The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: Raised Fundamentalist

“A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” ~ George Marsden, historian of fundamentalism

I was born Christian, but raised fundamentalist.  This installment in my story is more background than autobiography. I hope to give readers some perspective on Christian fundamentalism: to remove some misleading notions, to place it in historical context, and to offer a summary from my own experience. I will endeavor to reassert the personal and reflective tone in following installments, but since I am an academic, you must forgive me my pedantic digressions.

Now, “fundamentalism” is a tricky word. To some people, the word conjures the image of a person so extreme, and perhaps even violent, that he in no way resembles a normal person. In reality, most fundamentalist Christians share many features in common with the average American. Fundamentalists can be accountants and police officers, life insurance and Mary Kay salespeople, doctors and scientists, even politicians. They don’t live in compounds out in the woods, but are sprinkled throughout America’s rural and suburban neighborhoods, and maintain a presence in every major metropolitan area. They might dress a bit differently at times, particularly the women, but rarely to the extent that they would be easily identifiable, and certainly not to the extent that a Hasidic Jew’s or a Amish person’s dress marks him as a member of a particular religious community. Thus, it is entirely possible to know a fundamentalist Christian without knowing that he is one. The fundamentalist will likely be eager to inform you of his Christian faith, but even so, you may not realize how distinct a sort of Christian he is.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a subset of evangelical Christianity, which is in turn a subset of Protestant Christianity. The relevant history can be sketched in three phases. First, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old Protestant orthodoxies were shaken by a more democratic, more emotional, more activist form of Christianity – evangelicalism (or pietism for Lutherans). A series of “awakenings” or “revivals” swept across many countries (but most significantly English-speaking ones), leaving behind many new, zealous Christians or newly recommitted Christians who often had only loose ties to institutional churches. Most important to these evangelicals was not the institutional church with its sacraments and subtle theological systems but rather the personal experience of conversion and the immediate zeal for a pure life. Evangelicals formed mission societies, rescue missions, children’s homes, publishing houses, and a host of other Christian organizations; yet they often skirted established denominational channels to do so. Evangelicals were not opposed to established churches, but were confident in their abilities to act independently of them, either alone or in voluntary societies established for specific purposes.

The second stage in this history is known as the modernist controversy. Around the beginning of the 20th century, various scientific, philosophical, and theological currents from Europe gravely disturbed the evangelical status quo. Many of these threatened the way evangelicals read the Bible. Trends in geology and biology (Darwinism) cast doubt upon the creation narratives and other cosmological descriptions in the Bible. New literary and historical approaches to biblical criticism raised questions of diversity and inaccuracy in the Bible. Continental philosophy tended to be more guarded about one’s ability to perceive true reality directly than was the reigning Scottish common sense realism. Some theologians, particularly from German-speaking territories, were suggesting reinterpretations (or abandonment) of doctrines tightly held by evangelicals: the virgin birth, miracles, the cross as substitutionary punishment, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Many evangelicals reacted with an uncompromising condemnation of modernism; these were known as fundamentalists. Interdenominational coalitions were formed to promote and defend traditional ways of thought and life. However, in the end, modernism won control of the five largest Protestant denominations, including their seminaries and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were still numerous, but were banished to the periphery of cultural influence. Here they began to distrust traditional denominations. Believers, they said, must separate themselves from apostate institutions.

The third epoch occurs in the middle of the twentieth century. A split arose within fundamentalism. A group of bright, ambitious, well-educated individuals became dissatisfied with fundamentalism. They found it intellectually stifling, culturally backward, and socially disengaged. They did not want to be liberals, as the modernists came to be called, but wanted to regain cultural standing. (Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism might be considered a manifesto.) They called themselves the new evangelicals (or neo-evangelicals). Perhaps most visible in this group was the rising evangelist, Billy Graham. The neo-evangelicals’ attempt to reform fundamentalism met with stiff resistance. They were labeled compromisers, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of prestige and respectability. They were eventually squeezed out of the fundamentalist network. In reality, the new evangelicals were not always terribly sad to go. Various judgments have been made about the effectiveness of neo-evangelicalism, but its influence on fundamentalism is critical. Fundamentalists became even more retrenched. They learned that attacks could come not only from openly apostate liberals, but even from seemingly orthodox brothers! The neo-evangelical split fixed fundamentalism, culturally and intellectually, firmly in the 1950s. Fundamentalists formed a doctrine of “secondary separation,” stating that it is necessary for believers to cut institutional ties not only with liberals, but with those who would compromise with liberals. Thus, one’s associations became as important as one’s doctrines for determining one’s standing in the fundamentalist community.

