Book Review: Unimaginable

Unimaginable

Jeremiah Johnston’s book Unimaginable: What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity seeks to live up to its title. It is an apologetic for Christianity that focuses upon all the good the Christian faith has produced in the world. In this regard, it fits in a similar genre of books written by Rodney Stark (e.g. The Triumph of Christianity, The Victory of Reason, Cities of God, For the Glory of God). The book is very readable and informative even though Johnston frequently quotes scholarly sources.

The book is divided in three parts. Part 1, consisting of five chapters, looks at the world before Christianity came upon the scene. He focuses his attention primarily on the Western world (i.e. Greek and Roman). His thesis is the world before Christianity was marked by moral, social and religious darkness. It was a world full of self-inflicted suffering and fear. Its gods were petty, vindictive, and often more evil than humans. The ancients had no concept of a benevolent God. The love of the gods was erotic instead of merciful and compassionate. Slavery and racism were rampant. There was massive inequality between rich and poor, with no middle class. The poor were despised. Women were degraded. Infants were frequently disposed like trash. Then Christianity came and brought light to this dark world.

Part 2 consists of 6 chapters that seeks to tell the story of the modern world where Christianity has been absent. Here Johnston is focused on the world from the time of the Enlightenment, but focuses particularly upon influential thinkers from the 19th to the early 20th century. Johnston believes Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the five most devastating thinkers of the last 200 years. He briefly chronicles their thinking and influence in chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 8 tries to draw a connection between atheism and immorality, particularly sexual immorality. Thinkers like Percy Shelly, Jean Paul Sartre, and Bertrand Russell were well known atheists who also engaged in sexual immorality. He quotes Aldous Huxley who was explicit about atheism’s rejection of Christian morality because it interferes with sexual freedom (99). Chapters 9 and 10 zeroes in on Adolf Hitler’s Utopian (dystopian!) vision as the end result of the atheistic philosophy spawned by the likes of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. Continue reading

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Book Review: The Baptist Story

Baptist Story

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin is a newly published textbook on Baptist history that should prove to be useful for college and seminary students as well as those interested in church history. All three authors are accomplished writers and historians, but especially Michael Haykin who is very prolific in drawing out little known treasures from church history (especially 17th and 18th century Baptist figures) through the publication of multiple volumes. Haykin is not only one of the best Evangelical historians doing work today, but he is also quite conversant in theology. He has been able to show how theology and church history intersect in important ways.

The authors walk through the Baptist story from its beginnings. Baptists had their origins not in the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century Reformation, but a century later as one of the separatist movements who broke away from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Although there are parallels, Anabaptists and Baptists have distinct origins and beliefs beyond the common acceptance of believer’s (credo) baptism. The English Separatists became known as Puritans and one of these Puritans was John Smyth. He fled England to the Netherlands as did many Separatists seeking to escape persecution. Initially he was joined to the group of believers who eventually made their way to America in the Mayflower. The two groups separated over views on church polity. Smyth was initially a Calvinist but then became convinced of Arminianism during the Remonstrance controversy in the Netherlands at the time. Continue reading

Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

Zwingli

William Boekestein has written a much needed little biography of the important Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, part EP’s Bitesize Biography series. Zwingli is not nearly as well-known as Luther or Calvin. No churches directly trace their heritage to his legacy. Yet in many ways he was just as important as these larger than life figures of the Protestant Reformation. Boekestein’s biography is short (162 pages) but very satisfying. You come to know something of Zwingli that other accounts don’t capture. Zwingli’s reformation of the Swiss canton Zurich roughly coincided with Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg. In fact, Boekestein points out that Zwingli enacted many of the same reforms before knowing anything about Luther. This would indicate that needed reform was in the air and one cannot escape the providential nature of what took place in those heady years beginning around 1517.

Zwingli’s personal turning point began in 1516, one year before Luther’s. There is no evidence that Zwingli or Luther knew of one another before 1521. By 1519, Zwingli had already begun seriously questioning papal authority, the practice of indulgences and other Catholic abuses. Zwingli’s personal reformation began through his discovery of Augustine’s treatise on the gospel of John and his fellow humanist friend Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. When Zwingli was appointed as the pastor of the Great Minister church in Zurich he quickly abandoned the mass and replaced it with expository preaching. He managed to preach through the whole New Testament within 4 years. Like the other Reformers, Zwingli became convinced of the sole authority of Scripture and refused to embrace traditions he believed were linked to the Roman Church.

Just as Zwingli was the first to experience reform in his own ministry, he was also the first Reformer to write a systematic theology entitled, A Commentary on the True and False Religion. Boekestein believes the only reason this work has not had the lasting value that Calvin’s Institutes have had is because he never bothered to revise it as Calvin did his own work—numerous times in fact. Most of Zwingli’s writings were put together hastily and lack the rigor of other Reformed writings. However, I think Boekestein has underestimated the fact that Calvin was a far more innovative, astute and careful theologian than Zwingli ever could have hoped to be and that explains Calvin’s lasting impact. The same could be said for Luther. Continue reading

You will be Eaten by Cannibals!

John_Gibson_Paton

John G. Paton (1824-1907) left a successful inner city ministry in Glasgow, Scotland to become a missionary to the renowned cannibals of the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific; a place where less than 20 yrs. earlier 2 missionaries were immediately eaten by cannibals upon arriving on the shore of one of the Islands.

Most of Paton’s trusted Christian friends advised him against such a foolish venture.  In a memorable exchange, one such man, a Mr. Dickson retorted, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!”

To this Paton responded: “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” Continue reading

Book Review: The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

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While teaching a class on the Great Awakening I decided to read Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Although this is an informative account of the 18th century American revival, I cannot wholly endorse it. While Kidd is a great scholar, the book suffers from several things. Before I discuss those, let me first say that Kidd does a good job of surveying source materials for the Great Awakening and we learn a great deal about many of the American participants in the revival. He evenly treats the revival’s impact across the colonies without undo focus on New England, as is sometimes the case. He also shows the connection of the revival to the American Revolution and many subsequent developments such as the rise of Baptists in the south and the impact of the revival on African and Native Americans. I like the fact that he shows how the revival demonstrated some of the first attempts at addressing the abolition of slavery in the American colonies (It is of interest that the parallel Awakening in England directly led to the abolition of slavery there through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others).

Having said that, here are three problems I had with Kidd’s analysis. First of all, perhaps because the book is strictly a scholarly treatment, he does not capture the marvelous aura of the revival and what a remarkable work it was. While his writing was not necessarily dry, it was not exactly inspiring either. I am not of the opinion that works of historical scholarship have to be dry and uninspiring, even for a specialized audience. Furthermore, although Kidd is an Evangelical Christian, he tends to treat the revival strictly as a human work with some strange phenomena that is not easily explained. As a Christian, I believe the main thrust of the revival was a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a nation whose spiritual condition was in serious declension. Continue reading

Review: Church and State in America

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I have read a number of books on America’s religious history particularly in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, however, Church and State in America by James H. Hutson is one of the best by far. Even though it is brief, it is comprehensive in scope, giving just enough details to give a full picture of the issues without being superficial. The book is scholarly (Hutson is the Chief of the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress), yet very readable and in fact enjoyable. I could not put the book down. He covers a number of fascinating details I had not encountered elsewhere in the debate on church and state. For example, Hutson was involved in the recovery of a blackened out portion of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the famous phrase “Wall of separation between church and state” appears. With the help of the FBI, in 1998, they uncovered deleted portions of Jefferson’s letter that casts a whole new light on what he meant by this phrase. The portion was struck out before being published upon advice of his attorney general for fear that it might have political repercusions. It appears Jefferson limited his understanding of the phrase to the function the president serves in matters of religion, not the government as a whole. Continue reading