• Church history •
September 16, 2005
“Cities do not last. Those built in precarious places collapse. The rest are doomed to decay or suffer humanly induced destruction.” That is the assessment of historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto. He spoke those words with reference to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but his historical judgment would well apply to Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon and a host of cities long ago covered with dust.
September 10, 2005
Allen C. Guelzo has written an insightful and argumentative review essay on recent interpretations of Jonathan Edwards. In “Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities,” Guelzo reviews Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, by Philip F. Gura – and then goes on to raise larger questions.
Guelzo’s article addresses several controversial issues in Edwards scholarship of recent years, and he steps on many scholarly toes. But his essay makes what I consider to be a very important point. Many recent works on Jonathan Edwards are attempts to turn him into what he certainly was not — a theologian who would fit nicely into the world of modern and postmodern thought.
Gura concedes that “Edwards couched his vision in language that many today would find offensive, or at least unpalatable.” That is an understatment. Just try reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at the local Rotary meeting (or at many churches, for that matter).
Guelzo counters Gura: Still, there is a very real sense in which Edwards, if he cannot be stretched so thin as to provide a theologian for the age of therapy, still has reason to be considered “America’s Evangelical.” But even this is because the Edwards who survived the apparent death of his reputation in 1758 acquired his outsized standing over the following century at the expense of the very things the historical Edwards thought were the most important.
More: Gura is astute enough to see how American evangelicalism has re-made Edwards into something it can admire and “trumpeted him as the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality”; but apparently that only gives Gura permission to do likewise for those today who are “unaffiliated with any explicitly religious tradition” and who simply want to “reconceive the tenor of the spiritual life.” And there is nothing which Jonathan Edwards would have found more bleakly abhorrent.
Guelzo criticizes Iain Murray for a lack of primary research in writing his Edwards biography, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, but he also concedes that Murray is “by the way, quite a good writer and quite well-read in Edwards’ published works and the secondary literature on Edwards.” He then went on to argue that it is Murray who comes closest to presenting Edwards as he actually was, “an utter partisan of Calvinist orthodoxy with the brains and inclination to confront the most abstruse intellectual challenges to that orthodoxy, a man of the most solemn integrity who would rather be broken by the storm than bend to the self-serving wishes of his own times and his own congregation, a man of ideas for whom personalities come in a distant second.”
From the real Jonathan Edwards:
Whoever thou art, whether young or old, little or great, if thou art in a Christless, unconverted state, this is the wrath, this is the death to which thou art condemned. This is the wrath that abideth on thee; this is the hell over which thou hangest, and into which thou art ready to drop every day and every night. If thou shalt remain blind, and hard, and dead in sin a little longer, this destruction will come upon thee: God hath spoken and he will do it. It is vain for thee to flatter thyself with hopes that thou shalt avoid it, or to say in thine heart, perhaps it will not be; perhaps it will not be just so; perhaps things have been represented worse than they are. [From "The Future Punishment of the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable."]
The greater the mercy of God is, the more should you be engaged to love him, and live to his glory. But it has been contrariwise with you; the consideration of the mercies of God being so exceeding great, is the thing wherewith you have encouraged yourself in sin. You have heard that the mercy of God was without bounds, that it was sufficient to pardon the greatest sinner, and you have upon that very account ventured to be a very great sinner. Though it was very offensive to God, though you heard that God infinitely hated sin, and that such practices as you went on in were exceeding contrary to his nature, will, and glory, yet that did not make you uneasy; you heard that he was a very merciful God, and had grace enough to pardon you, and so cared not how offensive your sins were to him. How long have some of you gone on in sin, and what great sins have some of you been guilty of, on that presumption! Your own conscience can give testimony to it, that this has made you refuse God’s calls, and has made you regardless of his repeated commands. Now, how righteous would it be if God should swear in his wrath, that you should never be the better for his being infinitely merciful!. [From "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners."]
There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them. And there we have the most affecting manifestation of God’s hatred of sin, and his wrath and justice in punishing it; as we see his justice in the strictness and inflexibleness of it; and his wrath in its terribleness, in so dreadfully punishing our sins, in one who was infinitely dear to him, and loving to us. So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner, as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly. How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to the dust, that we are no more affected! [From "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections," Part One, Section Three.]
August 13, 2005
Meeting yesterday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] turned back a proposal that would have allowed non-celibate homosexuals to serve as ministers. As The New York Times reports today, In an indication of the deep split over homosexuality in the church, which with five million members is the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, the vote on gay clergy members at the church’s assembly in Orlando, Fla., divided almost evenly, with 49 percent in favor to 51 percent opposed. To pass, the measure required a two-thirds majority. The assembly also rejected a measure that would have allowed churches to bless same-sex unions.
July 12, 2005
In every generation, the church is commanded to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” That is no easy task, and it is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.
July 7, 2005
“The Presbyterian Church (USA) is at a crossroads,” declares a recently-released document from a group of concerned Presbyterians. The Presbyterian Lay Committee [PLC] is a venerable group of conservative Presbyterians who have been working for a Reformation within their denomination for many years. Even so, the PCUSA has been moving steadily leftward, and is set to debate the issue of human sexuality yet again. The PLC knows that there are even deeper issues at stake.
July 5, 2005
Observers of Christianity in America have suggested in recent years that the most interesting controversies of our times are those within denominations. That generalization may be generally accurate, but the other big story is the great and widening division between liberal and conservative denominations. In reality, these two visions of Christianity represent two different religions. This was apparent to J. Gresham Machen and others early in the twentieth century. Now, it must be apparent to any honest observer.
Monday’s vote by the United Church of Christ [UCC] endorsing same-sex marriage makes this point clear. The UCC has been moving steadily leftward over the last several decades, and the main trajectory of the denomination has been consistent in rejecting the authority of Scripture. Yesterday’s vote did not emerge from a vacuum. A line of doctrinal accommodation and theological compromise necessarily produces such a development. Without the norming authority of Scripture, anything becomes possible, if not inevitable. If the Bible does not serve as the authoritative norm, anything can be normalized–even what the BIble condemns.
The Rev. John Thomas, the UCC’s president and general minister told a press conference after the group’s vote, “On this July 4, the United Church of Christ has courageously acted to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of gay — of same-gender — couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate those marriages.” This language is characteristic of those who would defy biblical authority and forge their own versions of the Christian faith. Just label a rebellion against Scripture and two thousand years of church tradition as courageous.
The two rival visions of Christianity now represented in American Protestantism operate out of radically divergent worldviews. The dividing issues range across the spectrum, including even the concept of truth and the meaning of language. Nevertheless, the fundamental line of division is the issue of authority. In the end, this issue determines all others.
DOCUMENT THE TRAGEDY: Coverage in The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ABC News, UCC Newsroom [Atlanta].
July 4, 2005
Those watching the United Church of Christ [UCC] know that the denomination has been moving steadily leftward for decades. Nevertheless, the official endorsement of same-sex marriage represents something genuinely historic and genuinely tragic. Such a move represents far more than a statement of liberal commitment to the normalization of homosexuality — it represents a repudiation of the Bible’s mandate for heterosexual marriage.
The denial of biblical authority leads to a moment of decision on marriage that an affirmation of biblical authority would have prevented in the first place. Now, news out of Atlanta indicates that a key policy committee of the church has just given its enthusiastic support to a resolution calling for same-sex marriage. An Associated Press report released just hours ago states, “A committee of about 50 United Church of Christ representatives gave nearly unanimous approval Sunday to a resolution that moved the church one step closer to becoming the largest Christian denomination to endorse same-sex marriage.” The denomination’s General Synod is scheduled to act on the resolution Monday in Atlanta.
The committee’s vote was so overwhelming that some reports characterized it as “nearly unanimous.” The group turned down a resolution calling for marriage to be defined as the union of a man and a woman.
There are those in the UCC who are resisting the tide, defending marriage and biblical norms of sexuality. Speaking on behalf of the resolution that defined marriage as a heterosexual institution, Bill Boylan of Massachusetts said, “If we have in our hands the word of God, the only loving thing is to speak it.” The Rev. Brett Becker, pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ in Cibolo, Texas, told the Associated Press that, “Throughout the Scriptures marriage is always defined as being between one man and one woman.”
In the 1970s, the UCC became one of the first denominations to ordain an openly-homosexual minister. In one sense, the endorsement of homosexual marriage is just an extension of the logic the leadership of the denomination had accepted long ago.
Some threaten to pull out of the church if the General Synod endorses same-sex marriage. But the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer of Cleveland, Ohio responded: “I really don’t think this is going to be a devastatingly divisive issue for the church.” He added: “I hope people will just take a deep breath if this is passed by the General Synod.” It will be interesting to see if, instead of taking a deep breath, at least some decide to take a walk.
June 22, 2005
A report published in The Christian Century indicates that liberals fear the rise of a conservative movement within the American Baptist Churches in the USA [ABCUSA]. The issue that has ignited recent developments is homosexuality, specifically the growing acceptance of homosexuality within some ABCUSA circles.
As the article explains, “In a nutshell, many conservative churches are seeking rules ‘with teeth’ that would rid the ABCUSA of congregations that welcome gay and lesbian participants, sometimes ordaining gay pastors and celebrating same-sex unions. Many liberal-to-moderate churches hope to retain organizational havens for disfellowshiped congregations in keeping with Baptist traditions of ‘soul freedom’ and aversion to creeds.”
In 1991, the denomination adopted a statement declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Nevertheless, some ABCUSA churches have acted in defiance of the statement, affirming homosexuality and affiliating with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists [AWAB]. The response of evangelicals have been growing in intensity. Recently, two of the denomination’s regions threatened either to cut off funding or to leave the denomination if the issue of homosexuality is not settled in a biblical manner. A spokesmen for American Baptist Evangelicals indicated that 64 West Virginia ABCUSA churches would leave the denomination if the issue is not settled by this June.
The ABCUSA, which claims 1.4-million members, will hold its biennial meeting in Denver, July 1-4. Interestingly, the article indicates that those favoring homosexual rights are increasingly attracted to the Alliance of Baptists, a liberal group that split from the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s.
READ FOR YOURSELF: American Baptists Face Breakup Threats, The Christian Century, June 28, 2005. See also background material from American Baptist Evangelicals.
June 21, 2005
The American denominational landscape has experienced significant shifts in recent times, but one major story stands out among them all–the massive redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. America’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention was reshaped, reformed, and restructured over the last three decades, and at an incredibly high cost.
May 31, 2005
The American denominational landscape has experienced significant shifts in recent times, but one major story stands out among them all–the massive redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. America's largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention was reshaped, reformed, and restructured over the last three decades, and at an incredibly high cost. Was it worth it? That is one of the crucial questions addressed by Paige Patterson in his new essay, Anatomy of a Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention 1978-2004.
December 22, 2004
In his recent column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof pointed to belief in the Virgin Birth as evidence that conservative Christians are “less intellectual.” [see this week's WebLog entries] Are we saddled with an untenable doctrine? Is belief in the Virgin Birth really necessary?
September 22, 2004
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a man of many gifts and multiple responsibilities, but he was first and foremost a preacher. He was virtually without peer in his own generation, and today’s evangelical preachers still look to him as a model. Why?