How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

Episode 43: Reconciling the Church and Slavery

PodcastSadly, the Church, both in America and abroad, has a long history of supporting the institution of slavery. So what can a single congregation do to reconcile their past with a contemporary commitment to social justice? In today’s episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss truth and reconciliation within the Church. They are joined by public historian Chris Graham, who serves as the chair of the History and Reconciliation Initiative at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).


The “Powerful Threads” That Run Through the History of First Baptist Dallas

First Baptist

I am sure much of what court evangelical Robert Jeffress has tweeted here is true.  I rejoice with all those women and men who experienced redemption and changed lives through the ministry of First Baptist Church–Dallas.  I know some of you.

But I am also a historian.  It is my calling.  It is what I do.  So let me note that there are other “powerful threads” that run through the history of First Baptist Dallas.  Let’s start with political scientist Tobin Grant‘s 2016 Religion News Service piece on longtime pastor W.A. Criswell.  The piece draws on the research of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis.

Here is a taste:

Whatever role pastors and other clergy had during the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, there is a specific history that Jeffrees is ignoring. Obviously, his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was not on the side of abolitionists. More notably, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a prominent segregationist who long saw the fight against integration as part of the gospel.

W.A. Criswell led the church from the 1940s to the 1990s. During this time, the church tripled in size to 22,000 members, including notable members such as Billy Graham. Criswell’s election to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1968 marked the beginning “battle” of the conservative takeover of the denomination.

The election of Criswell was surprising. In the 1968 convention, the SBC voted to integrate its churches and welcome all races to membership. Criswell, however, was the most prominent segregationist in the SBC.

In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.

Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”

He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”

Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty: Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.

Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.

Read the entire piece here.

Saskatchewan Bound!

Regina

I have never been to Saskatchewan.  But if all goes as planned, I will be visiting Regina, Saskatchewan on Wednesday (May 30) to deliver the plenary address at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Church History.  The title of my talk is “Fear, Power, and Nostalgia: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”

I hope to spend some time attending sessions and exploring Regina.  Is there anything I need to visit or see while I am there?

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

In case you were confused about this reference during James Comey’s testimony yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sarah Pulliam Bailey explains at the Washington Post:

The reference between Comey and King goes back to an outburst from King Henry II about the Archbishop of Canterbury. The story passed down through history is that Henry II, who was frustrated by Becket, cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Becket was then murdered by four knights.

In his book “Medieval England 1042-1228,” historian Toby Purser of the University of Northampton writes that it’s unclear whether Henry II uttered those infamous words, but the king said something that set the knights off to Canterbury Cathedral to kill Becket.

“At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death,’ ” clerk of Cambridge Edward Grim is quoted as saying. Becket is now viewed as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

Henry II had appointed Becket, his lord chancellor, to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking Becket would be more loyal to him than the pope. (At the time, the kingdom was still Catholic, and the archbishop was the leader of the church in England.) But the two faced off over church-state disagreements.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians?

Religious LibertyOf course it is.

During the 2016 primary season I criticized several GOP presidential candidates GOP presidential candidates for talking about religious liberty as if it were something that only applied to their own kind–evangelical Christians.

I am happy to see that Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has gone on record defending religious liberty for all Americans. Check out his piece “Is Religious Freedom For Non-Christians Too?

Two observations/questions:

First, what does it say about American Christianity, or perhaps more specifically American evangelicalism, when a leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the country has to remind people that religious liberty applies to non-Christians.

Second, Moore writes:

One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.

When he refers to religious liberty as a “natural and inalienable right granted by God” it sounds less like a theological/biblical statement and more like a recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy in the Declaration of Independence.  Is religious liberty a “natural and inalienable right granted by God” because Jefferson said so?

Does the Bible teach the kind of Jeffersonian liberty that Moore is talking about here? Can someone point me to a Biblical defense of religious liberty?  (I am not trying to be cynical here–I am really interested in learning more about this.  I am sure that there is a lot written on this topic–what is the best stuff?).

Religious liberty, it seems, is a relatively new idea in Western Civilization.  For example, what should we make of all the so-called Christian nations throughout history that did not separate church and state or promote the religious liberty of their people?  Did these states fail to conform to biblical ideas about religious liberty?

While there are strong arguments to be made for religious liberty based on Enlightenment ideals, natural law or reason, or even Catholic social teaching about the dignity of all human beings, I am interested in learning more about those who have made a robust theological and biblical defense of this belief and how such a defense relates to the fact that there were moments in Christian history when the church thrived in cultures where there was little or no religious liberty.

Just curious.

How Churches Can Steward the Past

If you haven’t seen it yet, head over to The Pietist Schoolman and read Chris Gehrz’s “History as Stewardship of the Past.”  It is a powerful post about how churches might think about history. Gehrz calls on churches to preserve the past, interpret the past, and to make the past inviting.

Gehrz’s post got me thinking.  In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I challenged Christian readers to make sure they are using history correctly when they engage the public sphere.  But I say little in the book about how a church might remember its sacred past.  In other words, when a church thinks about its history it usually includes a messy mix of the past, theology, providentialism, and spiritual nostalgia.  I am not sure I would call this history, but it is something that is worthwhile and useful in the setting of a congregation.

Here are Gehrz’s thoughts on preservation:

First, recognizing that all of Creation, after the Fall, is subject to decay, we stewards of the past must work to preserve it. Not time itself — that would be the most futile erosion prevention project imaginable. But we can preserve what the passage of time leaves behind.

First, churches can invest time, energy, expertise, and money in preserving photos, films, documents, and other physical artifacts. Salem not only has an archives, but under the leadership of Kevin McGrew, a Bethel History alum who directs the libraries at the College of St. Scholastica, it has been digitizing some of its resources through the Minnesota Digital Library project.

But better yet — since it’s impossible to preserve all artifacts, or to know which will actually be most helpful in the future — we can preserve the past by sustaining our memories of it. The very act of putting up temporal milestones like anniversaries helps remind us to remember. But it needs to be an ongoing commitment of any community.

Michael Limberg on Day 2 and Day 3 of the Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota
Michael Limberg, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and a seasoned correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home (check out his posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association), is in Minneapolis this week for the Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History.  Here is second and final post from the conference.   You can read his first post here.  –JF

It’s been a busy couple of days at the American Society for Church History Spring Meeting.  Between the graduate student reception and practicing for my presentation last night, I didn’t have a chance to write a post for Friday.  I won’t try to recap all the panels from the last two days, but here are a few notes on interesting developments from the panels and conference events.

Missions, race, and immigration have been recurring themes in the sessions I’ve attended.  Many of the papers on missions have been concerned with figuring out a new historiographic paradigm for missionary work, somewhere between celebrating missionaries as heroic figures and castigating them as exploitative agents of imperialism.  In every panel on overseas missions, the comments pushed for more inclusion of sources that would convey the voices of the missionized as well as the missionaries.  Papers in my panel by Andy Dibb and Andrew Russell took good steps in that direction by including voices from a series of revival movements in Africa and a Swedenborgian church movement started by black South Africans.  Many of the papers, ranging from early American topics to contemporary church movements, focused on how and why churches reached out to racial outsiders.  Phillip Gollner’s paper on Swedes participating in the anti-Mormon movement during the late 1800s and Mark Grandquist’s work on Lutheran churches in Minnesota working with African immigrants were two of a number of examples.  Immigration history was tied into that question.

A brown-bag lunch on Friday with Robert Ellison and Keith Francis introduced an expanding set of resources for pursuing sermon studies as a growing sub-field with the help of online databases.  (Marshall explains what the term and field include and accomplish here).  They argued for the importance of sermons as a way to understand events or trends in the larger society, but acknowledged the difficulty of sorting through the haystack of published sermons.  Ellison demonstrated the capacity of the searchable database with links to digitized sermons he will soon launch through the Marshall University’s Center for Sermon Studies.  Clearly this is a project that will require some crowdsourcing to begin to encompass all the possible sources, so look for the website to go live soon and look for a call to help expand the catalog.

James Laine’s plenary session on meta-religion and Christianity looked very interesting, but I skipped it in favor of a different kind of exercise in church history.  After my panel on Saturday morning, I heard about an ecumenical service for victims of the Armenian Genocide taking place at the St. Paul Cathedral.  I’ve been writing about the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. humanitarian response this spring as part of my dissertation, so I took the chance to go.  Archbishop Nienstedt  spoke, as did the leaders of a number of other Twin Cities denominations.  It was a moving service.   I got the chance to step back from my academic historian perspective and get a different look at this tragedy. The Cathedral is another of my favorite places to visit in the Twin Cities, so I took a few minutes to wander around and admire it again as well.


