In the News: Doomsday Predictions

It’s late September 2017, and if the subject of a USAToday story is right (see this link), we won’t be here much longer!  Happily, the linked story really does a lot of the “church history” work for me, so I don’t need to provide the background.  The story does not, however, provide the kinds of links that I like to give you, so I’ll give them here in bullet-point form.  Good luck, everyone!

(Update: according to a subsequent story — accessible at this link — the world isn’t actually going to end on the 23rd… but it will end soon.)

I’ll say that I’m always a little mystified by these kinds of things.  I mean, it would be nice to know when Jesus will return, if for no other reason than to “get one’s affairs in order”… but FOUR DIFFERENT BOOKS in the New Testament (all presumably by very different authors, by the way) all say that that day will come “like a thief” — in other words, unexpectedly!  The deeper concern I have, though, is that the Bible isn’t a book written in secret code. Christians believe that God wants to communicate with us, and that God has done so chiefly in Jesus! In fact, John 1:18 says that Jesus has made God known, or more literally, has “exegeted” God.  We treat the Bible as though it is comprehensible in most other areas, but for some reason we sometimes act differently regarding the “end times.”  That’s a story for another day and post, I suppose.

Image credit for Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Wikimedia Commons

Links: The Early Modern Church (up to 1800)

Westminster Shorter Catechism and Confession — The Westminster Assembly of the 1640s was hugely influential in English-speaking Christianity, for a variety of reasons, but especially in the Reformed churches (like Presbyterianism).  The Assembly produced a number of documents, and one of the most famous is the Shorter Catechism, which would have been used in a question-and-answer to teach children and newcomers the faith; this link is to that document.  The most famous line of the Shorter Catechism is the first answer: the chief point of human living is “to enjoy God and glorify him forever.”  Kind of cool, right?  (The Confession of Faith can be found at this link.)

More on the English Civil War — The English Civil War affected English Christianity quite heavily.  You can read a lot here and there about the war, but not many sources make good connections with the actual English churches, in my opinion.  This link gives you more information about the War, but it should also help you see the religious context more successfully.

More on Church Groups in England — Similarly, this site also discusses the English Civil War, but it also has lots of helpful information about the actual groups of English churches.  If you’ve ever wondered how the Levelers differed from the Independents, then this is your source.

More on the Thirty Years’ War — When you read church history books on this time period, you sometimes hear about the religious implications of this war, but not as much about the political or military aspects.  But you might want some of that.  Here’s a link that can tell you more about that important war, with clickable links for even more information on specific parts of it.

An Intro to Early Modern Science — If you’re interested in the emergence of modern science in the early modern period, you might check out this link, which discusses several important scientists.  It’s a good reminder of some things you probably learned a long time ago in school, and it makes a few comments on the connections of religion and science.

A Letter from Voltaire — Voltaire, that important Enlightenment figure, is often depicted as a relentless critic of the established churches.  This is a letter from Voltaire to a prince of Prussia (in part what is now Germany).  Notice that while he talks about God, it is in very rational terms.  Additionally, he has a rather cynical view of human attitudes toward morality; he thinks there is nothing in us that tends toward revealed truth, but rather to the expedient.

Pascal’s Vision, His Life, and His Wager — This is a site devoted to a sympathetic description of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century figure who marries the Enlightenment and the “life of the heart” in some interesting ways.  Toward the bottom of the page, you can find the full text of the letter that he carried in his pocket.  Higher up, there is a description of his “wager.”

The Puritans’ “Cambridge Platform” — In terms of early American Christianity, there may not be a group more influential than the Puritans.  In reading about them, you might see the term “Cambridge Platform” but not be sure of the referent.  Here’s a link that can help clarify.

More about Zinzendorf and Herrnhut — Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf was a seminal figure in the second half of the history of the Moravian movement within Christianity, and Herrnhut was the community built on his lands.  The Moravian movement was strongly influenced by Pietism and themselves influenced John Wesley, and thus the Methodists.  This link is explorable and includes a good deal of information about both the Count and the community he founded.

Latitudinarianism — If you read about the early modern period of Christianity, especially in England, you will probably run into the term “Latitudinarianism,” but you may not catch the definition.  Here’s an informative page to help you understand.

The Hymns of Charles Wesley — The Methodist movement, which began at this time, is most closely associated with the figure of John Wesley.  But his brother Charles was also a hugely important part of the movement.  You may have heard of him before — especially in his role as a song-writer before — but either way, you should check out this link, which is one man’s choice of 5 great Wesley hymns.  You’ve probably heard of them.  Another resource is this link, which gives you a huge clickable list of his hymns.  This guy was prolific.

Great Quotes from Jonathan Edwards — If the Puritans were a major influence in 17th-century American Christianity, then Jonathan Edwards was a huge influence in the 18th century.  Sadly, this important figure sometimes gets short shrift in church history books.  Edwards is rightly remembered as a stern preacher — one who could depict a congregation as “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  But he also, more than any other early American preacher, reminded us of the importance of the heart, the affections, in our relationship with God.  For example, he spoke once about an “inward, sweet delight in God and divine things.”  See this link for some more great quotes from Edwards, many of which speak to this importance of the heart.