In the present day, many of these labels are passé. Much of mainline Protestantism has moved on from the type of liberalism featured in the early 20th century. Huge swaths of evangelicalism exist that have no particular orientation toward the issues that divided fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. But, for true fundamentalists, the battle lines drawn in the 1950s are eternally valid archetypes. When I arrived at a fundamentalist Bible college in 2004, within my first week of classes, I was handed a sheet of paper that displayed a breakdown of Protestant Christianity into 4 groups: liberals, neo-orthodox (a reform movement arising within liberalism), neo-evangelicals, and fundamentalists. I learned quickly that a key fundamentalist skill was taking any person or writing and placing it in the correct box, so that one would know how to deal with it.

As a child, I did not know about the distinctive qualities of fundamentalism. To me, fundamentalism was simply Christianity. The next four articles will treat four aspects of my experience of fundamentalism: authoritarianism, biblicism, separatism, and revivalism. None of these four characteristics is unique to fundamentalism; one can easily find other Christians who manifest one or several of these traits. It is rather the combination of all four into a single seamless, organic religious experience that constitutes the fundamentalism of my youth. In fundamentalism, all four factors influence each other, so that one might say that fundamentalists are not just biblicists, but they practice biblicism in an authoritarian-separatist-revivalist way. Then, repeat the process for the other three.

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Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.

The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Born Christian

I was born a Christian. That statement may confound evangelicals, who put little stock in being born compared to being “born-again,” but it is an accurate description of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of my father praying over me before putting me to sleep. One night, when I was 5 or 6, he left my room without praying, because he realized he had forgotten to bring the dog inside. He forgot to come back, and without my bedtime prayer, I did not sleep that night.

My parents were (still are) devout Christians, and my home was filled with Christian paraphernalia. Every room had at least one Bible. Over my bed hung two framed cross stitches by my ancestor, Mable A. Peckham. One was the opening line of the Pledge of Allegiance. The other displayed the beloved Christian lullaby, “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” (The juxtaposition of God and America is a recurring theme in my evangelical upbringing.) We went to church, a Bible-believing Baptist church, every week. Sometimes we went 2 or 3 or more times per week. I memorized Bible verses and catechism questions to “store up God’s word in my heart.” Everyone I knew was a Christian. I was, as most children are, completely oblivious to the religious diversity of the wider world.

“God is dead.” Friedrich Nietzsche (died 1900) elegantly summarized what he saw as the present and near future state of western culture. The dome of Christendom had cracked. God or any godlike metaphysical absolute seemed unnecessary to explain the workings of the cosmos. Even ethical absolutes appeared to him to be mere human constructs that covertly benefited the rule-makers at the expense of the rule-followers.  The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the rise of the “buffered self.” Pre-modern people, he said, felt that they were surrounded by supernatural forces that could and often did directly influence their lives for better or worse. Modern science replaced those living, unpredictable powers with inert physical laws. Angels and demons, sprites and fairies, everything numinous and transcendent was banished to somewhere outside the everyday world of predictable functioning. A buffer had been erected between humanity and God, and the experience of living in the presence of God was slipping away from many people. Matthew Arnold captured the feeling in a wistful stanza:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In my evangelical household, God was very much alive, no buffers isolated me from the divine, and the Sea of Faith roared in my ears. God was present, or rather, omnipresent. A good turn of events was surely the blessing of God. A string of misfortune could be God punishing someone, or “trying to get their attention,” or testing their faithfulness. No event, from running into an old friend in the grocery store to the results of a national election, was devoid of supernatural import. God knew everything I did, everything I wanted to do or even thought of doing. There was no hiding from God; he poured through every crack. If I behaved well, God was happy. If I didn’t, God was angry, or at least disappointed. (Who knew a child had such power over God’s emotional equilibrium?) At times, the intensity of God’s presence was overwhelming, even terrifying, and the revivalist churches of my youth had no problem exploiting that in their evangelistic zeal. Margaret Miles, reflecting on her childhood in Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter, describes the weight of God’s infinite presence as so oppressive and invasive that it reduced her to nothing. God was too present, especially in the form of her overbearing parents, to allow her self any space.

