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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Review – Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade

Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade is an ambitious combination of historical and theological analysis.  These two subjects, often unstable in combination, Slade handles with equipoise. Open Friendship is an examination of race relations among Mississippi Christians, focusing on the efforts of the organization Mission Mississippi.

Mission Mississippi is an interdenominational initiative that “strives to facilitate [interracial] relationships between individuals and partnerships between churches. These new friendships, Mission Mississippi declares, are ‘changing Mississippi one relationship at a time'” (3). Mississippi is known for significant racial tension, so Mission Mississippi’s aim is more counter-cultural than outsiders might suppose.

Slade’s narratives are rich. Keeping with Mission Mississippi’s emphasis, Slade illuminates his story with concrete personal histories and first-hand testimonies. The characters speak with their own voices, challenging us with their stories. Slade does not cast a script of heroes and villains, but rather of people united in overcoming their own inherited prejudices.

Two theologians provide the substance of Slade’s theological critique. From Jürgen Moltmann Slade appropriates the idea of “open friendship.”  Christ taught us the meaning of friendship by becoming our friends. Abandoning his own status and privileges, he identifies with our humiliation, our suffering, our burdens. He partakes in them and overcomes them. When Christians become God’s friends, they extend this open friendship to others. Friendship is open when it is intentional, when it crosses barriers, and when it refuses to be privatized. A closed friendship, which remains confined among natural peer relations, would never have resulted in incarnation. One consequence of open friendship is that friend seeks public justice for friend, discontent to let generous personal feelings be the extent of involvement.

Following Miroslav Volf, Slade explains the “will to embrace.” The will to embrace is an indiscriminate desire for reconciliation, but the embrace itself is conditional upon justice. That is, there can be no cheap justice, in which an offended party simply forgets about the wrongs done. However, Volf also stresses the need for “double vision,” which is “the process whereby an individual must seek to hear and understand the other’s truth and then seek to see themselves and their claims to justice and truth from this new perspective” (128). If this is achieved, then the embrace will include real justice, not vengeance or dismissal.

Armed with these theological categories, plus a dollop of the quotable Bonhoeffer, Slade scrutinizes Mission Mississippi’s contribution to racial reconciliation. At first glance, the strategy seems to suffer from typically naive evangelical individualism, seeking to correct systemic and institutional problems simply through individual action. Some sociologists employ this critique. Slade responds that even though the critique has some merit, Mission Mississippi’s actions provide a Reconciliation 101, a realistic starting point from which more mature efforts at reconciliation can arise. It does in fact serve as a vehicle for developing open friendship and double vision.

Superbly written and uncommonly perceptive, I highly recommend Open Friendship in a Closed Society. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I was particularly interested in the central roles that First Presbyterian in Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary played in the pages. Having one branch of my theological heritage analyzed was an uncomfortable but liberating experience. Since the situation in Mississippi is replayed in miniature all across the United States, most Americans will find themselves reflected somewhere in this work.

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Published in: on May 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Christian’s Place in History

In Why Study the Past? Rowan Williams (now famous for marrying Will & Kate) explores the difficulty of writing Christian history. For the believer, Christian history is not merely an academic matter. It is a discovery of one’s identity, genealogy even, incorporating moral and theological dimensions:

I want … to suggest not only why church history is a moral matter but also why it becomes fully so only within a wider theological context. The Christian engaging with the past has even stronger reason for doing so as part of a maturation in critical and self-aware perception than the secular student, though there are important analogies even within the secular framework. A central aspect of where the Christian begins, the sense of identity that is there at the start of any storytelling enterprise, is the belief that the modern believer is involved with and in a community of believers extended in time and space, whose relation to each other is significantly more than just one of vague geographical connection and temporal succession. In theological shorthand, the modern believer sees herself or himself as a member of the Body of Christ.

Who I am as a Christian is something which, in theological terms, I could only answer fully on the impossible supposition that I could see and grasp how all other Christian lives had shaped mine and, more specifically, shaped it towards the likeness of Christ. I don’t and can’t know the dimensions of this; but if I have read St Paul in I Corinthians carefully I should at least be thinking of my identity as a believer in terms of a whole immeasurable exchange of gifts, known and unknown, by which particular Christian lives are built up, an exchange no less vital and important for being frequently an exchange between living and dead. There are no hermetic seals between who I am as a Christian and the life of a believer in, say, twelfth-century Iraq — any more than between myself and a believer in twenty-first century Congo, Arkansas or Vanuatu. I do not know, theologically speaking, where my debts begin and end. What any one believing life makes possible for others (and for which particular others) is not there for introspection. How my progress towards the specific and unique likeness of Christ that is my calling is assisted by any other Christian life is always going to be obscure.

Hence the Christian believer approaching the Christian past does so first in the consciousness that he or she is engaging with fellow participants in prayer and eucharist, fellow readers of the same Scriptures; people in whom the same activity is going on, the activity of sanctifying grace. This is not in itself the conclusion of research (they are so much like us that they must be the same really), but the implication of the Christian’s basic belief that we are called into a fellowship held together not by human bonds but by association with Christ. Particular bits of historical research may make it harder or easier to put flesh on this fundamental conviction, but the only thing that could simply unseat it is a refusal of the underlying theology of the Church to which we are committed by practising the sacraments and reading the Bible. If you see Christianity simply as an enterprise of the human spirit within history, the challenge of understanding the past is going to be different, less radical. For the historian who has theological convictions, that challenge is to discern at last something of what is truly known of Christ in the agents of the past.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 9:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols is a study of iconoclasm during the Reformation. Its thesis is that the Reformation introduced a new theology of worship and idolatry that led to major sociological shifts. Iconoclasm is the key indicator of the presence of this theology. Thus, much of the Reformation, particularly the Reformed side, can be studied by the spread of iconoclasm, which constitutes a pattern in reforming activity.

Beginning with Erasmus, proceeding through Karlstadt and the Swiss Reformers, and culminating in John Calvin, a theology of worship arose that stressed the necessity for worshiping the spiritual God “in spirit” rather than through material props. Whereas most medieval theologians had considered icons and relics to be physical helps in worship, leading people from the earthly to the heavenly, these reformers argued the opposite. Material things, particularly those not commanded in Scripture, merely distracted the soul and weighed it down. The later critics insisted that any veneration or reverence offered to them is idolatrous. Pure worship must be strictly according to the rule of Scripture and without mediators, save Christ.

Iconoclasm was the primary identifying mark of the Reformed side of the Reformation, distinguishing them from the Lutherans. Eire penetrates through Luther’s rhetoric to identify the theological differences between Luther and Karlstadt, differences that separated Luther from most of the other Reformers. In the Swiss Reformation, cities moving toward Protestantism evidenced similar patterns of reformation, centering on iconoclastic acts. Iconoclasm demonstrated popular support for the Reformation and forced city authorities to consider Protestant claims.

Iconoclasm had far-reaching political consequences. It raised the question of righteous popular rebellion. Eire’s narrative illuminates the central role of the common folk  in pressuring city governments to embrace Protestantism. Snippets of popular pamphlets and records of lay sermons witness the diffusion of Reformed theological principles through farmers and tradesmen. Eventually, the Reformed tradition would engender theories of right resistance, and most of those theories would validate themselves by appealing to God’s authority as overruling earthly powers. All of Eire’s sociological and cultural data is eye-opening, offering a complementary perspective to reformation histories that concentrate on the works of a few theologians.

Nevertheless, there are two serious flaws in Eire’s interpretation. The first is his contention that reformation-era Catholicism was a religion of immanence, whereas the Reformed religion was one of transcendence. Eire uses these terms imprecisely, making them roughly equivalent to “material” and “spiritual.” Yet, this distorts their meaning. As Eire’s own evidence shows, the assumption that God’s power was present in relics and through sacraments did not necessarily furnish Catholics with a feeling of God’s nearness and intimacy. Many laypeople were afraid to take communion, and the mediation of saints could easily make God seem even further away, at the end of a long line of middle men.

Furthermore, the Reformers intended not to make God more distant, but closer. It’s true that they emphasized his spirituality, his radical “otherness” that makes all physical representations inappropriate. Yet, by shifting the channel of grace away from sacramental items and into the worshiper’s own soul, through faith granted directly by the Spirit, they related God to man in the most intimate manner possible. Mediators eliminated, the believer is free to approach God himself. Thus, Eire has at points overestimated the gap between Lutheran and Reformed piety. Both issue from the doctrine of justification, a doctrine of God’s personal favor toward the individual.

Eire’s second flaw is his lopsided portrayal of John Calvin. Now, in general, Eire’s analysis of Calvin’s theology is penetrating. On several issues, he is quite nuanced and sensitive. However, possibly in order to conform Calvin to the ill-conceived immanence/transcendence scheme, he reads Calvin’s theology as if Calvin is arguing for a distant, mysterious, “other” God. This is entirely incorrect. Calvin’s stress on God’s hidden essence is part of his polemic against speculative reason trumping scriptural revelation. Calvin’s God is as imminent as he is transcendent. Providence is his particular care for each individual creation. The pagan might regard God not merely as mighty Lord, but the regenerate believer recognizes him as loving Father also. The believer’s union with Christ by the bond of the Spirit is the most immanent relationship imaginable between God and man. The labels of transcendence and immanent caricature both the Catholic and Reformed positions, and particularly distort Calvin’s theology.

Still, War Against the Idols is a worthwhile and interesting read. Eire’s more narrow analysis is quite judicious, and his assembled facts, sources, and explanations are invaluable. I found the ideological ties between certain reform-minded Catholics and the Reformers particularly enlightening. I highly recommend this book for any interested person who has at least an elementary understanding of the Reformation and its major figures.

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Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Comments (9)  
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Review – The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll is a foray into the theological origins, content, and consequences of the Civil War. Noll argues that the relationship of theology to the Civil War and its attendant issues has been underdeveloped. Historians have concentrated on the secularizing consequences of the Civil War, but ignore the vast majority of Americans whose faith increased or remained unchanged. Civil War America was intensely religious, and understanding their religious commitments is essential to grasping the era. Noll’s work demonstrates how the Civil War was a crisis for Americans, not only as citizens or republicans, but as Christians.

The theological crisis was self-made. Protestant Christianity in America had flourished since the founding of the United States. It had done so by allying itself with the dominant intellectual trends, the spirit of the age: republicanism, populism, common sense rationalism. The Christians of the antebellum period revered the Bible. It was the most widely and frequently read book in the nation. They supposed it to be a plain book containing all the laws for Christian living. Any literate person could read it and live out its message. The Christians believed strongly in providence, God’s guiding hand superintending history. Providence for them was not theoretical or abstract. America was God’s special nation, in covenant with him. Moreover, people supposed they could interpret providence straightforwardly. In short, interpreting both the Bible and providence required only faith and some common sense.

Interpreting both proved harder than suspected. As the issue of slavery became more prominent, biblical interpreters reached ever widening conclusions, all from the plain reading of Scripture and common sense. Radical abolitionists advanced the spirit of the New Testament against slavery, sometimes at the expense of the letter. Hardline pro-slavery advocates pointed to the biblical record of slavery to prove that God allowed and even approved the practice. The Southern Presbyterian Thornwell took the the cultural backwardness of negro nations as providential confirmation that the negroes were not capable of governing themselves. Several northern voices read the same providential history and gleaned the lesson that wherever the gospel went, it overthrew tyranny and brought civil liberty.

Nuanced positions existed, but were embraced by few. Some abolitionists, including several black authors, bypassed the question of slavery in general. They attacked slavery as it actually existed in the Southern states, devoid of the restrictions found in biblical Israel. A few noted that slavery in Israel was not hereditary, since the slave families were incorporated into the covenant people. Few Americans distinguished between biblical slavery and American slavery, which was racially biased. Defenders of slavery rarely noticed that many of the slaves in the New Testament were white, and that their arguments could theoretically support white slavery as well. Many Americans believed in the natural inferiority of the negroes; some found support in the Genesis curse of Canaan, Ham’s son. Because the race issue was never resolved theologically, racism persisted in the South after abolition.

The nuanced positions failed precisely because they were nuanced. Republican and populist Christians were not used to theological arguments that required abstracting concepts from passages and connecting those concepts logically. They expected to see the positions arise from plain statements of chapter and verse. Americans who viewed their national covenant as analogous to Israel’s tended to import Old Testament laws wholesale. The impiety of some radical abolitionists poisoned abolitionism among the more orthodox.

The original contribution of Noll’s work is the examination of foreign commentary. Protestants outside the United States were almost entirely against slavery. Because slavery was not an issue for them, they perfunctorily dismissed the Southern exegetes. However, they were not all favorable toward the North. Some found the North’s politics hypocritical, decrying slavery but greedily consuming Southern cotton. Many found the North’s posture overly aggressive. Some used the War as an opportunity to criticize republican government and American individualism.

The Catholic reflections on the Civil War were perhaps the most profound. Catholics were a cultural minority in the States and produced few original ideas. In Europe, however, Catholic intellectuals wrote piercing analyses. Progressive Catholics were strongly pro-abolitionist and cheered the march of republican ideals. More quickly than their Protestant counterparts, the conservative Catholics perceived that the war was a result of interpretive gridlock. Their answer was simple: the Catholic magisterium. Conservative Catholics took the opportunity to catalog the evils of modern liberalism and Protestant schism. America became an object lesson on the disadvantages of rejecting proper civil and church authority. (On the Western frontier, Mormons were blaming America’s woes on their rejection of the prophet Joseph Smith.)

The religious consequence of the Civil War was secularization. Since the theologians could not come to agreement, the generals had to decide the proper interpretation. Ulysses Grant proved the more successful expositor. Since then, Americans have been reticent to base public policy on interpretations of Scripture. Also, the theological battles between Protestants sidelined the longstanding anti-Catholic animus. Not only Catholics, but also cults and non-Christian religions flourished after the war. The tension between the desire for a Christian nation and the tradition of individualist interpretation of Scripture was resolved by eliminating specifically Christian ideas from the public sphere.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is an original and illuminating work. Noll is a superb writer, and the material is engaging. The 200 pages pass swiftly. The book may not be necessary for some readers, though. Many of its themes have already been treated in Noll’s more comprehensive America’s God. The original portions deal with the perspectives of foreign and minority groups. So, if those details interest you, by all means grab this book. If not, the treatment in America’s God is probably sufficient.

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Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Augustine and the Jews by Paula Fredriksen

Augustine and the Jews is Paula Fredriksen’s story of how the Church’s attitude toward the Jewish people was transformed by the theological reflection of one man. Fredriksen explores inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations and rhetoric in the first few centuries anno domini. After relating the status quo, she painstakingly depicts the evolution of Augustine’s mature views: a Christian defense of Jews and Judaism.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Augustine and the Jews is not its explication of Augustine’s theology, but its investigation into the distance between Jews as they were and Jews as they were perceived. Fredriksen distinguishes between actual Jews and the rhetorical “Jews” of Christian literature. Relations between Christians and Jews were often quite friendly, a fact that perhaps intensified the clergy’s acerbic language. Fredriksen probes the adversus Iudaeos tradition — the stock criticism of Jews employed by Christian polemicists — to determine its causes, origins, and accuracy.

Fredriksen engages the New Testament frequently throughout her work. Evangelicals will likely demur from her higher-critical assumptions about the dating and authorship of several New Testament books, and about the amount of doctrinal ambiguity and heterogeneity assumed between them. In addition, she favors Schweitzer’s “thorough-going eschatology,” presenting the New Testament authors as men who taught that the parousia would happen soon. The task of theology, then, in the early church was to explain the reason for the delay of the second advent. Evangelicals may disagree with Fredriksen’s reading of the New Testament, but they should have no reason to question her reading of Augustine. The major thesis of her book is not impaired by her views on biblical scholarship.

Augustine himself began his Christian life in agreement with the adversus Iudaeos tradition. His views shifted over a long period of time, involving transformations in his exegesis, philosophy of history, and anthropology. A major stimulus for rethinking his posture toward the Jews and their Scripture was the attacks of the Manichean apologist Faustus. Faustus’ arguments cleverly mirrored catholic anti-Jewish rhetoric, causing Augustine to rethink the wisdom of the catholic tradition’s perspective on the Jews.

Earlier Christians had asserted that the Jews had gone astray by obeying the Mosaic Law “carnally” instead of spiritually. Using Pauline dichotomies, they insisted on an exclusively Christological or allegorical reading of the Law and denied any validity to a literal understanding. Justin Martyr, for instance, claimed that the Jews’ observance of the Law was itself a mistake. Augustine’s fourfold philosophy of history (which doubled as stages for individual conversion) — before law, under law, under grace, in peace — provided a new scheme for understanding the Old Testament. The Jews were indeed intended to enact the Law as God commanded it, for that was appropriate to that stage in history. However, they were also supposed to understand its forward-pointing significance; their failure to do so led to their rejection of the Messiah. For Augustine, then, it is not “carnality” as such that discredits the Jews, but their failure to perceive the shift in redemptive history.

Augustine further challenged the adversus Iudaeos tradition through his “witness theology.” Accroding to Augustine, who banked heavily on a prophetic interpretation of Psalm 59:11 (in the modern English numbering) “Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power” and an allegorical extrapolation of the mark of Cain. God, foreknowing the rebellion of the Jews, decided instead of killing them to scatter them among the nations. He has “marked” them, which is both a curse and a seal of his protection. Wherever the Jews go, through their books and through their observance of the Law, they unwittingly and unwillingly testify to the truth of Christianity. Since this is the case, Jews should not be persecuted or forced to give up their ancestral beliefs.

Fredriksen’s exegesis of Augustine’s works is both scrupulous and illuminating. She shows, in much more breadth and depth than I have related here, how integrated the various parts of Augustine’s theology became as he wrestled with the Manichean critique. She excels at close reading; casual readers, though, may find her methodical case-building tedious. Because of the roughly chronological arrangement of the book, there is an unwelcome amount of repetition. Positively, this method ensures that readers grasp the evolutionary character of Augustine’s theology. Because of the level of detail, Augustine and the Jews is really appropriate only for scholars or other very motivated persons. However, those who make the effort to mine this work will garner ample gems.

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Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – America’s God by Mark Noll

America’s God by Mark Noll is an outstanding historical narrative, detailing how American nationalism and theology shaped each other from the Puritan ideal to the Civil War. Although dealing largely with intellectuals and their effects on religious culture, America’s God recounts the exploits of marginal and populist groups as well. Noll interweaves social, intellectual and theological history to produce a splendid tapestry.

From New England’s founding until the generation of Jonathan Edwards, an idiosyncratic brand of Puritan covenant theology provided the paradigm for the integration of society and religion. However,  revolutionary Americans required a moral and intellectual framework that could ground a new nation while dismissing inherited authority. America reached a compromise in which common sense philosophy from Scotland lubricated the synthesis of Christianity and republicanism.

These three intellectual streams — post-Puritan Christianity, republicanism, and common sense — over the course of the next century so commingled as to become a single American ideology. America was Christianized, while Christianity was Americanized. This Christian America barrelled happily throughout the nineteenth century until hairline cracks appeared in the synthesis, fractures that would eventually lead to the shattering cannon blasts of the Civil War.

Instead of rehearsing the plot and argument of the book, I will merely comment on what a fantastic writer Mark Noll is. America’s God is pre-eminently educational, yet never fails to entertain. Its characters are complex, both shaping and shaped by their historical environs. Noll does not shy away from speaking about cause and effect; yet, his causes are never entirely theological, intellectual, or economic. Noll has the rare gifts of previewing without giving away all the good stuff and of recapitulating without mere reputation. He freely draws on the best secondary sources without engaging in scholarly nit-picking or excessive quotation that would distract from the argument. America’s God features thorough endnotes, a glossary, and a handy index. My only complaint is that the bibliography is so strangely arranged – classified not only by primary or secondary source, but also by region, genre, and theological tradition – that it resembles a labyrinth more than a list.

America’s God excels in both narration and analysis. American Christians (but especially pastors, theologians, and historians) will find it an edifying and engaging read. Most readers will learn new and perhaps perplexing facts about their religious heritage.

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Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 7:06 am  Comments (1)  
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Review – Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century by Douglas Frank

Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century by Douglas Frank explores and denounces the ways in which American evangelicals throughout the nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries sought to control their circumstances and their destinies. In an almost autobiographical dissection of his own religious background, Frank blends social, theological, and psychological history to advance the thesis that evangelicalism alloyed the pure Christian gospel of humility and dependence with triumphalist sociopolitical agendas. Along the way, he periodically incorporates reflections on Scripture, highlighting the disparity between Scriptural attitudes and those of his protagonists.

Frank’s narrative begins in the nineteenth century, an age of optimism prepared for by the abandonment of strict Calvinism and the apparent success of the Protestant work ethic (Frank relies heavily on Weber’s analysis). Having yoked social and spiritual goods, mid-century Americans predicted an era of unparalleled blessing and virtue — the kingdom of God. However, hyperbolic predictions dissolved into perplexed disappointment as a series of unforeseen events undercut millennial expectations. The adverse consequences of capitalism, which was also fueling the nation’s economic growth, became apparent. Prohibition failed, embarrassingly. Common Sense philosophy was unprepared to counter the naturalism invading biological science. By 1900, the evangelicals were no longer running the show, and the kingdom had receded from view.

The last half of the 19th century was a period of rapid social change; few at the turn of the century could comprehend, much less cope with, the new America. Evangelicals revealed anxiety about the future; morever, they were widely convinced that someone (not the good Christians, certainly) was to blame for the present crises. Frank examines two theological novelties – Dispensationalism and “Victorious Life” theology – that served as evangelical coping mechanisms and one preacher who epitomized the spirit of his age’s evangelicals.

On Frank’s reading, the sudden, ubiquitous shift to Dispensational theology indicates that evangelicals did not learn from the mistakes of postmillennialism. They were still reading the newspaper to determine their theology; since times were bad, a pessimistic theology was adopted in place of the “naively optomistic” theology of an earlier generation. Dispensationalism offered two psychological advantages. First, when another calamitous event occurred, Dispensationalists could calmly respond that they knew such a thing would happen in these last times. As such, Dispensationalism functioned to give evangelicals a measure of control over, at least in the form of knowledge,  an uncertain future. Second, the pre-tribulational rapture assured evangelicals that, even should times get bad, they would escape the worst of it and watch the parties responsible for America’s resolution get hammered by God’s wrath.

Victorious ife (VL) theology was an approach to sanctification embraced by many groups (perhaps most notably the Keswick conference). The distinguishing feature of VL is its prescription for permanent spiritual power to overcome sin through a single act of surrender. Of course, it was possible to sin after surrendering, but VL advocates taught how to stay surrendered as well. VL represented an internalizing of evangelicals’ quest for social power: they may no longer be able to make laws, set the standards, and run the nation, but they could at least make sure they didn’t sin! Like Dispensationalism, VL represents an attempt to do something today to ensure a positive outcome in the future. The rhetoric of yielding and surrender masks a desire to control infallibly one’s spiritual future.

Billy Sunday is the whipping boy of Less than Conquerors. Frank’s unsparing criticism of this famous revivalist may actually drive some readers to sympathy, but it is clear that Frank is at least correct to identify Sunday as the embodiment of the evangelical spirit of his day. Sunday proudly proclaimed that his ministry was also a business, derided theology in favor of results, blamed America’s problems on groups outside his audience – the middle class – and encouraged attenders to embrace Jesus so as to become great manly men (like Sunday himself). Frank includes copious quotations from Sunday, the moralistic, self-congratulatory tone of which are likely to shock readers who know him simply as an evangelist. Although Frank does emphasize the worst in Sunday, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the bulk of Sunday’s religion was therapeutic moralism coupled with social activism, leaving scarce room for the historic Christian gospel.

Less than Conquerors is a solid works, but evidences some flaws. During the Scriptural reflections, the text takes on an obnoxious, sermonic tone. One can picture Frank grabbing the various historical figures by the shoulders, sitting them down, and delivering to them a good lecture. These sections take up entirely too much of the body of the work, which would have been spent better presenting more information and analysis to persuade readers. Frank rarely leaves the reader to draw any conclusions of his own. Furthermore, Frank’s arguments against certain theological proposals are themselves superficial. At one point, he contrasts certain “historically conditioned” ideas with the timeless gospel, implying that true theology is not susceptible to historical (or psychological) explanation. He ought to realize, however, that all theology is historically conditioned; all the great creeds and works of theology witness historical peculiarities. As Jaroslav Pelikan has noted, humans are finite creature enmeshed in history, incapable of grasping timeless truths in a timeless way.

Less than Conquerors is an extremely useful book for today’s evangelicals to gain insight into their past. It is both a stimulating interpretation of a historical period and a prophetic challenge to the contemporary church.

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Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review- Historical Theology by Jaroslav Pelikan

In five exquisitely argued chapters, Jaroslav Pelikan establishes, defines, circumscribes and extols the discipline of historical theology. In certain fields, perhaps best exemplified by literary criticism, the rise of the theorist seems concomitant with the demise of the practitioner. At first it may appear reasonable, then, to dismiss such brash arm-chair coaching. This author, however, is no mere theorist. By the time this work appeared in 1971, he was already a formidable historian and Luther translator; for the next almost 40 years afterward, he would put his advice into practice to become the 20th century’s most remarkable historical theologian. Despite this, many of his philosophical commitments and fundamental orientations have been ignored or rejected by conservative evangelical historians.

The first two chapters trace the problem of doctrinal change, or rather, the awareness that doctrine has developed and the resulting difficulties. The first chapter examines pre-modern attitudes toward doctrinal development, which can be summarized in two statements: “True doctrine is immutable,” and the readily following, “Innovation is heresy.” Thus, histories of dogma written by pre-moderns are largely litanies of heretical innovations, each in turn being staved off by the defenders of orthodoxy, the consensus of the church from its earliest days. Several people, Abelard and Thomas in particular, recognized the presence of contradiction within their tradition, but their attempts to resolve it were unsatisfactory.

The modern consciousness of history grew out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation, with its plurality of quite different denominations all claiming to be the true heirs of the apostles and the Christian tradition, provided an immediate need to rethink perspectives on history; the Enlightenment’s scientific disposition, especially the insistence on using original sources and literary criticism, provided the tools for grappling with the past. According to Pelikan, these streams meet in the nineteenth-century critical studies. The great exemplar of historical theology is Adolf Harnack’s History of Dogma. Rightfully challenged on many points, it remains the magnificent edifice of 19th century historical scholarship – painstakingly researched, dependent upon primary sources, sweeping in scope, bold in analysis. Rejecting the dogmatic – previous doctrine is judged by present orthodoxy – approach on one hand and the relative – doctrine is wholly the result of historical forces – approach on the other, Pelikan seeks a via media by which the living can listen to the dead, but not to repeat them.

Chapters Three, Four and Five respectively answer the questions, “What is historical theology?”, “How does one do it?”, and “What relationship does it bear to exegesis and theology?”. These chapters are insightful, but not as foundational, I survey them briefly. Chapter Three seeks to situate historical theology as a discipline distinct from history on the one hand and theology on the other. The proper scope and subject matter are addressed. Drawing from Romans 10:8-10, Pelikan defines Christian doctrine as “what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.” This definition both limits the task of historical theology and simultaneously expands it beyond a history of the ideas of private theologians. Chapter Four, perhaps a bit dated now, examines several models for examining historical contexts and makes suggestions concerning periodization. Chapter Five argues that historical theology plays an auxiliary yet significant and in some ways reciprocal role in the Church’s theologizing.

To the ears of a conservative evangelical, the most striking assertion is that “the fact of change somehow belongs to the very definition of Christian truth.” Pelikan hints at an incarnational model for explaining this: the gospel is not a timeless truth but the result of Incarnate acts within history; similarly, “it is not given to any mortal … to apprehend timeless truths in a timeless way.” Given his position, Pelikan’s praise of Harnack makes sense, for Harnack’s appeal was largely to young people, who, faced with the seemingly incontrovertible fact of historical change, were losing faith and looking for an alternative not tied to immutable truths passed down pristine through generations.

It is clear, though, at least for Pelikan, that the immutability of doctrine is a belief that is rendered untenable by the weight of scientific fact; his suggestions for a theological resolution are an afterthought. Even without a satisfactory theological foundation for his beliefs, he would continue to believe in doctrinal development.It is unlikely, though, that without such a doctrinal foundation conservative evangelicals will ever be won to his position. Evangelicals, however, are not the only ones dissatisfied with Newman-esque ideas of development. John Behr, Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary is currently writing a multi-volume Formation of Christian Theology that challenges developmental theses. Nearly 40 years after the writing of Historical Theology, there is still no consensus as to the nature of historical theology. Anyone who loves it, though, will delight to acquaint himself with Jaroslav Pelikan.

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Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 8:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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