Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at Christian History

Want a good way to build up your faith? Read church history. Want a good way to create doubts and depression? Read church history.

Our only hope is in God. Great men are great sinners. Great movements contain fissures and cracks and fault lines that threaten to topple the whole edifice. Good documents can lead to bad applications. The best of motives can turn events upside down and inside out. The only hope is in God.

God works through history. But our salvation is not provable or stabilized by history. There are enough lovely events, selfless people, and acts of grace to fill volumes, but under the same banner, touting the same doctrines, and proclaiming the same Christ, one can find filth, dung, and vileness.

The application is simple: Imitate the good and eschew the bad. How can you know which is which?

Read Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson. This book is published by Zondervan and is available both in hardback format and in a digital format.

Bullies and Saints is a history written for the non-academic reader. This would not be the main book to pick for a college or seminary course. For such as that, one would want to consult works such as Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity or some of the older works, such as that of Williston Walker. Also, this book is not comprehensive. It is episodic.

Instead of being a comprehensive history of the Church, this book is written as an enjoyable stroll through the story of the Faith. Of course, being that the book is highlighting some of the colossal failures of Christianity, some of the ‘enjoyment’ is not pleasant. See my opening paragraphs.

Most of the cast of characters and events are those we would expect. High on the list of dark days for the Faith are those people and events related to the Crusades. Somewhat out of chronological order, the Crusades were where this book begins the story. I must confess that these opening chapters of the book were less than satisfying. I know that there was much done from the calling through the execution of the Crusades that was a travesty of Christian theology and practice. Even if viewed as political actions, the Crusades were failures. And on a military scale, in spite of some victories, these wars of Christians against Muslims were not great successes for the European powers.

My disappointment was in Dickson’s failure to reference or make use of Rodney Stark’s revisionist studies of the Crusades. And Stark is not alone. One thing that these more recent studies have affirmed is that Christians were not just bullies in terms of treatment of Muslims, but were the bullied. There were plenty of efforts of Muslim forces over the centuries to expand their empires and beliefs beyond the modern day Middle East and into mainland Europe. “They did it too” does not justify atrocities, but the conflicts between Islamic nations and Christendom (past and present) have been a long-term and recurring feature of history.

The early years of Christianity provide some of the most thrilling portions of the story. In short, in historical accounts, martyrdom is beautiful. The zeal, the willingness to die, and the efforts to defend apologetically the Faith provide some of the best chapters of the Christian story. This lends aid to the idea that the Faith is best when it is the minority position that lacks the power or even the tolerance of the State.

The Christianization of the Roman Empire, beginning with Constantine and going on through later Emperors, is often viewed negatively–for good reasons. Christendom is a difficult story to work through. Too often the modern age, with its secular, nihilistic biases, condemn every breath that any Christian ever took. But there were always bullies and saints, and sometimes the saints were able to do what they did because the bullies bullied their opponents.

One of the best portions of this book is the chapter that deals with the Inquisition. Again, there is no whitewashing of the Inquisition, but that term is bandied about as though every tenth person in Europe was stretched out on a rack by the Church Gestapo. The numbers and extent of the Inquisition have been greatly exaggerated and overblown. This is not weird history being touted as the views you never heard from your teachers. If Dickson did one thing right, it was digging through the best scholarship around.

Speaking of Dickson’s own scholarship and use of sources, I ordered possibly as many as five books based on his references and use of them in this book. There are five to ten more that I would like to order. There are quite a few that, thankfully, I already own. These are mainly secondary sources. I say that because hundreds of footnotes are referencing primary source materials.

I applauded and even gave standing ovations to portions of Bullies and Saints. At other times, I withheld judgment (usually with a frown), while I shook my head in disagreement over some portions. That is fine. That is good. That is what reading history is all about.

From acts of charity and mission works to misuses of doctrine and power, there are numerous events in this book that can be lifted and applied to current situations. I don’t think history supplies “the answer” to how we should deal with a secular state, declining morals, persecution of the Faith, and Christians in politics. I think history gives perspectives, and I think the more perspectives one has, the better the judgments that we can make.

