Why Should Christians Study History?

28 08 2013

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a pretty significant bias towards the humanities.  I’ve heard it said that scientists can tell us how to clone dinosaurs, but an English major can tell you why you shouldn’t.  At least in that scenario, the humanities seem more useful.  All that to say, I’m biased and that bias will be reflected in this post, so do adjust accordingly.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply four reasons off the top of my head for why Christians should engage in the study of history.  They are as follows:

  1. History keeps Christians from being naive
  2. History helps Christians avoid ancient errors
  3. History helps us solve modern problems
  4. History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit

I’ll talk through each one briefly in the following paragraphs.

History keeps Christians from being naive:

If you’ve been around Christians for more than five minutes one of the things you’re bound to hear is “I’m just a Christian.”  That little statement can be juxtaposed with other Christians who might say “I’m a Presbyterian,” or “I’m a Roman Catholic.”  Perhaps more broadly someone might say, “I’m a Reformed Christian,” or “I’m an Arminian Christian.” Now we can say two things from here.  First, I would suggest when speaking with non-Christians it is preferable to simply say “I’m a Christian” without getting into all the confusing details of denominationalism.  Second, I can also see the reason why someone might want to eschew a denominational or confessional label.  After all, the fact that we must meet in separate buildings, with separate names and distinct theologies is a sad thing.  With the hymnist we can say “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/ And be Thyself our King of Peace!.”

This longing for unity and disdain for division can compel us to say, “to heck with it!  I’m just a Christian.”  While I understand the sentiment, I would also say that the statement is incredibly naive and at the end of the day unhelpful.  No one is just a Christian.  We all have distinct views on some of Christianity’s biggest questions, questions such as:  What is the Bible?  How are we saved?  What is a Church?  Now here’s the kicker.  Because you have opinions on these questions you’re not simply a Christian.  Your opinions will place you firmly within a historic Christian tradition whether you like it or not.  The problem is, if you don’t read Christian history you won’t even know that’s what you’re doing.  You’ll be frustrated when you talk to people who are aware of their Christian tradition because they can’t just be “simply Christian,” like you are.  But the problem is, you’re not simply Christian.  You just don’t know enough to know better.

History helps Christians avoid ancient errors:

Why could Jesus heal the sick?  It’s because he was God right?  And God can do things that we can’t do, so that’s why Jesus could heal the sick.  Well, not so fast.  The above comes dangerously close to an ancient Christian heresy called Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared to be a man but he was truly and purely God.  Here’s the problem with Docetism:  if Jesus only appeared to be a man then God has no experience of human weakness and human frailty.  But one of the chief comforts of the Gospel is that God became man, the Word became flesh.  Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Of the many significant things that this implies, one thing is that when we sin God understands the trials we were under because, having taken on flesh, God the Son was under the very same trials yet remained without sin.  Therefore he has sympathy with us in our sin and weakness (Hebrews 4.15).  Docetism denies the Christian the comfort that God sympathizes with his people, even in their sin.

The ancient church spent a lot of time defining orthodoxy (right belief) over and against heresy (wrong belief).  While this may seem like nitpicking over doctrine so that we can “get it right,” as the above example illustrates heresy is a cruel thing.  It was Bishop Fitz Allison who went to great pains to point this out in his book The Cruelty of Heresy (Buy it here).  Reading Christian history helps us learn and identify the heresies of the past so that we won’t visit the cruelty of heresy on ourselves or on others.

History helps us solve modern problems

C.S. Lewis said this better than I will be able to, so I’ll simply quote him in full.  I’ve emboldened the especially relevant points:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator….

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology….

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit has been at work in the lives of God’s people for 2000 years (and even before that!), not just at Pentecost and last Sunday when your favorite worship song was played.  It’s good for Christians to read about the work of the Holy Spirit in previous generations, how he led the church in truth, how he sanctified the saints, how he strengthened them to endure death, how he emboldened them to preach the Gospel, how he caused them to take up the cause of the poor and the oppressed.  One of the chief benefits for me in reading the lives of Christian saints from the past is to see the ways that the Holy Spirit powerfully worked upon them, that I might ask the Holy Spirit to do the same for me.

All that to say, History is important for Christians.  If you’re an Anglican, or just happen to be a product of the Reformation (if you’re reading the Bible in your mother tongue, you’re a product of the Reformation) there is a wonderful opportunity coming up this fall that you can read about here.  I’m afraid the link does make this little post a bit of shameless self-promotion, but I also hope it will be more than that.  Do read history Christians!  It will do you some good.

If you want a good place to start, how about:

Biographies

Eric Metaxas Dietrich Bonhoeffer

G Marsden Jonathan Edwards

J.C. Ryle Light From Old Times (several short biographies of English Reformers)

Bruce Gordon John Calvin

Peter Toon God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen

John Bunyan Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography)

Histories

P. Benedict: Christ’s Church Purely Reformed

D. MacCulloch:  The Reformation

J Pelikan’s five volume History and Development of Doctrine (a personal favorite, but no easy read)

The First Christian Theologians edt. by Evans





Facing Down the Ice Dragon

26 06 2013

In 1933 Lewis published his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, which he promoted to a publisher as a kind of “Bunyan up to date.”  Though in title Lewis is clearly indebted to Bunyan, the Pilgrim’s Regress should not be seen as a simple retelling of Bunyan’s classic Christian allegory.  If left to stand on its on two legs, the work is an intellectual map of the early to mid 20th century West as Lewis saw it, as well as how a spiritual pilgrim might navigate such a world away from and returning to Christian truth.

The novel was widely panned and even Lewis himself was deeply dissatisfied with it for reasons that are persuasive.  For one, the work is too obscure and two, Lewis focused too closely on intellectual movements in a narrow window of history, making many of his points almost immediately out of date.  Nevertheless, the work is one of my favorites both for its rich, imaginative landscapes as well as lyrical qualities.  To add to this, Lewis’ vision for a reasonable, faithful, and imaginative Christian life continues to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians alike.  More than any other reason however, is that Lewis’ treatment of universal human issues, when handled, is exceptional. 

Lewis’ novel follows the journey of two characters as they progress and then regress through his fictional landscape.  John, the main character, represents the Greek man full of pursuits of pleasure and ease.  John’s companion, Vertue, represents the classically religious, if not Pharisaical follower of rules who denies himself even the simplest of comforts.  The two men, to be made whole must endure battle with two dragons, one fiery dragon from the South and one icy dragon from the North.

Vertue must fight the fiery dragon, an “expansive, invertebrate dragon whose fiery breath makes all that she touches melt and corrupt.”  “To her,” says the Pilgrim’s guide, you “must go down that you may steal her heat and be made malleable.”  Lewis’ point, powerfully made through the assistance of story was this:  the Pharisee may keep rules but he has no love for God or for man in him.  He needs heat to melt and heat for passion that he might have passion for both God and man.  In one of the more touching, while at the same time one of the more amusing passages, Vertue returns from his fight with the “fiery dragon” “veritably on fire,” “leaping, running, and dancing.”

As for John, he must fight the “cold dragon” for the opposite purpose.  If Vertue is too hard, with no passion, John is too soft, with no restraint, courage, or perseverance.  He must “go up and contend with him (the cold dragon) that you may be hardened.”  Ice from the dragon travels out of his body, down the sword and into John’s body steeling his spine.  When we think of the nature of sanctification, we may not often think of how necessary “hardening” is.  But necessary it is.  After all, doesn’t the Apostle Paul tells us that we are being prepared to bear an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4.17).  Soft people aren’t prepared to bear such a reward.  They need to toughen up. 

