Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Church History and the Preacher

Here is a bold statement by Timothy George, church historian, and dean of Beeson Divinity School:

Church history is much more than the history of the church. Anyone well trained in the study of the human past can become an expert in the history of Christianity, the history of Christian thought, or the development of institutional and denominational church life. But church history is a theological discipline rooted in the self-revelation of the biblical God, the God who makes and keeps covenant with his people. As such, it is enormously relevant to the task of proclamation, the primary job of every God-called minister of the gospel. I dare to say that, apart from the direct study of the Holy Scriptures themselves, no discipline in the theological curriculum is more important for the sermon preparation of the preacher.

Timothy George, “SBJT Forum: Profiles on Expository Preaching,“ Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3.2 (Summer 1999), 89.

Expert Historians

In the recent kerfuffle over David Barton’s book on Thomas Jefferson being recalled by Thomas Nelson, it’s publisher, Anthony Bradley has shared his thoughts regarding history writing. His point is that only experts should be doing history and those non-experts, in this case pastors, should keep to their own profession. Bradley cites Doug Wilson as an example of this sort of “pastoral omniscience” (I confess to being hard-pressed to draw the link between Barton and Wilson as Bradley does, but be that as it may). His post got me thinking about the following quote from James Banner that might provide better balance:

Yet even many of those who practice history without having been formally trained to do so or who may not be compensated for the historical work they produce can be, and I believe ought to be, considered professional historians in the way I use the term. After all, in the role of historian—whether as writers of history, schoolteachers of history, or docents in museums of history—they know deeply (or at least should know deeply) one or more of the same bodies of knowledge that academic scholars have mastered. They are judged (or at least should be judged) by the same governing norms of historical research and presentation. Surely they are affected by the same institutional structures and realities of historical pursuits as are more conventionally defined historians, and they are expected to conduct themselves by the same ethical standards that govern the historical work of those to whom the term “professional” is customarily applied. Are we to consider them lesser historians and their endeavors lesser historical practices by virtue of their not possessing a doctorate in history or not devoting themselves full time on a college or university faculty to Clio’s discipline?

James M. Banner, Jr., Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xiii.

If this is so, then Bradley’s case against Wilson (in this instance) is overstated. The problem is not with non-experts doing history per se, rather any historian not adhering to the norms set by good history writing. Barton, it has been shown through the writings of Throckmorton, Fea, etc., does not follow the standards that make for reliable history. In the case of Doug Wilson, maybe Bradley could do the more effective job of offering a thoroughgoing critique—say, in the vein of Throckmorton—and allow Wilson his proper response. Historians, as broadly defined by Banner, could then be the judge.

On a separate note, I would be interested to know Bradley’s thoughts on historians who step out of their fields of expertise. Carl Trueman penned a book on American politics, was that inappropriate?

A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is: (more…)

On Religion And Abuse

Perhaps, readers, you should consider this as a companion piece to this earlier one I did about religion and violence. The essential argument that I made there was that much of what is now claimed by particularly the “New Atheists” as religion’s unique ability to drive really nasty kinds of violence by making absolute claims about the world was really more a problem with human nature and less about the nature of religion per se.

With the recent Sandusky case at Penn State we can see a similar parallel with the horrific cases of abuse in the Roman Catholic church and more secular institutions. If we use Rome as the stand-in for religion in this case there seems to be something that fits the charges of atheists: because the church offers transcendent metaphysical claims about life and the universe, because it is a model for understanding humanity’s role in the world and a hope for the future of course people would to anything to defend it. And tragically “anything” has included covering up the actions of numerous serial rapists by moving them around and buying off the victims. While the hierarchy does this, there are legions of lay-Catholics who are ready to get up and defend the church in the public eye (though there are legions more who are not). The New Atheist move is to say that this is because the church makes all kinds of absolute spiritual/metaphysical claims and so has a hold on otherwise reasonable people.

In the case of Sandusky though, we saw all kinds of people getting up to defend a pedophile and those who allegedly enabled him because of football. Here the stock response is that in many parts of the US football is “like a religion” or something to that effect. We can even point to the Reformed tendency to see idolatry as the root of all sorts of evil and say that yes, football might look like an idol. But beyond that, how is football like a religion? It can’t save your soul. It doesn’t explain why humans are on earth or how we got here. It doesn’t explain what happens after we die. It makes no sorts of abstract metaphysical claims. People just seem to really, really like it, so much so that they may even say that it’s one of the things that gives their life meaning.

But again, football has none of the features that the New Atheists suggest make religion so dangerous to humanity. It is possible to be a completely satisfied materialist and still be crazy about your football team. So what’s the takeaway for a New Atheist? Forget about religion, maybe people should just not care about stuff because when you care about stuff you can end up irrationally defending the indefensible?

Empire And The Responsibility To Protect

I just finished reading Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar, and a selection from the Pliny’s letters he quotes near the end of the book made me think of contemporary discussions of the “responsibility to protect”. Pliny:

Again, and again–yes, I have to repeat this–you must remember the title of your office and understand what it means: you must remember what it is, and how great a thing it is, to establish order in the constitution of free cities. For what is more important for a city than ordered rule, and what more precious than liberty? (Letters 8)

And from the wiki entry on R2P:

Following the genocide in Rwanda and the international community’s failure to intervene, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the question, when does the international community intervene for the sake of protecting populations?

The Canadian government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in September 2000. In February 2001, at the third round table meeting of the ICISS in London, Gareth Evans, Mohamed Sahnoun and Michael Ignatieff suggested the phrase “responsibility to protect” as a way to avoid the “right to intervene” or “obligation to intervene” doctrines and yet keep a degree of duty to act to resolve humanitarian crises.[6]

In December 2001, the ICISS released its report, The Responsibility to Protect. The report presented the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility and that the international community had the responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. Economic, political, and social measures were to be used along with diplomatic engagement. Military intervention was presented as a last resort. R2P included efforts to rebuild by bringing security and justice to the victim population and by finding the root cause of the mass atrocities.[7]

For those who are not pacifists, we at least have to consider: might there not be situations where “imperialism” could actually be a beneficent thing? I have difficulty, at least, completely ruling out every conceivable version of it.

Destroying Gotham

Judging from the trailers, it looks like the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy will engage in a time honored literary and artistic trope:

Why do we fantasize about blowing up New York so much? Andrew Potter writes in his The Authenticity Hoax:

One of the most enduring developments of declinism in popular culture is the ritualized destruction of the great cities of the world in film, literature, and art. Whether it is worries over economic dislocation, fears of urban alienation, or inchoate anxieties over moral and spiritual softness, we like to take it out on cities such as London, Tokyo, Washington, but, above all, New York. Historian of architecture Max Page wrote an entire book about the portrayals of New York’s destruction, on paper, film, or canvas over the past hundred-odd years, showing how each era uses the city’s death as a way of defining its social concerns and exorcizing its specific demons.

There’s a common thread that underlies it all, though: the deadening of experience in advanced society, the banality of everyday life mixed with the precariousness of the capitalist economy. And so we use our art to destroy New York, “to escape the sense of inevitable and incomprehensible economic transformations … to make our world more comprehensible than it has become.” Page goes on: “A disaster, even when mediated through images or words, still retains an authenticity that has been the quest of modern society for two centuries.”

But why New York? A clue is to be found in the way in which, in the years after 9/11, the attack on the Pentagon has almost completely faded from popular remembrance. Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the American empire, but New York is the capital of modernity, or as Oswald Spengler put it, the “monstrous symbol” of the modern world. Whether it is King Kong making his final stand atop the Empire State Building or the lizard in Cloverfield ripping the head off of the Statue of Liberty, it is something significantly more than a tourist attraction that is under assault from these monsters of nature. (70-71)

Conservatism And Poverty

One of my continual questions about conservatism (as a conservative) is what exactly it is supposed to be conserving. For example, conservatives are often considered opponents of government provided support to the poor. Yet at least for religious conservatives, conservatism in North America in one way or another has been enormously influenced by the thought of John Calvin. And what was Calvin’s approach to this problem? Robert M. Kingdon, in his article “Social Welfare in Calvin’s Geneva,” (The American Historical Review 76, Feb. 1971, pp. 50-69) writes:

A study of social welfare in Calvin’s Geneva must focus on a single institution, the Hopital-Général, or General Hospital. It was much more than a “hospital” in the modern sense of the term. It was rather an all-purpose institution that provided “hospitality” to all sorts of people who were recognized to possess needs that they could not meet with their own resources. It maintained a large building in the center of Geneva that housed several dozen children-most of them orphans or foundlings-and a smaller number of older people whlo were too old, too sick, or too badly crippled to care for themselves. It distributed bread every week to poor households throughout the country and provided shelter and food every evening to visitors who had just arrived in Geneva and could not pay for their own accommodations. (52)

This was an institution partially funded and and fully overseen by the city, and approved of by Calvin. And this particular development, a change to pre-Reformation approaches to welfare (by means of laicization and rationalization), was indeed well-conserved:

The greater radicalism of the Genevan reforms may help to explain their greater permanence, for the Geneva General Hospital proved to be a remarkably durable institution. It continued in operation until the late nineteenth century with only one major interruption, which was caused by the French Revoluition. In 1869 it was reorganized and converted into a new institution called the Hospice-Général, with headquarters in the same neighborhood as the old General Hospital. The Hospice-Général is still standing and ministering to the problems of the poor in Geneva in ways that have not changed substantially since 1535. It would appear that there are times in history when radical reform, however painful it may seem at the time, proves to be more permanent than moderate reform. (69)

Calvin On Discipline

Brad Littlejohn has an informative post detailing Calvin’s position on church discipline, and quotes heavily from the Reformer’s response to the famous anabaptist Schleitheim Confession. One aspect of Calvin’s teaching I at first had a bit of trouble with was this:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there. Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

[Edit: I notice that I did not clarify what I meant here. Calvin is obviously summarizing the position of the Anabaptists at this point. My concern was that his implied negation of this view might be seen as unbiblical.]

However, in typical fashion, Calvin both defends his position and nuances it carefully, removing what troubles I had with it. Firstly, he qualifies his point:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present. For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured. But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

And he also defends it:

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24). Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47). These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

In addition to these comments and others, Littlejohn also provides a closing comment which I think is quite important for grasping the logic of Calvin’s position here:

“let us take thought of what we can do. And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

The only qualification I would want to add to Calvin’s outlined position here is that, it seems from several OT and NT texts, that God’s mercy does have a temporal limit on congregations who refuse to exercise appropriate discipline. I discussed this in an old post on this blog. However, once the quote from Calvin immediately above is taken into account, it does not really conflict with this biblical theme. For one can easily understand that these passages reflect churches that were not truly doing “what was in [their] power and duty.” Now, of course, the question will be raised: how much is enough? And I think the answer is hard to provide a priori. But it seems to me the principle would have to be along these lines: if one has Calvin’s principles, and attempts to follow them sincerely, so that especially heinous and public sins are dealt with, but not attempting to punish things not really known or things only in the heart, then you are probably doing “what is in your power”.

A church may for a time fail to do what they are able, and therefore remain a church even while sin persists in the church. I think Calvin’s appeal to NT churches is powerful in proving his position here. Nevertheless, God will eventually remove the lampstand of congregations that do not do what is in their power. They will be revealed to be what, at least many in the congregation (or the clergy of the congregation), really were: people not willing to obey the commands of Jesus that called them to administer discipline. And intentionally and persistently rebelling against the commands of Jesus are a good sign that something is fundamentally wrong with one’s heart, which is another way of saying, it is a good sign that a person is not really in the (invisible) church at all.

The long and short of it is: I think Calvin was profoundly biblical and pastoral on this matter. His ecclesiology remains a well thought out position that needs to be considered again today.

The Liberal Arts And Poverty

The late Earl Shorris writes in Harper’s magazine of an interview he had with a female inmate in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City:

It is considered bad form in prison to speak of a person’s crime, and I will follow that precise etiquette here. I can tell you that Viniece Walker came to Bedford Hills when she was twenty years old, a high school dropout who read at the level of a college sophomore, a graduate of crackhouses, the streets of Harlem, and a long alliance with a brutal man. On the surface Viniece has remained as tough as she was on the street. She speaks bluntly, and even though she is HIV positive and the virus has progressed during her time in prison, she still swaggers as she walks down the long prison corridors. While in prison, Niecie, as she is known to her friends, completed her high school requirements and began to pursue a college degree (psychology is the only major offered at Bedford Hills, but Niecie also took a special interest in philosophy). She became a counselor to women with a history of family violence and a comforter to those with AIDS. (more…)

A Brief Note On Reformation Political Theology

With regard to the meme that Magisterial Protestantism does not have the resources to cope with our current post-Christendom context (requiring, of course, a shift in allegiance to neo-Anabaptism), consider some of the beginning paragraphs of Calvin’s dedication of his Institutes to the King of France:

But I perceived that the fury of certain wicked persons has prevailed so far in your realm that there is no place in it for sound doctrine. Consequently, it seemed to me that I should be doing something worth-while if I both gave instruction to them and made confession before you with the same work. From this you may learn the nature of the doctrine against which those madmen burn with rage who today disturb your realm with fire and sword. And indeed I shall not fear to confess that here is contained almost the sum of that very doctrine which they shout must be punished by prison, exile, proscription, and fire, and be exterminated on land and sea. Indeed, I know with what horrible reports they have filled your ears and mind, to render our cause hateful as possible to you. But, as fits your clemency, you ought to weigh the fact that if it is sufficient merely to make accusation, then no innocence will remain either in words or in deeds.

Suppose anyone, to arouse hatred, pretends that this doctrine, an account of which I am trying to render to you, has long since been condemned both by the verdict of all estates and by many judgments of the courts. This will surely be saying nothing other than that it has in part been violently rejected by the partisanship and power of its opponents, and in part insidiously and fraudulently oppressed by their falsehoods, subtleties, and slanders. It is sheer violence that bloody sentences are meted out against this doctrine without a hearing; it is fraud that it is undeservedly charged with treason and villainy. So that no one may think we are wrongly complaining of these things, you can be our witness, most noble King, with how many lying slanders it is daily traduced in your presence. It is as if this doctrine looked to no other end than to wrest the scepters from the hands of kings, to cast down all courts and judgments, to subvert all orders and civil governments, to disrupt the peace and quiet of the people, to abolish all laws, to scatter all lordships and possessions—in short, to turn everything upside down! And yet you hear only a very small part of the accusation, for dreadful reports are being spread abroad among the people. If these were true, the whole world would rightly judge this doctrine and its authors worthy of a thousand fires and crosses. Who now can wonder that public hatred is aroused against it, when these most wicked accusations are believed? This is why all classes with one accord conspire to condemn us and our doctrine. Those who sit in judgment, seized with this feeling, pronounce as sentences the prejudices which they have brought from home. And they think they have duly discharged their office if they order to be brought to punishment no one not convicted either by his own confession or by sure testimony. But of what crime? Of this condemned doctrine, they say.

But with what right has it been condemned? Now, the very stronghold of their defense was not to disavow this very doctrine but to uphold it as true. Here even the right to whisper is cut off.

Two thoughts occurred to me while reading this:

(1) Even apart from the historical record which shows us that they did, wouldn’t it be rather strange if the magisterial Protestants did not consider how they ought to respond in the face of (highly) unsympathetic regimes, if this was the kind of treatment they received?
(2) If they thought of how they ought to act in the face of actual social rejection and state persecution, why wouldn’t their responses be useful today, in our “post-Christendom” context, which is nowhere near as hostile as what, say, the Huguenots experienced in France?