Syndicate Symposium: “Sins and Virtues in American Public Life”

Over at “Syndicate,” Dartmouth religion professor Jeremy Sabella has put together a symposium on the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is titled “Sins & Virtues in American Public Life.”

New posts will appear on Tuesday and Fridays. Writers in this series include Bharat Ranganathan, Daniel Schultz, Chris Jones, Vincent Lloyd, Stanley Hauerwas, Jamie Pitts, Jennifer Knapp, Christian Sabella, David Cloutier, Robin Lovin, Jon Kara Shields, MT Davila, Aaron Scott, Colleen Wessell-McCoy, Scott Paeth, Randall Balmer, M. Shawn Copeland, and Briallen Hopper.

My piece on the theological virtue of faith and American public life will appear on November 3, 2020.

The series began last week and will run through November 13, 2020. Here is a taste of Sabella’s introduction:

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.

We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.

The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.

By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.

Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members. Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.

As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?

Read the rest here.

Theologian Miroslav Volf on Christian Trumpism

Here is the Yale theologian yesterday on Twitter:

The Author’s Corner with Baird Tipson

Inward BaptismBaird Tipson is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Gettysburg College. This interview is based on his new book, Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Inward Baptism?

BT: The two and a half centuries following the Reformation (c. 1500-1750) saw critical changes in how people understood Protestant Christianity. For many, a religion that had once occurred largely invisible sacraments presided over by an ordained clergy became located primarily in the individual conscience and–for many–in perceptible experiences of the inward activity of the Holy Spirit.

 JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inward Baptism?

BT: Inward Baptism argues that accepting Luther’s fundamental insights would eventually shift the balance from encountering the divine in clerically-controlled church services to encountering the divine in personal, largely interior, experience. Where Luther urged Christians to draw assurance of their being in God’s good graces from their having been baptized as infants, Wesley insisted they must–as adults–perceive the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts.

JF: Why do we need to read Inward Baptism?

BT: I hope I can convince conscientious readers of two things (1) the enormous differences between a sacramentally-oriented Christianity and one based primarily on knowing Jesus as a Christian’s personal savior, and (2) the possibility that evangelical Christianity is not some recent aberration but a virtually inevitable result of Protestantism’s commitment to justification by faith.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Inward Baptism.

BT: Since this is a work of historical theology, I worked chiefly in printed sources, primarily the writings of individual theologians. (I did use a few manuscript sources as well). Since for the most part I was working beyond my own areas of specialization, I tested my interpretations against a raft of secondary sources. In the first three chapters, the printed sources were rarely in English, so I compared my own translations with those of other scholars wherever possible. Fortunately, much of my source material is available digitally, particularly in Early English Books Online and on the website of the Post-Reformation digital library.

JF: What is your next project?

BT: I am presently working on differing understandings within the Anglican tradition of The Book of Common Prayer. Recent scholarship has demonstrated to my satisfaction that Thomas Cranmer’s two prayer books (1549 and 1552) were transitional products that reflected his evolving theological commitments; had he lived and circumstances permitted, he would undoubtedly have made further modifications. But the Anglican tradition has come to understand The Book of Common Prayer as reflecting something called “Anglicanism,” in the process gliding over areas where Cranmer’s language was purposely imprecise. I am particularly interested at the moment in how participation in the sacraments does or does not “assure” the worshipper of God’s favor

JF: Thanks, Baird!

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

J.I. Packer: 1926-2020

Packer

Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer has died. He was 93.

Here is a taste of Leland Ryken’s obituary at Christianity Today:

When Christianity Today conducted a survey to determine the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Packer’s book Knowing God came in fifth. His fame and influence were not something that he set out to accomplish. He steadfastly refused to cultivate a following. Instead, he made his mark with his typewriter (which he used to compose his articles and books throughout his life).

J. I. Packer filled so many roles that we can accurately think of him as having had multiple careers. He earned his livelihood by teaching and was known to those who were his students as a professor. But the world at large knows Packer as an author and speaker.