For the most part, though, I was comforted by God’s presence. God took care of me. He had a plan for my life. He held me in the palm of his hand (whatever that meant). He would keep me safe, like Daniel in the lion’s den. He would talk to me through the Bible, and I would talk back to him in prayer. He would convict me when I sinned and take me back when I repented. As the cross-stitch said, I knew Jesus loved me, and that I loved him. I was born Christian. But that wasn’t enough.

The Sinner’s Prayer is what really matters most. At least, it’s the preferred method of Baptist parents for ensuring that their children won’t go to hell.  It’s a form prayer, which would normally be bad because Catholics use form prayers; but this one gets a pass because it is absolutely central to the dynamic of revivalist evangelicalism. It goes something like this: “Dear Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner and that I deserve hell for my sins. But I believe that you sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross to save me from my sins. And he rose again the third day. Please forgive me for all my sins and give me eternal life. Thank you for saving me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” It’s best to stick to the form pretty closely, though God allows some flexibility on the wording, since you are praying for eternal salvation, after all.

I first prayed The Prayer when I was, I think, 5 years old. I asked my older sister how to get saved, and she proceeded to lead me in prayer, making sure I got it right. Instructing me in the way of righteousness was one of my sister’s hobbies growing up, doubtless due to her sinless perfection, which my family swears persists to this very day. The Sinner’s Prayer has drawbacks, though, including doubt. Did I do it right? Did I mean it? Enough? Am I supposed to feel something? From time to time, just to make sure, I would pray it again. It couldn’t hurt. This cycle, in which (usually young) Christians struggle with “assurance of salvation,”  is a hallmark of Baptist churches, particularly where aggravated by revivalism. More on that soon.

This semester at Villanova University (my employer) there will be a graduate  class entitled Christian Spirituality after the Death of God. Much of the world struggles to re-establish a connection to God that the culture has severed. Several strategies have been suggested by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to “re-enchant” the world so that God can once again be perceived. The death of God is a real issue that deserves careful thought, and I do not wish to make light of it, but I find myself able to relate to it only in the most distant way. After all, it’s difficult to feel estranged from someone who has been in your life since before you can remember, someone who speaks to you and listens when you speak, someone who holds you when you cry and inspires you to nobility. I don’t know how to fix the problem of the death of God, but I wonder what would happen if every child had a Bible in each room, a Jesus-loves-me stitch over his bed, and a daddy to pray over him at night.

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Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Prologue

In which the author contemplates the nature of autobiography and invites readers to join him

Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.    ~ John 8:14

For the one reading the Gospel of John for the first time, Jesus’ statement in John 8:14 will likely provoke surprise. It follows on the heels of an accusation by the Pharisees, Jesus’ religious opponents, that his testimony about himself is not true. In Jewish law, at least two witness must agree for a piece of testimony to be admissible in court. One might expect Jesus to answer the charge by reminding the Pharisees that he is not in court, but Jesus does no such thing. The other sensible alternative is to produce corroboratory witnesses, which he does in a sense, but not initially. Jesus’ first response is to claim that the law does not apply to him, because he knows where he came from and where he is going.

I suspect, based on my familiarity with the Gospel of John as a whole, that the allusion is back to Jesus’ pre-existence as the Word who was with God and was God (John 1) and forward to his return to the Father (John 14). Jesus was telling them that if they had any idea who they were dealing with, their demand for his credentials would appear absurd. Authorial intent aside, Jesus’ statement raises a question: What does it mean to give a truthful account of oneself? What would such an attempt require? Using Jesus’ words as a touchstone, it occurs to me that both knowledge of the future and the past are necessary to offer a complete description of a human life. An autobiography is always misleading, because perceptions of the past are colored by hopes (or fears) for the future. Insofar as my own future is uncertain to me, being constructed moment-by-moment, or keystroke-by-keystroke right now, every attempt at total knowledge will come up short. In five years, I may view with disdain some past actions that I now celebrate. A disease, a divorce, a battle, a baby, a conversion, a crisis—any of these could radically overturn my narrative of what is most and least important or what were the happiest and saddest days of my life. All such attempts always come up short; only God on judgment day reveals the deepest truth of the heart.

Given these obstacles, among many more that could be listed, is there any reason to press on with an autobiography? I believe so. If it is true that the future affects our perception of the past, it is equally true that our perception of our past shapes the kind of future we can imagine for ourselves. Especially in times of crisis, people express hope by telling a story of the past that seems as though it ought to have a happy ending. The effect is similar to positioning oneself midway through a Shakespearean play. One usually glimpses whether the play is a comedy or a tragedy before the final act makes the conclusion certain.

Perhaps the most significant example is the creation of the Torah (or the “Pentateuch” for Christians), the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah as we know it was constructed during a period known as the exile, a time when foreign powers had captured Jerusalem (God’s city), destroyed the temple (God’s house), and deported the Hebrews (God’s people). The Hebrew people responded by fusing together ancient oral traditions and written sources to answer a question: what does it mean that we are the people of God in the light of this present God-forsakenness? In the Torah God calls Abraham, predicts slavery in Egypt, permits them to suffer in slavery for a time, raises up Moses as a deliverer, leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land, builds a house (tabernacle) for himself among them, and delivers to them his laws in the form of a covenant. That covenant promises blessing for obedience and removal from the land for disobedience. It also promises that even if the Hebrews are removed from the land, God will have pity on them and return them. In this way, the Torah gave the Hebrews in exile a reason for their present predicament (where they came from) and a hope for return (where they’re going).

Individuals are constantly engaged in a process of self-creation similar to that of the Torah. Loosely following Heidegger, we are after an existence characterized by integrity or wholeness. Our lives consist of a series of fragments, and we hope that in the end these fragments will all come together in something like a mosaic. If one were to come across an unfinished mosaic with no accompanying instructions, one could try to complete it several different ways, but not an infinite number of ways. Based on already present tiles, certain additions would result in an utter lack of discernible pattern. A wise artisan would study carefully the present configuration and intentionally add pieces that contribute to a complete, intelligible figure. Likewise, making sense of the past is an essential part of moving toward a future with integrity.

Autobiographies are valuable for another reason. They are invitations. They entreat the reader to look at life, specifically the author’s life, through the author’s eyes. However, they also invite the judgment of the reader upon the author’s life. This cannot be avoided, though the author obviously has several strategies to influence the reader’s judgment. Augustine, in his Confessions, deflates the reader’s criticism by judging  himself far more harshly than almost any reader ever would. That strategy served his purpose of emphasizing divine grace. Rousseau, in the beginning of his autobiography (also named Confessions), walks up to the throne of God with his book in hand and dares any other mortal to claim to be a better man than he. (Rousseau claims to have given a completely accurate account of his virtues and vices, a claim some of his readers have found woefully duplicitous.) Another famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, describes Adams’ recourse to self-education when he found that traditional educational methods failed to provide him the tools necessary to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

In closing, I would say that autobiography is evangelistic. An author wants the reader to share his view, not only of his life, but also of life in general. My readers at this point may well ask what my gospel is, what view of life I wish to impart to them. My answer is, to a large degree, that I do not know. I have not actually begun to write anything autobiographical, and I just may surprise myself by the time I finish. I can say that it will deal specifically with my religious upbringing and my personal and professional studies of Christianity, thus the allusion to Adams in my title.

