Big River

Robert Letham’s book The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context is superb, showing the breadth of the Reformed faith in the seventeenth century. Of course not everyone within this broad faith believed it was–Luther not only disagreed with Zwingli at Marburg, he declared him and his followers not to be Christians. More common today are those who want to huddle around the word “Reformed”, limiting it to their small stream which is in fact just one offshoot of a massive theological Columbia River. Letham leaves no room for such provincialism:

Regarding the article on justification, Twisse, Gataker, and Richard Vines–like Robert Rollock (1559-99) and Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) before them–argued strongly that only the passive obedience of Christ is imputed for justification. Other opposed them, led by Featley. The vote went in favor of Christ’s “whole obedience,” with “3 <or 4> only dissenting.” James I’s request that the controversy between Molinaeus and Tilenus on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ not be discussed in his realm was read to the Assembly, although there is some doubt as to whether the whole of it was read or only part. James cautioned against making it an issue on the ground that it was a new matter, not decided by any council, nor handled by the Fathers or scholastics. (p39)

The imputation of Christ’s active obedience was a divided question but not a divisive question. We know this because men on both sides of the issue worked together and signed the Confession. Our tradition is bigger than many think, and big enough to include those who want to draw the circle tightly around themselves, although the irony is not lost that they fence out the authors of one of the central confessions of Reformed faith.

Arise Africa

Lamin Sanneh notes the rise of Christianity in Africa:

“In 1970 there were 120 million Christians, estimated; in 1998 the figure jumped to just under 330 million; and in 2000 to 340 million. The projections call for over 600 million Christians in twenty-five years. If those projections are right–and I will not go to the scaffold for them–apart from South America, Africa will have more Christians than any other continent, and that for the first time.” (Whose Religion is Christianity?, p41)

Idiom in Touch

Nathan O. Hatch comments on the preaching of Whitefield and Wesley:

The enduring legacy of the first Great Awakening, Harry S. Stout suggests, was a new mode of persuasion. Defying a church callous to its common folk, John Wesley thundered that he would preach nothing but “plain truth for plain people.” While Wesley and George Whitefield were concerned about theology, their primary interest was that each person have a profound experience with God. This required an idiom in touch with people by the time of the American Revolution, the warmth of such evangelical appeals and their ability to draw the unchurched into cohesive fellowships made evangelicalism a major social force on both sides of the Atlantic.

Baubles of Burlesque

By the time Paul got to Athens, her greatness was setting. Roger Wagner notes that

The Roman poet Petronius, in his Satyricon, claimed it was easier to meet a god in Athens than a man. According to Pausanias, there were more statues of gods and heroes in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. This idolatry not only fed the gross superstitions of the masses, but in Athens it also coexisted with the intellectual and artistic pursuits for which the city had been historically famous. By the time Paul visited the city, however the intellectual life of the city was moribund.

The arete of the Greeks had a good run, but the Athens of Pericles and Aristotle was absent from the rear view mirror. Continue reading

Obstreperous Infidels

David Bentley Hart sounds off on the disappointingly weak new atheists in comparison to their forefathers. Read the whole thing at First Things: “The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).”

Cultural Transformation

Greg Gilbert’s new book What is the Gospel is very good, calling for a clear understanding of the gospel. Such bricks as this are stacked all over the place: “It’s become fashionable lately to present the gospel by saying that Jesus came to save humanity from an innate sense of guilt or meaninglessness or purposelessness or emptiness. Now of course those things really are problems, and many people feel them deeply. But the Bible teaches that humanity’s fundamental problem–the thing from which we need to be saved–is not meaninglessness or disintegration in our lives, or even a debilitating sense of guilt. Those are merely symptoms of a deeper and much more profound problem: our sin. What we must understand is that the predicament we’re in is a predicament of our own making. We have disobeyed God’s word. We have ignored his commands. We have sinned against him” (p. 51).

Gilbert makes helpful distinctions like this, seeing the centrality of faith in Jesus for putting anything and everything right. He comes to the topic of cultural transformation with reservations, some of which I share and others I’d like to challenge. Continue reading