Liberty in the Things of God | Book Review


Robert Louis Wilken opens Liberty in the Things of God with this proposition, which American readers likely will find unobjectionable, if not self-evident: “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force.” And yet, throughout history, this seemingly unobjectionable, self-evident proposition has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Consider, for example, the history of Christianity, which was born in the fires of persecution. When Christians became Roman emperors, the formerly persecuted turned imperial power into a sword against pagans, Jews, and heretics. In the wake of the Reformation, imperial uniformity devolved into Wars of Religion and resulted in a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant kingdoms and principalities governed by the Latin formula cuius regio, eius religio — “whose realm, his religion.” Essentially, each kingdom or principality had its established church, and woe betide the people whose religion didn’t match their prince’s!

Exhausted by these religious conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke began to propose a better way. At first, this was tolerance of other religions. Tolerance is the willingness of a majority to countenance minorities; however, that willingness can wane. So tolerance gave way to freedom, which requires the state to protect religious freedom, especially that of the minorities, as a matter of believers’ natural right. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a shining example of this kind of freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Unfortunately, this brief survey leaves the impression that Christendom was a problem the Enlightenment had to solve. This is a mistake because it overlooks the Christian history of the proposition I stated at the outset of this review. In reality, the Enlightenment drew on ideas that had been circulating among Christians for nearly 1,500 years. The Christian origins of religious freedom is the theme of Liberty in the Things of God.

Wilken traces the intellectual history of religious freedom to Tertullian (ca. 155–240), a  Christian apologist who lived in Roman North Africa and was evidently the first person in Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion” (libertas religionis). “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions,” Tertullian wrote; “the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

For Tertullian and other Christian apologists of this era, religion was a matter of both individual conscience and corporate practice. Because it was a matter of individual conscience, religion had to be chosen not coerced, a choice made “only by words, not by blows,” as Lactantius (ca. 250–325), a later Christian apologist, put it. Because it was a matter of community practice, religious freedom pertained to groups, not just individuals. Regarding this, Wilken makes a salient point: “The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ enters the vocabulary of the West with reference to the privileges of a community, not to the beliefs of individuals,” or at least, not merelyto those beliefs.

Because religious freedom was for the early Christians a matter of both conscience and community, it necessitated limitations on the powers of government. Jesus Christ had said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), and Christians returned to this passage and others like it to limn the boundaries between the institutions of church and state.

While early Christian apologists such as Tertullian lived at a time when Christians were a persecuted and powerless, though rising, minority, most of Western Christian history has taken place with Christians as the powerful majority. The bulk of Wilkens’ book describes the long millennium between Constantine’s conversion (early fourth century) and the dawn of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), the bookends of Christendom. During this period, Christians donned the habits of pagan Romans and attempted to use government to pursue religious ends.

What’s fascinating in this topsy-turvy scenario is that Christian groups on the wrong side of state power continued to use the arguments pioneered by Tertullian and the early Christian apologists. They appealed to conscience to limit government’s power over a community’s religious practice. At the Diet of Worms (1521), Martin Luther famously explained his refusal to recant with these words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He was speaking to Catholic authorities. Four years later in Nuremberg, when Lutheran magistrates tried to stop Franciscan nuns from practicing their Catholicism, Abbess Caritas von Pirckheimer wrote of the magistrates, “They knew very well that we had always obeyed them before in all temporal things. But in what concerned our soul, we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”

Conscience. Community. Limits. These were the touchstones of religious freedom that stemmed from Tertullian and other Christian apologists and continued to operate as such throughout Christendom whenever the powers that be overstepped their boundaries. When, therefore, John Locke and other early Enlightenment figures began to argue for first toleration and then freedom of religion, they were sowing seeds in ground long ago plowed by Tertullian and Lactantius.

I conclude my review with Wilkens’ closing words:

It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious belief must be kept separate. The process by which the meditations of the past become the certainties of the present is long and circuitous. But by the eighteenth century ideas on religious liberty advanced by earlier thinkers had become the property of all…

These are the Christian origins of religious freedom, a historical story well worth Robert Louis Wilken’s telling of it.

Book Reviewed
Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.comwith permission.

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How to Read Galatians for Preaching and Teaching | Influence Podcast


Paul’s letter to the Galatians is brief but theologically profound. It centers on the nature and implications of the gospel itself. The letter was born out of Paul’s controversy with the so-called Judaizers, and it continues to be a source of controversy among scholars today because of the so-called New Perspective on Paul.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Craig S. Keener about how to read Galatians for preaching and teaching. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a world-renowned New Testament scholar. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, including a commentary on Galatians, forthcoming from Baker Academic on May 21, 2019.

ADDITIONAL CRAIG S. KEENER RESOURCES

P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Truth Plus Love | Book Review


In the Church’s first few centuries of existence, Christians spread the gospel by means of Roman roads. Today, the internet and social media are Roman-road equivalents, giving Christians the ability to share the gospel farther and faster than at any time in history. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians — especially, though not exclusively, in America — are blowing it.

Take a look at your Christian friends’ social media posts, if you doubt me. Many use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like innocuously enough as platforms for sharing grandkid pics or corny jokes. To the extent that they use them to make arguments for religion, culture and politics, however, far too often their social media feeds are angry, dismissive, stereotypical and filled with “fake news.”

Looking at numerous online controversies, my wife likes to say, “Nobody ever wins an argument on Facebook.” She usually says that to tell me to knock it off. My own social media feeds, it turns out, often fail miserably at being a wholesome Christian influence on others.