Another reasonable question is whether anyone ought to read this autobiography. I freely grant that I am a person of little importance; no great deeds, great influence, or remarkable events attach to me. You would be quite justified in ignoring this writing altogether. I certainly have more to gain from this than anyone else. But perhaps some people who care about me, or who have found some profit in my other writings from time to time, or who have had a religious education similar to mine and are still reflecting on it—perhaps some of you will give me some attention and time, though I have not earned it.

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Published in: on August 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West by Perez Zagorin

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press: 2003, xvi+371 pp, hardcover.

“Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant” (1). These provocative words open Perez Zagorin’s incisive book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. As the title suggests, the book is concerned primarily with the idea rather than the practice of religious toleration. It is an intellectual history focusing on the documentary heritage. The successive chapters trace the appearance of new arguments for, bases of, or concepts of religious toleration in European and North American writings. Its thesis is that religious toleration was not simply the result of religious skepticism or political expediency, but was developed and advocated by sincerely religious people acting in the best interests of their religion: “In advocating a policy of peace and tolerance toward religious differences, their supreme concern was the welfare of religion itself. They acted from the primary conviction that persecution was contrary to the mind of Christ and a terrible evil which did great harm to Christianity” (289).

The first chapter address the historiographical background, the difficulties the historian faces when attempting to treat this topic. Zagorin is sensitive to definitional ambiguities and situates the book’s subject alongside similar ideas, such as religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It examines some explanations given for these phenomena and offers instead its own thesis of religiously motivated religious freedom.

The next two chapters address the historical background, the context out of which the concept of religious toleration emerged.  Chapter two discusses the rationales given for persecution in the Christian West. This Christian theory of persecution forms the intellectual background against which the figures in this book offer their alternatives. Saint Augustine receives the most attention, since the most brutal repressions of the Middle Ages justified themselves largely by appealing to him even when they extended his basic premises. The third chapter addresses the societal changes caused by the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation both fractured Western Christianity and forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the political and religious spheres. Followers of multiple Christian traditions co-existing within the same political units acutely raised the question of how authorities ought to treat their religiously divided subjects.

The rest of the book is organized chronologically, following the thread of religious toleration from through various authors toward the present. The body of the book deals with the 16th and 17th centuries. Several chapters treat individuals, and even those that claim to treat a time period or group (Arminians, Levellers) in fact single out a representative spokesperson who most effectively embodied a new idea or argument. The figures who receive the most extensive treatment are Sebastian Castellio, Dirck Coornhert, Baruch Spinoza, Roger Williams, John Milton, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle. A somewhat haphazard conclusion covers the gap between the 17th century and the present. Zagorin notes that religious toleration took a secularizing turn during the Enlightenment. I would have preferred a conclusion that reinforced the narrative rather than attempted to extend it.

In all, this book is quite well written. Zagorin’s success stems from limiting his scope and doing an excellent job covering the most important figures. Extensive endnotes offer plenty of opportunity for those seeking more detail or a bibliography of more comprehensive treatments. This work will likely stretch the boundaries of those who read it: historians and philosophers may encounter more explicitly theological reasoning than they normally do, whereas students of Christianity will be forced to consider the considerable influence of unorthodox Christians upon their own religious heritage, as well as the sometimes disappointing stands of the more orthodox.

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Published in: on August 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed by Philip Benedict

Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.

15 years in the making, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is the product of herculean effort by Philip Benedict, currently the director of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva. Its covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, itself a fine piece of scholarship, delineates four goals for the work:  1) to provide a clear narrative of the Reformed tradition’s development that answers important analytic questions; 2) to assess classic theories of Calvinism’s importance/influence in development of Western society; 3) to highlight church institutions and the struggle over church institutions; and 4) to trace the emergence of various Reformed modes of piety. Regarding method, Benedict states, “This book seeks to exemplify an alternative kind of social history of religion. It is a social history insofar as it attends to the actions and beliefs of all groups within the population and draws upon the methods pioneered by social historians. It does not assume that the religious can be equated with the social or is ultimately explained by it” (xxi).

