Theology

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!

Early Christian Doctrines

Early Christian Doctrines, by JND Kelly ★★★★

I have read this book many years ago and decided on a refresher course in early Christian thought. JND Kelly writes a wonderful text detailing the systematic development of the most relevant doctrines of Christianity, including the formation of the canon of Scripture, the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the nature of man, as well as the origin of the current practice of the Sacraments, and development of the doctrine of Mary. It is a delightful book to read and should be within the knowledge of every mature Christian man and woman. I will not go over the details of the text. Needless to say, doctrine was developed in response to heresy, and those heresies, such as Arianism, Sabellianism, etc., etc., still exist and often unknowingly in the theological constructs of many otherwise orthodox Christian people. My greatest complaint with the book is that it assumes that one is already quite familiar with the Patristic saints. Summary charts or illustrations could have been used to better clarify competing doctrines. Even still, it is the best text out there for gaining a grasp as to why our theology emerged the way it did.

Tactics

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, by Gregory Koukl ★★★

This book was highly recommended to me by friends. Evidently, it has been around a while, now existing in the 10th anniversary edition. The focus of the book was in detailing how one can encounter the unbeliever in the public square. He offers sage advice, such as to avoid being argumentative, to be kind, to ask questions in order to focus the contact person toward discovering the logical inconsistencies of their thinking. Koukl owes a deep debt to Francis Schaeffer, who he quotes frequently. Koukl talks a lot about abortion issues and intelligent design issues.

The strength of this book is in reminding Christians to witness, and that their witness needs to be as ambassadors for Christ, while behaving always in a Christ-like manner. The weakness is that the tactics are presenting in a cutesy “Columbo” style, which was a little annoying. This approach is great for a teenager but not for a more mature adult, in that it reminded me of the pop books of yesterday, like Fritz Ridenour’s books or Josh McDowell’s Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door. It’s easy to get hung up on tactics when one just needs to “do it”. Witnessing should come as natural as breathing.

I purchased a second book by Gregory Koukl Street Smarts, which looks like it is more of the same thing. I’ll probably skim the book and then offer a second Koukl review.

Revelation: A Shorter Commentary

Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, by GK Beale, with David Campbell ★★★★

By now, I have read many books related to the interpretation of the book of Revelation. The first books were written by Hal Lindsey, and formed my early impressions of the book of Revelation. Lindsey has a framework of Dispensational Premillennialism. I found the dispensational interpretation to be rather far-flung as it seemed to create more interpretative problems than solutions, which explains why Hal needed to offer revised versions every few years. Ultimately, with the help of the “Four Views” books and input from John Gerstner, I tended to lean toward an amillennial stance. The one post-millennial text that I read, When the Man Comes Around by Doug Wilson competed with Hal Lindsey in its weak interpretive base and was about as awful as Hal Lindsey’s colorful books. The book that affected me the most, Hendrickson’s More than Conquerors became my definitive favorite.

This book, based on a much larger commentary of Revelation by Beale and reduced to its essential elements by David Campbell, is an excellent text based on an amillennial perspective. It was still a rather lengthy text of over 500 pages. Its strengths and weaknesses will be discussed.

Strengths 1. Good orientation, showing how the book of Revelation has more quotes and allusions to the Old Testament than the entirety of the remainder of the New Testament. Thus, a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament is mandatory to grasp the many images described in Revelation. 2. Beale reflects on the overall theme of the book of Revelation, which is that Christians faithful to God’s word will eventually come out as the victors, even in death. 3. It does not dwell too heavily in speculations regarding interpretations of the imagery found in Revelation. 4. It is faithful to a solid amillennial (which Beale calls the Redemptive Historical Idealist) view of Revelation. This is probably a good renaming, since even amillennialists believe in the millennium, just not the way in which pre-millennial or post-millennial folk would tend to think. 5. Each short section of the book ends with a segment discussing applications and things to reflect on. After all, the idealist view contends that Revelation is a book that discusses the whole of the Christian era from the advent of Christ to his second coming. There is no dispensational bungee-jumping Jesus who returns to earth a minimum of three times. If Revelation is talking about the present age, then it would be exceedingly applicable, which is probably why John includes blessings to those who read and hear the book.

