Theology

A Reformation Debate

A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, Edited by John Olin with a historical forward by Lester DeKoster ★★★★

This book is constructed as follows. DeKoster provides a historical overview of the current debate, followed by the letter that Jacopo Sadoleto wrote to the people of Geneva, and then followed by a rebuttal by John Calvin. The appendix then contains a review (extracted from Calvin’s Institutes) of Calvin’s theology of justification, followed by statements from the Council of Trent regarding justification by faith. The historical setting is 1539, and Calvin is in Strasbourg, having been ousted from Geneva. Knowing of the absence of Calvin and Feril in Geneva, the Catholic Cardinal writes a letter appealing to the folk in Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic church. Geneva, realizing Calvin’s literary skills, appeals to him to write a rebuttal, which he does. Soon afterward, Calvin returns to Geneva to continue a ministry there until the end of his life.

Both Calvin and Sadoleto write eloquently, though both debaters would be labeled a touch prolix by today’s standards. Sadoleto appeals to the absence of salvation outside of the Roman Catholic church, while Calvin rebuts how the Catholic Church has turned itself into a corrupt institution that preaches a false “gospel”.

The appendix is of great value in reminding the reader as to what is at stake in this argument. The vast divide between Roman Catholic thinking on justification versus Reformed/Lutheran thinking on justification will be noted by simply reading the two statements, that of Calvin in the Institutes compared to that as found in the output of the Council of Trent. In the church where I was saved, the doctrine of justification would have fit quite well with the Council of Trent. Over time and much reading of Scripture, my leaning has turned very strongly in favor of the Reformed view of justification. I believe that Luther and Calvin got the essentials of justification correct. Still, there are canons (anathemas) of the Council of Trent which I (and most Protestants) would favorably agree with. There are a few canons that the Protestant Church has not adequately addressed. I refer as an example to canon 21 “If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema”. This statement rings loud as a parallel to the Auchterarder creed which was bitterly fought over in Scotland a century later. It reads “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we are to forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in our covenant with God”. Perhaps the Auchterarder creed was written in the light of and to counter canon 21, perhaps not, yet both statements need much clarification before deeming them most consistent with Biblical teaching.

The Crook in the Lot

The Crook in the Lot: God’s Sovereignty in Afflictions, by Thomas Boston, translated by Jason Roth★★★★★

This is a wonderful book written in the 1700s by a Scottish pastor most well known for his involvement in the Marrow controversy. I obtained this book free from Amazon under the recommendation of D. Davis. Roth does us a wonderful service by translating the text into modern English, allowing it to be read more easily.

Boston first discusses the crook in the lot, by which he is referring to the afflictions that come across the Christian. He advises us on how to understand their intent, that God allows these afflictions to come upon us for our betterment, and how to most gracefully deal with affliction. Scripture offers assurance that afflictions are always temporary, though often not experienced this side of glory. The book’s second half addresses a similar topic in discussing humility and how to walk humbly when dealing with our afflictions.

Boston is a masterful pastor as well as an insightful theologian. Throughout this book, which is primarily devotional, one cannot avoid rich theological lessons on every page. Such pastoral qualities are now quite rare, though I have thankfully been occasionally enriched by such godly pastors, who are about as rare as hen’s teeth. It is uncouth nowadays to speak of afflictions; sermons must have happy tones and speak of the joys of being a Christian. In church services where the primary intent is evangelical, the proper ministry to be congregation goes lacking. Those pastors who imitate Thomas Boston may not grow large congregations, though they would surely grow strong and capable Christians.

This is a book well worth reading, even if one has to pay for it. Roth provides a masterful translation, and rich gems of Scripture will adorn the Christian who reads and hearkens to the message that Boston offers.

The Whole Christ

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★★

This book discusses a controversy that raged in the early 1700s within Scottish Presbyterianism, reflecting on a struggle to define the nature of legalism and its supposed antithesis, antinomianism within the context of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation as Christians. The Marrow controversy, as it was called, stemmed from the Auchterarder Creed, which stated that one need not forsake sin in coming to Christ. Such a creed, as noted by some contemporary Divines, was terribly worded and lent more to confusion than to offering a statement in support of either solafideism vs legalism/antinomianism.

In discussing the Marrow controversy, Ferguson offers a solution through the union that all believers have in Christ. Ferguson appropriately notes legalism and antinomianism to be bastard twins, originating in the same mistakes in thinking. With our union in Christ, we can have assurance that we are saved and will be among the elect in His kingdom.

