Demanding Liberty | Book Review


When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

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

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

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Extraordinary Women of Christian History | Book Review


“One Half of the World does not know how the Other Half lives,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack. That is certainly true of church history, the standard volumes of which are dominated by accounts of the thoughts and deeds of men. Ruth A. Tucker’s Extraordinary Women of Christian History tells readers about the “Other Half” of Christendom by means of biographical snippets of famous Christian women.

Tucker has served as a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary. She is best-known for her biographical approach to both the history of Christian missions in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya and of church history more generally in Parade of Faith. In 1986, she and Walter L. Liefeld coauthored Daughters of the Church, which is a systematic account of “Women and ministry from New Testament times to the present,” in the words of the book’s subtitle.

Like Daughters of the Church, Extraordinary Women arranges its material chronologically. Chapter 1 begins with the apocryphal, but nonetheless influential, Thecla, erstwhile missionary compassion of the apostle Paul. Chapter 14 ends with Helen Roseveare, missionary doctor to the Congo in a time of civil war. Along the way, readers peak into the lives of women, both Catholic and Protestant, some married but others not, who professed the Christian faith with their thoughts, lives, and deeds.

From the outset, Tucker confesses that her accounts of these women’s lives will be anything but hagiographical. Analogizing her choice of subjects to “the tastiest candy from this sampler box of chocolates,” she notes that “in many cases [i.e., other writes’ accounts of these women’s lives] the candy is too sweet for the palate—sugarcoated heroines.” Tucker’s accounts are anything but sugarcoated. Indeed, if anything, they tend toward bitter chocolate. She writes, “I was struck by how many failed marriages and failed ministries had become added ingredients of this volume” (x). At times, this non-sugarcoated approach becomes too much, as if the failures outweighed the successes, at least to my mind.

Regardless, I appreciate Tucker’s reminder: “These women are anything but the super-saints of pious heroine tales. They are real people, and they are like us” (x). There is hope in that statement. God can make a beautiful thing out of the crooked timber of humanity.

One final takeaway as a male reader—or rather, a question. The women Tucker portrays advanced the kingdom of God despite opposition, especially the opposition that arose because so many of them labored against the grain of traditional gender roles and expectations. Ironically, the Protestant Reformation made the leadership of women even more difficult. “Protestants disdained monasticism,” Tucker writes, “which incidentally had been the primary path to ministry for women” (53). One can feel the sting of that opposition to women’s contributions in the complaint of nineteenth-century preacher and social reformer Phoebe Palmer:

We believe that hundreds of conscientious, sensitive Christian women have actually suffered more under the slowly crucifying process to which they have been subjected by men who bear the Christian name than many a martyr has endured in passing through the flames (148).

Interestingly, Palmer countered this “crucifying process” with a long, rigorous defense of women’s preaching ministry in a book whose title alludes to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2—Promise of the Father.

The question(s), then, that rises from reading Extraordinary Women of Christian History is this: If the Spirit has been poured out upon “all people,” both “sons and daughters” (Acts 2:17, cf. Joel 2:28), why do so many churches continue to erect barriers to the full involvement of women in all of their ministries? Would not the work of the kingdom advance more steadily if its daughters were not unduly hindered? The women whose lives Tucker sketches did much. One cannot help but wonder whether they could have done much more, had they worked without hindrance from within the church.

Book Reviewed
Ruth A. Tucker, Extraordinary Women of Christian History: What We Can Learn from Their Struggles and Triumphs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

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

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

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

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

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.

The Azusa Street Revival | Influence Podcast


In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I interview Prof. Mel Robeck about the Azusa Street Revival. Mel is a friend and fellow Assemblies of God minister, but in his day job, he’s senior professor of church history and ecumenics at my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival, as well as the editor of the new Azusa Street Series of books from Gospel Publishing House (see my reviews here and here). If you’re ever in the Los Angeles area, make sure to take Mel’s self-guided tour of early Pentecostal sites.