So how does this happen?  In the allegory, the cold dragon is placed before the pilgrim as an act of grace.  In facing down the cold dragon, the soft man is hardened as a gift.  The gift is not only the hardening that comes as John plunges his sword into the belly of the dragon, and the ice travels into his body making him strong.  But there is another gift to be given as the dragon is faced down.  This second gift is the gift of victory over the dragon itself.  The coward goes to battle and prevails and this is a gift of God.  Consider the paradox of the following:

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom 16.20)

God will crush Satan, but he will do so under your feet.  Here is a remarkable gift.  God will destroy the devil, but he does so in part using the coward as a tool.  Thus the coward has a share, as an act of grace, in the victory of God.

So what do we do with this?  When the dragon appears, whatever form he may take, he must be acknowledged for what he is.  He may be an enemy.  He may be evil.  But he is in your path under the sovereignty of a good God who has placed him there to make you strong.  So take up your sword and play the man.  You may lose, as Peter lost on the night Christ was betrayed.  But, as you’ll remember, Peter was the better man for the losing.  In a sense, he was strengthened in the losing for he was a more gracious man after the temptation than he was before.  You may win, as Lewis’ pilgrim does in the allegory, and share in the victory of God as he crushes the devil under your feet and this will make you strong as well.  Whatever happens, the promise still stands that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13.5), nor lose us (John 17.12), will one day complete his work in us (Phil 1.6), and present us perfect before the throne of God (Jude 24).  At least in part this is accomplished, as unpleasant as the reality is, in the facing down of the various dragons that may be blocking our progress.  After all, there is no other way (Acts 14.22). 

 





Did Sturdy Just “Wing it”? or…How I write a sermon

14 05 2013

For a variety of reasons preaching has been on my mind lately.  It’s not that I feel like I have anything significant to say on the issue but I do preach with some frequency and what is helpful I’d like to share.  It’s important for preachers to sit down with aspiring preachers and work through texts together and share a process (assuming they have one).  For that reason I have asked several preachers in the Carolinas to share their process, which will go up on the Kardiablog throughout what’s left of the month of May.

My post went up today.  Perhaps you’d like to read it as a preacher yourself.  Perhaps you’re an aspiring pastor/preacher who might find this helpful.  Perhaps you’re a member of the congregation who just wants to be assured that I didn’t download my sermon from Jerry Falwell’s archives.  No matter the case, click on through to see the whole thing.

Day 1 (about 2 hours)

  1. Begin with the text:  I am an expository preacher.  I always begin with the text.  I write the chapter and verse at the top of the page.  Even if we’re preaching topically, having chosen the text the topic fades into the background.  My main aim is to exposit the text.

  2. List potential hazards over the coming week:  I list my obligations that are likely to interfere with sermon prep at the top of the page next to the chapter and verse.  I do this so I can plan appropriately and navigate what is always a packed schedule.

  3. Read the text through 10 times:  Sadly, my Hebrew is rubbish but my Greek is functional.  I translate the text from the Greek if applicable.  Then I read through the translated text 10 times, noting questions, impressions, and thoughts along the way.  I find that having read it through 10 times I’m pretty familiar with it and have come close to memorizing it.

  4. Pray through the text for 30 minutes:  Immediately after #3 I pray through the text line for line, asking God to give me clarity on my questions and strengthen or confirm my impressions.  I don’t have a set 30 minutes, I just find that this usually takes 30 minutes.

  5. Sum up the main point of the text in one sentence:  Immediately following #4, I sum up what I believe the author was saying in one sentence.  Obviously, you must make considerations outside of the text at this point (who was the author? to whom was he writing? when was it written?).  Summing it up in one sentence is in my opinion, critical.  You need to have something that you’re trying to drive into the congregation.  This one sentence is your one thing.  After doing this, I put it away until the next day.

Read the rest of it here





Is celebrity the same thing as faithfulness?

30 04 2013

Carl Trueman indulges in a little “what if” thought experiment that is less “what if” and more “what is.”   I’d be interested in your thoughts…

This month, I thought I would use this column to indulge in a little thought experiment. What, I wonder, if the conservative evangelical church world came to be dominated by a symbiotic network of high profile and charismatic leaders (think more Weber than Wimber), media organisations, and big conferences? What if leadership, doctrine, and policy were no longer rooted in the primacy of biblical polity and the local church? What if, in other words, all of this became a function of an Evangelical Industrial Complex?