The work is divided into four parts, each containing several chapters. The first three parts are arranged chronologically, covering the formation, expansion, and transformation of the Reformed churches. The first and third parts present fairly straightforward narratives, as the first details the original impulses of the movement and the third the common challenges facing Reformed churches in the seventeenth century. The second part, which covers the expansion of the churches past the second generation to the end of the sixteenth century, is arranged geographically. The fourth part breaks from chronology to discuss key topics: the reformation of the ministry, the exercise of discipline, and the practice of piety. This fourth part examines the effect Calvinism had on the peoples who embraced it, evaluating popular theories of Calvinism’s role in modernity. The book can be (ought to be!) read straight through, but the ransacking researcher will be glad to find that each part has its own introduction and conclusion. It is possible to glean Benedict’s approach and conclusions without reading every page.

The book is commendable in both its depth and breadth. Despite the subtitle, intellectual concerns receive significant treatment throughout, including an entire chapter in part three. Benedict has drawn on a plethora of secondary sources, incorporating census data, diaries, private correspondence, town registers, church records, and other sources to draw a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Reformed churches. He is always sensitive to the limits of quantitative studies, suggesting at several points that previous conclusions may be overextending the data. Many maps, illustrations, figures, and graphs are included. Almost all of them are well-fitted to the text; very little is filler or decoration.

Benedict’s lack of theological agenda is refreshing. His avoidance of the term “Calvinism” (despite the subtitle) in favor of “Reformed” is a welcome choice to many students of the Reformed tradition. He shows no interest in ferreting out one particular church as truly Reformed at the expense of others. He adopts a flexible approach to Reformed identity, asserting that churches identified themselves as “belonging to a common tradition by accepting one of a relatively narrow range of positions on the doctrine of the Eucharist, by endorsing one or more of a common set of confessions of faith, by inviting one another’s theologians to their synods, and by sending future ministers for higher education to one another’s universities” (xxiv). He attempts to assess the influence of individual theologians relative to one another and to chart the prevalence of certain kinds of worship, institutions, theology, and personal piety in various regions. The result is a rich tapestry in which several key markers of Reformed identity stand out amid gradual yet continual change.

I consider Christ’s Church’s Purely Reformed to be an unqualified success. Little more could be asked of a single volume treatment spanning two centuries of a major Christian tradition. Benedict’s style is admirable: inviting, precise, and concise. Frequent humorous anecdotes drawn from primary sources enrich rather than detract from the intellectual force of the work. Copious endnotes permit the scholar to indulge while leaving the text free of minutiae. The balance of approaches and extensive use of secondary sources ensure that even specialists will come away from this work with some fresh perspective.

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Published in: on May 29, 2012 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Calvin Beyond Luther: The Law of Moses

One of the textbook differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology is the Reformed assertion of the “third use” of the law, that is that the law serves to guide the conduct of believers. Thus, there is a way in which law and gospel co-exist in the believer’s life. Lutherans emphasize the contrast between law and gospel. Law comes “before” gospel in the sense that it prepares the sinner to receive the gospel. Gospel is deliverance from the law and the beginning of life in the Spirit. Part of the disagreement seems to me to derive from different descriptions of the content and function of the law. Randall Zachman gets at the problem:

Although both Luther and Calvin agree that the Old Testament contains attestations of God’s mercy as well as commandments and threats, it is nonetheless true that when Luther thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of the Ten Commandments in their theological use, whereas when Calvin thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of “the form of religion handed down by God through Moses” that sets forth God as Father to Israel in Christ under the double image of the tribe of Levi and the posterity of David.