Packer’s fame as a speaker rivaled his stature as an author. In both spheres, his generosity was unsurpassed. No audience or venue was too small to elicit Packer’s best effort. His publishing career was a case study in accepting virtually every request that was made of him. His signature book, Knowing God, (which has sold a million and a half copies) began as a series of bimonthly articles requested by the editor of a small evangelical magazine. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, began as a talk to a group of students (the publisher requested a pamphlet but Packer wrote a book). Perhaps no one in history has written more endorsements and prefaces to the books of others than Packer did.

In both his publishing and speaking, Packer was famous as a Puritan scholar, but he was also a dedicated churchman who said that his teaching was primarily aimed at the education of future ministers, and he spent countless hours serving on church committees. For a quarter of a century, Packer’s involvement with Christianity Today gave him a platform as an essayist who frequently turned to topics of cultural critique. Packer had a career as a controversialist (by necessity rather than choice, he confided to me). Despite this range, Packer consistently self-identified as a theologian, which we can therefore regard as his primary vocation.

When we speak of the legacy left by a deceased person, we think misleadingly in terms of a speculative posthumous legacy that is impossible to predict. J. I. Packer’s primary legacy is the influence he held over events in Christendom and over people’s lives during his lifetime. That is his indisputable legacy, and I will highlight what I believe to be the most important ways in which Packer affected the direction of Christianity during his life.

Read the entire piece here.

The Church in Exile

Wright

Theologian N.T. Wright has a new book out titled God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. I have a review copy, but I have not the time to look at it yet. Stay tuned.

Wright has published an excerpt at Time. Here is a taste of “Should Churches Reopen? The Answer Lies in Thinking of This As a Time of Exile“:

Of course, part of the point of Psalm 137 is precisely that this Psalm is itself a “song of the Lord.” That is the irony: writing a poem about being unable to write a poem. Part of the discipline of lament might then be to turn the lament itself into a song of sorrow. Perhaps that is part of the way in which we are being called right now to be people of lament – lamenting even the fact that we can’t lament in the way we would normally prefer. We need to explore those questions, and the new disciplines they may demand, in whatever ways we can. Perhaps this, too, is simply to be accepted as part of what life in Babylon is like. We must, as Jeremiah said, settle down into this regime and “seek the welfare of the city” where we are. But let’s not pretend it’s where we want to be. Let’s not forget Jerusalem. Let’s not decide to stay here.

Read the entire piece here.

The Strange Career of German Religious Influence in America

August_Neander

Johann Neander

Ralph Keen is writing for us this week from the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City.  Keen is Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2018 he was president of the ASCH.

The session on the influence of German theology in the US brought to light new details about the reception of Johann August Neander and August Tholuck. Annette Aubert (Westminster Seminary) discussed the work of Neander, considered by many at the time as a founder of modern church history, author of a history that appeared in numerous American editions. Neander’s adoption of rigorous historical method, and his attempt to reconcile tradition and innovation, encountered resistance from more conservative seminaries. David Komline (Western Seminary) described a controversy over whether Tholuck was a universalist, a question that engaged Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Unitarians and that led some in these camps to claim (and others to deny) that universalism had become the theological orthodoxy in Germany. Tholuck himself tried to clarify his position in letters, with mixed success. Joel Iliff (Baylor) gave an account of Tholuck’s reception in the antebellum South, with attention to Tholuck’s history of rationalism and it’s role in shaping how many Southern theologians understood the task of theology. For them, Tholuck represented the union of piety and scientific biblical scholarship. Iliff pointed out that Tholuck was seen by some as a second Luther or Calvin. Aubert’s paper had a similar observation about the prominence (at the time) of Neander, whose supporters considered him a second Reformer.

