More Quick Looks at Books–American History, mostly

 

One of the classic Stanley Brothers’ songs has these words:

“Daylight till dark my work’s never done
Lord have mercy on this sharecropper’s son.”

I know my jobs are not anything compared to what a sharecropper or his son or daughter or wife would have faced.  My workload usually involves a dangerously high stack of books that I am bound by duty or need to read and review.  It is a labor of love, but don’t forget that it is a labor.

I am happily plowing my way through a stack of books that includes the volumes pictured above.  Most of my reading energies this year are focused on American history, government, and literature.  This is because I am teaching my course called Humanities: The American Story.  With more than thirty years of classroom experience (some of it being helpful), I find that I need to read continually to refresh, enlarge, correct, and direct my understanding of the United States.

Let’s look at some of these books.

Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution is by David Benner.   Mr. Benner’s website can be found HERE,  and the book can be ordered through Amazon.  He is a long-time and serious student of the Constitution, and he writes and speaks on historical topics, particularly in the Minnesota area.  Benner is a self-professed Jeffersonian.  Lest we think that species is extinct, take note that the tradition is alive and well.

Most approaches to American government, the Constitution, and history presuppose that a national, centralized State was the design and intent from the beginning.  One can easily assume that history “proves” that the tree planted at the Constitutional Convention was purposed to grow, expand, and engulf the states that created it.  We are so far removed from limited government that it is hard to even start the discussion.  But it is a necessary discussion.  President Bill Clinton once said, “The era of big government is over.”  Whatever he meant by that (whatever the meaning of “is” is), Clinton, like other Presidents, was helpless in stemming the tide of Leviathan.

The battle has to be won on the grounds of history and serious study first.  It will jolt us loose from some of our preconceived or overly indoctrinated ideas about the role of the states and the purpose of a central government.  I think we are several generations away from even the possibility of reviving any sense of Jeffersonian politics.  But that is not a pessimistic statement.  It is a call for teachers and students of America to read books like this one.

The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution

Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming was released on October 10 of this year.  This book fills me with both happiness and sadness.  I corresponded off and on with the prolific Thomas Fleming over the past several years.  I was always amazed at how gracious he was in taking time to answer my questions or suggest which of his books I might enjoy.  When he didn’t answer an email last spring, I became concerned.  Then I learned that he had died back in July.

That he wrote and finished this book prior to his 90th birthday and death is amazing.  He certainly had a large stock of knowledge and writing experience preceding this work.  He never did a full biography of Washington, but by my count, he wrote eight or more books dealing in large part with Washington, besides books indirectly dealing with him or fictional works that included historical events about Washington.

Fleming was a master story-teller.  He writes solid history, but his style is focused on the narrative.  I have sought to collect and read all of his books.  No easy task since he wrote more than fifty books, but this one will be special because it is the last.

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution is by Tom Shachtman.  This promises to be a good book.  Although the author has written quite a few works, he and I will get to first meet when I can get started on this book.  I used to spend lots of time and energy studying the American Civil War Between the States.  At some point, I began turning more attention over to the American War for Independence.  I still feel a mental deficit when trying to piece the entire War for Independence together in my mind.

The American Continental Army and George Washington changed the world by their victory.  But would it have happened without the French?  It is hard to think through a path to victory without the French fleet and armed forces that both blocked Cornwallis’s path to retreat and ensured his surrender at Yorktown.  This promises to be a fun and interesting read.

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I read a reviewed Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers during the summer.  I was able to briefly correspond with Dr. Dreisbach and I am not opposed to reading everything he writes (given time and opportunity).  But if I only stick to this book, I will be well served.  This is an outstanding study.  I read it as history, as spiritual devotional, and as a practical guide to godly living.  This is a book to read and heavily quote from.

I also recently read and reviewed Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Dr. Robert M. S. McDonald.  This book is published by the University of Virginia Press.

Confounding Father is an excellent second or third biography to read about Jefferson.  By that I mean that this book has a particular focus that includes many of the events and details of Jefferson’s life, but it is not a biography in the sense that the six volumes of Dumas Malone or the one volume of Jon Mecham are.  This book focuses on how Jefferson used and was abused by the media, meaning newspapers, and by his political advocates and enemies.

