Christianity at the Crossroads | Book Review


“The past is never dead,” wrote famed American author William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s quip came to mind repeatedly while reading Michael J. Kruger’s new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. The authors and controversies of that century are unfamiliar to most Christians, but they fundamentally determined what Christianity became and continues to be today. In the words of Gerd Lüdemann, quoted approvingly by Kruger:

To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day [emphasis in original].

What kind of decisions are we talking about? Over the course of seven chapters, Kruger surveys the sociological makeup of second-century Christianity (chapter 1), its political and intellectual acceptability (chapter 2), and its ecclesiological structure (chapter 3).

The next two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s seminal book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and describe both the diversity (chapter 4) and unity (chapter 5) of the Church during this time.

Finally, Kruger examines the “bookish” nature of Christianity during this period (chapter 6), concluding by making a case that the canon of the New Testament was functionally established by the end of the second century (chapter 7).

These issues might strike some readers as “academic” in nature, of no concern to the average Christian today. And yet, academic debates tend to spring up in popular culture in unexpected places. So, for example, a version of Bauer’s thesis — a mangled version, I hasten to add — underlies the plot of Dan Silva’s (awful) 2003 mystery, The Da Vinci Code.

Leading characters in that novel argued that Christian “orthodoxy” was merely the side that won the era’s theological debates with a considerable assist from imperial Rome, that true faith in Jesus was better expressed by doctrines that came to be known as “heresy,” and that the canon of Christian Scripture originally included many Gnostic “Gospels” that Emperor Constantine suppressed.

I was a teaching pastor when Brown’s book came out, and I remember answering numerous congregants’ questions about it. “Is this true?” they asked. “Is Christian orthodoxy just one option among many? Were Gospels excluded from the New Testament canon?” Any answer I gave required getting second-century Christian history right. Like Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.

To put it pointedly, in the period from the first Christian generations to the end of the second century, more important decisions were made for the whole of Christianity than were made from the end of the second century to the present day. ~Gerd Lüdemann

Let me briefly summarize chapters 4 and 5 Christianity at the Crossroads to show the relevance of Christian history to such concerns.

These two chapters interact with Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, mentioned above. First published in German in 1934, then translated to English in 1971, Bauer’s book argued that, in Kruger’s words, “the earliest (or predominant) version of Christianity in these locales [Asia Minor, Antioch, Egypt, and Edessa] was what eventually became regarded as ‘heresy.’”

Kruger’s summary goes on, “It was only in the later centuries — largely due to the influence of the church at Rome — that the doctrinal debates were settled and the ‘heretical’ nature of these beliefs was to become evident.”

Consequently, as Kruger explains the implications of Bauer’s thesis, “the distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy in these earliest centuries are nonsensical. Instead, what you have in these early centuries are just various competing versions of Christianity all claiming to be original.”

Kruger concedes in chapter 4 that self-described Christians in the second century disagreed with one another. “Just a short time after the time of the apostles [i.e., the first century], it appears that the early Church was mired in controversy over a number of different theological issues.” These included the doctrines of creation, Scripture, salvation and Christ — core doctrines all of them.

And yet, Kruger goes on to argue that these controversies don’t establish Bauer’s thesis. “Diversity by itself does not mean there is no way to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy,” he writes. “Nor does it mean that heretical views were as popular as orthodox ones.” In fact, he argues in chapter 5, “even in the midst of diversity, there was a core set of beliefs that unified most Christians together,” and “these beliefs appear to have an ancient pedigree — one that goes back even to the days of the apostles.”

Kruger employs three arguments to reach this conclusion. First, he argues that “there was widespread unity centred [sic] upon the ‘rule of faith’, one of the earliest expressions of apostolic teaching.” The rule was “not just an abstract collection of doctrinal affirmations, but [was], in essence, a history of redemption.” It began with God’s creative work, included God’s self-revelation through Old Testament prophets, and focused on Jesus’ acts of salvation. The “widespread, early and uniform nature of the rule of faith” rebuts the notion that “no meaningful theological unity” can be found in second-century Christianity.