Fleming Rutledge on Advent Hope

Rainbow

“The concept of justice is indeed central to the biblical portrait of the God who has revealed himself in his written Word and in the incarnate Word who is his Son.  However, the current use of ‘justice’ as a rallying cry for the church is reductive, because it is limited to particular political and economic issues without reference to the righteousness of God .  A key to the biblical meaning of justice is found in the fact that the word translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ is the same word in Hebrew and in Greek.  The root of the word becomes, in both Testaments, both a noun and a verb, so that ‘justice’ or ‘judgment’ is the same thing as ‘righteousness’ or ‘rectification’ (making right).  The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness.  All the references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness–not just his being righteous (noun) but his ‘making right’ (verb) all that has been wrong.  Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgment.

Promise is a key concept of understanding Advent.  We are all familiar with broken promises; indeed, it sometimes seems that broken promises are the only promises there are.  This is a sign of the old age.  The gospel announces the promise of God, which has an entirely different character from human promises because it is anchored in the very nature of the righteous God with whom ‘all things are possible’ (Matt. 19:26).  Therefore, the principal defining characteristic of the Christian community, along with faith and love, is hope (I Cor. 13:13).

Fleming RutledgeAdvent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 21-22.

Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

El Paso Thoughts

According to theologian Candida Moss, “thoughts and prayers” can be good things, but they alone cannot solve the gun violence problem in the United States.  To suggest otherwise is bad theology.

Agreed.

Here is a taste of her recent piece at The Daily Beast:

The idea that prayer demands action has a biblical basis. We tend to assume that characters who pray also take steps to have their requests met. Dr.Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said, “When we read the story of Hannah praying for a child are we to assume that she stopped having sex?” Similarly most Christians (though not all) combine prayer with medical treatment when ill. When it comes to rectifying injustice and evil in the world the Epistle of James quite explicitly demands that we act: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16). 

Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama agree. In a Sunday Angelus message in 2013, Francis said “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer… Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.” Just last year the Dalai Lama tweeted that although he is a Buddhist monk he is “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” 

The necessity of both prayer and action are recognized by pro-life Christians who both pray to end abortion and seek to re-legislate Roe v. Wade. As John Fea wrote this week, the thoughts and prayers excuse simply would not fly in the case of abortion. Thus, the question is not, “are thoughts and prayers sufficient?” but rather “when does the loss of human life necessitate action?” Surely, for the conscientious Christian, the answer has to be “whenever it occurs.” 

The truth of the matter is that even if miracles happen and prayer has miraculous (as well as psychological) benefits, it is simply bad theology to suggest that prayer alone can solve the problem of gun control. Petitionary prayers (prayers that ask for things) do not always deliver what a person wants. There are countless people who have faithfully prayed to God and not received the thing that they asked for. This isn’t just historically true, it’s theologically true. There are all number of reasons this is the case. In the first place, God might have other plans. So we might “ask” but not “receive” in the way that we expect or want. Arguably the best example of this is Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his death, Jesus kneels down to pray and asks his “Abba (Father)” to allow “the cup” (i.e. death) to pass from him. It is what he wants, but Jesus recognizes that the outcome will be what his father wants. It’s an example of obedience. but it’s also a story about a frustrated request in which through prayer Jesus discerned what he was supposed to do. It’s an important example because otherwise people who pray and don’t receive help are led to believe that they are spiritually failing.

Read the entire piece here.

Here are the Long-Forgotten Lyrics to “So Many Views”

TEDSWARNING:  This post gets deep into the weeds of my evangelical divinity school experience.

Several of you have asked me for the words to “So Many Views,” the parody song I co-wrote about my experience at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where I was a student from 1989-1992.  I am not going to mention my co-author or the members of the band we formed that performed this song and others.  The innocent must be protected!  Tim and Karl, if you want your full names mentioned let me know.  🙂

For the uninitiated,  I referenced this song in my recent post on Southern Baptists.  Here is the relevant part of that post:

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism.  But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.

I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.  Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.

Here are the words to “So Many Views.”  As noted above, we performed it to the music of “I’m a Believer.”

