) transfer of wealth from the public treasury to this group of Americans to enable them to go to school and buy their first house. To fight socialism, our congress committed one of the greatest acts of socialism in our nation’s history. The result was the create for the first time a real middle class of tax paying, home owning, college educated Americans. Prior to this less than 10% of our population could afford a home and less than 8% had attended college. With the collateral expenditures each homeowner made on appliances, furniture, improvements, and eventually bigger homes, $49 was returned to the national economy for every government dollar spent. The irony to my thinking is that many of the beneficiaries of this program were also the same who would later support governmental policies that have contributed to a virtual dismantling of the middle class. Economics aside, this is a reminder that not all government programs are bad. The key is whether it is direct aid or an opportunity to improve your life if you put forth some effort. One creates further dependence and indolence, the other creatively leverages our nations wealth to create greater opportunity for all who don’t mind working for the American Dream. I hope in the understandable frustration so many are feeling today about government spending, we don’t forget that some investments are worthwhile. The wildly successful post WWII GI Bill is a great example of how investing in ourselves can pay great dividends in the future both economically and as a people.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The American Leadership Tradition : Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton By Marvin Olasky


Marvin Olasky is the well-known editor of World a news magazine that covers national and international events from the standpoint of a Christian worldview. I have read the magazine for years but somehow missed reading any of Marvin Olasky’s books until now. Even though the book is ten years old and could be updated with the GW Bush and Obama presidencies, it’s message on leadership is still timeless and relevant. Through a series of vignettes on our more well-known presidents and statesmen through U.S. History, Olasky clearly demonstrates that the personal morality of our political leaders is a major issue that voters should consider very carefully. Many politicians would like us to believe, if they can get away with it, that it is their public work that matters and what they do in private should be none of our concern. The problem with this thinking is that a lack of private morals tends to cloud our judgment in issues that affect the lives of others. Conversely, some of our best presidents were also men of great private virtue. Their private virtue gave them a moral authority that enhanced their leadership. The two most vivid examples to my mind were George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt. Washington was a man of high personal morals and strong reverence for God. When he led the Revolutionary War, he encouraged and preached as general to his soldiers that if they wanted God’s blessing and protection, they should be worthy of it. Therefore prayers and fastings were encouraged before battle and things like cursing, using the Lord’s name in vain, and having camp prostitutes were prohibited. Compare this to the British Generals who spent a great deal of their time drinking, gambling, and chasing women while away from home. Though they had the most powerful army in the world, they were greatly distracted, and in that distraction grew complacent and ended up losing the war. Theodore Roosevelt was a man of action and virtue. He lived by the same standards privately that he preached publicly which included honor, virtue, and leading your wife and family. While some politicians put a “happy face” on their marriage and family life which is anything but true, Roosevelt loved his wife and children and stayed far away from the many moral traps of Washington DC. Don’t expect a totally rosy picture of American history in this book. Olasky is unsparing of the hypocrisy surrounding slavery and our nation’s popular but illegal land grabs from the native American populations. He also presents a picture of Lincoln that is neither saintly or profane, but realistic. Lincoln ended slavery and brought the nation together but at times his ends did not justify the means. Many books have come before on presidential leadership but I think Olasky is to be commended for this volume that is well-researched, well-written, and has a message that is needed now more than ever.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI


One of the relative weaknesses of Evangelicalism is it’s amnesia about the Church’s 1500 years prior to the Reformation. Jesus taught it, Paul interpreted it, and Calvin and Luther preached on it in the 16th century. Thankfully in many Protestant quarters the ancient heritage of the Church is being rediscovered and recovered in our modern era albeit without the passions and extremes that were the stock and trade of the ancients. A little over 50 years ago the Library of Christian Classics released the Early Church Fathers in a new translation and in a single volume to the reading public. I would certainly recommend this volume (still in print along with other books containing the same material) to anyone wanting to get the feel of what Christians taught, thought, and felt in those early years following the New Testament era. In addition to reading these original sources I would also commend Pope Benedict XVI’s The Fathers as wonderful primer on the subject. Pope Benedict presents a brief sketch of each of these teachers and theologians and highlights their contribution to the thinking of the Church. Obviously there are times when Roman Catholicism is celebrated in these vignettes, but then again, one would hardly expect the Pope to write differently. But I do want to reiterate that the clarity and simplicity of The Fathers more than compensates for this shortcoming (if you consider it one). What strikes me about nearly every one of these early leaders is their teaching is universally relevant for us today. But this shouldn’t be surprising since Christianity is the revelation of God for all ages.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll



While this is a book that would normally be read by specialists (it’s price and nuanced style reflect this) it needs to be read by a wider audience. Noll develops his argument of the Civil War being a theological crisis follows along these lines: first the founders and antebellum politicians made it clear America was a country held together by it’s religion and churches. America at the time was roughly 70% evangelical with a commitment to the scriptures as the guide to life. The hermeneutic of the day tended towards a simple understanding of individual verses apart from the macro themes of scripture. A non-reflective reading of individual verses in the Bible could support slavery. The country being 95% Protestant meant there was no one grand authority to settle this interpretive issue that was dividing the Churches. The churches in fact did divide over the slavery issue 20 years before the civil war. The division of the nation follows. No one is left to settle this theological issue but Generals Grant and Lee.

The biblical arguments for the institution of slavery were as follows:

i.) Leviticus 25:45-46—Possession of slaves as property is permitted in Law

ii.) Philemon—Paul sends Onesimus back to his master

iii.) Gen. 9:25—Ham’s descendants through Canaan (Africans) shall be slaves to Shem and Japeth.

iv.) Gen. 17:12---Slaves in Abraham’s household were circumcised.

v.) Deut. 20:10-11---Slaves can be captive in war

vi.) Mt.5-7---Sermon on Mount is silent about slavery

vii.) 1 Cor. 7:21---Slaves not to chafe if master doesn’t grant emancipation.

viii.) Col. 3:22,4:1---Master-Servant relationships regulated but not prohibited.

ix.) 1 Tim. 6:1-2---Slave conversion doesn’t equate emancipation.

Pro-emancipation Christians modified it this way: admitted the OT/NT acknowledgement. It was the law in that part of the world at the time. That doesn’t necessitate its continuance everywhere. Also slavery in the South broke up Negro families and marriages, abused women slaves sexually by masters, and was based on an anti-scriptural idea of Caucasian superiority. While verses permit slavery, the overall tone of scripture calls for equity, love, and righteousness, all of which were absent in the slavery institution as practiced here. Other voices added to this the fact that slavery in the Roman empire was not based on race, thus Caucasians would be eligible for slavery as well; something unthinkable in the American South.

The Black Church in America also launched their stand against slavery:

  1. Bible didn’t teach perpetual, unregulated slavery based on race.
  2. Mt. 7:12 Golden rule would prohibit slavery in America
  3. Church leaders justifying from scripture are prostituting religion to cover their profitable iniquity.
  4. Some argued that God would destroy America if repentance didn’t come.
  5. Christian slaveholders were not ejected from the church for committing adultery with slave women and selling off their mulatto children.
  6. Native Americans rejected missionary efforts because they watched the white church and worried they would share the same fate as the blacks.
  7. Acts 17 clearly states all men descend from a common source and thus are all equal. Yet black slavery is based on racial inferiority.

While all of these were certainly cogent, well-publicized arguments in the day, they really gained no traction. There was no final authority and most people were talking past one another. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw keenly into the situation. If there was a breakthrough in the cotton and tobacco industry that suddenly made slavery unprofitable monetarily, everyone would see these arguments much more clearly. The fact is, it reveals that what we believe is not just shaped by reason alone, but by our environment and communities as well.

The America of 1861 certainly couldn’t agree despite the fact they mostly shared the same religious values and commitments. One shudders to think if the America of today, if faced with a similar controversy, could even agree to split up on two sides of the issue.