I won’t be attending the conference events today, so this marks the end of my first ASCH meeting.  I appreciated the welcome I received.  Getting to talk early twentieth century missions and religiously-influenced social movements with Christopher Schlect, Paul Putz and others gave me some new ideas for my research.  I also heard a little of some ongoing informal discussions about the future of ASCH.  The rapid rise of religious scholarship connected to other historical fields (such as the “religious turn” among foreign relations historians that helped bring me to this conference) means that ASCH is no longer as unique and might need to rethink its specific identity or mission.  However those discussions play out over the next months, I hope to attend another ASCH meeting soon.

Checking In With Michael Limberg From the Floor of the Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank–Minneapolis
Michael Limberg, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and a seasoned correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home (check out his posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association), is in Minneapolis this week for the Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History.   As you may recall, Michael is writing a dissertation on how U.S. philanthropists, missionaries, and diplomats worked to change and modernize the Near East in the decades following World War I.  He will be checking in a few times this weekend.  I hope you enjoy his first offering.  It is published below.  –JF

Hello from Minneapolis!  The Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History is in full swing.  This will be my first conference with ASCH, though I have enjoyed a few of their joint-sponsored sessions at previous American Historical Association conferences  I hope to run into a few people I know and meet many more.  I grew up in the Twin Cities, so I am taking full advantage of the chance to wander around Minneapolis again.  I took the new Green Line light rail across downtown this morning, passing by some of my favorite quirky buildings (including the Art Deco-era Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank) and the new football stadium that will replace the venerable Metrodome.  This looks to be a fairly small gathering compared to the annual meeting, with a strong emphasis on religious history in the Upper Midwest to complement the host city.  The Upper Midwest regional conference for the American Academy of Religion is taking place across town in St. Paul this weekend, which has apparently drawn off some possible attendees.  

Minneapolis: A View From Across the Mississippi
There was just one session yesterday afternoon, so I attended a panel on missions to Native Americans.  Marilyn Fardig Whiteley examined the life of Isabel Crawford, a Baptist missionary who worked among the Kiowa in the 1890s and early 1900s.  She argued that Crawford made an important transition to identify with the people she worked with, criticizing white Americans for their poor treatment of Native peoples.  Elizabeth A. Georgian focused on the example of Lorenzo Dow, a dissident itinerant preacher who broke with the Methodist church.  Unlike Francis Asbury and other early Methodist leaders who largely focused on white converts, Dow argued that God’s grace was clearly working among Native Americans and African Americans.  He thought that Native American converts could show whites the errors of Calvinism and universalism.  Finally, Do Hoon Kim compared conversion narratives from Praying Indians and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay colony.  The comments focused particularly on how new missions scholarship can work to get the perspective of the missionized as well as the missionary, and on the role of practice and ritual in conversion.

Today looks like a full day, with lots of panels and ending in a graduate student reception (because free food! Yay!)  I need to find some time to put a final touch or two on my paper for Saturday morning, on the YMCA in Jerusalem during the 1920s and 1930s.  The paper is based on some of my earliest dissertation research, done just a few minutes’ walk away at the University of Minnesota’s Anderson library.  I spent the morning there going over a few more boxes, so I need to put in a thank you to the archives staff there and a plug for the tour they are putting on (including a viewing of the archival “cavern” carved out of the Mississippi River bluff).  I look forward to the rest of the conference!

Nathan Hatch on Why Christians Should Study the Past

Nathan Hatch

Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College is calling our attention to a recent chapel talk at Wheaton by Nathan Hatch.  As many of you know, Hatch is a Wheaton graduate, the author the award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity, and the current president of Wake Forest University. Hatch’s chapel talk was titled: “Engaging History: The Redemptive Power of the Past.” (Scroll to October 31, 2014).

Here is a taste of Tracy’s commentary on Hatch’s talk:

Hatch begins by observing that we evangelicals have long been suspicious of the past.  We pride ourselves on grounding our religious beliefs wholly on the Bible, not on human tradition, and that tends to make us skeptical of the past as a source of wisdom for our lives today.
As American evangelicals, we are doubly skeptical, inasmuch as we have been affected by a national culture that is relentlessly present-minded.
Hatch then explains why he finds this regretable, but he does so in a novel way.  He shares brief vignettes of two of his classmates in Wheaton’s class of ’68: John Piper and Mark Noll.  Both went on to great distinction after leaving Wheaton–Piper became a nationally-recognized evangelical pastor and writer, while Noll developed into arguably the most distinguished and prolific Christian historian of the last century.
When Piper and Noll were in their twenties, Hatch relates, both experienced a religious awakening by delving into the past.  Each story is fascinating, but I won’t spoil them by sharing too much of the specifics.  Building on these examples, Hatch identifies two general benefits to the Christian who, like Piper and Noll, chooses to delve into the past.  First, serious study of the past can “expand our view of God and His work in the world.”  Second, it can do much to improve our understanding of our own times.   Both benefits are invaluable.

The Author’s Corner with Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the US (Abingdon Press, November 2014).


JF: What led you to write A Sense of the Heart​?

BL: An editor from Abingdon Press called me to ask if I would be interested in writing a new text that would survey American Christianity, or religious experience in the US. I chose the latter opportunity since for many years I have taught graduate seminars on Religious Experience in America. I have often thought of writing a text on the topic and this was just the incentive I needed. I have long understood religious experience to be an important resource examining the shape and diversity of American Christianity in its various forms. The phrase, “a sense of the heart,” comes from Jonathan Edwards’ work, A Treatise on Religious Affections, and describes something of the nature of religious experience within and beyond Edwards’ own understanding of religious experience and conversion.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Sense of the Heart?

BL: The book explores the nature and diversity of religious experience in light of such distinct religio-cultural issues as pluralism, voluntarism, religious freedom, democratic idealism, and Protestant privilege in the US. This unique environment not only shaped the nature of experience with the Divine, but also provided a milieu in which multiple individuals and groups cultivated encounters with the Sacred.

JF: Why do we need to read A Sense of the Heart​?
BL: The book can be a helpful resource for several reasons: 1) It provides a one-volume survey of the history, theology and practice of religious experience in multiple contexts from the colonial period to the 21st century; 2) Americans have nurtured varying, often intense, religious experiences that informed spiritual identity, united and divided Christian communities, and made some type of “conversion” normative for all who would claim a relationship with Christ and the church; 3) Through it all, religious experience became one way in which the “objective” idea that God loves human beings and offers them salvation, becomes a “subjective” reality in the lives of specific individuals. This text pursues those issues. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BL: I grew up reading and loving history. My father passed on to me his love of history, reading history to me before I learned to read for myself. As native Texans we read Texas history together from early in my life. I think I learned the heroes of the Alamo before the names of the Apostles! My interest in history was nurtured by multiple mentors at every phase of the educational journey–men and women who were themselves captivated by historical studies with different approaches and specializations. Dr. Alice Wonders, chair of the Religion Department at Texas Wesleyan University, was an important mentor who encouraged me to pursue historical studies with an eye toward teaching. Dr. William Estep, well know church historian from my seminary studies, shaped my interest in teaching Christian history; and Dr. Earl Kent Brown at Boston University helped me focus my work in areas of American religion. He guided my dissertation in elements of American Protestant mysticism. My own experiences among Baptists in the South–conversionism, revivalism, varying “plans of salvation” led to some of my earliest research into religious experience and my concern to communicate those studies to new generations of students. 

JF: What is your next project?
BL: Right now I am preparing a new edition of an earlier work entitled, Word of God Across the Ages: Using Church History in Preaching. It offers suggestions at to utilizing historical studies homiletically and provides a variety of sermons with focus on the theology and spirituality of certain historical figures from St. Paul to Sojourner Truth, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am also doing initial research for a study of religion in Appalachia, particularly as much of the region’s religious culture is being impacted by the impinging mass culture of the larger American religious and secular society.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Bill.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The New "Church History" Journal is Here

Here are the articles from the June 2014 issue of Church History:

Robert McEachnie, “A History of Heresy Past: The Sermons of Chromatius of Aquileia.”