Image credit (John Wesley): http://anglicanhistory.org/wesley/jwesley.jpg

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the contemporary church period — since 1800)

Links: The Contemporary Church (Since 1800)

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen — We’re actually starting a shade before 1800, because the American and French Revolutions are considered by many to be the beginning of the contemporary world as we know it.  Most Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, but not as many know its “sister document” from France.  It is a part of the development of our modern attitudes toward freedom and personal autonomy, which have impacted Christianity in HUGE ways.  (By the way, if you need a link to the Bill of Rights, click this link.

The Concordat of 1801 — At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon worked out an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church to preserve the latter’s existence in France.  This is the text of the agreement, called the “Concordat of 1801.”  Notice that the “First Consul” (i.e., Napoleon) gets to select the bishops and archbishops, both in the present and in the future, that the bishops take an oath of allegiance before him, and that they must pray for the consuls at the end of their daily prayers.  Another chapter in the enduring conflicts between secular powers and spiritual powers…

The Syllabus of Errors — An important part of modern European history is the Roman Catholic Church’s reluctance to join it, instead favoring its medieval mentality all the way into the 20th century.  One of the classic expressions of this mentality is Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), which you can read at this link.  Note: these are modern ideas and attitudes that the church repudiated.  (Don’t be alarmed by the size of the page — the bottom 2/3-3/4 of it is devoted to user comments.)

The Declaration of Papal Infallibility — That medieval mentality was reinforced perhaps most strongly at the “First Vatican Council” of 1870, with its famous declaration of papal infallibility.  This page contains several documents from the council, and the declaration is the last one on the page.  Notice that there is a good deal of prologue — statements from Scripture and church councils, before the clear doctrine promulgated at the end.

William Wilberforce Before Parliament — Another important aspect of modern history is the abolition of slavery in many, many countries, a movement which really gained steam in the English-speaking world just before 1800, with the work of William Wilberforce, a devout Christian.  Here are two accounts of his first speech on the topic before Parliament, which you may find interesting.

More on the Abolition of Slavery in England — The story of slavery’s abolition is one that is inspiring to many people (Christian and non-), but you might not know as much about it as you’d like.  Here’s a fuller discussion of the topic.  Note that there is less emphasis on the Christian connection of the abolitionists, but make sure to catch the language of progress in this description.

The “Tracts for the Times” — Another important development in 19th-century Christianity in England was the so-called “Tractarian” movement, or “Oxford Movement.”  That group of Anglicans found themselves increasingly drawn to the early church as a way of revitalizing the Christianity of their day.  This link is to one of their “tracts” (or “treatises”), and you can see the appeal that the author makes to the early church there.  Later on, the group really got into hot water with its last, 90th tract.  If you are curious about that text, you can find it at this link.  It’s quite long, but if you scroll all the way down to the bottom, you can get a sense of what caused such protest.

William Carey’s Wikipedia Page — One of the important figures in the missions movements of the modern church is William Carey, the great Baptist missionary to India.  His Wikipedia page does a good job of telling his story, if you don’t know it, and there are also links to pages for a number of other people and organizations associated with him, including Andrew Fuller, the Baptist Missionary Society, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman.

William Carey’s Enquiry — Here you have the text of Carey’s An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians…, a hugely important text for the history of missions in terms of its author’s desire to motivate everyday Christians to participate in and contribute to mission work.  Pay attention not only to the contents of his text, but also to the persuasive tactics he uses to incite his readers to action.

A Selection from Livingstone’s Journals — “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  This famous quote refers to David Livingstone, the Westerner who did so much significant work in Africa.  Livingstone’s journals and letters did open up Africa to many Westerners, both in showing the value and dignity of African peoples, but also in demonstrating the commercial value of African goods, which helped lead to later exploitation of the African land.  This selection gives you a sense of Livingstone’s writing style.  It also was one of the most provocative pieces he wrote, stirring up pro-African feelings among many Westerners.  Incidentally, this site is dedicated to recovering and publishing Livingstone’s journals, so you may find it profitable to explore if you’re interested.

On David Livingstone’s Only Convert — Here’s a 2013 article from the BBC on Livingstone’s only convert, a man named Sechele.  The article reports that African Christianity may owe more in some ways to Sechele’s activity than to that of European missionaries!

Quotes from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — In 1835 and 1840, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published his famous Democracy in America, a discussion of the “American Experiment” in light of the history of democracy.  It will give you a sense of the political and social life of the early 19th-century United States — an important backdrop for religion at that time.

American Expansion — Another important piece of background to American Christianity in the 19th century is the westward expansion of the “white folks.”  This link is a timeline concerning the American frontier as it shifted through the centuries, which is part of a companion site to the PBS show American Experience, a fascinating PBS examination of that set of events.  You can click on a number of elements in the timeline, for various types of information and media content, if you’re interested in this or that event.