Came to TEDS to learn about theology

Seems the more I learned, the less I got

Oooh, Carson’s out to get me (and so is Doug Moo…)

That’s the way it seems

Parsing and accents in my dreams….

 

CHORUS:

So many views (so many views)

What do I believe now? (what do I believe now?)

Gotta choose (I gotta choose)

Can women preach? (can women preach?)

With all I owe, (oooooh)

Gotta believe now I couldn’t leave now if I tried

 

What is the women’s role in ministry?

Should their heads be covered or should they not?

Oooh, Grudem’s out to get them (and so is Doug Moo…)

Liefield and Tucker too (and so is Doug Moo…)

Will someone please tell me the right view?

 

CHORUS

 

Am I dispensational or covenant?

Should I sprinkle or should I dunk?

Oooh…Kaiser’s out to get them (and so is Doug Moo…)

Who will be next?

Gotta keep my finger on the text….

 

CHORUS

 

Should my sermons be expository or topical?

Should their be 3 mains or only 2?

Oooh…Larson’s out to get them (and so is Doug Moo…)

Critique form and pen

Gotta watch my videotape at ten

 

CHORUS

There you go.  I am sure some of you will have a field day deconstructing the evangelical seminary experience of thirty years ago, but this was my world back then.

Kristen Gillibrand’s Wacky Pro-Choice Theology

Gillibrand

Recently New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kristen Gillibrand claimed that laws against abortion are “against Christian faith?”  This should raise a host of red flags for people who know something about Christianity.  Most American evangelicals, who the last time I checked were Christians, oppose abortion.  Roman Catholics also oppose abortion.  The Orthodox Church also opposes the practice.  So do many mainline Protestants.

So why does Gillibrand believe that a pro-life position on abortion is anti-Christian?  She claims that Christianity teaches “free will” and, as a result, laws preventing a women’s choice to abort a baby are not Christian.

Wow.  I just read a draft of this post to my eighteen-year-old daughter and she gave me a puzzled look before saying, “Wait, that’s not how it works.”

Most of the Christian bodies I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post also believe in free will.  Yet they oppose the practice of abortion because a person’s free will is always understood in the context of other principles–like the common good, the preservation of life, and duties to others, including the unborn.  When one becomes a Christian they are called to deny self for the life of others.  There are times when individual choice must be subordinated to larger moral issues.

Please note that this post is not an endorsement of the Alabama bill.  I have argued that overturning Roe v. Wade is not the best way to reduce the number of abortions.  Rather, this post is a plea to politicians to stop doing theology.

Christian Universalism

mcCLymondChristianity Today is running an informative interview with Saint Louis University theologian and religious historian Michael McClymond on Christian universalism.  The interview, conducted by Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University, is based on his new book The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Read the entire interview here.   You can buy the book, in two volumes, from Baker Academic at the whopping price of $90.00.

The Author’s Corner with Adriaan Neele

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Adriaan Neele is the Director of the Doctoral Program and Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What inspired you to write Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: In Before Edwards I seek to balance the recent academic attention to the developments of intellectual history after Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, the recent rise of Edwards scholarship and eminent reflections on Edwards’s “uniqueness” in American religious history, his Puritan sermon style and substance, and the appropriation of his thought in the courses of New England theology gave me to pause to offer another study on the preacher, theologian, and philosopher of Northampton. On the other hand, the rise of another scholarship—at the same, that on Protestant scholasticism and Reformed orthodoxy of the early modern era rarely coincides with studies on Edwards but offers consideration to re-assess and re-interpret Edwards’s theological relationship to the early modern era. The publication After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney— “a groundbreaking study of a neglected topic,” however, became a further stimulus to embark on a more comprehensive study of providing a broader background of Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodoxy and Protestant scholastic sources in the context of the challenges of his day. The longstanding trajectories of classical Christian theology are indispensable to discern continuities and discontinuities of his theological thought.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: The theological and philosophical sources of the early modern era have contributed to Edwards’ thought through his resourceful appropriation in biblical exegesis, formulation of doctrine, polemical response, and explication of practical aspects of Christian theology.