Second, Kruger argues that “there are a number of lines of evidence that suggest [the] ‘orthodox’ crowd…constituted the majority of Christians” in this period. These include the number of leaders, the geographical spread of churches, the preponderance of ‘orthodox’ literature, and the fact that critics of early Christianity, such as Celsus, aimed their heaviest fire at the ‘orthodox’ camp, presuming it to be the majority.

Finally, Kruger argues that “the teaching found in the rule of faith matches most closely with the earliest accessible apostolic teaching, namely the seven undisputed letters of Paul” (i.e., Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon). “If the earliest apostolic teaching is a reasonable standard for what counts as ‘orthodoxy’,” he concludes, “then it seems that title is best applied to the mainstream Church that embraced the rule of faith.”

From this brief review of Christianity at the Crossroads, I hope you can see, as Lüdemann saw, the crucial importance of second-century Christian history. Nineteen centuries later, contemporary Christians of various denominational stripes can recognize continuity between their faith and that of what both Celsus (the critic) and Irenaeus (the apologist) called the “great church,” a church that can credibly claim to represent the faith of the apostles.

 Christianity at the Crossroads is an illuminating study. It introduces the people and controversies of second-century Christianity in a clear, accessible manner. And it guides readers through scholarly debates about that century, fairly summarizing all sides of the debate, even as it argues for a traditional reading of the historical evidence. I highly recommend this excellent book about that “most important” century.

 

Book Reviewed:
Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017).

 

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

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Here I Stand | Book Review


The Protestant Reformation marks its five-hundredth anniversary this coming October 31st. On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The theses called into question the selling of indulgences, which the pope granted to reduce time in Purgatory for either the buyer or the buyer’s intended beneficiaries.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” preached Johannes Tetzel of these indulgences, “the soul from purgatory springs.” Sales of indulgences were quite lucrative, helping Albert of Brandenburg buy the archbishopric of Mainz and Leo X build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The text of the Ninety-five Theses was largely biblical and theological, but the subtext was a German critique of Italian grandiosity.

Luther intended his theses to instigate a “disputation…on the power and efficacy of indulgences,” as the incipit to the printed placard put it. He didn’t intend to divide the Church or rend the unity of medieval Europe. Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to reform Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the gospel. Dissemination of his theses set in motion a process which did that, though in ways he could not foresee that All Hallows’ Eve.  After Luther, Christianity and Christendom would never be the same. We moderns live in his world-historical shadow.

Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton narrates the events of Luther’s life, focusing on the years between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and the publication of The Augsburg Confession in 1530. Though Luther was born in 1487 and died in 1546, 1517–1530 is the crucial period. Luther’s theology matured: he defined the doctrine of justification by faith, translated the New Testament, revised the liturgy, and wrote catechisms for adults and children alike. It was also during this period that Luther broke decisively with Rome; the Evangelicals divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist camps; and Christian princes intervened in political disputes, protecting the nascent Lutheran movement. In these years, religious radicals took over Müntzer, German peasants revolted and Luther’s theology of both church and state advocated a middle way between extremes.

Bainton’s prose is clear and his narrative forward-moving. Here I Stand is a work of genuine scholarship—with a chronology, bibliography, and index—but it is written for a broad audience. If you’re interested in Luther’s life, or the history of the Reformation, I encourage you to read this biography first.

Here I Stand was first published in 1950, but I read the 2009 reprint in the Hendrickson Classic Biography series. It is available as a reprint from other publishers too.

 

Book Reviewed:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009; orig. 1950).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Pentecostal Blessing | Book Review


In How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, Frank Bartleman offered this interpretation of the history of the Azusa Street Revival: “God found His Moses, in the person of Brother Smale, to lead us to the Jordan crossing. But He chose Brother Seymour, for our Joshua, to lead us over.”

Bartleman’s biblical allusion accurately captures the historical sequence of events at Azusa Street. “Brother Seymour” is, of course, William J. Seymour, the well-known and much-loved pastor of the Azusa Street Mission. “Brother Smale” — Joseph Smale — is less well known, however, even though his preaching laid the groundwork for revival in Los Angeles.