A Christian Statement about Slavery in the South — Slavery also formed an important part of the story of 19th-century Christianity in the United States, not just in Europe.  This link contains a theological statement adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America — and it’s a statement that you may find shocking, surprising, or repugnant.  Notice, though, among other things, 1) the paragraph 1/3 of the way down the page that starts “In the first place,” 2) the arguments from history, and 3) the ways that the Bible is treated and used.  Overall, it seems to me that the statement is not so much pro-slavery as it is anti-abolition.

Christian Responses to Darwin — The late 19th-century in Western Christianity included a number of challenges to traditional understandings, one of which was that represented by Darwin and the developments of modern science.  This page is hosted by the Biologos Foundation, a group of evangelical (read: healthily conservative) Christians who explore the intersections of theology and “evolutionary creation.”  The content itself gives a readable yet detailed overview of Christian responses to Darwin, including some of the very first comments.  See also the notes and the “Further Reading” resources at the bottom.

“Liberal” Christianity — Another challenge that began in the 19th century is what we sometimes call “Liberal Christianity,” a set of movements, texts, impulses, and groups that began to include using “human reason” as a legitimate source of theological inquiry, even if it meant discarding traditional beliefs or practices.  The top half of this page reproduces an article from Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary (of Theology, I think), published in 2001.  The first two sections are especially strong, and while the second half reflects a bit more conservative theological bias (not inappropriately, here, I think), the whole thing is quite instructive.

Fundamentalism — One response to “liberal” Christianity was the movement we know as Christian fundamentalism, which was a desire to go back to the foundationsof traditional Christianity.  In other words, as many commentators have noted, it is a concept that began as a positive idea and has become mostly negative. The Wikipedia article on fundamentalism is quite strong, and it helpfully discusses the phenomenon in Christianity, other world religions, and even atheism!

A Summary of Rerum Novarum — The 19th-century Western church faced a different kind of challenge at this time with the problems of industrialization, and all of its attendant social difficulties.  One important text that arose at this time was Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII in response to those social crises.  This link is an instructive summary of the document itself.  (The original document itself is rather long but can be accessed at this link.

A History of the Salvation Army — One of the ministries that arose at this time, to care for those specially affected by the problems of industrialization, was the Salvation Army.  You’ve probably heard of them, but here’s a bit more history of the group.  (Also, the “About Us” tab also includes a link describing the origins of their famous “red kettles” at Christmastime.)

The Barmen Declaration — In terms of important texts from 20th-century Christianity in Europe, it is hard to find something to top the Barmen Declaration.  It was written during the Nazi period in Germany, it was co-authored by the prominent German theologian Karl Barth, and it contained the response of the “Confessing Church” to the Nazi regime’s attempts to control and repress it.  Notice the six “evangelical truths” upon which the Confessing Church built its foundation.  (By the way, if you want some more background to the Declaration itself, see this link.

The 1933 Concordat Between the Pope and Hitler — A different response to the Nazi challenge was the 1933 Concordat between the Pope and Hitler, a sort of “non-interference agreement” between the Catholic church and the Nazi government.  Incidentally, this site is kind of weird: the actual text begins about 1/4 of the way down, and it’s long, but then there is some commentary.  You can at least get the rather positive sense of the agreement even if, as you may not surprised to learn, Hitler didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Mit brennender Sorge — Also not surprisingly, the Catholic church’s attitude toward the Nazis changed over time.  The link is to the full text of Mit brennender Sorge, the 1937 encyclical of Pius XI criticizing Nazism.  If you’d like a summary of the text before you read the whole thing, check out this link instead.  You may also be interested in Divini Redemptoris (the anti-Soviet encyclical) from just a few days later, which can be accessed at this link.

More about Auschwitz and the Holocaust — Sadly, of course, the Nazis achieved great amounts of destruction before they were defeated in 1945, and that destruction has caused great soul-searching and contemplation among Christians of many stripes.  Should you desire to read more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, you might check out this link from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  There’s more on Auschwitz, but at the bottom of the page, there are many links that can also take you elsewhere.

The Toronto Statement of the World Council of Churches — An important contribution of the 20th century to Christian history was the ecumenical movement.  In 1948, at the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, the Council adopted a statement about its self-identity.  But, just a couple of years later, they realized that this statement could lend itself to misunderstanding.  So, they issued the “Toronto Statement” in an attempt to clarify what they meant.  Focus especially on the original statement at the top of the link, and then the numbered theses down the page — they give you the essence of the piece.

A Little More on “Faith and Order” — Various movements helped lead to the World Council of Churches, one of which was the “Faith and Order” movement.  If you’re interested in learning more about it, here is a site that can help you out.

The Lausanne Covenant — Some evangelicals have been wary of joining the WCC, due to doctrinal disagreements with some of the groups involved.  In 1974, more than 2,000 evangelical leaders met in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they agreed upon the so-called “Lausanne Covenant” as an ecumenical document.  Notice here the continued emphasis on evangelization, as well as the many Scriptural references — evangelicals have always been Bible-centered!

The Documents of Vatican II — In the 20th century, the Catholic church finally emerged from its medieval fortress (okay, yes, this is an overgeneralization, but it’s not far off) in the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.  This link is the Vatican’s clearing-house for all the sixteen documents that issued from Vatican II.  Have fun reading Verbum Dei (the constitution on Scripture) in Byelorussian!   But seriously, this is where the official translations exist.  For more general information on the council, along with a summary of some of the documents — a much better place to start, probably — see this link.  (Yes, sometimes Wikipedia is, in fact, the best place to begin.)

Humanae Vitae — One of the most important documents for contemporary church history is the 1968 encyclical of Paul VI condemning the use of artificial birth control.  The reason is that this is a papal teaching that huge swaths of the Catholic church totally ignore, even if they don’t talk about it, and thus it represents the triumph of individual choice over church authority (at least in this regard).  It is a rather long text, but I’d especially encourage you to note the method by which the Pope proceeds in the text: he discusses first the appropriateness of the church to teach on such matters (which some people dispute), then considers some theological topics that come to bear.  He then moves to very practical matters, before proceeding to “pastoral directives,” in which he considers what the implications of this teaching are for various groups.  Whether or not one agrees with the doctrinal content, I find the method quite admirable.

The Expansion of Christianity in Africa — One of the amazing stories of contemporary Christianity is the explosive expansion of Christianity in Africa.  See this link for more information about that expansion, including some very impressive numbers.

Some Views on the Religious Right — An important development in late 20th-century American Christianity was the emergence of the “Moral Majority”/”Religious Right.”  As you probably know, it is extremely difficult to find unbiased sources on the Internet that concern religion.  This site is no exception, as it is not friendly to Jerry Falwell.  However, there are some interesting quotes here.  Notice especially the various ways that Falwell injects God, Christianity, and the Bible into various matters that may or may not obviously require such reference.

A Megachurch Examines Itself — Another important development in American Christianity has been the so-called “megachurches.”  In 2004 the Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek did a self-examination which they later published (and are marketing) as “REVEAL.”  It provided some really interesting data for them about how their preferred method of church work was and was not assisting its congregants in growing spiritually.  Formerly, they had a link on the relevant website to the data they found, but sadly that link now just takes one to an opportunity to buy the survey that they now administer.  Here is a link to a story about the study, though, which you may find interesting no matter your perspective on megachurches.  This blog entry from the magazine Christianity Today also considers the issue.

Christianity in Russia — The late 20th-century saw seismic changes in the political life of Russia, and those changes have had a major impact on religious life there, too.  This whole issue of Christian History magazine is devoted to the history of Christianity in Russia, and it includes material about the contemporary situation.

Famous preacher photo credit: RobertMWorsham at Wikimedia Commons

Suggested next click: Back to the Links home page

In The News: Saint Mother Teresa

teresaYou may have seen the note in pre-Christmas news that Pope Francis has “approved” the second miracle that Mother Teresa’s advocates needed to have her eligible to be recognized as a saint.  Specifically, current regulations require that a miracle be attributable to the person’s direct intercession with God for healing.  One miracle qualifies someone as one who is “Blessed,” and a second qualifies them to be “Saint.”  (This version of the story at USAToday has a nice summary of the four steps of the process.)

For many Catholics, this is good news, as the USAToday story notes.  Mother Teresa has long been admired as an example of the Christian virtues of humility and service.  For many Christians, the posthumous revelation of her doubts and spiritual struggles have been a blessing, as they testify that “even saints” deal with questions in their faith.  Further, it is encouraging to have saints to admire and pray to who come from one’s own era; there is no question of whether or not she understands what it’s like to live in the modern world.

For many Protestants, though, this news is just another example of the canonization process that they don’t fully understand.  Some examples:

  • Does this mean that the pope “made” her a saint?  (Answer: no.  As this link explains, in a longer and more technical description of the process from a Catholic perspective, the church merely “declares” or “recognizes” her as a saint.  In other words, the idea is that she is a saint; it’s only now, by means of these miracles, that the church can know for sure that this is the case.  The reason is that, following traditional Catholic belief [derived from Revelation 6:9-11, among other places], the saints are those “already” in heaven with Jesus, thus enabling them to make intercession for those still on earth.)
  • Has it always been done the way it is now?  (Answer: no.  The Wikipedia article on “canonization” has a nice section on the historical development of the process.)
  • Is it possible that the church could be wrong about canonizing someone?  How does the church know that it’s right?  (Answer: wellllll… that’s a tricky question.  The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas actually took up that very question in a class lecture once (Quodlibet IX.8).  His answer?  As usual, it was complex.  He said the church can not err in matters of faith, but that it can err in judging disputes about things like possessions or crimes, because of the problem of false witnesses.   He says that the matter of saints lies “in between” these two, in terms of relative certainty of judgment.  As a result, while it is technically possible for the church to err, he says that the honor with which we consider the saints suggests that it is more pious to think that the church cannot err, because it will cause too many problems with people’s spiritual lives.

In other words, whether or not we agree with what’s happening in this story, it’s a way that Christians today are participating in a process that has long historical roots and that will contribute to church history in the future.

Image credit: http://www.storypick.com/10-quotes-by-mother-teresa/

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News home page

Noll, Ch. 13: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65 CE) and the Lausanne Congress (1974 CE)

As Noll notes in the Preface to this third edition, this chapter is a bit of a gamble, because the “interpretation of recent history is always risky.”  Nonetheless, he discusses here two very important events of the past 50 years, one from the Catholic family of Christianity, and one from the evangelical-Protestant sector.

The first, known as the “Second Vatican Council” is the most recent “ecumenical council,” which you learned more about in chapters 2 and 3. (It’s called the “Second Vatican Council” because it was the second council held at the Vatican in Rome.)

The second event also gets its name from its location. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Switzerland in 1974. The focus of this meeting places it in the tradition of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which was the subject of chapter 12.

Both of these events share a theme: how to respond to the modern world. The Catholic church had spent the 400 years since the Protestant Reformation “circling the wagons,” as it were (see chapter 11). Especially as the world changed rapidly in the 19th century (think of the Industrial Revolution and the impact of Darwin’s theories, just to name two elements), the Catholic church rejected “modernism” and stuck to its traditional emphases. However, by the mid-20th century, it had become clear to many that the world was passing the Catholic church by. The Council was devoted in many ways to “aggiornamento,” or bringing the church “up to date.”

Similarly, the Lausanne Congress reflected a changing Christian world in a variety of ways. First, despite some of the images that are available, the delegates to the conference were much more international in representation. Second, as Noll notes, the conference explicitly responded to weaknesses they saw in the work of the World Council of Churches; they certainly felt that the need for traditional “conversion to Christ” had not passed, even as Christianity had spread across the world. Third, the conference also saw the challenges of the contemporary world, especially in social justice issues. They sought to address the changing world through their meeting (and future ones), and through the covenant that they shared.

Two links that might be helpful here:

So, some questions to consider:

  1. In the quotation from him given in the chapter, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) suggested that Vatican II dealt with “the type of faith which corresponds to the life of the modern Christian….”  As you look at the primary expressions of Christianity that surround you, which ones do you think “correspond to the life of modern people,” and which ones (however valuable they may be) are rather “old-fashioned”?
  2. Noll notes that there were “conservative” and “progressive” sub-groups within the Catholic church, as gathered at the Second Vatican Council. Do you see similar sub-groups in your own faith tradition? Around what issues do they have conflict? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between these groups? Why or why not?
  3. The Vatican Council is now over 50 years old, which means that the changes it enacted have become quite widespread within the Catholic church. In your experience, do Protestant understandings of Catholicism reflect the changes that have taken place? Or do they mirror more a traditional, pre-Vatican-II Catholicism? If the latter, why do you think this is so? How could Protestants become more aware of the new developments in Catholicism?
  4. Noll provides excerpts from the Lausanne covenant (and the link to the whole is above). When one compares this text with earlier ones from the “conservative” wing of Protestantism (say, for example The Fundamentals from the early 20th century), one notices continuity in theology, but a much greater concern for social matters.  As you consider the Christian expressions around you, do you see a greater focus on theology (e.g., thinking correctly) or social matters (e.g., doing things about the problems of the world)?  Or is there a balance there, in your mind?  Why do you think this is so?
  5. The Lausanne Congress was a type of “ecumenical” meeting, as they were discussed in chapter 12. What benefits do you see in meetings like these – where people from different denominations come together to discuss a particular topic? What negatives are (or could be) there?
  6. Noll spends some time describing the role that people like Billy Graham and John R. W. Stott played in the Lausanne Congress. How have you seen individual personalities shape religious movements (or aspects of Christianity)? How can this be a positive thing? How can it be negative? Feel free to give examples!

Image credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Second_Vatican_Council and https://www.lausanne.org/about-the-movement

Suggested next click: Turning Points Home

Noll, Ch. 12: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910 CE)

Noll’s chapter 12 is devoted to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.  Many people consider this event the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. The 19th century did see some important progress in missions (and other ministry activities) via various “voluntary societies” – Noll notes how many more people became Christians during that century. However, it was not until the 20th century that we saw true ecumenical cooperation, that is, joint work at the level of whole denominations.

Two other notes about the chapter before we get to the discussion questions:

  • First, a contemporary reader will likely note that, while this conference seems really important, it doesn’t seem to represent worldwide Christianity. Indeed, this early event was pretty Anglo- and Protestant-focused. Happily, the later ecumenical movement was much more diverse.
  • Second, I was impressed to see the Moravians come up yet again.  They are not a large group within Christianity, numerically speaking, but they seem to keep showing up via their missionary and theological emphases.

Edinburgh, 1910

Two potentially helpful links on this material:

Now, for some questions to consider:

  1. This “worldwide conference” on missions was overwhelmingly represented by people with English or other European ancestry, and it was entirely Protestant. Do you know of examples of groups (religious or otherwise) that are supposed to be “representative” but are actually skewed so as to represent only one or two sub-groups? How can this skewing affect the life of that group?
  2. The missionaries at the Edinburgh conference saw the evangelization of the entire world as imminent. Do you think this goal is one that can be truly achieved, or is it simply an ideal to aim for? What shapes your opinion on this question?
  3. Another question that the conference took up was how much Christianity, in the forms they knew it, should be considered as the single, true revelation of God to humankind. In your opinion, how much of God is revealed in other world religions? How would you address that question with a friend from another world religion?
  4. One aspect of Noll’s chapter has to do with the question of “indigenization,” that is, making Christianity “native” in a new culture. This indigenization can happen by means of music, cultural influences, worldviews, etc. What are some ways in which Christianity has become indigenized in the United States?  (Two manifestations I can see, on the positive side, are the use of American English in our worship services and the native composition of most of our worship songs.  On the other hand, one negative manifestation would be the creeping individualism that is growing in our churches as it grows in our culture.)  What do you think?
  5. Some missionaries and many early converts to Christianity lost their lives for their faith. How do their stories strike us, given our cultural condition in which the Christian faith is protected and (generally) accepted by outsiders? Are these stories simply to be admired? Do they inspire us in some way? How so?
  6. Many historians and culture-observers note that, relatively speaking, Christianity is on the decline in the United States as it has been in Europe for many decades. Can you imagine a world in which North American Christians are actually on the fringes of world Christian society?  In other words, can you imagine a world in which “southern” and “eastern” Christians come to North America to encourage the Christians here?  What would that be like?

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1910_World_Missionary_Conference (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 13

Noll, Ch. 11: The French Revolution (1789 CE)

The history of Christianity in the modern West has been a challenging one. Things have not often become as hostile as the aftermath of the French Revolution; Christians have not always had their churches turned into “Temples of Reason,” as was the case in the drawing below at the famous Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. In fact, the story of the Revolutions of this time period often causes tension within many Western readers; we appreciate the emphasis on freedom that was celebrated here, but we don’t like the rejection of religion that we see in the France of that time.

However, because we live in a world that is becoming rapidly “post-Christian,” it is good for us to understand how our world has come to that point, especially in places (like Europe and North America) where Christianity was so important and dominant for so long. Noll does a good job describing some of the many factors here – things like secularization, Enlightenment philosophy, the rise of modern science, changing attitudes about how to study the Bible, etc.

Another important part of the chapter consists of Noll’s discussion of how Christians have responded to these challenges. Sometimes we may feel helpless in a hostile world, or uncertain of what we might do in the face of the challenges we face. However, the section toward the end of the chapter covers many different responses, from missions and evangelism, to different kinds of theology, to returns to tradition, to social relief efforts. Happily, over the recent centuries, Christians have found many ways to bring God’s kingdom more fully into the world as we know it.

Two very different links that might be helpful on this material:

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Noll talks about “secularization,” meaning the lack of a religious “core” that governs a society. Does political secularization necessarily harm Christian faith? How? Or if not, why not?
  2. Many of the important social reforms of the post-Enlightenment era, particularly Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign in England, had Christianity as their energizing force. Does Christianity still seem to promote helpful social reforms in Western society? In what ways do “secular reform” efforts borrow tools, themes, or impetus from the West’s Christian past?
  3. Noll notes that some American Christians were hopeful that the French Revolution would promote Christianity. Historically, it did not. Is violent political revolution consistent with Christianity? In what situations might it be appropriate?
  4. Noll divides Christian responses to a secularized Western society into social, intellectual, and evangelistic reactions. Which one of these do you see as most important? Which one do you see as most effective? Can these impulses work together or are they necessarily in tension?
  5. “Liberal Christianity” was an attempt to preserve Christianity in a new modern context, in that it sought a Chrsitianity that was free from many traditional practices and/or points of view (“liberated” and “liberal” are related words). To what extent was “liberal Christianity” successful in this? To what extent, if any, do you think it was a betrayal of historic Christianity?
  6. Noll presents a history of Christianity slowly but surely losing its public influence in the West from the 1700’s on. What do you think was God’s role in all of this?

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Reason

Suggested next click: Chapter 12

Noll, Ch. 10: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738 CE)

This chapter focuses on John and Charles Wesley (depicted below, center and left, with Francis Asbury), and the Methodist movement that emerged from their ministry.  The chapter opens with the discussion of John Wesley going out into the “highways and byways” to preach, rather than sticking to church buildings and Sundays. That’s not something we find troublesome nowadays, but in that time and place, as Noll says, it was working directly against notions of public order.

Wesley Wesley Asbury Stained Glass

A few other notes on things that I found interesting in the chapter:

  • Wesley was often not an innovator himself, but rather one who implemented successfully the plans, ideas, and practices of others.
  • Pp. 219-220 describe Wesley’s famous moment of self-dedication (not exactly a conversion). Many Christians have moments like this – single times that they can point to as episodes of personal dedication. But others’ experiences are more gradual. Neither is normative (or should be), but sometimes we wish we had something like what others have had.
  • Did you notice how we again see the emergence of conversations about Christendom, as was the case (among other places) in chapter 5 on the coronation of Charlemagne?
  • The section on the hymn-writing of Charles Wesley was interesting; you may not have realized how many of his songs we still sing, as Noll notes. (See also this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/w/e/s/wesley_c.htm)
  • The section on Pietism is interesting because of the different ways in which that movement’s ideas have influenced modern Christianity, perhaps most strongly in the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

If you’d like to see some of the resources that Wesley developed for use in his small groups, check out http://www.goforthall.org/articles/jw_dscplshp.html

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. As Noll says in the beginning of the chapter, Wesley preached in places that were considered scandalous.  Where are the forbidden zones these days?  Where would it be scandalous to preach or find preachers? Are those places in “real life,” on social media, or in other online locations?
  2. One of the aspects of this chapter that may connect with many readers is his description of the small-group model that began in the Pietist movement and became mainstream via the Methodists. What has been your experience of the kind of small-group Bible study and fellowship that the Pietists emphasized? Positive? Negative? What factors lead to “good” small-group experiences?
  3. Noll describes the doctrine of “Christian perfection” that Wesley held – one that has been somewhat controversial since he began to teach it. How would you put that teaching into your own words? Did your own religious background teach this doctrine? Do you believe this teaching to be justified by the Bible? Why or why not? Do you think it is realistic? Coherent? Helpful in our modern day?
  4. Evangelicals in the 18th century were more strongly dedicated to cross-cultural evangelism than the more established “state churches” in Europe at that time. Given what you already know and have learned in this chapter, why do you think that might have been the case?
  5. Noll notes that a variety of political views were accepted among early evangelicals. Do you see diversity on political matters among evangelicals today? What topics seems to have more diversity, and which don’t? Do you think that the current state of political opinion among evangelicals as an improvement or a fall from the range of early views in evangelicalism?
  6. One of the things that studying history does is to give us more resources as we look forward into the future. Given Noll’s discussion of the Wesleys’ innovation, I wonder: what are the most effective ways people are using social media and other new technologies in the service of religion? What are things you are seeing that are working well? What things are not working well?

Image credit for the stained-glass depiction of Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury, in a church in North Carolina, USA: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Wesley,_John_Wesley,_and_Francis_Asbury_(stained_glass_–_Memorial_Chapel,_Lake_Junaluska,_North_Carolina).jpg (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 11

The Head and the Heart

When one comes to read about the decades following the Protestant Reformation, one encounters a variety of events and movements in church history – some regarding the Catholic church (e.g., the explorations in the New World), and some regarding the various Protestant movements (e.g., Puritanism in England and the Americas).  One very important development in this time period was the early moves toward the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and how those moves affected Christianity.  As various Christians emphasized “head knowledge” in their relationship with God, others reacted against that emphasis and focused on “heart knowledge.”  It’s that tension that is relevant for us, because we see it in our world, still to this day.

headvsheartIn fact, there is no question that Christianity is founded on at least three kinds of activity: thinkingfeeling, and doing.  But for some reason, we have often tended to struggle primarily with the relationship between the “head” and the “heart,” as we see in statements like “you’re over-thinking it” and “don’t get carried away with your emotions.”  People sometimes criticize too much “head-ness” in the context of emotion-less Bible study or sermons, and others find fault with worship that is “too emotional.”  So, is it possible to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind?

I would say “yes.”  Obviously, both of these impulses are based on New Testament teaching.  For example, Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” (the letters to Timothy and Titus) repeatedly warn against false teaching, which presumes that true teaching – orthodox theology – is what Paul wants (cf., e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-10; Tit. 2:1).  Further, Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) are dispositions of the heart, even if they do manifest themselves in action.

Fortunately, in this time period after the Reformation, we find Christian figures whose religious commitments led them to great heights in these areas.  People like Desiderius Erasmus and John Locke have been intellectual giants for Christianity, and Blaise Pascal and Philipp Jakob Spener have taught us about the importance of the heart.  Of course, there have also been extremes, as you know; the phenomena of deism and “Protestant scholasticism” are expressions of extreme “head-ness,” and some worship gatherings like 18th-century revivals and contemporary “worship concerts” can sometimes be accused of appealing merely to the heart without considering the head.

Happily, there are many other folks who help us in these ways.  If you’d like to read more, let me recommend three groups:

CS Lewis1) Writers like the Middle Ages’ Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation’s John Calvin, and the modern world’s C.S. Lewis (especially in his Mere Christianity) do a good job of teaching theology – addressing the head – without losing sight of the heart.

2) Similarly, for folks who can speak to the heart without losing the head, you can read the Methodists John and Charles Wesley, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the recently-deceased pastor and writer Henri Nouwen.

3) Finally, writers like the ancient African St. Augustine, the colonial American Jonathan Edwards, and the modern author Rob Bell often do a good job of blending the two, in my opinion.

Finally, a plug for those who happen to be in my area of West Texas: if you’re interested in this topic, you might want to consider taking any opportunity you can find to interact with my colleague Jeff Childers.  He teaches at my university and in my church, and he has a deep knowledge of the spiritual traditions in Christianity.  If you get a chance to sit at his feet, do it!

Image credits: http://www.planningnotepad.com/2009/12/head-vs-heart-tale-of-two-campaigns.html and http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/03/cs-lewis-long-terrible-story-of-man.html

Where the Churches of Christ May Be Headed

church_of_christ_signI have written now and again on this site that I grew up in and still belong to the denomination known as the Churches of Christ.  Some of you are part of that group, but others are not.  This post is dedicated to the direction(s) that I see the Churches of Christ heading; some readers may find it directly applicable to their own contexts, but if you’re not from the CofCs, let me encourage you to “peek over our shoulders,” because you might find something relevant for your own tradition.

Now, because those of us within the movement typically know best our home and/or current congregations, you may not be aware that our denomination/movement is actually rather fragmented in some important ways.  And because those of you outside the movement haven’t been exposed to it as much, you don’t know it intimately enough to see the rifts.

But consider the following phenomena that are current among congregations in the Churches of Christ:

  • Although our founders encouraged us to call ourselves by the “Bible name” of “Christians” or “Disciples,” our movement eventually took on the name “Church of Christ” (also biblical: Romans 16:16).  But, it ended up becoming a “denominational name,” which is what our founders didn’t want.  For a variety of reasons, some churches are taking the name “Church of Christ” off their doors — and of course inciting the wrath of some who think that move inappropriate.  Most, of course, have kept the traditional name.
  • One of the hallmarks of the Churches of Christ down through the last 200 years has been acappella worship, not least because there is no mention of music with instruments in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches are including instrumental worship alongside — or even in place of — traditional acappella worship.  Many, of course, have not done this, and many strongly reject this inclusion on the part of the churches in question.
  • Similarly, traditional Church of Christ worship has not included leadership roles for women, not least because it’s not clearly presented in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches involve women heavily in worship leadership, sometimes in every single role a male may inhabit.  Some have not done this, and (you can guess this by now), many strongly reject this move.
  • Given what you’ve just read, you won’t be surprised to learn that some churches and individuals publish extensively in favor of preserving very traditional practices and theology.  Others, of course, practically repudiate such views.
  • And finally, some churches and individuals even take harshly polemical views against a whole variety of topics, including those within the movement with whom they do not agree.

reconciliationIs there a way to bring these groups together?  Is it even legitimate to call these disparate groups part of the same movement?  What will be the future of the movement in, say, 50 years?  Will the fringe elements fall off, leaving a more stable center?  Will the movement ultimately polarize (as has happened occasionally in broader church history), with “liberal” and “conservative” movements emerging? Will the whole thing just come apart at the seams?  Honestly, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that the movement will survive, in some form or fashion.  There are so many traditions and institutions that can help tie things together — camps, schools, musical styles, etc. — that it’s hard to see the whole thing dissolving.  But… I don’t know.

You might expect the post to end here, but there is one outgrowth of this question that touches me even more directly: how my university fits.  Older alumni of our school are, not unexpectedly, typically much more traditional than our current students; this is true partly because of what happens as we age, but it’s also true because the churches are changing.  Add into this mix the number of students who come from non-Church-of-Christ backgrounds: while some come from fellow “congregational” churches (many non-denominational or “community” churches are like this), and while most share our relatively conservative theological heritage, most do not share our acappella heritage, and most come from churches with different attitudes toward worship.

So what kind of student should we recruit to our school?  Should we focus only on those from our heritage?  And if so, what branch?  If not, what kind of student should we try to attract?  These are open questions, and there aren’t obvious answers.  I am very grateful, though, even in the midst of this uncertainty, that we can still encourage students to invest ever more deeply in God’s kingdom and purposes.  We can try to mentor them and guide them, attempting to foster a love for God and neighbor.

lovethyneighbor

To come back to our original question, I would say that that is true of our movement as a whole.  There is a lot that most of us cannot control (although some of you readers may be in positions of influence).  But what we can always do is to seek to be faithful in our local contexts.  We can work with our congregations, being patient with the leaders or congregants when we disagree, and encouraging ever-greater discipleship to Jesus.  We can embrace our tradition at some times and question it at others, always seeking to “put on love.”

May God bless us all in our kingdom work!

Image credits: http://signs.stewartsigns.com/church_sign_g_street_church_of_christ_2584.jpg , https://joshdowton.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/reconciliation.jpg?w=660 , and http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php