JF: Why should we read Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: This volume will present the first comprehensive study of Jonathan Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodox and Protestant scholastic primary sources in the context of the challenges of orthodoxy in his day. It will look at the way he appreciated and appropriated Reformed orthodoxy, among other topics. The book studies three time periods in Edwards’s life and work, the formative years of 1703–1725, the Northampton period of 1726–1750, and the final years of 1751–1758. A background of post-Reformation or early modern thought, but with particular attention to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706)—Edwards most “favored” theologian, is offered for each period enabling readers to assess issues of continuity and discontinuity, development and change in Edwards. Since there has been limited research on Edwards’s use of his primary sources this study analyses the theological ideas of the past that found their way into Edwards’s own theological reflections. The book argues that the formation, reflection, and communication of theological thought must be historically informed. The teaching, preaching, and practice of theology must be rooted in the classical curricula, methods of preaching, and systema of theology. Inherited theology must be evaluated on its own terms, historically and theologically, so that meaningful answers for the present can be constructed. Tracing Edwards’s discerning engagement with past ideas exemplifies how theology unfolds in an era of intellectual, religious, social, and political transition.

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

AN: My training in Protestant scholasticism, Reformed orthodoxy and concentration in the early modern era of ca. 1565 – 1750, and my work at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University offered an opportunity to examine the writings of the sage of Northampton, and situates Edwards in a world more European, classical, and biblical-theological than the one taken for granted by most of his interpreters.

JF: What is your next project?

AN: Book: Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Text, Context, and Interpretation (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2019)

Chapter: Early Modern Dutch Biblical Exegesis: Renaissance and Reception (UPenn, 2019)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in Africa (OUP, 2020)

Book: The Reception of Medieval Rabbinic exegesis in Reformed Orthodoxy (2020)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in the Netherlands (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2020)

Chapter: Jonathan Edwards and Prolegomena (T&T Clark, 2021)

Article: Hyleke Gockinga (1723-1793): A Woman, A Bible Commentator, and A Translator of Puritan Work in the Dutch Republic (2019)

JF: Thanks, Adriaan!

What Hath Anabaptists To Do With Evangelicals?

PICKWICK_TemplateA few years ago I wrote an essay in a book, edited by Jared Burkholder and David Cramer, titled, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism.  Since I self-identify as an evangelical, work at a college with Anabaptist roots, and study American evangelical movements, I have had an informal interest in this subject for a long time.

Cramer is a pastor and seminary professor who works at the intersection of these two Christian movements.   I met him for the first time in the Fall when I spoke about Believe Me at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Cramer writes about that visit in a post at his new Patheos blog “Anabaptist Revisions.”  Here is a taste of “Does ‘Anabaptist Revisions’ Belong on the Evangelical Channel?“:

“Are you sure you belong on the evangelical channel?” the Patheos director of content asked me over the phone. It’s a fair question.

A couple months ago over breakfast a pastor friend from my evangelical denomination expressed his concern with what he called my “Mennonitism.” He seemed to think Anabaptist theology is incompatible with evangelicalism and to equate Anabaptism with liberalism.

The irony is that the denomination in which we both pastor was started by Mennonites who had been kicked out of the Mennonite church for their progressive methods and ideals—like singing four-part harmony, holding tent revivals, and embracing women in leadership.

The suspicion can run both ways. Last fall evangelical historian John Fea spoke at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS, the seminary where I work) and was told in no uncertain terms by one Mennonite theologian in attendance that evangelical theology is itself responsible for the violence and racism prevalent in American society. After the interaction Fea wrote that he “realized that Anabaptism and Evangelicalism are quite different, especially when it comes to the theology of the atonement and the role that doctrine plays in Christian identity.”

Read the rest here.