There are a few minor problems that I find with Ferguson’s discussion. The first in the title of the book, taken from a phrase by Calvin, “totus Christus”. Yet, the phrase is itself poorly worded, in that it suggests that you can separate Christ into components. Ferguson suggests the tendency to separate the person of Christ from the actions of Christ, which is an impossibility. You either have the whole enchilada, or, you have nothing, though perhaps you have a fake, imitation resemblance of Christ. This is not just a problem with the second person in the Trinity. Even as humans, our identity is formed not only by our physical presentation but also by our actions, accomplishments, personality, and history, which lends a more relevant description of who we are than what our bodies may look like.

Secondly, there is such a tendency among Reformed thinkers to be legalistic-phobic as well as anti-antinomian so that their development of the uses of the law goes by the wayside. If one dared preach imperatives from the pulpit, the preacher would be accused of being a legalist. As a result, preaching against antinomianism will occur resulting in a phenomenon that I call creedal anti-antinomianism but functional antinomianism. To defend solafideism, many Reformed preachers (thankfully, not all!) will do one of several things.

1) The pastor will feel the need to offer great explanation whenever an imperative is preached, almost to the point of deeming the 10 commandments as either not applicable to Christians today, considering them to be only 10 suggestions, or teaching that obedience affects our situation on earth while not affecting our eternal salvation.

2)The pastor will point to two great creeds of Reformed Christendom, the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg catechism suggesting that our obedience to the law is done solely out of gratefulness to Christ for his work for us. That certainly is true, but, is that the whole story? Is there never a sense of obligation or duty that we have to God? Is not the law also a descriptor of the ontologic character of God, a reflection of God’s actual being, with whom we should imitate (Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:26, I Peter 1:16)?

Those of the Reformed faith will note that salvation by faith alone was how sinners achieved salvation in both the Old as well as the New Testament. Yet, to the careless reader, the OT seems to speak of nothing but law, law, law, while the NT then focuses entirely on grace (of course, leaving out the Sermon on the Mount and most of the teachings of Jesus while on earth). I simply don’t see Scripture that way; instead, I see a moral God who makes moral demands on his children. Too many so-called solafideists have a tendency to view the OT from a neo-Marcionic perspective, as though God either completely changed his personality with the resurrection of Christ, or perhaps it was different gods (father-god vs son-god????) that inspired the OT prophets.

I am not a theologian, as so will refrain from offering a full Biblical solution to this problem. Ferguson, in the same vein as Martin Luther, does not provide a complete solution for the law-gospel tension, choosing instead to weigh in with a solution that allows for a doctrine of assurance, and thus not really giving us the “whole Christ”. I believe that we can hold completely to the doctrine of sola fide and yet also insist on obedience to Christ (the law) as an imperative. These are two truths that must be held in tension, not giving more weight to either one or the other truth, consistent with what my old pastor, JI Packer, and many Puritan Divines taught.

This is a good book, giving me a much better grasp as to the Morrow Controversy and the battles that were fought by Thomas Watson, the Erskine brothers, and other saints of the Scottish Reformed persuasion. Ferguson writes with clarity and facility. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to those with an interest in the doctrines of law and grace. It is a book that a men’s group at church will be working through on alternate Saturday mornings. I don’t believe that the group discussions will change my overall comments regarding this book.

History of the Christian Church

History of the Christian Church, Complete in 8 Volumes, by Philip Schaff ★★★★

This is my second time reading through Philip Schaff’s History, though, this time including the last two volumes that discuss the German and then the Swiss Reformation. This time, I read it in digital format, as I had already given away the hard copies that I had. I actually jumped between two different digital editions as found on Amazon, and both of them were awful. The other edition had huge segments of text dropped, most notably, whenever there was a reference annotation. This edition was poorly edited with numerous spelling errors, little formatting, and no reference links. What a shame.

Schaff’s history has its good and bad points. Schaff seems oriented in the liberal German tradition, having studied under Baur and Harnack. He is Reformed in his orientation. The first time I read through this set was about 30 years ago, back when I was just becoming acquainted with church history. This time, I was considerably more well informed. I appreciated Schaff’s formatting of the book, where he separates political and ecclesiastical history, then discusses historical theology, church life and liturgical practices separately, and short descriptions of the most notable saints.

No history of the church can be written in only 8 volumes. I noted that Schaff fails to discuss many pertinent aspects of church history, including offering sufficient detail of the church councils, omitting a number of the most notable saints of the church (e.g. St. Anthony, the Stylite monks, Theodore of Mopsuesta, etc). The history of the German Reformation was nicely covered as well as the history of Zwingli, but Schaff went crazy on the history of Calvin, and editing should have reduced Calvin’s story by about a half. There is, for example, a fairly lengthy chapter of quotes from people following Calvin’s death, offering praise for Calvin and his ministry; this was totally unnecessary. Lengthy quotes from Calvin’s letters were a distraction, when a short summary commentary should have been offered.

Sadly, Schaff’s History needs an update and critical editing as well as corrections, though I doubt that it will ever be performed. There are really no quality histories of the primitive church to the Reformation that are available that are as complete as this. I’ve looked far and wide and found nothing, so I welcome recommendations. There are excellent texts that address one small aspect of church history, such as the books I had just read on the seven ecumenical councils. Our age seems to put little weight to our historical origins, much to our own loss.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils, by Justin S. Holcomb ★★★

Holcomb is an episcopalian priest who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. This book was written to inform the general church-going public about the creeds and councils. I’m not sure he accomplished his task. The writing is at the 8th-grade level, i.e., fairly simplistic. There are facts that he either got wrong or was confused about. His selection as to which creeds or councils he would discuss is at times a touch problematic. I certainly appreciate that he doesn’t attack certain individuals or groups (eg., the 19-20th century Roman Catholic church) like a vicious Doberman. Unfortunately, the creeds and councils are for Christians of such intense significance that a superficial reading does the reader a disservice. Thus, I would recommend reading the book but only with the understanding that the reader uses this text as a springboard for further study.

Holcomb superficially covers the first 6 councils, omitting altogether the 7th council. Various other minor Western church councils are briefly discussed, such as the councils of Carthage and Orange regarding Pelagianism; unfortunately, the discussion was so abbreviated as to leave the reader more confused than informed. Various Catholic councils were discussed including 1st and 2nd Vatican Council and Council of Trent. The development of the Heidelberg & Westminster Confessions as well as the 39 articles of the Anglican church but nary a mention of the Formula of Concord, the Belgic Confession, and other Reformed confessions. And, no mention of the Anabaptist confessions. The deficits don’t help the reader grasp the dynamics of those who wrote the most popular Reformed confessions.

This book might be best used as a junior high school text, supplemented by teacher insights to “fill in the gaps”. Otherwise, there are better texts to read for understanding the creeds and councils of Christendom.

First Seven Ecumenical Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, by Leo Donald Davis ★★★★★

Growing up as a child, I was sternly taught that the word “ecumenical” was a bad word and that we just didn’t participate in that sort of thing. Thankfully, time and maturity have corrected that notion, while still acknowledging that “ecumenical” is not synonymous with “truth”.

Davis is a Roman Catholic theologian though he writes a book that may easily be accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike; the seven councils referred to in this text were well before the theological crises of the Reformation had occurred, and indeed, at least the first 4-6 councils were found to be acceptable to the Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Davis quotes heavily from the Protestants, and especially such scholars and JND Kelly.

This book starts off a little slow and stodgy, though Davis is highly successful at eventually drawing the reader into the spirit of the age. Better than any of the authors I’ve read on early church history, Davis provides the detailed historical context of each of the seven councils and includes a summary of council conclusions as well as the aftermath of those councils. I am not going to go into blow-by-blow accounts of the councils, as they are too detailed, and anything other than reading the book would do one a disservice.

I find a few details most interesting. First, all of the first councils were initiated by the state, and NOT the church. Politics and religion don’t mix well, a lesson that Luther should have learned and that today’s so-called conservative pundits that identify the USA (or any other country, for that matter, including Belize) as a Christian nation or in need of Christian nationalism surely get wrong. Second, oftentimes we allow the crisis of the moment to dictate our later opinions. A perfect example is the battle between Nestorius and Cyril. Both characters were slimy and despicable in many accounts. Yet, Nestorius is branded as the heretic and Cyril is not. A recently discovered document written by Nestorius and found in Armenia demonstrates that Nestorius mentioned that the Council of Calcedon precisely stated his view. Simultaneously, the entire “heresy” of Monophysitism was generated from the writing of Cyril. Go figure.

This is a wonderful book to read and I enjoyed it from cover to cover, but only after a rough start. If you have any interest in the church, please get a copy and read it!

Truly Divine Truly Human

Truly Divine Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, by Stephen W. Need ★★★★

Stephen Need is an Anglican priest who has taught for many years at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. This text reflects a strong bent toward the Eastern Orthodox perspective of the seven councils. In this text, Need shows great skill in that of being a teacher and producing a book that is easy to read, with supportive summaries and tables. After a chapter describing the situation before the first council (Nicea), Need walks through each of the seven councils, identifying the theological crisis, and detailing the solutions resolved at the council. He also includes a summary of other church management decisions made at the council, such as prohibitions against the purchase of church office, or prohibitions against bishops moving from one See to another without permission.

I truly enjoyed this book and how Need painted the councils. At a few times, there were comments made leaving suspicion for Need being a liberal in the theological sphere, but that did not distract from the overall quality of the text.

The Case for Christian Nationalism

The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe ★★

This book was obtained free from Amazon.com and read in digital format. Wolfe attempts to describe how a nation would look governed entirely by Christian leadership and (mostly) Christian citizens. Wolfe provides a heavily referenced text, though the most relevant text, the Bible, seems to come short. Tacitly assumed by Wolfe is a post-millennial world where everyone is Christian. Efforts to form a Christian society and government in this fallen world will segue into the millennial kingdom. Therefore, it behooves us to imagine how to best establish a Christian nation.

Wolfe spends much of his time describing either what he is going to do, or what he is doing at the moment. A huge portion of the book consists of quotes regarding a Christian government, written by (mostly) Protestant saints within the last few hundred years or medieval Scholastics. After introducing at length what Wolfe is going to write about, he begins by hypothesizing what sort of government would exist had the fall never occurred. Such idle speculation really doesn’t get one anywhere, since Scripture is silent on the topic. Scripture is silent perhaps for good reason; thankfully, the Bible wasn’t written by medieval scholastic scholars who would debate at length the imponderables, such as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Wolfe then discusses the fall of man and how this affects the establishment of a nation. Of importance is the identification of people groups or cultural groups, who would coalesce and govern themselves. Nations need a well-defined set of values and objectives, agreed upon by the masses. Issues of war were not discussed. Cultural Christianity would have an elevated status and thus define normative behavior in society. Wolfe discusses the construction of civil law in Christian society. He also describes what a Christian “prince” would look like, which sounds more like an unfallen sinless human than the fallen Christians who could lead us.

Wolfe then takes a turn and attempts to develop an argument for revolution. Wolfe doesn’t say overtly but does imply that bad government loses its legitimacy in God’s eyes, and thus it is right to overthrow such a government. Not mentioned is how one determines when a government is ever evil enough to call for revolution. Certainly, Christian history doesn’t help, as the early Christians in Rome probably were as great as a 1/4 of the population, and never ever sought to overthrow the government. In the chapter on conscience, Wolfe mulls over how much authority the state should have to suppress heresy, idolaters, false teachers, etc. Though his answer is quite lengthy, he really doesn’t provide even guiding principles for the management of heretics, save to identify how much harm a heretic might do to society and punish them accordingly. Wolfe’s attempt to go back to the founding fathers and show how the USA was essentially established as a Christian nation fails. Christianity was indeed the prevailing religion of the 17th and 18th centuries in America, yet evangelical movements such as with Whitfield and later Finney demonstrated that much of Christianity was in name only. Wolfe fails to demonstrate that the bulk of leadership in the American Revolution was only nominally Christian, thinking of such greats as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, etc.

Stephen Wolfe fails miserably in his attempt to provide us a model for Christian nationalism. He is not wrong that for a Christian government to work properly, the subjects also need to be more than nominally Christian. Consider the eras in history when there was a truly Christian nation with Christian nationalism. Actually, there are many, but I’ll list a few. 1) Outre Mere (Jerusalem of the Crusaders) 2) Byzantium, 3) The Holy Roman Empire, 4) Oliver Cromwell’s England, 5) the New England Pilgrim states, 6) Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and 7) The Colony (Belize). These are only a few attempts to set up an isolated group of people who will preserve and protect divine truth. All have (so far) failed. In the absence of a post-millennial hope, this book becomes relatively meaningless, or perhaps idle speculation and wishful thinking. Of course I wish we had a perfect, peaceful, Christian society, but with fallen man, such wishfulness remains nothing but fanciful daydreaming.

Scripture speaks plentifully about government. The clearest statement is found in Psalm 2, which paints man as forever attempting to overthrow God from His rule. The author Robert Case also develops an excellent argument as to why the book of Esther is relevant for developing a philosophy of politics (Esther & Trump, published by Saluda Press). Why Wolfe has so few Scriptures to defend his arguments is itself most telling. The VanTillian notion of the primacy of Scripture in philosophy and politics is defied by Wolfe, whom I might presume would consider himself a VanTil disciple. Wolfe’s suggestion that nations that restrict personal freedoms delegitimize themselves, yet Scripture would be at odds with this notion, starting with Psalm 2. I am not opposed to Wolfe’s desire to think out the characteristics of a Christian nation, though his inability to reckon with the dirty facts of life in a fallen world weakens his argument. Thus, I didn’t find this book very helpful at thinking through the ramifications of life in a political world. Who should I vote for? What laws are most fitting? Should our nation consider itself under the obligation of behaving in a Christian fashion with other nations? Should we allow open borders that provide for a large group that could be evangelized? Is Capitalism any more Christian than Marxism or other forms of government? If the nation is controlled by a Christian tyrant, is that bad? How should the nation treat citizens who reflect poorly on our nation’s Christian image on the international stage? Why does Christ occasionally mention non-religious people who have the art and skill of managing a nation? Should any nation identify as the world’s policeman? Is there a role for international law, and how is it developed and enforced? Many questions come out of this book; the book has value mostly at stimulating thought as to what government should look like. Otherwise, The Case for Christian Nationalism most fails in actually making a case for and against Christian nationalism. This book reminds me of a song by John Lennon, which imagines a fictional world that escapes reality. I quote the lyrics in full…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today, Ah

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace You

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world You

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The Early Church

The Early Church, by Louis Markos ★★★★

I’ve appreciated the writings and lectures of Louis Markos and found this book to have an interesting theme worth reading. It was. Markos excels in literary criticism, and that is exactly what this book does in looking at the writings of some of the early church fathers, rather than just recording their historical details. Markos addresses a variety of topics including early church sermons, early letters of the Patristic saints, writings regarding the church itself, martyr accounts, apologists for the faith, and heresy hunters. This book provides a slightly different flavor to the church fathers through focusing on the church literature per se. Thus, Dr. Markos accomplished his objective well. My only problem with the book is that I’ve essentially read all of the source documents contained in this book. It would probably be of more value to those without the exposure to the early church literature as I have had. Hopefully, the book will encourage more people to pay closer attention to early church writings.

Atheism on Trial

Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments Against God, by Louis Markos ★★★★★

I had this book on my shelves for a year or two before tackling it. I was mostly interested in the book due to my encounter with Louis Markos with a Teaching Company series on literary criticism/post-modernism, which is probably the best refutation of post-modernism available, that is also comprehensible to the non-philosopher layman. Indeed, Markos has a peculiar knack for making very complex ideas simple and understandable to the man on the street. After reading, I realized that this book is a gem, tackling complex issues without using the philosopher’s jargon.

Marcos counters the atheist with four approaches, by addressing the nature of the universe, epistemological concerns, the nature of God, and the nature of man. All of these approaches demonstrate the failures of the atheist mindset. Marcos tackles a number of very touchy subjects, such as the problem of pain (and evil) in the world, which he shows to prove rather than disprove God. He also used a term that I thought I had coined, but apparently not, in speaking of science-of-the-gaps, which is a more legitimate argument than the God-of-the-gaps argument used by atheists.

Marcos’s most relevant arguments entailed his ability to recount historical thinking from the ancient Greeks and since then. Indeed, his introduction to the book was titled “nothing new under the sun”, and Marcos was quite capable of showing how modern atheistic arguments have been around for well over 2000 years. What the atheist presents as new thinking is everything but that.

This book was awesome. I recommend this strongly to anybody interested in presenting the Christian faith to a faithless world. I also recently reviewed a book on witnessing the faith titled Tactics, which had interesting information, but really presented nothing more than cliché-ridden arguments for the faith. Marcos presented a vastly more insightful discussion on how to challenge those who question your faith in God. Get it and read it!