InTruth Plus Love, Matt Brown identifies the biblical formula for influencing others: “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). He uses quasi-mathematical formulae to quickly communicate the gist of his book:

  • Truth – Love = Noise
  • Love – Truth = Error
  • Truth + Love = Influence

No matter what your religious convictions are, you should be able to see the aptness of these formulations. Speaking the truth in love is a Christian imperative, but it’s also a universal need and a contributor to the common good.

We all know what truth is, but we sometimes get confused by love. Love isn’t just ooey-gooey sentimentalism. It’s the multidimensional fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), so it incorporates joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control too.

Speaking of self-control, Brown offers a useful acronym about how to T-H-I-N-K before we speak: Is this true, honorable, important, necessary, kind? My guess is that Christian social media influence would increase just by answering that question before posting anything.

Truth Plus Loveis an easy-to-read book, written for a popular audience. Brown has an easy way with words, tells memorable stories, and formulates his advice in a memorable, simple way. If you’re a Christian looking to influence others toward Christ, whether online or off, this little book is a helpful guide.

Book Reviewed
Matt Brown, Truth Plus Love: The Jesus Way to Influence(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Matt Brown here.

Seven Stanzas at Easter | John Updike


Christendom possesses an embarrassment of riches when it comes to poetry about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite modern poems is John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” which revels in the realism of Christ’s rising, opposing a merely spiritual or metaphorical depiction of that great event.

Enjoy!

*****

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall. 

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours. 

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose. 

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door. 

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day. 

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom. 

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Is Contemplative Spirituality Christian? | Influence Podcast


If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hotin the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to John Coe and Kyle Strobel about whether contemplative spirituality is Christian, and if so, how. Coe and Strobel are professors at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Both are active in the university’s Institute for Spiritual Formation, Coe as the director and Strobel as a teacher. They are the editors of Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice, published by IVP Academic earlier this year.

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN PODCAST

P.S. This episode of the Influence Podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Love Your Enemies | Book Review


Arthur C. Brooks opens Love Your Enemies with a personal anecdote about a speech he gave to conservative activists in New Hampshire. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, so the audience for the speech was “an ideological home-field crowd” for him. Among other things, he talked about how the American public perceives liberals as “compassionate and empathetic” and argued that conservatives should earn that reputation too.

After the speech, an unhappy women approached him and castigated him for being too nice to liberals. “They are not compassionate and empathetic,” she argued. “They are stupid and evil.”

Stupid and evil. Although a conservative voiced the words, the sentiment is common on the other side of the political spectrum too. A November 2018 Axios poll found that roughly the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as “ignorant” (54 and 49 percent, respectively) and “evil” (21 and 23 percent, respectively). Even worse, “The share of Americans who have more generous impressions is roughly equal to the poll’s margin of error, which is 3%.”

According to Brooks, this denigration of the other side reflects more than anger or incivility. It reflects a pervasive “culture of contempt,” contempt being defined as “anger mixed with disgust.” Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer put it, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

In such a culture, what is needed most is not tolerance or civility, as important as those practices are. Rather, Brooks argue, what is needed most is love, especially love for one’s enemies. Following Thomas Aquinas, Brooks defines love as “to will the good of the other.” Love doesn’t mean setting aside facts and compromising in some mushy middle. But it does require remembering that while “their views might be [worthy of contempt], no person is.”

Although Brooks is president of a secular think tank and his book is pitched at a broad audience, his is a fundamentally Christian insight. (Brooks himself is Catholic.) The book’s title comes directly from Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5:44. That being said, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry, but an exercise in the application of enemy-love to American public discourse.

Along the way, Brooks outlines the features of our culture of contempt, asks whether we can afford to be nice, gives love lessons for leaders, shows how we can love our enemies even if they’re immoral, identifies why identity politics is both powerful and perilous, asks whether competition is a problem, and encourages people to disagree with one another — though without contempt, of course. Throughout, he uses anecdotes and contemporary social science to make his points. The resulting case for love in the public square is both convincing and well worth reading.

Love Your Enemies covers a lot of ground, so Brooks helpfully concludes the book with “Five Rules to Subvert the Culture of Contempt”:

  1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.
  2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect.
  3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.
  5. Tune out. Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

As noted above, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry. I read this book as a Christian minister, however, and can’t help but see its salience to Christian readers and leaders. So, I close my review with an exhortation to them:

Christ commands us to love our enemies. There’s no carve-out when the “enemy” is on the other side from us religiously, culturally or politically. There’s no exception clause for those moments when an election is on the line. Loving our enemies is simply what Christians do for others because it’s what Christ did for us. So, let’s do it. It’s the right thing to do, and if Brooks is right, it’s also the most socially beneficial thing we can do in our nation’s roiling culture of contempt.

Book Reviewed
Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (New York: Broadside Books, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Evangelizing the Unsaved Christian | Influence Podcast


“The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.” That’s what Dean Inserra’s friend Matt told him as they left seminary to plant churches, Dean in Florida and Matt in California. “In California, there is rarely confusion. Either you’re a Christian or you’re not. In the Bible Belt, many people think they’re Christians but have no concept of … the overall message of the gospel.”

In Episode 174 of the Influence Podcast, Influencemagazine’s executive editor, George P. Wood, talks with Dean Inserra about eight types of cultural Christians and how to share the gospel with them. Inserra is author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, just out from Moody Publishers. A Southern Baptist church planter, he is founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lives with his wife and his three children.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. You can read my book review of The Unsaved Christian here. If you like it, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.