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

before jonathan edwards

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”

d824c-hauerwas

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.

 

The Author’s Corner with Robert Caldwell

TheologiesoftheAmericanRevivalistsRobert Caldwell is Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Ever since my seminary days, I have been fascinated at the interplay between theology and Christian experience or spirituality, most specifically related to Christian conversion. As a scholar working on the First and Second Great Awakenings, I found that many revivalists had a well-developed theology that combined soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with insights related both to how Christian conversion was supposed to be experienced and how the gospel is to be proclaimed. I found that from 1740-1840 there was a rich genre of literature that combined these three elements, which collectively I call “revival theology.” 

Evangelical churches today have given little theological reflection to the nature of Christian conversion and revival. Much of what they do understand is practically oriented and often pre-theological. In this book I examine the numerous schools of theology that evangelicals employed at a time when there was much more theological writing and preaching on the subject. My hope is that Christians today will be both informed and challenged by the various schools of thought presented in the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Theologies of the American Revivalists argues that American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote extensively on what I call “revival theology,” which I define as the three-fold combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. The book identifies, explores, and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

JF: Why do we need to read Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Revivals have been a fundamental feature of American evangelicalism. My hope is that the book has faithfully explored the multiple theological traditions that have undergirded the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Theologians and historians will find an in-depth account these various theological traditions and practices. General Christian readers will hopefully come to appreciate the theological backgrounds to evangelical revivals and see just how deep the interplay is between theology and corporate Christian practice. As I mention in the introduction, the book is “fundamentally a theological history about what it has meant to ‘become a Christian’ during the age of America’s Great Awakenings.” (10)

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

RC: I come to American history as a student of intellectual history and historical theology. I have always been fascinated by the interplay of thought and history. Numerous scholars shaped my work during my student days. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was drawn to the history of science and Isaac Newton’s theology while taking several courses from Dr. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs in the late 1980s. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School I benefitted greatly from courses by Drs. John Woodbridge and Douglas Sweeney, both of whom know how to situate theology deeply in its historical context. There, my interests shifted to the history of theology of American evangelicalism, especially that of Jonathan Edwards. Studying Edwards, his theology and legacy, as well as the First and Second Great Awakenings has required me to become more proficient as a historian. In many ways I still feel like I am becoming an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I am working on two smaller projects now. The first deals with the lesser-known antinomian controversy that surfaced in the late 1750s upon the publication of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio in England (1755). The controversy involved a broad cross-section of American and English non-conformists: New Divinity and traditional Calvinists, Sandemanians, Radical revivalists, Moravians, Methodists, and English Particular Baptists. Another study addresses Jonathan Edwards’s assessment of Isaac Watts. Both Edwards and Watts attempted to do theology while simultaneously engaging the enlightenment. Edwards found Watts’s strategies for doing this woefully inadequate, even though he admired Watts in many ways. Both studies illuminate some of the lesser-known intramural debates that existed among early evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Incarnation and Christian Liberal Arts

52c2c-boyerhallI was thinking about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation today.  For those unfamiliar, the incarnation is the historic Christian belief that God revealed Himself to the world (or incarnated Himself) in the form of a man (Jesus Christ).

The school where I teach, Messiah College, affirms the following in its statement of faith:

God speaks to us in many different ways, times and places but is uniquely revealed to all the world in Jesus of Nazareth who was fully human and fully divine.

If we believe this, how might it shape the culture of a Christian college?  As historian Mark Noll has argued, most forcefully in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, the incarnation implies that the stuff of this world is important to God.  The world is important to God because it was the place where He decided to uniquely reveal Himself.

The Christian scriptures teach that human beings–in the flesh–are important because they are created in the image of God and because God revealed himself in human form.

What are the implications of this belief?  What might it say about online courses in which students are not bodily present with the instructor in a flesh and blood learning community?  What might it say about MOOCs or other forms of course delivery in which professors are not bodily present and where students are passive consumers of information as they sit behind computer screens?

I like this older piece from Christian philosopher Jerry Gill.  Here is a taste:

Although there is room for, indeed a need for, a wide variety of professorial styles within the college setting, the sine qua non of an educator is the ability to communicate through embodiment. Presenting ideas and questions clearly, listening attentively, evidencing continued growth, and integrating faith in learning are priorities. Such criteria place a necessary premium on selectivity in faculty recruitment. Moreover, continual faculty development must provide models and skills for educational growth. Here again it is the fruits that count – learning as participation rather than as accumulation.

From the student’s perspective, the living-out of an incarnational approach to education will involve active participation in the learning process. The passive reception of information and someone else’s ideas does not constitute education any more than merely giving mental assent to a set of doctrines constitutes Christian faith. Students must take responsibility for their own education as well as for their faith. They must search and sift, think and feel, create and synthesize; moreover, they too must apply and incorporate their learning in order for it to become an actuality.

Just thinking out loud.  Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

John Calvin at Berkeley

calvinCheck out Jonathan Sheehan‘s recent New York Times piece about teaching John Calvin’s theology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Here is a taste:

In my history of Christianity course, we read a number of challenging writers. Each one I ask students to read with as much sympathy, charity and critical perspective as they can muster. But nothing outrages them — not the writings of Augustine or Erasmus or Luther — more than two or three pages of John Calvin.

Calvin was the most influential religious reformer of the 16th century. His theological imagination and organizational genius prepared the way for almost all forms of American Protestantism, from the Presbyterians to the Methodists to the Baptists. He was also a severe and uncompromising thinker. The Ayatollah of Geneva, some have called him.

Late in the third book of his 1559 “Institutes of the Christian Religion” — when he seeks to describe the utter power of God over man, and our utter dependence on Him — is usually where my students revolt. These young people come from all walks of life. They are atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more besides. They are the face of California diversity, young people with wildly different social, religious, ethnic and racial experiences.

Diverse as they may be, their reaction is the same when they read a sentence like this: “Some are born destined for certain death from the womb, who glorify God’s name by their own destruction.” This is the heart of Calvin’s teaching of predestination, his insistence that God determined each human destiny before the creation of the world. The elect are bound for heaven, the reprobate to hell, and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it, ever. “Jacob is chosen and distinguished from the rejected Esau, by God’s predestination, while not differing from him in merits,” is how Calvin put it. Your merits, your good will, your moral action: None of these make a difference. The chosen Jacob is no better than the rejected Esau. The damned glorify God’s name. And God is pleased by the whole business.

The classroom erupts in protest. Nothing has prepared my students for an idea like this. Secular students object: How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety? Non-Christian students are agitated, too. What kind of God is this, they ask, that took pleasure in creating man so that he might be condemned to everlasting damnation? And the various types of Christian students are no less outraged. “Follow me,” Christ said, and doesn’t that mean that we are asked to choose, that the choice between death and salvation is a free one? All different concerns, but the outcome is the same: rejection, usually disgust.

I ask the students to read on. After all, Calvin anticipated these objections, since they were raised in his day, too. He dedicated a whole chapter to dismissing the “insolence” of the human understanding when it “hears these things.” He knew that our first reactions would be anger and denial, that we would be baffled by predestination. So he demanded that his readers, then and now, think alongside him. His argument goes like this: If God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean that he did so freely? If he is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than that God himself determines our fates, right to the edges of hell? Once you grant the first premise — that there is no God besides God and that he made the universe — reason itself apparently requires we assent to this terrible thought.

None of the students are persuaded by Calvin’s logic. But again, Calvin probably knew that they wouldn’t be, since many of his own readers weren’t either. For this saying “no,” the rejection of this terrible idea, is a natural, even reasonable reaction. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed.

Read the rest here.

This is a wonderful example of the humanities at work in the classroom.  I am assuming that Sheehan is not a Calvinist, but he wants his students to understand Calvin’s profoundly influential set of ideas.  The historical empathy on display here is inspiring.

I wonder, is Sheehan doing “theology” or intellectual history?  I would suggest he is doing the latter (and doing it quite well).  I have always thought of theology as something done in a community of believers.  It seems to me that the primary goal of teaching Calvin in a theology course would be to decide whether or not Calvin’s ideas are correct and thus provide a useful way of understanding the human relationship to God and vice-versa.   Just a thought.

A Theological Narrative of America

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Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.”  Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”  Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history.  While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God.  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.