That preaching is on display in The Pentecostal Blessing, first published in 1905 and now brought back into print by Gospel Publishing House. The book contains the substance of several sermons Smale preached at the First New Testament Church of Los Angeles in the fall of 1905.

Smale describes the purpose of his book this way:

In the following pages a treatment of this subject of subjects [i.e., the ministry of the Holy Spirit] is attempted in the hope of imparting a vision, where it does not exist, of the Holy Ghost as the one and all-sufficient and divinely ordained Person, and inspiration, to meet the manifold needs of Christian souls individually, and in their corporate character of churches; and that a faith may be born in such that this blessed Person of the Trinity is only waiting to be rightfully honored by us before he will fill with glory and power these lives of ours and those of the whole church of God throughout the earth [emphasis in original].

Chapter 1 identifies four misconceptions of the gospel “which seriously affect a true embodiment and illustration of Christian life, experience and service.” Chapter 2 contrasts “The Church of Today” and “The Church of the Scriptures,” concluding that modern Christians “pretend to be what they are not, God’s representatives, and men know it.” Chapter 3 explains the contrast between today’s church and the biblical church. “Having failed to honor Him [i.e., the Holy Spirit], we have failed in all things vital to Christianity, and therefore vital to a true representation of the church of Jesus Christ.”

Chapter 4, “The Pentecostal Blessing,” argues that “Pentecost involves a second work of grace” [emphasis in original]. “There is something more than the act of union with Christ,” Smale writes. “There is a growing knowledge within the soul of all that is involved in that union.” Pentecost is this soul-knowledge or spiritual experience in ever-increasing measure. “Oh, believer, be ever going in for more and more, and more and MORE” [emphasis in original].

Chapter 5, “The Magnificence of Pentecost,” is the longest chapter in the book. It outlines Smale’s understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 6, “The Secrets of Pentecostal Fullness,” answers the question, “How are we to know the Holy Ghost in this, His Pentecostal character and fulness [sic]?” This knowledge is experiential and practical rather than abstract and theoretical.

Reading The Pentecostal Blessing, you can understand why Bartleman depicted Smale as the Azusa Street Revival’s “Moses.” On point after point, Smale enunciated a practical theology of the Holy Spirit that shaped the Pentecostal movement as it emerged from Azusa Street.

And yet, Smale never experienced what Charles Parham and William J. Seymour called “the Bible evidence” of baptism in the Spirit. He never spoke in tongues. Many of his congregants participated fully at Azusa Street, and he himself spoke well of Azusa Street and William J. Seymour to the end of his days. But in Bartleman’s arresting image, Smale was Moses, not Joshua. He came to the edge, but he did not cross over.

So why read The Pentecostal Blessing today? For historical purposes, of course. Revivals don’t happen in a vacuum, after all. They have precedents. Read it for spiritual purposes, too. The Pentecostal Blessing can still bless Pentecostal readers today as it challenges them to go deeper with the Holy Spirit. And finally, read it as a reminder that while God has worked mightily through the global Pentecostal revival that sprang from Azusa Street, He is at work in broader Christianity too. Pentecostals can teach the broader Christian community, but we can also learn from them.

Two final comments about this book: First, it has an excellent 21-page introduction to the life and thought of Joseph Smale by Tim Welch, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Smale. Second, the book itself is a serendipity. Though historians knew of its existence, no one had a copy. Then, in 2008, a friend of the Assemblies of God archivist, Darrin Rodgers, found a copy in a garage sale in Oklahoma, bought it for 25 cents, and donated it to the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. It is the only known copy of this little gem of a book.

 

Book Reviewed:
Joseph Smale, The Pentecostal Blessing: Sermons that Prepared Los Angeles for the Azusa Street Revival (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2017; orig. 1905).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side | Book Review


On Saturday, September 28, 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu began the autopsy of a 50-old white male. Case A02-5214 was straightforward. The man had died of a heart attack. His name was Mike Webster.

Perhaps I should say the Mike Webster: Pittsburgh Steeler, center to Terry Bradshaw, four-time Super Bowl champ. Though “Iron Mike” was adored as a football icon in Pittsburgh, he had fallen from grace after his career ended. Memory loss, depression and erratic behavior, coupled with addiction, left him — in Omalu’s words — “a bankrupt, divorced, homeless man living in his truck” at the time of his death.

A heart attack killed Mike Webster, but Omalu suspected that the radical changes in behavior were the result of brain damage. Outwardly, Webster’s brain looked normal. But when Omalu fixed it in formalin and examined the tissue under a microscope, he discovered massive damage at the cellular level. In a 2005 paper about Webster’s brain, Omalu gave the damage a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — “a bad brain associated with trauma over a long period of time.”

Just how much trauma had Mike Webster’s brain experienced? Over the course of his football career — high school, college, NFL — it has been estimated that he experienced the equivalent of 25,000 car accidents. Those collisions, often helmet to helmet, left an indelible mark on his brain.

“I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” ~Dr. Bennet Omalu

One would think that the discovery of CTE would have been welcomed by the National Football League (NFL). After all, if you know a problem exists, you can begin to prescribe a solution. And indeed, the NFL had begun investigating the problem of concussions among its players around the time.

Two years prior to the publication of Omalu’s first CTE paper, for example, the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee published a series of paper stating that concussions were rare in professional football and that better helmets could protect against them. Omalu’s first CTE paper implied that the brain trauma associated with high-contact sports was severe. (As Omalu autopsied the brains of other deceased NFL players, however, his repeated findings of CTE suggested that the severe brain damage was routine.) The NFL sent a letter to the journal that published Omalu’s 2005 paper, demanding that it be retracted. Privately, they trashed his reputation.

As late as 2016, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys stated, “We don’t have that knowledge and background and scientifically [sic], so there’s no way in the world to say you have a relationship relative to anything here. There’s no research. There’s no data.” Denial, it seems, is not just a river in Egypt.

For those not in denial, Omalu’s research, combined with the research of others, has established the reality of CTE. The damage is so bad that Omalu states, “I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” This is a radical stance, especially in America, a country that loves its “Friday night lights.” Omalu believes it is the only reasonable stance in light of the evidence he has uncovered, however.

So, why tell Omalu’s story in an article for a Christian leadership magazine? Because Omalu is a devout Christian, and his crusade against brain injury is an example of using one’s influence for the common good. Pastors and other congregational leaders need to remember that their discipleship efforts should prepare congregants for life in the secular world. Basically, Christian faith should make doctors better doctors. (And teachers better teachers, plumbers better plumbers, etc.)

Second, Omalu’s story is an example of prophetic influence. We often associate biblical prophecy with future events. It is that, of course. It is also an exposure of injustice and a call for repentance, however. Those injustices violate the shalom in which God created people to live. Omalu’s medical research forces us to ask a question: Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

In the late fourth century, St. Telemachus wandered into a stadium and witnessed the violence of a gladiatorial contest. Running onto the stadium floor, he yelled, “In the name of Christ, stop!” Bennet Omalu is a modern-day Telemachus.

Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

And that brings me to a third point: prophetic influence is costly. St. Telemachus, for example, was killed by enraged fans of the gladiatorial contest. Omalu’s detractors have questioned his credentials, cast aspersions on his findings, and trashed his reputation. Everyone wants to call out society’s injustices. Few are willing to pay the price.

Fourth, Omalu’s story shows the power of what he calls “conformational intelligence.” He defines the phrase this way: “a phenomenon whereby the way you think and perceive the world, including your sense of right and wrong and good and evil, are controlled, constrained, and constricted by the expectations, cultures, traditions, norms, and mores of the society around you without you even knowing it or being aware of it.” The biblical term for conformational intelligence is stronghold.

The reason why prophetic influence in society is costly is precisely because one is calling its strongholds into question. Professional football is a fan favorite and a big money maker. Calling that sport into question because of the damage it does to players’ brains exposes our national pastime as a national stronghold. No wonder the NFL went after Omalu.

And no wonder Omalu — an immigrant — was able to see through its conformational intelligence. As an outsider to American culture, he didn’t share our blind spots about football. If we’re going to exercise prophetic influence in our society, we need to develop an outsider perspective. Christians need to be in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said (John 17:16,18).

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side tells Dr. Bennet Omalu’s fascinating story. It’s not essential reading for Christian leaders; but for those with eyes to see, it’s an enlightening tale of influence used Christianly in the real world.

 

Book Reviewed:
Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles | Book Review


Early Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the northern coast of California. It remains to this day the greatest natural disaster in that state’s history and one of the greatest in U.S. history. Approximately 3,000 lives were lost, and 80 percent of the structures in San Francisco were destroyed.

Nine days earlier and 400 miles south in Los Angeles, a spiritual earthquake took place whose tremors are still being felt. On April 9, William J. Seymour laid hands on Edward Lee and prayed for him. Lee began to speak in tongues. Soon after, others in their prayer group did the same. In time, the group moved from 214 N. Bonnie Brae St. to 312 Azusa Street. And thus was born the Azusa Street Revival.

The modern Pentecostal Revival has multiple origins, but its epicenter is Azusa Street. For three years (1906–1909), Azusa served as the center of a network of revival-minded radical evangelicals who longed to evangelize the world with the purity and power of New Testament Christianity. The Assemblies of God, founded eight years after Azusa began, can trace its own roots to what happened there.

Frank Bartleman was one of the first chroniclers of the revival. His book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, has now been reprinted by the AG’s Gospel Publishing House as part of its new Azusa Street Series edited by Cecil M. Robeck Jr. and Darrin Rodgers. The text of the book is identical to Bartleman’s 1925 edition. What makes the GPH edition valuable is its 25-page introduction by Robeck and an index of names. Robeck is the nation’s premier historian of Azusa Street. (See his The Azusa Street Mission and Revival [Thomas Nelson, 2006] for a more in-depth treatment.)

Bartleman’s memoir is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the character and history of early Pentecostalism. Bartleman doesn’t focus exclusively on Azusa Street, however. Rather, building on his own experiences as a faith evangelist, Bartleman portrays the precursors to and spread of the Pentecostal Revival throughout metropolitan Los Angeles. What emerges is a picture of a revival in which Azusa Street plays an important role — but by no means the only one.

Reading Bartleman’s account, two things stood out to me in particular. On the positive side, Frank Bartleman was a man of great faith, deep prayer and singular vision. He longed to see Christ’s church unified in love, and he opposed the prayerlessness, selfishness and over-attention to manmade doctrine and organization that stood in the way of unity.

My dad likes to say that your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. If that’s the case, then the flip side of Bartleman’s ideal was his never-ending criticism of churches that fell short of it. This included the Azusa Street Mission itself.

“The truth must be told,” Bartleman wrote. “‘Azusa’ began to fail the Lord also, early in her history.”

Why? Because, according to Bartleman, the mission erected a sign reading, “Apostolic Faith Mission.” He felt that this sign was a concession to “party spirit.” He also disliked worship services that weren’t totally spontaneous, as they had been at the start of the Azusa Street Revival. If Frank Bartleman were part of your church, my guess is that he would be a handful.

Even so, it’s the high ideal that shines best in How the Spirit Came to Los Angeles. Today, we long for revival in our churches. Bartleman’s testimony forces us to ask whether we’re praying enough, selfless enough and trusting God enough to move in our day as He did from 1906 to 1909 in the humbler sections of Los Angeles.

 

Book Reviewed:
Frank Bartleman, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles: The Story Behind the Azusa Street Revival (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2017; orig. 1925).

P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

House of Spies | Book Review


House of Spies is set four months after the events depicted in The Black Widow. Washington DC is recovering from the worst terror attack on it since 9/11. The terrorist known as Saladin is still on the loose, however, and the intelligence services of the U.S., Britain, France, and Israel are frantically searching for him to prevent his next atrocity.

When Britain uncovers a loose thread in a criminal organization allied with Saladin, its chief of intelligence asks Gabriel Allon to pull it. The unraveling takes Gabriel and his team around the world in a non-stop, nail-biting quest to take out the terrorist. House of Spies is a page-turner whose fictional plot is scarily real.

A book like House of Spies can be read as a stand-alone novel, of course, but the bigger pay-off comes when you read it as part of the entire series. Indeed, the novel makes much more sense when you read it after its immediate predecessor, The Black Widow. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Silva, and I highly recommend this novel. It’s a measure of how good it is that I read the entire thing in two days.

 

Book Reviewed:
Daniel Silva, House of Spies (New York: Harper, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Late Show | Book Review


When it comes to murder mysteries, Michael Connelly is my go-to author. If he writes it, I read it. So when I received notice that he was beginning a new series, starting with The Late Show, I pre-ordered the book months in advance and read it in a day once it arrived.

The Late Show introduces LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. Her star was rising in the Robbery Homicide Division (RHD) until a conflict with a superior officer got her busted down to working the night shift — the eponymous “late show” — in Hollywood. She used to investigate cases from beginning to end. Now, she rolls up on a night crimes and starts the paperwork, turning over the entire case to the day shift.

But when two victims — one a prostitute who (barely) survives a vicious beating and the other a waitress killed in a mass shooting event — cross her path the same night, she decides it’s time to follow the cases all the way through. It’s a high stakes gamble professionally, and it exposes her to grave dangers personally, but it’s a gamble she willingly takes.

Connelly is releasing his twentieth Harry Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth, this October. With Harry having reached retirement age, the Bosch Universe needs a fresh face. Renée Ballard is it, and if The Late Show is any indication, her stories are going to be very, very good.

 

Book Reviewed:
Michael Connelly, The Late Show (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Benjamin Franklin | Book Review


In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages.

Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

Unfortunately, the word deist conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

“The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one believed was how one lived.

This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the de facto established religion of the new nation.

And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

(In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions into the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we misread them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

 

Book Reviewed:
Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Confess Your Sins | Book Review


John Stott’s Confess Your Sins is a little gem of a book. Originally published in 1964, it has been reissued by Eerdmans. As far as I can tell, the only change to the original is that Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NIV (2011).

All Christians agree on three truths, which Stott names at the outset of the book: “the fact and guilt of sin, the possibility of forgiveness, and the need for confession” (emphasis in original). These three truths come together in 1 John 1:8–9:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

“So,” as Stott puts it, “the forgiveness of sins by God is made conditional upon the confession of sins by man.”

The crucial question that his book addresses — the question that divides Protestants from Catholics — is to whom we must confess. Over the course of five chapters, Stott argues that “confession must be made to the person against whom we have sinned and from whom we need and desire to receive forgiveness” (emphasis in original). Drawing on Scripture, Stott identifies three types of confession: “secret confession” to God, “private confession” to a person whom we have offended, and “public confession” when we have sinned against “a group of people, a community, or the whole local congregation.”

Stott further argues that “auricular confession,” i.e., the confession of sins to a priest, “is a practice to be deplored.” That’s a strong term, but Stott’s argument is both theological and practical in nature. “Confession is never to a third party,” he writes, “both because he has not been offended, and because he is not in a position to forgive the sin.”

Throughout the book, Stott makes his primary appeal to Scripture in support of his argument. However, he also appeals to church history, especially the history and theology of the Church of England. These appeals to church history — which include an appendix of several official Anglican statements on confession — may limit the appeal of the book to some readers.

On the other hand, given that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, these appeals to the writings of English Reformers remind us of the evangelical character of the Church of England. That church produced George Whitefield and John Wesley, two evangelists whose ministries shaped — and continue to shape — evangelical Christianity throughout the world today, including global Pentecostalism. Perhaps we should learn from those who have gone before us in the faith, rather than eschewing history as irrelevant to contemporary concerns.

Stott concludes this book with twin appeals to take both confession and forgiveness of sin more seriously. “Christianity is a religion of forgiveness,” he writes. “God is willing to forgive sinners through Christ. We must forgive one another.” Our obligation to do so flows from the gospel itself. As Scripture says, “[forgive] each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017; orig. 1964).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

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