On the Reading of Saint Augustine

See the source image

Augustine is often listed among the four great teachers of the Early Church. R. C. Sproul counted Augustine in his top five theologians list. He is quoted often, read sometimes, referenced frequently, and highly esteemed in Christian circles. Augustine is a common denominator theologian for both Catholics and Protestants. Admittedly, they like him for different reasons. Augustine is a big favorite among Reformed folk because of his advocacy and expositions regarding predestination and election. Calvin and Luther were both fan boys. The Augustinian Order in Medieval Catholicism contained quite a few adherents to the man and to his theology.

My prior experience dealing with Augustine has been mainly through studies in Church History. Any study of church history will deal with Augustine and his writings. As is common among many college educated people of our time, I was never required or encouraged or coerced into reading Augustine in undergraduate school or graduate school. Despite his pivotal role in being a part of history and defining a school of history, I don’t think any professor of mine mentioned him, except for Henry Wood. Mr. Wood began his classes with a couple of lectures on views of history, which reached its pinnacle in his discussion of Augustine’s City of God.

None of my education courses referenced Augustine even though he wrote a valuable treatise on education. I learned nothing of him in literature classes even though he largely created the genre of autobiography. I did not read him in any graduate course, nor did I have occasion to teach much about him in my public school experience.

Then came Classical Christian Education. Several years into the program, I had a class of 5 girls. We were studying Medieval history and literature. I assigned The City of God. We struggled and persevered all the way through it. I later used On Christian Teaching (also titled On Christian Doctrine) with my teachers one year and at least once in a rhetoric class.

I used portions of Augustine’s Confessions, This coming year, I will be using and teaching Confessions to a junior high Omnibus class. Along with that, I will add that I probably own 2 dozen or more biographies and studies regarding Augustine, and I have quite a few editions of his works, including those from the Church Fathers series.

That being said, I still aspire to merely enrolling as a student of the man, rather than thinking that I am accomplished. Given the miles on life’s odometer and given my interest in 127 other people and areas of study, I don’t expect to reach the highest peaks of understanding. But I do delight in the thought of learning more.

New City Press (www.newcitypress.com) has undertaken nothing less than effecting a whole renaissance of Augustine’s writings and influence. Multiple volumes, available in hardback, paperback, and probably e-book editions, are available now in new translations. The set is a bit costly. If I were a beginning scholar or pastor, I would be angling for both the books and the shelf space to house them. As it is, I am happy to own just a couple of volumes–one in paperback and one in hardback.

Augustine Set 44 volumes

One of my recent readings was Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Having a long-time love affair with 1 John and needing to read Augustine, this was a good matchup. At 173 pages, the book is very readable and accessible for those who might be unable to tackle City of God right now.

I want to give several comments and observations on how to read and use this study.

  1. This is not a commentary on 1 John. If I were preaching through John’s letter, I would read this book first for a general sense, and then I would use it for supplemental help along the way. Augustine does exegete passages, but he is not doing so systematically.
  2. Augustine is dealing with issues connected to his hearers. One of the main concerns was the Donatists. The New City Press editions have some footnotes to explain certain references that are unfamiliar to most of us.
  3. Augustine is all over the Bible! Even though he is preaching through 1 John, he is quoting and applying a number of Bible verses. You don’t read an Augustine sermon without getting a boatload of Scripture passages.
  4. Augustine seems to ramble. Many of us who have preached sermons know this fault. If you are looking for a clear outline, don’t look here. There is a certain free flowing, stream-of-consciousness-like technique to Augustine. It would be interesting to know what his “notes, or outline, or manuscript” looked like. One suspects that he had very little material that he carried “into the pulpit.” It is very much Augustine Unplugged in concert here.
  5. Augustine drives his points home, repeats his themes, and loads his sermons with applications. He may be known in our time as a theologian, philosopher, and deep thinker, but he was not giving academic lectures. He was seeking to move the hearts of his listeners.

Sad to report, this series of messages ends abruptly and incompletely just as he get to the fifth chapter.

Having now read this book, I look forward to soon tackling Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John.