This means that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, forces us to understand the Ten Commandments not as prior to, but as already contained within, the self-revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ. This point will have direct implications on how Calvin understands the impact of the law in the narrow sense upon the conscience. On the one hand, it will mean that we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners who lack every good thing unless we at the same time know God as Father; on the other hand, it will mean that the principal use and proper purpose of the law will be in the lives of those who have already been adopted as children by the Father, and that this third use of the law will itself be given a christological meaning and shape just like the rest of the law of Moses. (The Assurance of Faith, 144)

Often the form of the question we ask determines the shape of the answer. An investigation into how a person might be assured of the favor of God will quickly (on Protestant principles) lead to a contrast between law and gospel. Likewise, an inquiry into the principles of Christian life seems to sputter or descend into subjectivism if “law” in some broad sense does not enter the picture.  Perhaps Christian theology needs multiple perspectives on law and gospel in order to handle every theological problem. I find it likely, though, that one conception will end up becoming architectonic, while others wills be slotted into it to fill out the picture. So far, I’m more confident in the ability of the Reformed system to appropriate the Lutheran contribution than vice versa.

Review – Reading for Life by Margaret Miles

“When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.” ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This Dickens quote, mentioned by Margaret Miles in Reading for Life, captures the passion behind this book. Miles, a philosopher and historian with experience at Harvard and Berkeley, demonstrates her own desperate, lusty, gasping, grasping, and unflinchingly critical approach toward reading. Miles chooses the six authors that have most influenced her and narrates how she reads them both generously and suspiciously.

So far from a book report, the chapters light up with intellectual fireworks, as Miles brings her whole soul into engagement with these authors, seeing through their eyes a new world and seeing through their pretenses their reality. Like a lover, she plunges into their depths, but not blind to their narrowness, their faults, their inconsistencies. She has lived with them too long to fail to notice those. Miles’ capacity for love is revealed in her refusal to abandon these authors. Whenever she is dazzled by their rhetoric, she sidesteps and sees the carefully concealed flaws. When confronted with their inadequacies, she embraces them as fellow human beings and praises their intentions.

Her choice of subjects is not prescriptive. No “great books” curriculum is outlined. They are simply the authors she happened to find and never let go. Two of them, Plotinus and Augustine, were the subjects of much of her academic career. Both the care she has taken to know them all the way down and the pleasure feels in doing so radiates from the pages. Plotinus’ vision of the universe as an interconnected whole became the foundation of her worldview. Augustine’s expansive treatment of beauty and love framed her juxtaposition of the perception of beauty with social responsibility.

The modern authors are an eclectic bunch. Carl Jung, whom she discovered before studying psychology in college (what didn’t this woman study?), remains a voice in her subconscious, teaching her to balance knowledge of self and knowledge of other. The poet Rilke inspired her to become a writer, even though she had to spite his sexism to appropriate his work. Leni Riefenstahl was the most gifted film producer during the Nazi era. Consumed with her aesthetic work, she ignored the reality that her work was being used for propaganda purposes.  She spent most of the rest of her life defending her actions. For Miles, she is a fantastically inspiring woman but also a cautionary tale of the potentially blinding love of beauty for beauty’s sake. Perhaps the best chapter of all is on Toni Morrison’s book Jazz, a story of grown-up love, of making grown-up love out of unlikely materials. Miles suggests that novels matter because they give us the concrete imagination necessary to make sense of the abstracts we assent to through philosophy books.

For Miles, reading is serious. It is pleasurable. It is serious because it is pleasurable. We construct ourselves in part through our imaginations, and reading expands and shapes the imagination. The aesthetic  sense is something that can be honed through practice. It is a conscious decision to be aware, to be porous. Reading is one way of honing our awareness, at first by taking note of what others have noticed. Miles, raised a Christian fundamentalist, has not forgotten the power of testimony. Her book is an impassioned recounting of her own journey through reading, and it poses to the reader the same question that every testimony does: Will you accept my story as somehow your own as well? Yes, Dr. Miles, I will. I will read not just for fun or for facts, but for life.