It is an important question. It is probably a year or so since I raised the question of the impact of celebrity on evangelicalism. As I was told then, celebrity either does not exist in the evangelical subculture or is of no real importance there. Thus, I suspect the Evangelical Industrial Complex either does not exist or exerts no influence; but it is entertaining to imagine what would the signs be that it was a real issue (which, I am sure you will agree, it is not).
The aesthetics of success would subtly and imperceptibly supplant the principles of faithfulness or would indeed come to be identified with the same. The rhetoric of faithfulness would be retained, but the substance would be less and less important. Thus, the key leaders would be the men at the big churches or with the ability to pack a stadium or to handle media with slick sophistication. Fruitfulness and faithfulness would be rhetorically opposed in a way that would be ridiculous if we were talking marriage, but which somehow seems plausible in a church context.




Books that Changed My Life

22 04 2013

Below are a few books that had a serious effect on my life and ministry.  It might be useful for me to share the title as well as the reason why they changed my life.  These are listed in the order that I encountered them.  Each book listed below I have read through, at a minimum, of three times each.  Some (like the Bible, Luther and Owen) I have read many times more than that.  One, such as the Bible, I read through annually cover to cover (you may also include Owen’s Mediations).  As a result I’m familiar with these books.  I love them and can recite large portions of them off the top of my head by memory.  If you’re so inclined, I’d love to help introduce them to you.  If by chance you’d like to read them (or have read them) let me know.  I’d enjoy the chance to speak with you about them.

The Bible:  I became a Christian while reading John’s Gospel at the Citadel.  Whoever provides the funding for the distribution of such Bibles, you have my lasting thanks.  Without that Bible, I would not have become a Christian, nor the type of husband I am, nor the type of father I am.  I would have no ministry to speak of and the source of all my joy would be deprived me.  Again, my sincere thanks!

C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:  I read this in college but to be honest didn’t get it until I had read my way through several of the books below.  The thing I gained from The Great Divorce was a deeper appreciation of how discipleship and desire go hand in hand. Our desires draw us closer to heaven or closer to hell, but either way we’ll be doing what we want for eternity.  This is why it is so important that the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is proclaimed.  It presents God as good, loving, kind, merciful and just, making him desirable to the human heart.  That is one of the Gospel’s most power effects.

John Donne’s Divine  Sonnets: Also read in college.  Also failed to appreciate what I had in my hands at the time.  I go back to these almost weekly.  Here is a sinner wrestling with his sin and taking refuge in divine grace.  No different than me on that front, although he is (obviously) far more eloquent.

Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians:  Sunk deep in a terrible hole of legalism in my third and final year at Wycliffe Hall, I picked this commentary off of the shelf at the Radcliffe Camera almost by mistake.  More than any work outside the Bible, this book has defined the trajectory of my life and ministry.

Augustine’s Confessions: Augustine helped me understand the pervasive and unreasonable aspects of sin in my life, particularly through the famous story of the pear tree.  Also, if you have heard me preach or teach enough you would have heard me quote the opening paragraph of Confessions more times than you could count.  “O God, you made us for yourself and we are restless until  we find our rest in thee.”  That thought, which runs throughout Augustine’s writings also runs through much of Western Christianity, and finds a happy home in all of the works cited here.  

Dante’s Divine Comedy:  Do you know what T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien all had in common?  They all held close to their hearts the Divine Comedy.  I’m currently on my third trip through.  Dante is Augustinian in his anthropology and soteriology.  He taught me that the effect of grace is not instantaneous, but rather a supernatural journey driven by the pursuit of the beauty of divine love.  Get an edition with with robust footnotes.  He is multi-layered and complex, impossible to get through without a learned guide (a Virgil of your own!).

John Piper’s Desiring God:  In a list such as this Piper looks out of place.  Snobs will scoff, although they will only make themselves look foolish in doing so.  This is a fine book.  When I first became a Christian I exulted over God, his salvation, and the change he had wrought in my life.  I quickly descended into a works based mindset and my joy evaporated.  Having been primed for grace through Luther and Augustine, I was ready to hear how serving God, in good times and bad, was the most pleasurable and joyful activity that I could ever engage in.  This book taught me that God is after my joy.  When I preach, teach, minister, or disciple it is joy that is in my crosshairs.  I thank this book for that.

J.C. Ryle’s Knots Untied:  If you’re Biblically serious and Gospel centered, even the most conservative parts of Anglicanism (often being just dressed up semi-pelagianism) can feel lonely.  For this reason I was seriously thinking of leaving Anglicanism altogether.  Then I read Ryle.  Ryle is not the most scholarly account of the history of the Anglican Church, but he opened a door for me to investigate the English Reformation.  It was through Ryle that I read Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Becon, Hooper, Jewel, Hooker (how abused and misunderstood this man is!) and many others.  It was Ryle who clued me in to the fact that the “puritans” were (mostly) Church of England clergyman contending for the vision of the Reformers against the rising tide of something that was antithetical to what the English Reformers stood for.  Knots Untied is the reason I’m still an Anglican.  It let me know I had a home and it gave me the courage to stay and contend for it.

John Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ:  More than any other book, this one drew me completely outside of myself to think only on the glory of Christ.  I wept through most of it, but I can’t really tell you why. Owen put me on a journey of Christocentrism that is evident in my preaching, counseling, and hopefully my life.

John Owen’s Communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:  This book taught me that God actually desires fellowship with me and that I was made to be drawn into his intra-Trinitarian joy.  This book made Christianity feel so much larger and more magnificent to me than any book I have ever read.  Where you might see this book evident is a carefully cultivated Trinitarian praying and preaching.  I aim to think about and speak about the work of the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.  On a final note, Owen is easily the most influential theologian in my life.  I have been called a Calvinist or Reformed.  I consider myself a Christian first.  And Anglican second.  But if we must make labels, then I am an Owenite.  And before the scoffers scoff, let me just say that at the end of his life, Owen swore that he had done nothing except uphold the teaching of the Bible, the 39 Articles, and the theology of Richard Hooker.  So there…





A little something I wrote for KARDIA

19 04 2013

Below is a taster.  You can go read the whole thing by clicking here

In the fifth century Augustine wrote a little book (oft overlooked) called On Teaching Christian Doctrine, where he wrote the following:

Whoever, then, loves his neighbor aright, ought to urge upon him that he too should love God with his whole heart, soul, and mind.  For in this way, loving his neighbor as himself, a man turns the whole current of his love both for himself and his neighbor into the channel of the love of God, which suffers no stream to be drawn off from itself by whose diversion its own volume would be diminished (I.xxii)

What’s he saying?  True love of neighbor, in its highest form, is an urging to love God.  This as we know cannot be done without the preaching and receiving of the Gospel.  It is the Gospel, the good news of God in Jesus Christ for sinners that releases men and women from the fear of God to the love of God.  And friends, we know that the surest, most reliable way to bring the Gospel to the un-churched is through church planting.  Hence, church planting is an imminently practical expression of love towards neighbor.

Go on over to Kardia and read the rest of it





Rapper calls out prosperity preachers by name…

17 04 2013

Check it out over at Steve’s blog here

I have three observations about the song.

  1. Christians (in my opinion) have a hard time putting out quality music these days.  As far as rap songs go, this one’s pretty good.
  2. An un-trained (yet nevertheless theologically astute!) rapper was able to do what two Reformed mega-church pastors couldn’t
  3. The comments defending the prosperity Gospel on the Charismamag site (click through Steve’s link) let you see just how pervasive the nonsense of the prosperity Gospel really is.