One of many fine quotes from the book we have read and reviewed:

“If a person loves his brother, the Spirit of God is abiding in him. Let him look, let him probe himself before God’s eyes. Let him see if there is in him a love of peace and unity, a love of the Church spread throughout the earth. Let him be attentive to loving not only the brother who is before him and upon whom he is intent, for there are many brothers of ours of whom we do not see, and we are joined to them in the unity of the Spirit. “

Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John

No description available.

What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory

May be an image of book and text that says 'Foreword by D. A. CARSON WHAT ABOUT EVIL? 2O1UT A DEFENSE OF GOD'S SOVEREIGN GLORY SCOTT CHRISTENSEN'

What About Evil: A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen is published by P&R Publishing.

“Strangely, God never addresses Job’s pain and suffering in his grand monologue; instead, he recounts numerous instances of his own glorious acts in creation. Why? Because Job needed to see that there was something vastly larger than himself and the pain that circumscribed his own miniscule world. He needed to situate his pain within the larger realm of the ‘theater of God’s glory. ‘” Scott Christensen

What About Evil: A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen is published by P&R Publishing.

This book came back in the winter, perhaps even before Christmas. I was duty bound to read and review it, but I was still working on re-reading another volume from P&R (The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress). The Christensen book suffered from a not uncommon fate for books in my house: It got lost in the stacks. Something new was always arriving. Something urgent was always getting attention. Shorter books, easier books, and more appealing books were constantly keeping this book hidden away.

And consider the title: Who really finds themselves in our day and time wanting to read about EVIL during morning devotions? I am not one for fluffy feel-good theology, but there are some topics, whether weighty, or troublesome, or controversial that I would prefer to avoid. (I also shy away from the books that remind me of how I fall short as a husband and father.)

Then May happened. May of 2021 was like all of the worst of 2020 (pandemic, election, school shutdown, job loss, etc.) being outdone and surpassed in a 23 day descent into the abyss. In short, I went into the hospital for what was to be a relatively minor surgery. I expected to be home in a day or two, to be able to avoid all chores I disliked, and to be able to lie around and read to my heart’s content. Then everything in my life turned south. In short, I ended up spending 23 days in the hospital, mostly connected to all sorts of tubes in ICU, had low blood pressure problems, suffered hallucinations, spent a few days on a ventilator (which I don’t remember), may have had pneumonia, had a second surgery to correct some internal bleeding from the first one, and got a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.

After finally getting home in June (and I did have one 3 days return to the hospital in early July), I slowly resumed my morning reading patterns. My mind was not always able to focus clearly, nor were my eyes. Emotionally and spiritually, I was still in ICU.

But I picked up What About Evil? and started reading. And everyday for several weeks I would read 10 to 20 pages or a whole chapter. At some point, something in the book triggered an extreme emotional and spiritual jolt. I was brought to the point of “having to,” “being forced to,” and wanting to give thanks to God for all I had been through. I was not just thankful for God sparing my life (He did, for one night my diastolic number on my blood pressure was a single digit), nor was I just thankful for the good doctors and nurses God provided (and the physical therapists!), nor was I just thankful for being out of the hospital, nor was just thankful for the rapid healing I was experiencing. I was thankful that God had been pleased to send this series of calamities on me. It was a soul somersault. I am not saying that I don’t still question or lament all of this, but I was bowed down before the sovereignty of God.

Here is what I wrote on the day I experienced this:

As I began reading and thinking about this book today, for the first time, I was able to say, Thank you, God, for the illness and ordeal of the past month. ” Not “Thank you for the healing I am experiencing. ” Nor “Thank you for the spiritual insights and reminders of your grace. ” Nor “Thank you for the many who prayed for, visited, or ministered to me. ” I am thankful for all that! But for the first time, I can say, “Thank you for the ordeal, sickness, complications, pain, and struggles. ” Calvinist that I am, I figured I would give thanks for all this in time, but with a bit of forced piety. Meaning, I do this because I have to. But it seems as though God has given me a glimpse of His Sovereign Glory. Only a glimpse. But I repeat, “Thank you, God, for all of this. ”

This book is not a self-help or devotional study. It is deep theology. The question it tackles is a hard one that faithful Christians struggle with and have disagreed over. It is a defining point of Christian doctrine. And the book itself is 471 pages of text examining the issues.

I will have to rate this book as one of the top theological books not just for 2021, but for my whole life of reading theology (going back to 1974). This was not a game changer, for I have long adhered to the Reformed views of God’s Sovereignty. But this was confirmation. I realize that not everyone who might read this book will find it a companion volume to particular troubles they are having like I did. It can be read during the best of times for a seminary student, during a fruitful pastorate for a preacher, or for some good theological meat for a theology reader.

Concerning the topic of evil itself and how Christensen deals with it, this is one of the biggest challenges in apologetics, theology, and practical Christian living that Christians face. It is a point of contact with unbelievers since no one can rationally argue that evil does not exist. But it is also a point of contention since unbelievers are often hostile toward God over the issue. (It sometimes leads to the odd atheist who proclaims that God doesn’t exist and hates Him!)

Sometimes, some Christians feel like they need to come to God’s rescue. “If God is all powerful,” the unbeliever asks, “then why doesn’t He prevent evil? Why did He allow it to enter into His creation in the first place?” The most satisfying answer that many Christians have found is the Free Will Defense. People, beginning with Adam and Eve, had to have freedom to choose. God would not have made us puppets who were programmed to love Him since love has to spring forth from an emotional choice-based reservoir. In love, God let us decide to love Him. That meant that many rejected His love and the rest of us have strayed (by divine permission) all too often.

I am not trying to make a caricature or mockery of this view. It is a serious attempt to deal with a hard issue. While some find it comforting or convincing, I have never found it so. Nor do I find it compatible with Scripture (based on my understanding).

What Christensen posits is God’s Greater Glory in His purposing, planning, predestining, and controlling evil in His universe. The ultimate end, the eschatological outcome, of all the miseries of this life and world are far more offset by the greater, complete and all glorifying work of God in redemption and judgment.

Does this explanation make everything fall in place and easy to accept? No, but it does put the trust in God and in reliance of what is revealed. I don’t like falling into the “my Bible verses beat your Bible verses” kind of debate, but I was convincing (or reconvinced) that the Scriptural weight falls in the direction that Christensen advocates.

Prepare to wrestle when you pick this book up. Even if you are already in the author’s camp, it is a workout to think through these issues. But the pleasing part of this book is how attractive and readable the arguments are. For example, Christensen has a whole chapter devoted to how in literature “Everyone Loves a Good Ending.” As a literature teacher, I was swept away by this discussion. Then to see how this internal mind-set echoes what Scripture teaches is amazing.

I never feel that I have cheered loudly enough for some books. I read a lot of books and enjoy most of them. But this one is different. It is better, more important, and more influential than the others. If I were rich, I would be sending all of you copies of the book, but for now, I can only highly recommend it.

Here are a few choice quotes that I sent to family and friends while I was working through this book:

“Job’s miserable comforters made many true statements about sin, righteousness, justice, and God; yet they were painfully wrong when they tried to speak on God’s behalf, presuming to understand why He was bringing such affliction on their suffering friend. Nor can we demand that God explain Himself. Job sought for God to explain Himself for the evil He providentially oversaw in Job’s life, and the answer he got back was stark and humbling. The essence of it was this: I AM GOD AND YOU ARE NOT. “

“When we consider God’s sovereignty over the forest, few people object. But when we consider his sovereign control over the individual trees, people start to squirm in their seats, especially if those trees include the leaves, branches, trunk, and roots of their individual lives. The fact is, human actions are not exempt from the providence of God but represent the particular emphasis of Scripture. God’s fixed decree includes the future actions of individuals. Human choices are determined by God.”

“We are not conditioned to expect good to emerge out of the murky mass of evil. But God designed evil so that something remarkably white and wonderful would emanate from its black depths. As William Cowper penned, ‘Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. ‘” Scott Christensen, What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory