A Short Intro to Luther

Hendrix Luther

A review of Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction.

This is a great addition to OUP’s “Very Short Introductions” series of books, which manages to pack a huge amount of fascinating and useful material into just over a hundred small pages. It even manages some very nice black and white pictures, index, glossary, and seven pages of further reading suggestions.

Hendrix handles the history well, and gives a very readable glimpse into Luther’s spiritual ancestors. He also has an accurate assessment of the Reformer’s impact in various places, writing that “Calvinism was more influential than Lutheranism on the Reformation in England.” Luther is not seen as the sole cause of the Reformation (as if it were all “by Luther alone”) though he is given his rightful place of honour as pioneer, and as theologian, Bible translator, liturgist, hymn-writer, preacher, and institutional leader. The author is clearly aware of a vast amount of scholarly discussion and secondary literature on Luther and has an enviable ability to summarise and critique it in short compass, and he does a good job of helping us appreciate the historical distance between us and Luther.

Hendrix is a more than competent Luther scholar, and is usually insightful and clear in his judgments here. Occasionally there are some tendentious appropriations of Luther for a modern agenda he would not recognise, and I would have liked more of his theology to shine through. At the very end of the book, however, there is a particularly jarring note, which strikes me as not being especially faithful to the subject. He writes, “The best parts of Luther’s legacy may be his eschewal of fundamentalism and his insistence that religion is not a way to appease the gods and gain their favour — but a constant reminder to place the world and its needs above selfish desires.”

I’m not sure Luther would recognise such a this-worldly summary of his thought or be pleased if this were indeed his greatest legacy. As for his supposed “eschewal of fundamentalism” it all depends on what fundamentalism means of course, and Hendrix thinks Luther did not recognise Scripture as his chief authority per se as other Protestants did. Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, and it appears somewhat dubious to me, it is certain that in today’s ecclesiastical climate Luther would find more of a home amongst the inerrantist, “Bible-bashing,” supernaturalist, heaven and hell fundamentalists of this world than he would amongst the urbane intellectual élites of the global North pushing ecumenism, homosexuality, and feminism. Indeed, we can be sure that he would have some harsh and probably unprintably coarse words to say regarding the latter!

This review was first published in Churchman 127/4 (2013).

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Whitefield the Anglican

I recently spoke at a conference about George Whitefield, the great 18th century evangelist, and about how he was positively Anglican. Here’s the video of the talk. It was in America, so I got to tease the Yanks a bit, which is always fun. And most of them were Baptists… which is just asking for it really! :)

Andrew Fuller Conference 2014: Session 2 – “George Whitefield: The Anglican Evangelist” by Lee Gatiss from Southern Seminary on Vimeo.


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Baptism in the Early Church

Ferguson Baptism

A review of Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries.

This huge, magisterial work on the history of baptism will inevitably, because of its erudition and wealth of detail, take its place as a standard work on the subject for many years to come. While Prof. Ferguson is certainly to be commended for such a mammoth achievement, which covers history, theology, liturgy, architecture, and artwork, it is not a book I can commend in its entirety. Theologically it has a certain agenda, which will not please either paedobaptists or anti-paedobaptists: baptism only means, and only ever was, by dipping or immersion; baptism of the children of Christian parents is without apostolic warrant and was only invented in the second century to comfort the parents of dying children; and there is no forgiveness of sins without baptism – they are tied necessarily and inseparably together.

Ferguson is author of numerous books on early Christian studies and was formerly co-editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, so he knows the field well. Despite a wealth of detail and scholarly engagement (the text contains untransliterated Greek and Aramaic for example, and the footnotes demonstrate a close acquaintance with secondary literature in several languages), there is often a curt dismissal of opposing arguments which tend to go against his ‘Christian primitivism’ or ‘restorationist’ views. For example, the account of Jesus blessing the children in Matthew 19:13-15 and parallels is often used as (part of) an argument for infant baptism, and was in the early church. Yet it is quickly passed over here, in a massive work with pretentions to comprehensive coverage, in a mere six lines, without really engaging or answering the actual way in which it was appropriated and read in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation traditions. I expected more familiarity with the way the text is actually employed by those who disagree with Prof. Ferguson. The household baptisms in Acts are also dismissed in a similar way. We must all be open to changing our views when confronted by superior evidence (I looked forward to the challenge this book might bring to my prior convictions); but if an opposing view never takes account of our best arguments, then it is never likely to persuade.

As for the close identification of baptism with the operation of the Holy Spirit which Everett sees as a continuous and consistent theme of the first five centuries, this is something which Protestant theologians and historians have always disputed, while countering Roman Catholic ex opere operato type sacramental theologies. The Apostolic Fathers and early Patristic writers, while we value their efforts in many spheres of theology were certainly prone to over-develop the ritual and ceremony and theology of baptism, which is why some put it off until just before death, so as to ensure they were forgiven at the optimal moment when they supposedly couldn’t sin again and mess it up.

Paedobaptists and anti-paedobaptists alike will not warm to the view which Everett presents as his own and that of the early church. Neither, of course, will those who (rather eccentrically) see the command to baptise in Matthew 28 as a command to ‘immerse the nations in the teaching of the gospel’ and not a dominical sanction for a practice involving some actual water! Everett concludes that, ‘Only a few (fringe) heretics of the ancient church tried to dehydrate the new birth.’ That’s a great polemical line, but not an ideal manifesto for where we need to return as a church. Treat with care, more for history than theology.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/4 (2013).

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The Late Medieval English Church

Bernard Medieval

A review of G. W. Bernard’s, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome.

Many church history courses, books, and lectures only ever cover the late medieval church as a prelude to the Reformation which transformed it. The subject has therefore become a battleground for those who have very differing accounts of what that Reformation did, and whether it should be viewed as “a good thing.” The traditional view was one of ignorance, corruption, and growing anti-clericalism replaced by the re-discovered gospel, vernacular Bibles and liturgies, and increased lay devotion; this has been challenged in recent years by (amongst others) Eamon Duffy, whose Stripping of the Altars painted a picture of a vibrant and beloved church unjustly attacked and denuded by Henry VIII and his Protestant successors. With this debate in the background, in steps Professor Bernard, vice-president of the Royal Historical Society with a searching examination of the late medieval church on its own terms.

Bernard begins by claiming that much of the recent writing on this period, particularly of the Duffy “school”, does not tell the full story, and indeed leaves the subsequent Reformation “inexplicable.” Yes, there was vitality in the church of the middle ages, but within that there were serious and substantial vulnerabilities which have been ignored or played down. That is not to make the break with Rome and the eventual triumph of what the Coronation Oath calls “the true profession of the gospel… the Protestant Reformed religion” an absolute inevitability. Yet Bernard places provocative question marks over the revisionist accounts of late, and allows us to ask again what the proper criteria for judging the late medieval church should really be.

Within this big picture are many details, which the author handles with care and, at times, an appropriate scepticism. He questions whether the ruckus surrounding the alleged murder of the supposed “heretic” Richard Hunne in 1514 really does reveal a dangerous level of anti-clericalism, or that there were large networks spreading anti-Roman heresy in London at the time. His unfolding of the intricacies of “the monarchical church” of the middle ages — how kings controlled episcopal appointments and were both defenders of the church and extenders of the Christian faith — is deft and persuasive, and shows how the acceptance of royal supremacy under Henry VIII was by no means an untidy break with the past.

He assesses the role of bishops and clergy in the period, finding the former, for example, to be adequate administrators (“they muddled through”, page 67), but too deeply enmeshed in worldly politics to be of much spiritual good. One of the greatest vulnerabilities for the church in this period was the population’s ignorance of the Christian message: yes, they had sculpture and stained glass, a liturgical calendar, and pilgrimages, but the form of faith this perhaps engendered (“an underlying pagan-cum-magical religious understanding upon which christianity [sic] had more or less been superimposed”, page 107) was wide open to humanist and Protestant critiques.

This is, therefore, a salutary response to an overly positive assessment of the period, although in terms of its style does it perhaps raise more questions than it answers?

This review was first published in Theology 116/5 (September 2013).

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Hitting the Holy Road

Coulton Hitting

A review of Stuart Coulton’s, Hitting the Holy Road: A Guided Tour of Christian History from the Early Church to the Reformation.

This great survey of Church history has a new and interesting twist compared to others in that genre, such as those reviewed recently in my “The Lessons of History” review article in Churchman 125.3 (2011). This book focuses on place as a way in to the history. Each chapter begins in the present day with a short eyewitness guide to a place of importance in the story to be told, such as the catacombs in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Iona, Cluny, Assisi, and Wittenberg. The reader can imagine the author there amongst the ‘gruff’ attendants and ‘dodgy tour guides’, as he then moves on to recount the history of the place and its context.

At times it feels as if this approach may work better on a TV screen than on paper, but often there are some good lessons to be drawn from the approach, as when he contrasts the Christian art in the Roman catacombs with the dominance of images of Mary in Rome today. There are helpful timelines in each chapter, and side-bars on some fascinating tangential issues. There is also much Aussie humour as we hit the holy road: recounting the last words of Julian the Apostate, Coulton writes, “Julian died fighting the Persians in 363… [According to Theodoret] he died… saying, ‘Thou hast won, O Galilean!’ In reality he probably said, ‘Aarrgh!’”

There are several black and white photos in the book, but many of them are too dark and dingy to be of much use in illustrating the story, and I am not sure why we are treated to a picture of the fourth hole of the Iona golf course (Aussie humour again?). There is a missionary emphasis in several places, and each chapter ends with some useful reflections on the history and its lessons for us in today’s church. These are stimulating, though perhaps not always as critical as they might be (he is too positive about Francis of Assisi for example), and I also wondered if we might have had more on ordinary church life rather than just monasteries, universities, and palaces.  Yet there is little reason to dissent from the learned commentator who writes on the back cover that this travel guide history is “challenging and stimulating… enjoyable and immensely rewarding.” It is a shame it does not cover the last four hundred years, but perhaps that leaves room for a sequel?

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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On Giants’ Shoulders

Reeves Giants

A review of Mike Reeves’ book On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing Great Theologians from Luther to Barth.

This is the companion volume to the author’s The Breeze of the Centuries which looked at the Apostolic Fathers, Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Michael Reeves, former theological advisor for UCCF, introduces the reader this time, in a lively and engaging style, to Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth. As with the previous volume, this one begins by paying tribute to C.S. Lewis’ view of the past and our modern tendency towards ‘chronological snobbery,’ which sets us up for what follows.

With a racy look at the historical narrative, the chapter on Luther takes a close look at the Heidelberg Disputation as a convenient way in to Luther’s thought, and a brief look at some of his other early works. The chapter on Calvin is similar, giving a good defence in the historical section of Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus affair (‘it seems absurd that Calvin should be held personally responsible’) and then (inevitably!) a broad look at the Institutes. In contrast to some modern scholars, Reeves thinks (quite rightly) that Calvin believed in the complete inerrancy of the Scriptures, and gives some good references for that in both Institutes and commentaries. He also looks at some of the disagreements between Calvin and the Lutherans, but doesn’t indulge (thankfully) in that other modern debate about whether Calvin believed in limited atonement.

Reeves on John Owen is an enlightening experience, and focuses mainly on Owen’s Trinitarianism. He mentions Owen’s many and varied works, including his massive Hebrews commentary, though I’m not sure what he is getting at (or that I quite agree) when he says, ‘commenting on commentaries can get very tedious’!

On Edwards, he helpfully steers us away from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and towards some of the theologian’s other works, so that we get a more rounded picture than usual of him. There’s even a joke about whisky in the footnotes. The inclusion of Schleiermacher and Barth in the volume is important for theological students, since they are required to have a working knowledge of these two theologians. It doesn’t, I suppose, do us any harm to know about them, though one is very far from sound and the other strangely idiosyncratic. It is a shame, however, that two more solid representatives could not be included for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is good, however, that Reeves recommends Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism at the end of the chapter on Schleiermacher, and he is frank that ‘all the Barth-speak’ can feel like razor wire designed to keep out the uninitiated.’

Each chapter includes a timeline so that the events described and books expounded can easily be placed in historical order. The author shows a competent grasp of the main secondary literature on each theologian and gives a useful bibliography at the end of each chapter too, for those who wish to read further.  I wonder if some direction towards internet resources might also be worth including in such an up to date work? My two criticisms are that there is not much criticism (where it is, occasionally, sorely needed), and there is also no index (which is a surprise).  More from Reeves will, I hope, be forthcoming.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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Recent commentaries on Ephesians

Arnold on Ephesians

A review of Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians, and that of Verhey and Harvard.

These two commentaries on Ephesians in two brand new series of commentaries cost exactly the same. But which is better for the preacher?  And what is distinctive about each?  Verhey and Harvard claim their commentary is “theological” while Arnold’s purports to be “exegetical.” This is too simplistic, however, and underplays the usefulness of Arnold’s theological contribution particularly. Verhey and Harvard is shorter and perhaps more chatty in style than the rigorous and well-footnoted Arnold, and it contains more in the way of “reflections”. These, however, are sometimes meandering, whereas Arnold keeps closer to the purpose and thrust of the text when he moves from exegesis to application. The former contains numerous “side-bars” with interesting quotes from Barth, Niebuhr, Brueggemann and others whereas the latter interacts more obviously with other recent commentaries on Ephesians and wrestles with the Greek text.

When it comes to details, to pick just one example, Verhey and Harvard claim to be nurtured in the Reformed tradition and so rightly do not see marriage as a sacrament. They interpret Ephesians 5:21-22 (on marriage) as indicating mutual submission. For them, this means mutual service of one another, in which submission finds its pattern in Jesus (although they stop short of saying Christ submits to the church, unlike Alan Padgett in his 2011 book As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission). “We will not perform this passage well,” they tell us, “if we take it to be a timeless code.” Instead, it nudges us towards “God’s good future” where we do not simply adopt the role relations that were common in the first century.

Arnold on the other hand does not see the command to submit as applying to the husband in marriage but only to the wife. The instructions for a Christian marriage are based not on the Roman culture of the day (on which there is a long excursus) but counter-culturally on the timeless truth of the relationship between Christ and the church, so that husbands have a God-given role assigned to them, both then and now.

These are seemingly small but important differences in overall approach, and Arnold is far better at looking to the actual details of the text both here and elsewhere. His distinctive take on spiritual powers, magic, and folk religion are well known in NT scholarship, and are usefully summarised here, and he ends with a good section on the theology of the letter. Verhey and Harvard’s commentary is more lightweight in every sense, though for some (if used with discernment) it may stimulate some useful reflections near the end of sermon preparation.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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