“Every age needs its Puddleglum”

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Over at Mere Orthodoxy, John Shelton invokes a well-known C.S. Lewis character to describe the life and work of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas.  A taste:

Every age needs its Puddleglum. For without Puddleglums, we cannot escape the web of lies and see the world as it is truly meant to be. It is the work of the Puddleglums, often with stink and pain, to show us that there is something wrong with the way things are, and that there is a better country to long for. Prophets (which are much the same as Puddleglums) are always met with stones and crosses in their own age, and only in later ages are those stones and crosses used to build them venerable graves. We need, then, only follow the trail of projectiles to learn that our own Puddleglum is an American theologian named Stanley Hauerwas, and he is every bit as odd, exaggerated, and discomforting as the marshwiggle of C. S. Lewis’ novel.

Hauerwas is a bundle of contradictions. A theologian, he is infamous for matching brusque, blue-collar vulgarity with a thoroughgoing call for christocentric pacifism. In a nutshell: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” Time Magazine has heralded him as “America’s best theologian” but, perhaps more than any other living theologian of his stature, Hauerwas has railed against American identity in all its manifestations. For this, Hauerwas has been accused of peddling “anti-world theology” (James Davison Hunter), “inflam[ing] Christian resentment of secular political culture” (Jeff Stout), and demonstrating remarkable unconcern towards “the tens of thousands of lives being lost to violence,” and ignoring “America’s singular capacity, and thus unique responsibility, to stop the slaughter” (Jean Bethke Elshtain).

Some think Hauerwas’ penchant for profanity discounts him as an ethicist. Others hear “pacifist” and mistake him for a liberal sentimentalist. To dismiss him out of hand, however, would be a mistake. Odd though he may look, especially to the tribe of Christians called “Evangelical,” Hauerwas packs a punch necessary to shake us from our small, settled understanding of the gospel. Like the protagonists in Lewis’ The Silver Chair, we are lost in the sweet smoke of a sinister spell and desperately need a marshwiggle to drive his stinky duck-feet into the fire. We need someone to expunge the witch’s magic with an offensive odor. As should be clear from the litany of invectives against him, Hauerwas, the bricklayer-turned-theologian, is that abominable stench.

Just as Puddleglum cleared the air for the others to think, Hauerwas shocks us awake and offers another way of seeing the world unleashed in scripture. Often, we cannot begin to name the smoke until we have been so jolted. But with Hauerwas we will come to see that Modern Americans (especially modern American Christians) suffer under disordered loves of liberalism, nationalism, and individualism. Hauerwas delivers the antidote to these in the cocktail formula of narrative, community, and the alternative politics of the church.

Read the entire piece here.

Approaching Trump Theologically

TrumpThat is what Ed Simon of The Marginalia Review of Books does at History News Network.

Here is a taste of his piece, “Can You Imagine What It Must Be Like to Be Donald Trump?“:

In suggesting that there must be something hellish about the experience of being Trump, I am not trying to engender any sort of sympathy for the man. Questions of his redemption are between him and those he harms, and then to whatever God he directs his prayers. Instead, I worry about what the implications are that such a man occupies so much of our attention, colonizing our very consciousness, dominating not just our livelihood but our inner lives.

Does such a small, angry, cruel man not risk making all of us small, angry and cruel? Does the bully pulpit threaten to turn us all into bullies? That is not to minimize the very real material repercussions of his policies, or the callousness and cruelty of his administration. The assaults on immigrants and workers, women and LGBTQ individuals, Muslims and African-Americans are sadly very real. But I also fear the intangible results of his rhetoric, of his perspective, and his emboldening of hate. If Trump is in his own hell, I worry that every day he threatens to pull us into it with him. Mephistopheles’ said in Marlowe’s 16th century play Dr. Faustus that “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” something I understand every time I receive a new push notification. This is the peculiar logic of the autocrat – he demands attention and you no longer have the option to direct your interests outward, to be free of him. His ultimate ideology is narcissism, and his only faith is himself.

Read the entire piece here.