Weaknesses 1. Beale seems to be quite aggressive in interpreting all of the imagery in Revelation as being allegorical. I’m not sure that’s safe. It is possible that many images are real but interpreted by John’s best ability to describe the image in terms of what was known in AD 96. Perhaps the imagery has both a real and allegorical face to it. I don’t know. Safety suggests caution in assigning selective passages to be allegorical and other passages as literal based on one’s preconceived notion of Revelation’s interpretation. 2. Beale is great at pointing out the trees but weak at pointing out the forest, in that he spends minimal time rendering a big picture to Revelation. For that, Hendrickson’s text is much better. Any commentary on Revelation needs to focus on both aspects of the book. Where is John going with the text of the book? How do you put together the repeated narratives of the whole of the Christian era (according to Hendrickson, seven repeats!)? 3. Beale is very restrictive at discussing alternate views of interpretation. 4. Though Beale notes 13 other commentaries on Revelation that he used in his studies, about the only other text that he quotes is that of Richard Bauckham (actually, two books that he wrote) and rarely refers to other Christian texts that maintain an idealist (amillennial) scheme of interpretation. Perhaps his full commentary addressed some of my criticisms, though I will not be reading his magnum opus on Revelation (life is too short for me).

This is a text that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even with the noted weaknesses.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Including The Philosophical Act), by Josef Pieper ★★★★★

This book was a gift from an old friend, Dane Waterman. We had been discussing how Carlo Lancellotti had translated into English and made the English-speaking world aware of the writings and thought of Del Noce. Pieper, writing from Germany and somewhat contemporary to Del Noce, reflects similar thoughts. Their thesis relates to demonstration as to how Marxism and liberal thinking is presenting an alternative “gospel”. This is especially poignant as Pieper and Del Noce, both being Roman Catholic, passed away before a truly Marxist pope (the current pope) was installed.

The text is divided into two sections, the first being the topic of leisure, and the second section is a discussion of the philosophical act. The two lectures are complementary. In the first section, leisure is defined and developed as an essential part of society. Clearly, leisure is not “labor” to speak of, but is also is NOT laziness or idleness. Leisure (in Pieper’s sphere) is not the act of going on vacation or of watching a good movie. Leisure entails the act of contemplation, meditation, silence, and reflective conversations. Such activity is vital for a society that wishes to sell itself as a free and open society, but is also contrary to the ideology of Marxism. A phrase that I was taught as a child “Arbeit macht das Leben suß” (work makes life sweet) is prevalent in German culture, yet even there, the rise of poets, philosophers, and theologians more than answers how a Christian-based society grasps the need for leisure.

The second section of the book addresses the issue of philosophers. Why do we need them? What do they do? What does it mean to be a philosopher? All of these questions are answered in an oblique style fitting for a philosopher. Is this nothing but an example of Pieper in the act of self-justification? I don’t think so. This section was a bit muddier and not an easy task for me to read, though the final pages demonstrated a wonderful ending. The ultimate end of philosophy is that of identification with Scripture, which allows us the ability to know. Perhaps it might be said that all theologians are philosophers, though their focus is different. It might also be said that all people are philosophers, as we all develop and maintain a personal Weltanschauung, which affects the totality of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors.

I have one concern regarding this book, and would have loved to engage Josef Pieper in a challenge. He begins with the challenge of the great Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. I certainly enjoy reading the classics of philosophy. Yet, Clement of Alexandria and other 2nd century Christian writers were quick to note that that the Greeks were plagiarists, and reflected thinking that existed well before their time, in the writings of Moses and the Old Testament. Thus, as Cornelius VanTil has repeatedly argued, and philosophical starting point of necessity must be Scripture. You cannot get to Scripture by pure reason starting with a tabula rasa. Pieper’s argument could have been much stronger by having his arguments originate in Scripture, rather than by originating through reason in the human mind and ending up in Scripture. This mistake is plentiful not just with the Roman Catholics, but also with the Protestants and Orthodox brands of the Christian faith.

Why read the Roman Catholics? Simply stated, because many of them are Christians just like the Protestants and Orthodox folk out there. It was John Zmirak (see his website at https://stream.org), a devout Catholic, who noted that he was praying for Pope Francis’ salvation. I could say the same thing for many well-known Protestants out there, such as with Tim Keller, Francis Collins, etc. About 30 years ago, an old teacher of mine, JI Packer, was dismissed from the Ligonier Ministry conferences by RC Sproul since he signed a statement encouraging Evangelicals and Catholics to engage in discussion. I totally agree with Packer, and feel that Protestantism is at a loss for not seeing how others think about philosophical and biblical issues from a slightly different slant. My personal denomination (the PCA, of which RC Sproul was a member) is diminished through failure to communicate with the entire body of the Christian church. Packer did not find that rapport with the RC community diminished his theology or message. Neither should we.

So, even with my disagreements with Pieper, I was able to find many gems in this small tome. A great book is not necessarily a book you totally agree with, but with a book that is able to stir your thoughts and to force you into that delightful activity that we call leisure. And my thanks to Dane and Bernadette for giving me this book.

Lessons from the Upper Room

Lessons from the Upper Room: The Heart of the Savior, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★

This book being used for the Saturday morning men’s book reading group at church. I’ve been unable to make a number of the meetings, so decided to finish reading the book and going on from there.

Sinclair Ferguson provides an expositional devotional to the upper room discourse of Jesus, as found in John 13 to 17. The book is broken up into 13 chapters, each chapter offering a vignette of the upper room discourse. Ferguson is most capable of pointing out gems that may be found in these five chapters. As a devotional book, it is a wonderful text to read.

The Origin of Paul’s Religion

The Origin of Paul’s Religion: A Classic Defense of Supernatural Christianity, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★

JG Machen was a seminal individual in conservative Presbyterian circles defending against the progressive liberalization of the church. This text is one of his arguments against attempts to turn the apostle Paul into a fabricated character of the liberal scholar. Liberal scholarship in the late 19th century and 20th century, mostly from Germany, have attempted to remove the miraculous from the life of Paul, and turn him into a product of various political and religious influences. This book originated as a series of talks given by Machen.

Machen first introduces the problem. Attempts have been made to explain away the phenomenon of Paul, his conversion, and his ministry. A lengthy introduction describes the problem at hand. Machen then discusses the early life of Paul. Notably, Paul was born and grew up in the dispersion (Tarsus), but claims that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, suggesting that even though he probably learned Greek early in life, his life and language were Hebrew. Being a strict Pharisaical Jew, he clearly would have been adverse to the pagan and liberal influences strongly present at the time of his childhood. In the chapter titled “The Triumph of Gentile Freedom”, Machen explores Paul’s interactions with the church leadership in Jerusalem. Machen notes that while liberal theologians would love to paint a scene of severe disagreements between Paul and the 11 apostles as well as with James and other Jerusalem church leadership, close examination shows that such was not the case, and that there tended to be mutual appreciation for the theologies of Paul and the Jerusalem church. The chapter that follows, “Paul and Jesus” looks further into the congruence between Paul’s theology and that as found in the words of Jesus. The point is that Paul, though he probably never met Jesus face-to-face, was able to obtain detailed information about Christ’s life, even beyond what is found in the four gospels.

Machen then takes on challenges from the liberals who attempted to reduce Paul to a product of either Jewish sources or pagan sources. In the course of three chapters, Machen is able to demonstrate adequately that such suggestions are completely out of touch with what we know about Judaism and paganism in the 1st century of the church. Finally, Machen addresses the issue of Jesus being called “Lord”, which in ancient times was synonymous with calling Jesus God.

This book was a delightful tome to read. I enjoy Machen’s thought processes and how he is able to cut down the liberal arguments with simply logic and presentation of the facts. It is a pity that more theologians today are not defending the historic faith as Machen did; they seem to desire more the ability to maintain “status” among the academic liberals rather than to fearlessly fight for the truth. The Origin of Paul’s Religion is not a book meant for anybody to read. Those who enjoy a first-class theological discussion of the defense of historic Christianity will be amply served with this book.

Without Roots

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera ★★★★

This book consists of simultaneous lectures given in Rome by Joseph Ratzinger (soon after changing his name to Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, president of the senate of Italy and philosophy professor. This is followed by a commentary letter from Pera to Ratzinger and a return letter from Ratzinger to Pera.

Pera’s speech is given first. In it, he comments on the identity crisis of the west, being faced with relativism from Islam, contextualists, deconstructionists, and even within the church. With the loss of identity and ability to value older Christian tradition, and with the loss of belief in truth, the west has been left without a legitimization for its own existence.

Ratzinger follows. Europe, according to Ratzinger, is entirely a product of Christian civilization, and for which they were intimately intertwined. Christianity essentially defined Europe and its culture, that is, until quite recently.

Pera responds with a letter addressing Ratzinger’s talk, and Ratzinger responds in kind with a letter. Both letters were complementary, and relates to Europe’s abandonment of its Christian roots. Pera focuses on political aspects of Europe, debating why Europe is unable to construct a unified constitution, and exploring the relationship between the secular and Christian Europe. Indeed, as Europe sees Christianity as an expired and judgmental notion, Europe also enters into what Pera terms self-hate, but I think that self-loathing is probably a better description of what is going on in Europe. Pera’s discussion becomes muddied. He describes the continual state of war in Europe (and the world) as normative, and thus to not think of war as intrinsically evil. This is misguided, since many evils are normative in this world. The Catholics do have the doctrine of original sin! Pera advocates for a non-denominational Christian religion. Ratzinger takes the discussion from here, agonizing over the division of Christianity in Europe following the Reformation. He suggested (in 2004 when the book was written) that America was doing a much better job with maintaining Christianity in the public square. If Ratzinger were alive today, I think he would take back most of his remarks. Ratzinger astutely notes “Statistics tell us that the more churches adapt themselves to the standards of secularization, the more followers they lose”. Ratzinger offers reflections on how Christianity could be in a non-denominational manner more present in the public square. This is an issue that will foster debate and discussion in both Europe as well as the now deeply secular United States of America.

I always appreciate reading Ratzinger/Benedict. He had a strong conservative Christian mindset, and displays how the Roman Catholic church still has elements of conservatism, and still has the same battles as the Protestants in fighting against secularism, relativism, invasion of other cultures (esp. Islam), and abandonment of the concept of truth. This exchange between Pera and Ratzinger supports JI Packer’s thesis of the value of maintaining rapport between conservative Catholics and Protestants. Both sides have great thinkers who would serve better if they would engage in talk with each other.

I have only one objection to Ratzinger, which probably is more of a misconception on my part of his thinking. After reading his book describing the lives of the patristic fathers, he comments fairly harshly on Tertullian for his separatist behavior, yet is kind to Origin in spite of his wild speculative theology. This attitude probably affected his thinking of modern separatists (the Reformation Protestant movement) who, like Tertullian, sought to bring corrective measures to the church. Ratzinger ignores the huge influence Tertullian has had on the Roman Catholic (western) church. This sort of thinking will only do harm to his efforts to usher in a “non-denominational” Christianity in Europe, as it paints the Roman church in a hierarchically superior position to Protestantism. Perhaps that is true. Yet, Ratzinger in his writings assiduously avoids mentioning the sins and faults of the Roman church, including its current idolatries, heterogeneity, and secularism that pervades much of the church. This thinking does damage to the thesis of an otherwise quite remarkable person.

Without Roots can be read in several evenings. Protestants need to accept that many in the Catholic church are probably closer to their thinking than fellow liberal Protestants which promote the elevation of the self to god-like status. Without Roots was a worthwhile read, though I’d be selective with whom I’d also recommend the book.