The Mayflower by Rebecca Fraser

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On this Thanksgiving Season in 2017, it is easy to think back to the American Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower, and the first Thanksgiving (which really wasn’t the first–Thanksgiving started in the southern colonies).  The pleasant features of the story are ingrained into our culture.  Even those times when some tried to divert the message into being a feast where the Pilgrims were giving thanks to the Indians for their help, the religious nature of the Pilgrims has not been erased from our heritage.

Each time I teach American history, I run the risk of foundering my course by getting too lost in the colonial period.  1607-1775 is a long time.  Many foundational actions took place in the many (not just 13) colonies in the New World.  Besides, I am a Calvinist, so there is lots of rich material regarding the theological roots of American history.  Seventy-five percent or more of colonial Americans held to Reformed theology in some form or another.  The Great Awakening, with its two key leaders Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, is a vital chapter in America’s history which directly impacted much that followed.  I never get to adequately cover the French and Indian War, in spite of my interest in it.

Of course, the landing on the harsh, rocky banks of what was called Plymouth gets notice.  The Pilgrims, who are better termed Separatists, play a major role in many aspects of American history.  There is the voyage itself, an incredibly risky venture based on certain convictions about church life.  Then there is the Mayflower Compact, a precursor of the written constitutions that would form the governments of both colonies and states and then of the United States.  Literature was birthed in part at Plymouth with William Bradford’s classic Of Plymouth Plantation.  European and Indian relations would be seen in its best light with the aid given by Samoset and Squanto to the settlers. Economics was provided with the greatest example of the failure of socialism when the settlers attempted to share all things in common.  The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, of course, then is re-enacted by school children even to this day.

But the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation or Colony gets a short column or a few paragraphs in our history books.  (Of necessity, no history survey can do justice to specific events.)  Plmouth’s few hundreds were soon overshadowed by the thousands of Puritans who settled the Boston area and other parts of what became the larger, dominant Massachusetts Bay colony.  Massachusett settlers and Plymouth settlers would share and cooperate with each other for a time, but Plymouth soon became just a part of the larger, wealthier, more advanced Protestant community of Massachusetts.

A new book, perfect for today, great for anytime, is titled Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America is by Rebecca Fraser.  This new book is published by St. Martin’s Press and is available from all major book stores.  Rebecca Fraser is well equipped as a historian and writer.  She is the daughter of Antonia Fraser who has written quite a few works on English history.  Rebecca  has previously written The Brontes (about the sisters who were writers) and the very readable Story of Britain.

The story of the hardy band of Pilgrims is a tale worth telling and hearing again and again.  Call it audacity, pluck, courage, or even near insanity, the forces that worked in them to commit them to stepping on a west bound ship across the Atlantic were extraordinary.  Sure, they survived, but as evidenced by previous ventures into the New World, such as Roanoke and Jamestown, this was a high risk venture.  The mortality rates for those who came to Plymouth were exceedingly high.  Fraser notes a few souls who went back to England, but the amazing story is of those who literally carved out a home in the wilderness.

Of course, it helped that portions of land had already been carved, or more actually cleared, by the Indian tribes.  The interactions between the Europeans and the various Indian tribes plays a large part in the developing story.  From some of the early and successful interactions, relationships were often cordial and cooperative.  Indian chiefs were quite shrewd in their dealings with these new inhabitants.  Trade and diplomacy were both conducted to gain maximum benefits by both parties.  Items such as beaver skins provided a means for the colony to thrive economically.  Hachets, guns, and cloth from the Europeans were beneficial to the Indians.

Sadly, the whole story is not one of two mutually prospering groups.  The increasing numbers of Europeans and superior fire-power enabled them to dominate the story.  There were two major wars in the region.  The first was the Pequot War and the second was King Phillip’s War.  While the numbers of those killed are small compared to later wars on this continent, on a per capita basis, there were real killing fields.  King Phillip’s War was perhaps the best opportunity the Indian tribes ever had to drive out the English.  Of course, it failed, and with it, the power base of the Indian community was forever diminished.

Religion is a major focus of the book.  After all, this is about the Pilgrim Fathers.  Add to that, it was the century of religious wars and conflicts that consumed England and much of continental Europe during the 1600s.  Furthermore, as the story of Plymouth develops, the Puritans will come to dominate the region.  The American colonies were a testing ground, a melting pot, a safe zone for many religious ideas and practices that were challenging Europe and England in particular.

Puritan New England (which we might better call Reformed New England since not all were Puritans) is often criticized, misunderstood, and caricatured.  Until Perry Miller decided to study those dreadful Puritans, they were more an object of curiosity or distaste than a subject of study. Miller’s academic pursuit later merged with a theological reawakening of interest in Puritanism and Puritan theology.  As with all of history, the simple explanations don’t explain.  The Puritan society or religious foundations of New England were complicated.

As Fraser emphasizes, the Mayflower settlers were people of firm, dedicated commitment to living the Christian faith in ways their separatist and Reformation theology demanded.  Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, and others were the real deal.  So were many of those whose theological differences confuse the outsider.  By that, I mean that the Puritans, Roger Williams and his followers, the Mathers, and even the Quakers were people of conviction.  Simply put, they would die for their faith commitments.

At the same time, from our distant perspective, the theological worldview was flawed.  The problem was not that they were trying to follow the Bible, but rather they did not follow it adequately or correctly.  A recurring error of that time was interpreting bad events as judgments of God. A drought or storm, an Indian raid, an unexpected death, and other events were too readily explained as though the New Englanders could read the mind of God in them.  (I do believe calamities ought to drive us to self-examination and repentance, but we cannot know God’s purpose in all such tragedies.)

Then there were the outright theological failures.  Most saddening was the practice of selling Indian captives into slavery.  This was the common practice during King Philip’s War.  War rarely brings out our better qualities, but this was quite deplorable.  Later, the witchcraft frenzy and trials were another blot on New England.  While there were those pastors who warned against abuses, some stupid things were allowed such as allowing for “spectral evidence” in court.  This has reference to people claiming to have seen or witnessed a person doing something weird and that testimony being accepted as fact.

Much of this book is centered around the Winslow family.  They came on the Mayflower, became leaders in the community, and continued to be influential through the generations.  They represented what was the best, most creative, and most worthy of the world that would grow out of Plymouth.  Edward Winslow was a great man, but he was still just a man, a success in some areas and a failure in others.  He befriended Maasassoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and he worked to make Plymouth prosperous.  His son, as is often the story in history, was a man of a different generation.  His faith commitment was dim compared to the father, and his actions were more of the enterprising and pragmatic American than that of the commited Pilgrim.

This book is a fine story.  It is history as story; therefore, it contains truth, beauty, and goodness, but also reveals falsehoods, ugliness, and evil.  It is our nation’s story.  We re-enact and remember only a small part, but we need to know the bigger story as well.

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The Christian Mind

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A post like this must, by the law of the jungle, begin with the famous quote by Harry Blamires.  He began his book The Christian Mind with the words, “There is no longer a Christian mind.”  But that book was originally published in 1963–over 50 years ago.  I am not totally convinced of how true it was in 1963, but am convinced that there is a Christian mind today.

Without trying to miss the point that Blamires was making, he was writing in a time where C. S. Lewis (his friend), J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Gordon Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, Herman Dooyeweerd, Flannery O’Connor, Arthur Holmes, R. J. Rushdoony, Stanley Jaki, Jaroslav Pelikan, H. R. Rookmaaker, H. Van Reisen, and many others were not only still living, but were writing books or in some cases preparing intellectually for the great works they would later write.

These were not just men (and women, in the case of O’Connor) who were brainy teachers in Bible colleges or intellectually leaning pastors.  Christian thought was and is part of a tidal wave.  None of this is designed to call for a mental rest break or assume we have captured all or even much of the academic high ground.  But finding top-heavy Christian books, journals, and monographs is not an impossible chore today.  Being able to keep up with it all is impossible.

I remember back around the mid-1980s, I was teaching a course on American literature for a local college.  I asked a Christian thinker about good books on American literature or literature in general from a Christian perspective.  He told me that there wasn’t any.  (Again, this was pre-internet days and I think there was more stuff out there that neither he nor I were aware of.)  Now, I have shelves of books about American literature and American thought from Christian or theological perspectives.  Some of it is light and fluffy, but much of it is deep and weighty.  Some books are overtly Christian, while others are written with some Christian underpinnings or beliefs of the writers that are not openly displayed.

If there are several shelves of books on literature from Christian perspectives, they are walls full of books on history from the same.  Name about any field of academic thought, and there can be found Christians who are plowing up the ground and cultivating those areas for Christ.  Not all of the theological perspectives are the same, nor is the orthodoxy of the thinkers identical.  Marilynne Robinson’s idea of Reformed theology gives me the heebie-jeebies, but she is writing fiction and essays from a Christian perspective.  Roy Clouser’s views on origins is revolting to me, but his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality is a block buster.

I work in the thinking business.  I am a teacher of history, literature, government, and theology in a classical Christian school.  On the one hand, I am not a heavy weight, but I do try to work out and lift the barbells of the best Christian thinkers around.  I am constantly amazed at what Jesus Christ is doing in our time to reclaim the MIND as well as the rest of the earth in His active role as King of Kings.

In this post, I will merely highlight three books–two new ones and one overlooked one–that will challenge the intellect as well as minister to the heart.

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The first book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, edited by Collin Hansen and published by The Gospel Coalition.

If The Gospel Coalition had never published this book, I would still be heavily indebted to them for the many fine articles, blogs, and authors who contribute to their ministry.  I am sure that if I looked long enough, I could find some (or many) points to dispute, but that contentious spirit does not serve me well, nor does it usually serve the greater Christian community well.

This book is a great contribution to Christian thought.  But it is, in one sense, just a group of guys all pointing–excitedly–to a Catholic Christian philosopher, named Charles Taylor, and his monumental book titled Our Secular Age.

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Occasionally, I do something brilliant.  When it happens, it is sometimes an accident.  Some years ago, a local bookstore had some library copies of books for sale for $3 a piece.  Most were of no interest.  There was a fat book among them titled Our Secular Age.  It sounded somewhat interesting, so I went home and looked it up.  That evening, I had to take my son Nicholas (then in high school) to a party.  On the way, I stopped and grabbed the book for three bucks (hardback with mylar covering the dust jacket and in like new condition).

Several years later, I began hearing more and more about the book.  Meanwhile, Nick was at college and was reading Sources of the Self by the same Charles Taylor.  I slowly began connecting the dots. Then James K. A. Smith published a book titled How Not to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.  Then Nick graduated college and began some overdue leisure reading, which included Our Secular Age.

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As is often the case, I am ten or more years behind everyone else on important books and issues.  But I am working on catching up so I won’t be eleven or more behind.  So I graciously received and have now read this new collection of essays on Taylor’s book.  Working backward, I will likely read Smith’s book and then cautiously begin scaling Mount Taylor.

Several points in reference to the Gospel Coalition essays:

  1.  Collin Hansen is top notch to me.  I really loved Young, Restless, Reformed when I read it a few years back.  It excited me and helped awaken me to what is going on in the ever widening Reformed circles.
  2. Several of the contributors are known to me, including Hansen, Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, and Bruce Riley Ashford.  Those names are all in the plus column, but I also became acquainted with some other Christians, such as Brett McCracken (whose new book I now have).
  3. These essays are designed to be bridge to helping pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders become aware of and make use of Taylor’s insights.  Repeatedly, we read that Taylor’s book is dense (T. M. Luhrman), inaccessible (Tim Keller), daunting, and intimidating (Hans Boersma).  These essays provide some stepping stones for making use of Taylor.
  4. Charles Taylor is Roman Catholic, as is some other key Christian philosophers, such as Bernard Lonergan, Peter Kreeft (more teacher than philosopher), and some guy named Aquinas.  Setting the Five Solas aside (but not far away) for the moment, there has long been a practice of borrowing, lending, and paying back with interest between Catholic and Protestant thinkers.  (Where would we be without Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton?)  Much of this book is focused on filtering Taylor’s thought into Protestant categories.
  5. These essays are not “Charles Taylor for Dummies.”  Having finished the book, I find myself ready to read it again–more carefully–rather than being ready to nod intelligently when Charles Taylor’s name and ideas come up.  And believe me, his name and ideas come up often.

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The second  book I would like to call attention to (realizing that it is actually the fourth or fifth one mentioned in this post) is Faith Formation in a Secular Age by Andrew Root.  This book is published by Baker Academic.

A few years ago, I read Root’s book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker and loved it far more than I expected to.  By that, I mean that I thought it would be biography of the earlier years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry labors where he was what we often call “a youth pastor.”  It is biographical, but it was more focused on the type of ministry work he did and how we should approach youth ministry.  It also, as the subtitle notes, deals with Bonhoeffer’s two fine books Call to Discipleship and Life Together.

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I have yet to begin this new book by young Dr. Root.  But in my prelimary glances (also known as pre-reading), guess who and what he begins discussing?  You are right–Charles Taylor and Our Secular Age.  Then he discusses Bonhoeffer.  I hope to post more about this book soon when I am able to start reading it.

The third book (no, fifth or sixth) that I will mention is Truth Considered & Applied:  Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith by Stewart Kelly.  This book is published by B & H Publishing Group.

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I first noticed this book a month or so ago in a local Christian bookstore.  I thought to myself:  What a fascinating sounding new book!  Later, when I was looking it up to learn more about it, I discovered that this “new” book had been published in 2011.

It is still anxiously awaiting my attention while it sits in one of the many “to be read” stacks, but I most interested in it.  The term “postmodernism” has been tossed around quite a bit and often misunderstood or misapplied.  It is among the ideas we have to grapple with as we delve into modern ideas and terminology.

More comments on this book will appear after I get started into it.  By the way, the index shows that Taylor is referenced six times, but the book in use is Sources of the Self by Taylor.

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Charles Taylor–philosopher and key influence in many Christian circles today.

 

 

Hot Off the Presses–The Latest Old Thing

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I, like many readers, am subject to the Athenian mindset.  By that, I am thinking of what Luke says in Acts 17:21, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  I am interested in the latest book, the newest work, the hottest thing off the presses.  There are many new and fine books coming out in droves, so I find plenty of sources to satisfy my desire to read the latest, newest, most up-to-date books.  (Take note:  Very few–in fact, almost none–of the new books I read show up on the best sellers lists.)

Sometimes, however, there are new books that are actually older works.  Of course, all reprints fit into this category, but I am thinking of books that have never been available before in book form or for American readers.  So, some really new books were written many decades ago.

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One such new book with old content is Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers.  Published by Hendrikson Press, this book was translated and edited by Dr. James Eglington, an expert on Bavinck.  More people–mostly pastors and theology students–are reading Bavinck today than at any time in the past.  His works continue to be translated from Dutch to English and there is an audience ready for them.  He is primarily known for his Reformed Dogmatics, which is available in four volumes and also condensed into one volume.  Ron Gleason’s biography, Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, Theologian, has also contributed to his popularity.

But little is know of the man as a preacher.  Sure he was a theologian, a professor, and a peer to Abraham Kuyper.  Preaching, however, was not a occasional venture, but a major part of his labors and love.  Since he preached without notes or manuscript, little is known of the actual content of his sermons.  Until now.  This “new” book consists of Bavinck’s writing on preaching and the text of a major sermon he preached.

Augustine and the Problem of Power

One of the most frequently referenced and recommended books about the time of Augustine (or the latter years of the Roman Republic or the age of the Church Fathers) is Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane.  Read a serious book on history, theology, or philosophy on the time period, and most likely, Cochrane will appear in the bibliography.

Now students have the opportunity to explore more of Cochrane’s thought.  Wipf and Stock has published the older writings of Cochrane, which have never appeared in book form.  Titled Augustine and the Problem of Power, this book promises to be pure gold.

This book “provides an accessible entrance into the vast sweep of Cochrane’s thought through his topical essays and lectures on Augustine, Roman history and literature, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Edward Gibbon.”  The transition from the late classical or ancient period of history to the Medieval period is a construct of historians (and a useful one).  Augustine is a pivotal figure.  He has been called “the last ancient man and the first Medieval man” (by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization).  

I probably have a dozen or more studies on Augustine, along with many volumes of Augustine’s writings and some biographies.  I am still a beginner in terms of grasping this great Christian thinker.  Along with Marco Barone’s Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, Mark Boone’s The Conversion and Therapy of Desire:  Augustine’s Theology of Desire, and others, this newly published book will be a big help in my journey to understand the Bishop of Hippo.

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Part of the quote from the web-site description of Augustine and the Problem of Power:

These shorter writings demonstrate the impressive breadth of Cochrane’s mastery of Greek, Roman, and early Christian thought. Here he develops the political implications of Christianity’s new concepts of sin and grace that transformed late antiquity, set the stage for the medieval world that followed, and faced the reactions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Cochrane analyzes the revival of classical thought that animated Machiavelli’s politics as well as Gibbon’s historiography. Written amid the chaos and confusion of depression and world war in the twentieth century, Cochrane’s writings addressed the roots of problems of his own “distracted age” and are just as relevant today for the distractions of our own age.

The “prequel” to the new publication of Cochrane’s studies, this book is the granddaddy of many works of Christian works of scholarship.

Post Script:  One should never forget the statement by C. S. Lewis,

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony is Cambridge University Press.  Dr. Hazony’s website is found HERE.

The author is a Jewish scholar who researches and writes about philosophy and theology, political theory and intellectual history. Hazony’s previous books are The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books, 2000).  His next book is and will be completed with My next book is The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018).

This book on Esther is one I fear will not get enough attention from many of the circles I am in.  I am a Protestant Christian with Reformed and Evangelical ties.  I have lots of close connections with Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and Christians of other and non-denominational affiliations.  Hazony fits into none of those categories, nor is he Catholic or Orthodox, but is a Jewish scholar living in Israel with his wife and nine children.  He is highly recognized and respected in many circles, but, as indicated, overlooked in my world.

About the same time that I became aware of this book, a church in my town was having a Bible study for women on the Book of Esther.  I did not attend that study for obvious reasons, but was curious as to how it would differ from this book.  I think that Esther is capable of being taught from different angles to different audiences, so my point is not contentious.

Again, I would like to see Christians reading this book.  Here are the drawbacks, however:

  1.  It is published by Cambridge University Press.  For me, that is a major plus.  I am constantly amazed at the outpouring of books from university presses.  Certainly, there are plenty of astoundingly obscure topics that grow into books interesting to very small circles.  Such books will line the shelves mainly of university libraries.  But there are also a multitude of books for less specialized readers, but such books rarely appear on the bookshelves of our local book stores.
  2.  University Press publications tend to be highly priced.  I am usually dependent on review copies or used copies or university press sales for such books.
  3. It is not a conventional commentary and is not a Christian-directed book.  As noted, the author is Jewish.
  4.  This book is not all that easy to classify.  Does it go in the religion section?  Perhaps, since it is about the Old Testament.  Or does it belong in the political science area?  The word Politics is not just in the title, but is a vital part of the content.  The field of politics is itself an area of philosophy, so maybe the book should be wedged into the philosophy shelves.

Very rarely do Christian pastors preach from the Book of Esther.  It is relatively easy to construct a topical sermon or two from the book.  There are two key texts that “preach.”

One is Esther 4:14:  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

And the other is a phrase from Esther 4:16, which is her response to the verse above.  Esther says, “If I perish, I perish.”

But how would a pastor preach a series on this book which never directly mentions the name of God and that deals with so many intricate political problems?  My answer:  Read Hazony’s book.

Chapter 5, which is titled “Idolatry,” is worth the time and effort and cost of the book itself.  This is a book about bad leadership, false beliefs, and survival of faith amidst evil people.  Idolatry, while not overtly apparent as in the case of the Golden Calf, is nevertheless the great evil in this book.

Another key theme is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  This is a favorite Calvinist Sunday afternoon topic of thought or discussion.  J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is still a classic favorite.  Hazony does not take a view that is totally compatible to my Reformed disposition.  But he does offer some ideas–both acceptable and debatable–about the role that people must take without depending upon a Deus ex machina.

For years, Christians shied away from politics.  It is easy to imagine a church full of people in 1960 who were evenly divided over whether to vote for Nixon or Kennedy.  Some of the choices or races in recent years are harder for conservative Christians to grapple with.  Conservative theology and liberal politics are difficult to reconcile.  But so are conservative theology and conservative politics (at least in the popular sense of “conservative”).  Since Hazony is not American, his perspective is not directly connected to Democrats and Republicans, the American left and right, or to the issues confronting us.  That is a strength of the book.  He is not one of “us,” nor is he one of “them.”

We Christians believe in both the presence of God and the intervention of God in human events.  Yet, we too face a world and circumstances that causes us to question where God was when certain events happened or why God allowed (and/or purposed) such.  The easy answers are not found in this book, but it is a help along the way.

I hope someone out there buys and reads this book.  I hope some pastor preaches through Esther or someone teaches a Sunday school series through this.  (And I hope it is not just a women’s study.)

Thanks to my friend Paul David Robinson, a philosopher in the making and a brilliant fellow, for recommending Hazony’s book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture in a Facebook post.  That discovery led to this book.

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Yoram Hazony of the Herzyl Institute

My copy of this book is autographed! Thanks again to Paul David Robinson for commending this book.

Used copies of this book (and mine is a used copy) are very affordable.

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 St. Andrew Seven–First Glances

 

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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,