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Published in: on April 2, 2012 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Augustine’s Three Points Against the Pelagians

Augustine’s last theological battle, which was not concluded at the time of his death, was against the Pelagians, a group of theologians who assigned a larger role in salvation to human initiative. Having already written many works against them,  Augustine wrote De dono perseverantiae (The Gift of Perseverance) in 428/429 to some of his friends to confirm them in their theology and answer some questions. In particular, he stressed three doctrines against the Pelagians:

For there are three points, as you know, which the Catholic Church especially defends against them. One of them is that the grace of God is not given according to our merits, because all the merits of the righteous are also the gifts of God and conferred by the grace of God. The second is that no one can live in this corruptible body without some sins, no matter how great one’s righteousness is. The third is that a human being is born subject to the sin of the first man and bound by the chain of condemnation unless the guilt which is contracted by birth is removed by rebirth. (3.6, trans. Roland Teske)

Augustine’s legacy is mixed. Each of these points  has been extended, muted, retained, or denied by various Christians over the course of the centuries. Late medieval nominalists such as Gregory Biel wondered whether God could give grace in response to merit, surely not in a strict 1:1 ratio, but on a curve. Wesleyans and other perfectionists take umbrage at the second assertion: if one can avoid any individual sin, then why not every sin? Many medievals and certain Arminians affirm the third statement, but in an attenuated form. Most forms of distinctly modern theology openly deny it, as it contradicts the spirit of progress and individuality. 

Love or hate Augustine, the history of Christianity and even civilization in the West grapples with the same issues he raised. To be ignorant of Augustine is to leave a chasm in one’s education.

To Augustine Project

Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Zwingli and Bucer on the Church Fathers

Irena Backus wrote the essay on Zwingli and Bucer in what is the current standard on the topic, The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West (also edited by Backus). Painstaking detail and thorough familiarity make for an illuminating treatise.

Backus surveys the contents of Zwingli’s library, examining not only which Fathers he owned, but in what edition, whether they were annotated, and what the annotations were about. A complete set of Augustine, as well as a wide array of both Latin and Greek Fathers, found their home in Zwingli’s library. Scriptural commentaries, doctrinal treatises, letters, and sermons alike were read with care. Augustine, Jerome, and Origen were enriched with heavy annotation. His attention to the Fathers rather than the Scholastics from an early age and his desire to have them in the latest critical editions mark Zwingli as a humanist theologian.

Zwingli read the Bible through the grid of patristic exegesis. He was not interested in a consensus of the Fathers, but he did feel the need to harmonize his exegesis with at least some orthodox figures. Often, he makes theological points simply by stringing together passages of Scripture, but the arrangement and interpretation of those passages follow the pattern of a Father. “A tacit hierarchy of sacred texts is established with the Bible at the top broadening out into a pyramid of patristic evidence, indispensable in its turn for construction of a Biblical theology.”

Martin Bucer, on the other hand, seemed (his holdings must be reconstructed from various partial lists) in 1518 to own a large number of medieval theological texts, but also many classical works and grammar books. Church Fathers made up a small portion. Over time that would change.

Bucer produced a number of biblical commentaries, and Backus notes that he chose the books that the early Church had considered the most important, including the Psalms and all four Gospels. He consulted patristic texts often in producing his commentaries, but often did not name them. When he did so, it was usually to critique their exegetical method or to support an idea for which explicit Scriptural support seemed lacking. The exception is his commentary on Romans, in which every section contains a paragraph in which the Fathers are explicitly cited and compared. Much like Zwingli, he establishes a hierarchy of sacred texts with the Bible on top, flowing downward into the Church Fathers. He does not argue that the consensus of the Fathers supports his view, but only that Roman Catholic practice is contradicted by orthodox Fathers. In all his exegesis, his aims were to silence Catholic accusations of innovation on the one hand, and to distance himself from the radical biblicism of the Anabaptists on the other.

Bucer also produced a Florilegium Patristicum, a collection of quotations from the Fathers (but also councils and canon law) arranged topically. His Florilegium concentrates primarily on the nature and operation of the church, including common pastoral problems. Thus, one can not only read Scripture and believe alongside the Fathers, but also practice alongside them.

Church Fathers in the Reformation


Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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