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.

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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.

Thursday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Colvin helps pastors think more clearly about office hours. His bottom line? “You must give your staff — and yourself — space to be relational and permission to set their own schedules. At the same time, you need to be consistent and available.”
  • Clay Scroggins is my guest for the Influence Podcast. He is lead pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and author of How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, which Zondervan publishes on August 22nd. It’s an excellent book!
  • I review Thomas S. Kidd’s newest book, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Here’s my concluding sentence: “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.”

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Faith and the Founding Fathers | Influence Podcast


This past Monday, I had a fascinating conversation with Baylor historian Thomas S. Kidd about the religious life of Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers. Take a listen!

Tuesday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Craig Keener explains from Scripture why Pentecostals need always to keep power and love together, because the Spirit is the source of both.
  • John Davidson reviews Chris Sonksen’s new book, When Your Church Feels Stuck. Make sure to listen to John’s Influence Podcast with Chris too!
  • We note a recent Gallup poll that finds a third of Americans thinking that religion is out of date.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Monday’s Influence Article Links


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, June 6, 2011


The June 2011 issue of Christianity Today includes an interesting article, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” that examines contemporary evangelical views on the historicity of Adam and Eve from scientific and theological perspectives. Here’s a link to the American Scientific Affiliation articles mentioned in CT.My own fellowship, the Assemblies of God, is wrestling with these kinds of issues, which is why I found the article so interesting. The national office is hosting a Faith & Science Conference, June 27–28, 2011, in Springfield, Missouri.

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Assemblies of God / Convoy of Hope relief efforts continue in Joplin, Missouri.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Relief Efforts Continue in Joplin, posted with vodpod

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“Republican Candidates Seek Values Vote at Faith and Freedom Conference.” I don’t like the term values voters. Everyone has values, after all. The important question is, from a political point of view, whether they have the right ones.

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Newsweek ponders the secret to Mormonism’s success.

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“Would Captain Kirk Race for the Cure?” Obviously not! That would be Dr. McCoy’s job.

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“Actually, that’s not in the Bible.” A nice examination of “phantom scriptures,” that is, a “scripture that sounds like it belongs in the Bible, but look closer and it’s not there.”

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“Jim Tressel should make us rethink sports evangelism.” As a Christian, I’m disheartened from this fall from grace. As a USC Trojan fan, I think, “It’s about time.”

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“‘Christian’ Colleges, the Gospel, and Identity,” Gene Fant writes:

If the word “Christ” doesn’t appear in the hiring principles, the curricula, the governance policies, or student outcomes, when how exactly is an education “Christian”?  If the words “Scripture” or “Church” likewise are absent, then I have a hard time seeing exactly what is “Christian” about the identity.  If the historical creeds are absent from any sort of voice in defining the identity, then what is “Christian” about it?

Makes sense to me.

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Jack “Dr. Death” Kervorkian died over the weekend. Wesley J. Smith, one of Kervorkian’s leading critics, reflects on his death here and here. He then reviews various media obituaries for Dr. Death, mostly negatively: Bloomberg, New York Times, Washington Post, and Barbara Walters on ABC News.

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Margaret Feinberg asks “A Question of Civility: Why We Can’t Resist the Urge to Compare someone to Adolf Hitler?” What do you mean “we,” Margaret?