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A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison by Jack N. Rakove is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.I began reading this book with the idea that it was a short easily accessible biography of the man who was our fourth President and is called “the Father of the Constitution.”  Characteristic of Madison’s short stature is the small notice that is usually accorded him.  He was quite literally overshadowed by his neighbor and peer Thomas Jefferson.  His co-authorship of The Federalist Papers results in him being one of a list of three.  He appears to be the bookish, policy wonk of the Constitutional Convention.  He was large in knowledge and background information, but small in his verbal or leadership activities.

This book is not a simple biography, but a study of Madison’s political labors.  As a political thinker, he deserves to be ranked right up there with men like Machiavelli, Burke, Locke, or Hobbes.  But there is no key book from Madison that contains his political philosophy.  The closest thing we have is Federalists numbers 10 and 51.  And those two essays are “God’s plenty,” in my opinion.

Early impressions are that this is a worthwhile, although weighty study.

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For the second or third time, I have read the introduction to The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France by William R. Nester.  It is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Each time I read the introduction, I find myself thinking that this lengthy book seems to be really inviting.  It is a time problem that has hindered me.  I am fascinated by the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), and I have collected numerous volumes on the war for what Voltaire called “a few acres of snow.”  Usually, however, my teaching on the war gets lost between using James Fenimore Cooper’s delightful Last of the Mohicans and the subsequent history chapters emphasizing that war as a cause of the American War for Independence.

Just maybe this time I will plow ahead into this book.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser will be out and on the shelves.  This book is published by St. Martins Press.

My copy is an uncorrected proof.  Having started it, I am finding it quite enjoyable.  This book gives a good background on the religious beliefs of the Separatists who came to the New World.  Hopefully, I can say more later as I get into this book.

Oxford University Press is a favorite source for good books of all sorts.  I recently learned of this book–Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Michael R. Licona.  Dr. Licona, a professor at Houston Baptist University, is a rising force in the Christian world of scholarship and apologetics.

“From daylight to dark, my readings are never done.”

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Glancing Back at Antiquity–Quick Looks Books

In college, my focus was mainly on American history. I did take courses on British history (which is fundamental background for American history) and on Modern Europe (meaning Europe since the 1500s).  Outside of my course work and interest was the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  Years of teaching world history did better acquaint me with fields outside of my preferences.  But the focal point was always on American and Modern European history.

My entrance into classical Christian education began with a horrifying jolt in the summer of 1995.  I attended some lectures by Wes Callihan and Chris Schlect (both of whom were then teachers at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho) and found myself confronting a near total illiterate–myself.  That began what is now year 24 in a quest to read all the classical works from Genesis and Gilgamesh to Faulkner and Ishiguro.  I am still behind on my readings, by the way.  But I have made progress.

This post–which promises to be brief–will focus on three recent books that are helps or friends in the journey through Antiquity.  They all deserve longer, more detailed, more persuading reviews.  For now, let me assure you that they are all worthy candidates for a space on your bookshelf if you are reading, teaching, or exploring the worlds of Greece and Rome.

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Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil by Stephen Ridd is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  It is Volume 54 in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture.  As Victor Davis Hanson and others have lamented, studies in the Classical Culture of Antiquity or studies in the Greek and Roman languages and literature are much diminished in our day and time.  College educated people from past centuries read the classics in the original languages.  My college experiences did not even include reading translations.

This is not the book to start with.  Even though it is called “An Introduction” to certain aspects of Homer and Virgil, don’t begin here.  Read Homer and Virgil.  Read them several times.  Read them with a group.  Read a couple of translations.  Homer’s works are simple enough:  The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I recommend Richmond Lattimore for the first and Robert Fagles for the second.)  For Virgil, read The Aeneid.  Virgil’s Georgics can also be fun.

It was Louise Cowan and some of her students who first opened my eyes to the richness of these works.  Through the years, I have taught Homer and Virgil’s books to many innocent students.  Each reading and teaching experience challenges me to better understand and enjoy the epics.  My preliminary reading from Dr. Ridd’s book convinces me that this is a worthy resource to be dipped in to or read from cover to cover.

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Worldview Guide: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Dr. Brian Phillips is published by Canon Press.  Brian Phillips is a friend of mine (although we have only met once) and a brother in Christ.  He is also the pastor of a family of friends–Wade, Jody, and Caleb Choate.  Brian jokingly wrote in the inscription of my copy “Rave about it publicly.”

This makes my task and burden difficult.  But I will be brave and launch in with this major criticism of this book:  At 41 pages, it is WAY TOO SHORT.  I was just getting into the enjoyment of this book when poof, it was over.

Now, let me put a better spin on all this.  When reading and teaching classics, we often need help.  The tendency is to go pull a dozen volumes off the shelf that provide helps and hints to understanding some older work.  The book–even if it is War and Peace–looks small compared to the towering stack of commentaries and serious studies.  The book described above about Homer and Virgil is that type of helpful reading.  But the key to reading classics is reading classics.  

My belief is that the reader/teacher needs to find a few short, simple (as in simplistic), readable guides for the classic.  Read the Wikipedia article on the classic.  Read an encyclopedia article, a summary, or a brief (5 pages or less) introduction.  But let nothing stop you from reading the classic.  Upon reading the work itself, keep plowing back through the brief helps.  Only after your classical permanent teeth come in can you or should you read the experts.

Brian’s book is a part of a series of Worldview Guides.  The Christian reader can easily succomb to either rejecting a book totally because the author is a pagan  or embracing it totally because it mentions things compatible with Biblical truths.  Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian; in fact and almost unexplainably, he was a Roman emperor who persecuted believers.  But before we shout, “Unclean, unclean,” we have to recognize the sheer brilliance and beauty–via God’s common grace–of his Meditations.

I read and loved the Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations, pictured above and published by The Modern Library.  Phillips uses the older George Long translation (1862).

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Destoyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado is published by Baylor University Press.  This book is a blockbuster of a work.  It can be asserted that the Christian battle royal against the Roman world is the greatest epic battle of history.  Many of us Christians read the New Testament with far too much ease.  But the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are battle reports and tactical training manuals for warfare.  And, pragmatic folks notice, it worked.

This book will preach, to use the old preacher term.  It is a scholarly, historical, and theological work.  But it is affordable (not all that common for university press publications) and practical and devotional.

My only lament in this post is that this is my American Story year for Humanities.  Most of my reading and all of my teaching will be devoted to things American.  But books can still be scanned, dipped into, and coveted (in terms of content) even when they are not on the reading stacks.

Confounding Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson

I frequently come across people today who say, “Have you ever seen a President being attacked like this one is being attacked?”  These people are usually supporters of President Trump who have been angered by the government, politicians, and the media for years.  Pres. Trump, better than any politician in the last 36 years, was able to tap into that anger and surprise everyone in November of 2016.  The President’s actions, words, attitudes, and tweets have continued to create a firestorm of protests, complaints, and anguish.  The election results shocked the nation and embarrassed the pollsters.  Efforts to calm the raging storm for the past eleven months have been few.

But let’s go back to the question:  Has any President ever been so viciously attacked? The answer is yes.  The President to start with is George Washington.  The first President is iconic and marble-like that it is hard to fathom how mean-spirited and cruel some of the attacks were on him.  The short, unhappy presidency of John Adams was a time of immense criticism for the chief executive.  Adams’ support of the Alien and Sedition Acts didn’t do much to deflect such criticism.  He could, on occasion, be his own worst enemy, but he had no lack of other enemies snapping at him.

Thomas Jefferson also endured a long string of attacks over the course of his career.  A survey of attacks on presidents could cover the whole gamut of men who served in the Oval Office, but we will focus on Jefferson.  The book Confounding Father:  Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M. S. McDonald is about Jefferson’s dealings with the press, his image, and the spin give on his actions on the American political scene.

On the one hand, Jefferson was statesman like in his bearing, his labors, and his overall contributions to America.  It was his pen that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He served in a number of political posts, both elected and appointed.  Just dwell over his resume:  Member of the Continental Congress, member of the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence,  governor of Virginia, foreign ambassador to France, first Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  Most of these posts are associated with great accomplishments.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are .”

“We are all Federalists.  We are all Republicans.”

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

These quotes, and many more could be added, testify to Jefferson the statesman, Jefferson the scholar,  Jefferson the philosopher/king.  He truly had some real nobility in his actions and devotions to the things he believed.

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One the other hand, Jefferson was one canny politician.  In the legendary Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler,” it says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run….”  That wisdom has its own application in the political world.  Jefferson could cut an enemy without ever weilding a weapon himself.  He used newspapers, friends, and circumstances to advance himself and detract from his opponents.

One of the more unusual traits of our politically ambitious founding fathers was their ability to appear totally disinterested in political office, such as the presidency.  Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both masters at that ploy.  Maybe they would have been perfectly happy never to have been the President, but one suspects they wanted the job as much as candidates do today who seek the office.  But mouthing about ambition was not acceptable in their time.

Jefferson ably presented his better side to the voters.  There were troubling issues, largely personal.  Frequently, Jefferson was attacking for cowardice (fleeing from the British during the War for Independence), for having a slave mistress, and for not being an orthodox Christian.  He did, in fact, flee from the approaching British army (led by Benedict Arnold) while he was governor of Virginia.  It was perhaps more prudence than cowardly.  The question of a slave mistress (namely Sally Hemings) was not broached by the man himself.  Due to a tendency among southern plantation owners to be involved with slave women, it was not a touchy issue in the southern states.  Jefferson was not the raging atheist who threatened the Christian religion, but he was not orthodox either.  To a large degree, he let his enemies vent on these matters without engaging in what we call “gutter politics.”

Comparing the past with the present is always a risky matter.  Putting Jefferson side by side with the four most recent Presidents creates some weird mental vibes.  At the same time, Jefferson–for all his indisputable brilliance–was a man of his time.  He owned slaves; he very likely had an adulterous relationship with one of his slaves;  he naively fell for much of the rhetoric of the French Revolution;  he was not at all loyal to President Washington; and he played political hardball.  In terms of wily political maneuvering, he was the equal to or superior to either Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.  In terms of being a man of distinction, he deserves all the honors that have come his way through the decades.

Perhaps what was most stunning to me as I started reading this book was the fact that Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence was not widely known for years.  Can you imagine any modern politician–or his campaign managers–missing out on such a “photo and media op”?  It was a different world, a different playing field.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time is a wonderful way to enter that world so much like our own and so different from our own.

Shaking and Shifting the Paradigms–The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser

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Good Bible teaching takes us down familiar paths and shows us new things.  That is not an original thought or sentence, but rather one that I heard years ago and have often repeated.  It is for me a very good way of defining what I have experienced in reading The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser and published by Lexham Press.

I am on my second reading of the book. The first reading was slow and the second one may be slower.  This is a path breaking book.  It is challenging because it addresses issues that are not usually tackled and has some approaches that are far from conventional.

Notice the subtitle to the book:  Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible.  Worldview is a recurring theme of many Christian discussions in our time.  As a Christian educator, I have been drenched with books, lectures, and information regarding having, developing, detecting, fine tuning, and defending a Christian worldview.   Debates about how and how much aside, the question is “Do we really have a supernatural worldview of the Bible?”

What other kind of view could we have as Christians?  It is possible to read the Bible for years and typically overlook or sidestep certain passages, details, and content.  In many cases, this is because there are things mentioned that just don’t open up to easy answers.  For example, consider the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4.

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4 ESV)

Or consider Psalm 82:1:  God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.  (KJV)

These passages and others create challenges in that the usual method of comparing text with text doesn’t easily yield answers.  But Heiser believes and supports the idea that these passages are not just weird quirks in an otherwise sensible story.

Much of his book concerns God’s council with spiritual, even divine beings, who serve God, confer with God, listen to God, interject their own comments, but who ultimately are under God’s total providence and power.  This is not polytheism, for God alone is God, as the Scripture consistently affirms.

This book is neither brief nor easy.  I recommend it, but warn the reader to take time, think carefully, have the Bible handy, and be ready to do some brain changing thinking.

What more Reformation-centered than Lutheran Theology?

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This is THE year to be reading, studying, writing, and teaching about the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s.  October 17, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the event we often refer to that heralded the beginning of the revolt of Martin Luther and many others in his wake against the corruptions of the established Church.  Just as the Reformation itself resulted in a tidal wave of publications, the 500th anniversary is spurring the writing and printing of many books on Martin Luther himself, the Protestant Reformation as a whole, the theology of the Reformers, and the other greater and lesser known leaders.

The Reformation 500 celebration is really an enjoyable event for me.  I have been planning some special activities for several years in advance.  Here they are:

  1.  Buy books on the Reformation.

2.  Read books on the Reformation.

3.  Talk even more than usual about the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and related people and events in class.

4.  Repeat steps 1-3 often.

I am giddy with excitement over all this.  Truth be known, I started celebrating at least a year ago.

Part of the joy of this year’s readings is going down unexpected paths.  Recently, I posted a blog about two books that are both real challenges on aspects of the Reformation.  The first is Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition.  The second is Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross by Marco Barone.  Both books took me way beyond the familiar story to some new ground.

       

Earlier in the year, I read Calvin and the Whigs: A Study in Historical Political Theology by Ruben Alvarado.  This book was an eye-opener and one that called for quick repeat reading.  The impact of Calvin on political thought has been a long-time topic of interest for me.

Not every book has been in the challenging to really tough range.  Just this week, I finished reading Erwin Lutzer’s Rescuing the Gospel.  This is quite an enjoyable retelling of the story of the Reformation from Luther to Calvin and on to their heirs.  Very basic, very well told, this book was a refresher course, but yet another case of reminding me of why I love this period of history so much.

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Along this year’s Reformation journey, my friend George Thompson commented on his enjoyment of a book simply titled Christology by David P. Scaer.  This is Volume VI of a series called Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics. The books in this series cover such topics as baptism, eschatology, church, Gospel and the means of grace, and the Trinity.  Short–barely over 100 pages,  this book covers a wide range of theological issues related to Jesus Christ, including the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Death and Resurrection, and offices.

Dr. Scaer distinguishes between Lutheran confessional views and those of modern theologians and theologies.  In fact, the first chapter deals with Post-Enlightenment era Christologies.  But he also deals with Lutheran differences from Reformed views.  Many of these portions of the book were new and surprising to me.  Since the comments and coverage are brief, I was neither convinced nor deeply informed by what was said.  But I think the purpose of this book, and most likely the whole series, is to introduce or review essential dogmatic positions held by confessional Lutherans.

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In some ways, this book might seem to represent what many people dislike or fear or distrust about that field of study called “Theology.”  On the one hand, people sometimes refer to dry, dusty theological tomes.  I reckon they exist.  On the other hand, I was involved in a discussion recently (with my college age daughter) about how theology students in college are often cynical people.  If that is so, we can say to the cynic, “You are so pessimistic, cynical, and sarcastic that you should major in theology.”

Let’s stop that train immediately.  I found this volume to be densely and tightly written, but far from dry or dusty.  Any Biblical, sound, orthodox theological work dealing the God who made us, the Christ who saved us, and the Spirit who fills us should leave us prostrate in the dust.  Simply put, if someone cynical is a theology student, they are a total, abject failure (even if they are on the President’s list at college).

But what about the arcane doctrines that separate certain Reformed theologians from their Lutheran counter-parts?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on other things?  Well. yes, maybe we should be focusing on other things, but that depends upon who “we” are.  I am a history and literature teacher.  That is my main focus, and those fields have their own internal, highly complex topics of study and thought.  Theologians have the task of going to the roots of issues.  They need to “major on minors.”  We certainly hope that they are not all head and no heart (if such were possible), or so deep and complex as to not understand the common man in the pew.  But theology–trying to wrap our puny minds around our great God is not child’s play.  (But even that is not to say that children at play display lots of theological truths.)

Luther changed the world.  His followers–whether they call themselves Lutherans, Evangelicals (which is what the early Lutherans called themselves), Reformed, Protestants, non-denominational (which is odd since you have a name that means no name), or simply Christian–need to celebrate this year what Luther started 500 years ago.  That includes at least giving some nods toward the Church that is affiliated with his name and theology.

Christology is a fine study.  Challenging to both heart and mind, it will remind the reader of the great freedom in the Gospel.  Part of that freedom is the freedom to ponder and study all aspects of who Jesus is.

The Reformation–Seriously

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History taught simply is this:  The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  From there, Luther and Calvin reformed the Christian Church in Europe.

There is a place for simple history, for the brief statement of bits of factual information.  Sometimes, the history major in college or history teacher is believed or expected to be a walking repository of historical trivia.  We are often even called “history buffs.”  I hate that term.  If a medical doctor uses it, I want to respond by calling him a “medicine buff.”

Why is the history buff pictured like this?:

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Rather than like this?:

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History is not rocket science, for it has a much wider range of issues, challenges, applications, and interpretive conundrums than rocket science.  (Example, “This one flies, but that one didn’t.”)

History is incredibly complex, although it can be taught at elementary, junior high, and high school levels.  It can even be taught to college students and adults.  But the same can be said for math or any other subject.

I am all for the simple, basic introductions to historical topics.  Pick a book too tough for the students, and all of the time is spent trying to understand the author’s thesis rather than the historical events.  History best begins with simple propositions, even if they are learnt in fun ways:  “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  Chronologies, maps, pictures, and bullet points help cement the “basic facts” together.  “So who did you put quotation marks around the words basic facts?” you ask.  I did so because you never learn the basic facts in history, but you learn or are exposed to a selective set of facts.  With hundreds of books,  written just about the Third Day of the Battle of Gettysburg, you should know that there is no, can be no, and should be no list of basic facts.

History is an interpretive science.  By science, I don’t want to imply the mathematical, measurement-dominated fields of exact sciences.  I use it in the more Dutch since of wetenshap, which would mean knowledge, scholarship, and learning.

Now, let’s take this discussion back to the Reformation.

I love the simple, bold, clear books on the Protestant Reformers.  For purposes of teaching, preaching, and writing, I am heavily indebted to accounts that begin with the terrible corruptions and abuses that were found in 16th century European Roman Catholicism.  Then there are the fore-runners of the Reformation–John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.  Suddenly, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther heads down to the church with a announcement sheet, a hammer, and a nail, then everything changes.

Luther’s life is dramatic.  No surprise that two great movies have been made depicting his religious revolution.  Arguably, John Calvin was much more desk and pulpit bound, less exciting and excitable, but his life is also one of daring escapes, exile, confrontations, and world-shaking correspondence.  Bring on Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer.  We have the starting line-up of a great team, but there are plenty more on the bench.

There is a place for history taught in story form with heroes and villians, drama, bullet points, starting points, and generalizations.  The same can be said for any and every discipline.  (On a similar note, you would not begin teaching poetry to small children with T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”)

At the same time, historians, scholars, preachers, teachers, popular writers, and serious students must continually be reminded that “nothing is simple,” to quote historian and one of my teachers, Dr. Tom Wagy.

The Reformation was not a series of revival sermons in Wittenberg and home Bible studies in Geneva.   It was a theological re-forming of many major Christian doctrines and themes.  But it was more than just a bunch of cloistered theologians debating how many sins could dance on the head of saving grace.  It was a reformation in church and family life.  The political world of Europe, already volatile, was sent into tremors for the next hundred plus years.  Education, literacy, music, and art all felt and contributed to the impact.  Philosophy, often called the handmaid of theology, took some new (or renewed) twists and turns.

In light of this, I am thankful for the increasing flood of new books at all levels and on different aspects of the Reformation.  I want to give brief mention to two heavy-weights that I have read this summer.  Combined together, the two books run about 320 pages.  They are short reads, but heavy in content.  These are not beginner level studies or refresher courses for the teacher.  Having read material on the Reformation for about 40 years, I was often struck with thinking “I never knew this.”

I have read both books from cover to cover, but I am not finished with them.  In one sense, I am just starting.  These are double-read books.

Beyond Calvin:  Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, edited by W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes, is published by The Davenport Institute.  This organization is dedicated to promoting Christian thought and wisdom for our times. Their mission statement says, “We seek to sponsor historical scholarship at the intersection of the church and academy, build networks of friendship and collaboration within the Reformed and evangelical world, and equip the saints with time-tested resources for faithful public witness.”

I was amazed that this institute had been formed and had published this book.  To my surprise, I learned that they have published several other works that are equally appealing.  This book, heralded by Dr. Carl Trueman in the foreword, is a series of essays on thinkers, movements, and causes that were either contemporaneous with Calvin or that followed up on his work.  The first essay, on the marks of a true church, focuses on Martin Bucer, who was a reformer in Calvin’s league and times.  He was a mentor and supporter as well to Calvin.

That is followed by a fascinating look at Theodore Beza’s Icones, which consisted of Latin poems of different Humanist thinkers of the times.  Note well that when we speak of Humanists in the early modern European sense, the word’s meaning is totally different from many contemporary uses of “humanists,” “humanism,” or “secular humanists.”

Essays on Richard Hooker’s Christology, George Carleton’s Episcopal authority, and the Westminster Confession of Faith’s “Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism” then take some specific looks at some “obscure” issues.  I put “obscure” in quotation marks because one might think that these are merely academic topics where one scholar addresses another.  Just because the names and issues don’t ring bells for us does not mean these are not weighty and practical issues.  Just to take “Christology” for one, can we argue that the study of Christ is ever without merit?

The final essay is titled “Pagan Civil Virtue in the Thought of Francis Turretin.”  Turretine is one of the big names in the subsequent generations who built upon the Reformation.  The fact that pagans, or unbelievers, are rich sources for discussion regarding virue is an endless discussion point.

Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Crosswritten by Marco Barone, is published by Wipf and Stock.  The subtitle gives a good summary of the contents and theme of the book:  “The Augustinianism of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and the Origins of the Modern Philosophy of Religion.”

While it is useful for history test purposes to say that the Reformation began on October 31, 1517, that is overly simplistic.  A stronger case could be made that it was the Heidelberg Disputation about a year later that more clearly delineated Luther’s deepest concerns.  Barone writes, “[T]he Heidelberg Disputation has become the manifesto of Luther’s thinking inasmuch as it contains the hallmarks of his entire theology.”

In his delightful opening paragraphs, Barone relates how he was on a pilgrimage with Martin Luther.  The language of pilgrimages, quests, and journeys are apt for the travels of the mind, and Barone is a budding scholar in route to a doctorate.  Along the way, he meets Augustine and wonders if Luther would enjoy Augustine’s company.  In the “Great Conversation,” to use Mortimer Adler’s delightful term, the German and the North African are old acquaintances.

Luther’s theology borrowed heavily from Augustine.  That is not really surprising considering that Luther joined the Augustinian order.  What follows then is a study of free will, virtue, righteousness, and the cross with heavy quoting and footnoting showing the ways that Luther built upon Augustine’s thought.  As a bonus to this study, Barone then makes connections to two modern philosophers, Emmanuel Kant and Gottfried Leibniz.  That connection explains how the book branches from the older theologians to modern philosophy.

As Barone aptly demonstrates, the alternative to a philosophy built upon Christian theology is inevitably Pelagian.  We can say more about this after I get to the second reading.

I give 5 Stars, A+, Cheers and Shout-outs to both of these fine studies.

The St. Andrew Seven–First Glances

 

Image result for boy at back of classroom

Truth be known, I have often been the kid at the back of the classroom.  Rather than sitting on the front row, taking notes, listening intently, I am sitting at the back of the room and gazing about absent-mindedly.  When the pressure is on–meaning the assignment is due tomorrow or I am on the verge of failing–I get busy.  Bottom line:  I am usually a bad student.

Case in point:  For years–at least a decade or more–I have heard George Grant wax on and on about Thomas Chalmers.  Then the front row students ask, “What should I read to learn more of Chalmers?” Meanwhile, I am wondering how much longer until class is over.  Repeatedly, in lectures, asides, personal exhortations, and the like, Dr. Grant says,

“The first book that I always send readers to is the short profile by John Roxborough and Stuart Piggen entitled, The St. Andrew Seven  (Banner of Truth).  Though not entirely about Chalmers (most of the text is devoted to six of his students and the way he influenced the trajectory of their lives and ministries) it is nevertheless the best single, accessible work available in a modern edition.”

The front row students hypervenilate until their copy of the book is in their hands.  And, they are anxiously awaiting that still future event where some mega-work on Chalmers by Grant himself arrives in print.  Meanwhile, on the back row, all I hear is that there is some book called Seven Saints Named Andrew, which I confuse with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (a movie), which I might watch instead of having to read the book.

Then a copy of the book arrives in the mail.  That is like a note sent home to the parents.  So, with the pressure on, I have finally begun to plod my way through this massive 150 pages tome with no pictures.

First observation:  A telling story appears about Chalmers in the early days of his ministry.  Although he was employed as a pastor, he was quite interested in a position teaching mathematics at the University of Edenburgh.  His view was  that “after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties,” a minister could enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science which his taste may engage.”

In popular terms, and some people actually think this, the preacher only works one day a week.

Twenty years later, and we might add, much sanctifying grace later, Chalmers wrote:

“What are the objects of mathematical science?  Magnitude and the proportion of magnitude.  But then…I had forgotten two magnitudes.  I thought not of the littleness of time.  I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”

It takes time–of which there is too little–but the kid at the back of the room does finally hear something,