Allson More, “Institutionalizing Penitential Life in Later Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Third Orders, Rules, and Canonical Legitimacy.”

Jan Stievermann, “Faithful Translations: New Discoveries on the German Pietist Reception of Jonathan Edwards.”

Bruce Hindmarsh, “The Inner Life of Doctrine: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Calvinist-Arminian Debate Among Methodists

Emily Anderson, “Containing Voices in the Wilderness: Censorship and Religious Dissent in the Japanese Countryside.”

And reviews by Amanda Porterfield, Paul Seaver, Donald McKim, Jeremy Bangs, Carol Karlson, Jonathan Israel, Charles Cohen, and Art Remillard.

The Author’s Corner with Robert F. Rea

Robert Rea is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Christian Lincoln University. This interview is based on his new book, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past (InterVarsity Press, July 2014).
JF: What led you to write Why Church History Matters?
RR: For many years I needed an accessible textbook to help inspire inquiring, Bible-focused students to value and to study the Christian tradition—to introduce students to the meaning of tradition, to explain of Christians understand tradition, to draw contemporary Christians to participate in the life of the whole Church throughout the centuries, and to make the crucial connection between historic Christians and current life and ministry.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Why Church History Matters?

RR: We need the entire Christian family—across cultures, continents, and centuries—to know who we are and are becoming, to live in community with the whole Church, and to practice accountability with the whole Church, expanding our horizons and filling gaps in our theology. This happens only by knowing Christian history, which enhances Bible study and every other Christian ministry—preaching and teaching, systematic theology, spirituality, worship, mission, ethics, compassion, ecumenism, cultural engagement, and more.

JF: Why do we need to read Why Church History Matters?
RR: “This book is a call to Christians who love the Bible to study historic Christians and their wisdom and experiences…to understand the Bible and theology better and to experience a fuller Christian life.” Multiple illustrations help the reader on this journey, with recommendations for further investigation.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RR: Actually, I am a church historian—an historical theologian—covering Christianity throughout the centuries. This includes the history of American Christianity.

JF: What is your next project?

RR: I will work in the life and spirituality of John Cassian, an important fifth century church father. His passing along the tradition of the desert fathers in two works, Institutes and Conferences, became foundational for Christian spirituality. He also relayed the desert understanding of grace theology, often overlooked in the West, but formational for Eastern Orthodox grace theology.
JF: Can’t wait to read about it. Thanks Bob!
Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner

Thanks Tom Nettles

Tom Nettles

While I was was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, I took several courses with Tom Nettles.  He arrived on campus a year after I did and, as a southerner with a heavy southern accent, he was an immediate curiosity among the mostly Midwestern students who attended Trinity.  (As a New Jerseyan who was raised Catholic and probably never met a Southern Baptist until Nettles, he might as well have been from another planet).

I did not get to know Nettles very well during my tenure at TEDS, but I learned a lot from his classes.   During my last year in Chicagoland Nettles left for Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville.  He spent 17 years there.

Today I learned that Nettles was retiring from teaching.  I wish him well in his retirement.  I am sure that there are a few more books in the works.

I will close this post with a few memories of Nettles:

  • One day in a course on Jonathan Edwards, Nettles walked into the classroom wearing his graduation regalia. Without an explanation he marched straight to the lectern and started reading/preaching “Sinners in the Hands of the Angry God.”  I remember wondering what Edwards would have thought of a guy with a southern accent reading his sermon.  Nettles was a strong advocate of the idea that Edwards did not simply read his sermons, but he preached them with passion.
  • In a course on 19th century evangelicalism Nettles assigned everyone in the class a prominent religious figure from the period.  After we spent the semester studying this figure we were required to participate in a free-for-all theological debate (moderated by Nettles) in which each student had to embody the figure they were assigned.  My figure was D.L. Moody so all I had to do in the theological debate was assert something about preaching the gospel to the lost.  I remember Nettles getting a kick out of my consistent portrayal.
  • During the Jonathan Edwards class Nettles would illustrate some of Edwards’s deep theological arguments by referencing episodes of the television series The Wonder Years.
  • On more than one occasion Nettles would break out into song during a lecture.  I never knew the hymns he sang, but he loved to sing them.
  • I used to work in the TEDS mailroom and Nettles taught his Introduction to American Church History course in an adjacent classroom. Though I did not take him for this course, I got to listen to all of his lectures while I sorted the mail. (His voice really carried!). I remember one day he was lecturing on the pro-slavery position in the antebellum South. His pedagogical approach was to take on the persona of a Christian slaveholder (perhaps it was Dabney or Thornwell).  The students in the class were debating him, trying to make a theological argument that slavery was wrong, but Nettles (in character) kept hammering back with Biblical citations that shot down all of their arguments.  It was fun to listen to.  I am almost certain that some of the students thought Nettles was pro-slavery.  
I am curious if any of his current students or other former students have had these classroom experiences.
Congratulations on your retirement, Dr. Nettles.  I am not a Southern Baptist, but I am still glad our paths had the chance to cross.

The Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History

The program for the Winter Meeting of the ASCH is out and it abounds with interesting and provocative sessions.  I wish I could go to them all.  I am looking forward to joining Anna Lawrence, Christopher Jones, Katherine Carte Engel, and Mark Peterson on a session entitled “Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution.”  I will be sharing some work in progress on my project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.

Other sessions that caught my eye:
  • A session evangelical book culture featuring Catherine Brekus, Jonathan Yeager, Keith Grant, and Daniel Vaca
  • A session on David Bebbington’s so-called “Evangelical Quadrilateral” featuring Timothy Larsen, Kelly Elliott, Thomas Kidd, Amanda Porterfield, and Bebbington himself
  • A session liberal religion in America featuring Lydia Willsky, Matthew Bowman, Elesha Coffman, and Matthew Hedstrom
  • A session on war featuring Darryl Hart, Benjamin Wetzel, Cara Burnidge, Paul Kemeny, and Richard Gamble
  • A session on Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt featuring Katherine Carte Engel, Michael Altman, James Byrd, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Mark Noll
  • A session Indian missions in the early republic featuring Linford Fisher, Brian Franklin, Nicholas Aieta, and Joshua Rice
  • A session on Pentecostals featuring Kate Bowler, Christopher Kinder, Susie Butler, and Jonathan Root
  • A session on religion and the American Civil War featuring Mark Noll, Harry Stout, Allen Guelzo, James McPherson, George Rable, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp
  •  A session on Catholicism and the politics of life featuring Leslie Tenter, Daniel Williams, Raymond Haberski, and Marian Mollin
This should be a great conference.  Unfortunately I have other responsibilities that will keep me away from all of these sessions, but I hope to make as many as possible.

John Woodbridge and Frank James III Publish New Church History Text

Are you a professor at an evangelical seminary or college who is looking for a new textbook for your modern church history class?  You may want to consider  John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III‘s recently published Church History: Vol 2–From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Zondervan, 2013).  Many of you may know Woodbridge as the longtime professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.  James is the president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA and former provost at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area.  They write from a clear evangelical perspective, but are also sensitive to current academic trends in the field of church history.

The text has 22 chapters, from “European Christianity in an Age of Adversity, Renaissance, and Discovery” to “Christianity and Islam: The Challenge of the Future.”  (I might also add that volume 1 of this text was written by Everett Ferguson.)

Here is a taste of the preface:

This volume has sought to accomplish a number of goals.  The first of these is to provide an academically responsible engagement with the facts of history as best we can determine them, whether or not these facts comport with personal convictions.  We believe that such honesty, although at time painful, will ultimately serve the best interests of all, Christian or not.  Second, this volume endeavors to provide a global perspective.  We now inhabit a world where the center of Christianity has shifted from the West to the global South, which requires that due consideration be given to the theology and movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Third, we intend this volume to be contemporary and relevant to the church today.  Change, whether cultural, technological, political, or social, is now happening at an ever-increasing pace.  Although it is impossible to keep up with every new movement, we nevertheless endeavored to engage the most significant of those developments that are most likely to impact the Christian church.  Fourth, we have not avoided controversial issues of the past or the present.  But we do not presume to make final judgments.  Rather, we seek to present the relevant dimensions of the debate in order to provide readers with enough information so that they can begin to reach their own conclusions.

Fifth, we are keenly aware that church history–like all history–is culturally conditioned.  The social norms that governed an earlier era may not be the social norms today.  For example, we do not execute heretics.  However, even as we evaluate actions according to the cultural standards of the time, we are mindful that Christians affirm doctrinal beliefs and ethical standards that are culturally transcendent.  Finally, we have embraced a broad ecumenical stance; that is to say, we have endeavored to be respectful to all Christian traditions and indeed, to give a thoughtful and faithful treatments to other religions.

Were the Early Christians Persecuted for Their Faith?

I grew up hearing that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.”  Some Christians today claim that the church has lost its prophetic edge because, since Constantine, it has enjoyed a privileged position in government and culture.  These prophets and theologians claim that it was persecution–especially under the Roman Empire in the first century or two after the death of Christ–that led to the rapid growth of Christianity. 

Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Notre Dame, does not buy any of this traditional narrative.  In her new book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented the Story of Matrydom, Moss suggests the story of early Christian persecution was constructed by fifth century (and beyond) Christians.  Here is a taste of a recent piece she wrote for The Daily Beast:

With the exception of the Great Persecution of Diocletian (AD 303-305), when Christians were indeed actively persecuted, it is difficult to find any examples of Roman emperors behaving as Christians typically portrayed them. Apart from this comparatively brief period, and an even briefer one during the reign of Valerian in 257-58, Roman emperors never targeted Christians for attack. At the beginning of the second century, the emperor Trajan actually stipulated that Christians were not to be sought out. Roman emperors simply don’t appear to have been that interested in Christians. For most of the first three centuries of their existence Christians flourished: they held lofty political positions, and were so comfortable under the Romans that they even constructed a prominent church across the road from the imperial palace in Nicomedia.

The overwhelming majority of Christians idealized martyrdom and suffering like Jesus, but very few of them died violently—and even fewer died as the result of the kind of persecution described in Sunday school. Romans had good reason to be concerned about Christians. Scandalous rumors of Christians participating in incestuous orgies and practicing cannibalism were widely circulated. More important, Christians sounded a lot like revolutionaries. In courtrooms they stated that they were unable to respect anyone but Christ, their new emperor. Roman officials had no problem executing political subversives—this was a world in which Jon Stewart would be executed for his institution-challenging satire. Ancient empires were accustomed to reshaping the religious identities of those they bested in war. The Romans magnanimously allowed conquered groups to maintain their own religious traditions and implement their own law at their own discretion. But this generosity ended when it became socially disruptive or politically subversive. Christians threatened the stability of the empire, and when we look at their interactions with Roman authorities, we might even find ourselves sympathizing with the Romans.

David Brooks Dabbles in Early Church History

Augustine of Hippo

Brooks describes two types of fourth-century approaches to Catholic identity.  The Donatists “believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity.”  Augustine of Hippo “wanted the church to go on the offense and swallow the world.”  He sees Pope Francis as an Augustinian in this regard and also praises the Augustinian model as an effective way of reviving institutions.

I am sure that church historians are going to have a field day with this column, but let’s give Brooks a break–he only has 800 words.  Moreover, Brooks has probably led thousands of people to head over to Wikipedia and look up the word “Donatist.”  I applaud his effort to bring history to bear on the present.

While we await the scholarly assault, here is a taste of his column:

In the fourth century, another revival movement arose, embraced by Augustine, who was Bishop of Hippo. The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.
Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.
He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.
In this view, the church would be attractive because it was hungering and thirsting for fulfillment. Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions. Augustine had this deep, volatile personality. His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.
This second tendency is also found in movements that are in crisis, but it is rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis.
Like most of the world, I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers “accidents on the streets” to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.
It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who stands by traditional Catholic teaching, but then goes out and visits Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who had married in defiance of the church and who was dying poor and forgotten. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who ferociously rebukes those priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers.
It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who seems to feel a compulsive need to be riding the buses, who refuses to live in the official residences, who sends his priests out to the frontiers and who once said he would die if locked away in the Vatican.
I’ll leave it to Catholics to decide if Francis is good for the church. The subject here is how do you revive a movement in crisis. The natural instinct is to turn Donatist, to build an ark and defend what’s precious. The counterintuitive but more successful strategy is to follow Augustine, to exploit a moment of weakness by making yourself even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure, counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault.