Archive for the ‘History’ Category

On How My Mind Has Changed

I used to spend a fair amount of energy defending libertarian positions on politics and economics on this blog. In the time that has passed since then, I have shifted my positions on a number of issues, but the conclusion is, I don’t regard myself as a libertarian in any sense anymore. In general, my political/economic views probably come most near to Philip Blond’s Red Toryism (or, insofar as it is another name for the same thing, Blue Labour). Since I have changed positions quite substantially, I feel I owe it to my readers to be explicit in my shift. (more…)

Church History on the Ground

I think I have always had a latent desire to write. Over the course of my lazy school days it would pop up once in a while, but in the last few years it has become something of an obsession. Probably the earliest memory I have of taking real pleasure in writing was when I was in the eighth grade when I submitted a piece to “Young Authors”—a project to encourage Canadian school kids to write. My contribution was Mountain Home, self-consciously modeled after Louis L’Amour, my hero. When earlier this year I had the joy of publishing my first book, “Rivers of Living Water”: Celebrating 125 Years of Hughson Street Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, 1887-2012 (co-authored with Michael Haykin), I began to discern that maybe my childish project told a deeper story than a cowboy who was blinded by buckshot.

This little book may not seem all that exciting to you, but it is for me for two reasons. The first, although it isn’t published with an academic press, it is my first book and I take personal satisfaction in it. The feeling that I have is likely similar to that of a construction worker who finally completes a deck. All of the hard work has finally paid off; there is a feeling of accomplishment holding it in my hands. Also, I had a wonderful experience doing the research and writing with my mentor, and I learned a lot about doing history.

The second is that it has forced me to think about my own calling, in particular: Why do I want to write church history? The answer may seem obvious. Of course, I want to make a career out of being an historian, and would love to publish respected studies with an academic press. But, as I have learned from both the teaching and example of Dr. Haykin, church history as a discipline or profession is not an end in itself. There are bigger issues for the Christian historian than scholarly respect—the ultimate being the glory of the Triune God, the author of history.

The Use of Church History on the Ground

With “Rivers of Living Water” I came to see that the three hundred or so copies that were printed, though never destined to be a best-seller, do glorify God because they now reside in the hands of the members of Hughson Street Baptist for their encouragement. These members are given a sense of their God-originated identity as a local church, they see how God persevered with them through times of hardship, and how he has blessed them immeasurably. Because of this, I am convinced that Christian historians need to do more of this ground-level writing of church history, inglorious in the eyes of many though it may be.

There are challenges to doing this kind of work. Not only may historians overlook the stories of their own churches in favour of writing on a more mainstream subject, but churches themselves are not convinced of the need to record their past. On the day that “Rivers of Living Water” was released, a woman came to Dr. Haykin and me and told us how, some fifteen years previous, she saw that someone had thrown all of the church minute books in the garbage! When she saw that dates on the cover of these books went back to the 1880s, she rescued them from the trash. It is horrifying to think what it would mean if they had been picked up by a garbage collector! Our book certainly could not have been written.

Another more modern obstacle is that churches no longer keep minute books or other such documents in hard-copy. Everything is digitized and easily deleted. Nor do pastors keep diaries that are tremendous resources for later researchers. The stories of how churches were founded, under what conditions they flourished, how they overcame obstacles, what previous pastors were like, what kind of theology they espoused are all important for a congregation’s self-understanding. It helps them discern their identity in the context they are in currently in the twenty-first century. For instance, Hughson Street is located in Hamilton’s North End that has long been a blue-collar neighbourhood marked by poverty. As Hughson Street continues to impact their community in the twenty-first century, they can look back in their past to see how God used them in the lives of their neighbours. For churches to read stories of how God led them through a crisis, or how he blessed the preaching with growth, are all parts of what historians call a “usable past,” and can help a church navigate rough waters, or be encouraged in God’s goodness.

Encouraging Church History on the Ground

If God has called you to the task of doing church history, may I encourage you (if you have not done this already) to approach your elders to see if they would be interested in you writing your church’s history? If you are a professional historian and maybe do not have the time to do it yourself, why not mentor a budding historian in this task as Michael Haykin did with me? Mine was a tremendous learning experience, I spent hours going through old minute books, correspondence, sermons, and other old manuscripts—I had the careful guidance of a seasoned historian who helped not only with research, but taught me how to construct a narrative out of the work I had done. We are now doing another similar book for Mount Pleasant Road Baptist in Toronto. Dr. Haykin has also recently published “Declaring the Whole Counsel of God,” a history of Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Ontario.

I would also like to encourage denominations to commission historians to publish denominational histories at regular intervals. We have a great example of this with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who enlists their own historian to publish various types of works at different occasions to mark OPC milestones. Denominational institutions, whether at head-office level, or even seminaries, should have archives that house not only these broader histories, but copies of individual church’s histories. Even more helpful would be for an archivist to collect and catalogue precious minute books and other old manuscripts for proper preservation and use by historians. McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton has the Canadian Baptist Archive, which was a tremendous resource that I used as I carried on research for the Hughson Street book.

Finally, might I also encourage you if you are a pastor reading this? If you don’t have the ability or the time to do it yourself, why not commission someone—either in your church, if possible, or someone you know—to publish your church’s history? You should make the resources available (don’t throw them out!), and have some monies budgeted for such a project. I would also highly suggest that you keep hard copies of relevant manuscripts in an archive somewhere in your church, or in a denominational institution, so that future researchers will have adequate sources to construct a history with.

I only see this as a win-win situation, both for the historian and the church. It can be a great source of blessing for both. And beyond that, God will receive glory for all of the work that we collectively will remember that he did in the life of his church.

The Nature Of OT Laws

I just today found some thought provoking work done by my friend Brad Littlejohn a couple years back on the nature of some OT case laws. More specifically, he is, in various ways, fielding arguments from the perspective of Reconstructionists and theonomists (though also to some degree from people outside those camps, such as Christopher Wright and Umberto Cassuto) which suggest that many laws, especially several of an economic nature, were not enforced in Israel. They were considered as moral exhortations without legal force. Littlejohn argues ultimately that this is an anachronistic imposition of modern liberal legal perspectives onto the Torah.

Three posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3.

And his main essay: The Heart of Torah: Understanding Law, Justice, and Mercy in the Old Testament. [Since the direct link didn't seem to work, to find the essay, go here and scroll to the very bottom of the page: Writings]

In The Last Moment

Shot by Tracey Shelton, this is the most arresting photo I’ve seen in a while, it captures the exact moment that a tank shell hits a group of rebel fighters in Syria:

The men were reaching for their weapons as they had just been informed that there was a government tank in the area. Only the man in the foreground survives, the other three are completely obliterated. There is a collection of the photos here showing the scene before and after the attack.

Update: BagNews posts some thoughts on the photos here.

Bruce Winter On 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.

Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.

To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias. (more…)

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.