Identity-Politics “rips fault and guilt…from their Christian theological context”

King

Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University joins the anti-identity politics chorus.  Here is a taste of his piece “The Identity-Politics Death Grip” at City Journal:

Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context, and instead conceives them in worldly terms alone: as a relationship between the source of fault and guilt (white male heterosexuals) and those (women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on) whose innocence is measured by their distance from that source. In this framework, there is one original sinner: white male heterosexuals—either alive or haunting us from the grave in the form of the Dead White Men studied in old Western civilization courses. Everyone else gets to sigh with relief; whatever their guilt may be, at least they are not that.

King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a rebalancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.

Identity politics is only quasi-Christian. It begins from the observation that there is worldly fault and debt. That, every Christian sees. But identity politics stops there, content that we need go no further than call out fault and debt and use political power—worldly power—to settle the score. I doubt that this quasi-Christian viewpoint, which refuses reconciliation, is a stable one. Without straining our imagination, we can discern that we are either going to return to some variant of King’s Christian account, in which fault and debt are overcome through repentance and forgiveness, or we are going to move to a truly post-Christian world in which we no longer care about fault and debt. In such a world, the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” will cease to have any meaning, and historical wounds—American slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German aggression in the first half of the twentieth century—will be met with the cruel words: “and we would do it again, for the world is nothing but force and fraud and the will to power.” That is the world that Nietzsche staked out in the late nineteenth century, in the hope that we would find the courage to move beyond Christian guilt. It is no small irony that today’s political Left, which owes more to Nietzsche than to Marx, has so badly understood him: the fault-and-debt points that identity politics tallies are precisely what Nietzsche wanted post-Christian man to repudiate. Our post-Christian Left, however, wants it both ways: it wishes to destroy Christianity by using the battering ram of (white male heterosexual) fault and debt.

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Gerson is Doing Theology from the Pages of *The Washington Post*

c0d8e-gersonThe election of Donald Trump has really lit a fire under Michael Gerson.  His columns on the POTUS do not mince words.  He is speaking with a prophetic Christian voice and we need him to keep writing.

But this post is not about one of Gerson’s Trump columns.  Rather, I want to bring your attention to his piece written in the wake of the Vegas tragedy.  As I read this column I wondered at what point we should start calling Gerson a public theologian.

Here is a taste:

That said, I do come at these events from a religious perspective, as some of the victims surely did, and as some of their loved ones surely do. The Christian faith involves a whisper from beyond time that death, while horrible, is not final — that the affirmations of the creeds and the inscriptions on tombstones are not lies. And for many, this hope is a barrier against despair.

Yet faith also encompasses something deeper and more difficult — what theologian Jurgen Moltmann has called “God’s terrible silence.” In that silence, only the scarred God, the weak and victimized God, the God of the cross seems to communicate. Not in words, but in a shocking example of lonely suffering. Christians turn to a God who once felt godforsaken, as all of us may feel in the nightmare of loss.

At this type of moment, even those with tenuous ties to religion offer their thoughts and prayers. But how should we pray? Concerning grief, as many can attest, it is not strength or struggle that matters most; it is perseverance. And that is as good a thing to pray for as any, for those who cannot see a future without their friend, without their child. Our attention is temporary; their suffering will not fade easily, if ever.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching St. Augustine on 9-11-01

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Peter Candler was a graduate student at Duke Divinity School on September 11, 2001.  He was scheduled to give an 11:00am guest lecture in a theological class on St. Augustine’s City of God.

He describes what happened on that day in a piece published Monday at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

This was what the students came to hear from Augustine. They came to hear him argue that when the common interest of a public is not grounded in love for its own sake, and when human rights are not grounded in a universal human calling to love God and one another, then we inevitably serve some other god than the God of Love. We worship at some other altar than that of true mercy and freedom, and above all we end up worshiping an idol whose shifting forms disguise his one name: domination. In our desire for mastery over others, we will merely become slaves to the lust for domination that we mistakenly call freedom.

Read the entire piece here.