Essays on the most ecumenical books in America


Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism
by Edith L. Blumhofer

Collections of essays have a reputation for being forced and uneven; this book contributes to that reputation. While some of these essays were quite good, others were forced and unnecessary.

My favorite essays were by Stephen Marini (on the history of Evangelical hymnody as a whole) and Darryl Hart (on American Presbyterian hymnody), but the entire book presents a tapestry of hymn traditions from various denominations. I was disapointed that there was no essay on the sacred harp tradition in the American South, a vitally important element of Southern Appalacian hymnody until the 1940′s. There was only one essay on Baptist hymnody and it was on Jesse Mercer and the influence of minorities (African-Americans, women, and Native Americans) upon his hymnal. This could harly be called an essay on Southern Baptist hymns as a whole. Seeing as how Southern Baptists make up the largest Protestant denomination in North America, it doesn’t stand to reason that their influence on the book’s subject would be neglected. There is an essay given to Latino-Pentecostal influence on hymns, and another on German-Mennonite hymnals. These are interesting but don’t contribute as much to the overall study of the book.

The best part of the book was how many authors come back to the same theme: hymnody changed as the religious views of people changed. You can document the loosening of doctrinal integrity by looking at the hymns printed in various hymnals. This was made by several authors in several essays. From the colonial days until now, there as a distinct change from God-exalting hymns to shallow me-and-Jesus gospel songs. It doesn’t take much imagination to finish the historical journey and guess how we went from gospel songs in worship to the praise choruses of today.

This would primarily interest those who enjoy church or music history, but it is written at a level that most of us can understand.

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Nice irony here

Most people who keep up with modern justification controversies are familiar with N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham of the Church of England. He published a book on justification that was poorly received by many in the Reformed camp because it introduces some doesn’t fully embrace the traditional explanation of the topic.

I have been making my way through the four volume set of books known as The Fundamentals, written in the early 1900′s as a conservative response to the ascending liberalism within Protestant Christianity. When I came to the chapter on justification by faith (one which does take the traditional Reformed teaching on the topic), who should be the author but H.C. G. Moule. The name meant little to me until I read that he was at the time of publication Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. This is a nice twist to the justication discussion, don’t you think?

Wrestling with new beliefs

It has been a rocky trip over the last year as I have changed my views on baptism. Having been a life-long Baptist, I didn’t think I would change, except for the nagging feeling at times that I was inconsistent in my Reformed beliefs. Oh well, Spurgeon had no problem admitting he was inconsistent so I didn’t think I should either. But then I started studying covenant theology and boy did it make sense. I already believed covenant theology in a Baptist sense but as I read more about it, things really fell into place. But I still didn’t have a problem being inconsistent; wasn’t everybody to some extent? (By the way the answer is yes, we all are to a point. The key is recognizing and acknowledging those inconsistencies rather than pretending they aren’t there.)

Then some things happened which I can’t speak of here. Suffice to say I was suprised by several things I witnessed in ministry that opened me up to paedobaptism. I believed the Lord wanted something else from me than I had been willing to give. I prayed about what those areas might be and came to the conclusion that paedobaptism might be it. I studied the subject heavily over several months. I read many books and articles by Baptists and some by paedobaptists; the number of the former dwarfed the latter. I didn’t want to leave my heritage lightly and I wanted to expose myself to the best arguments that Baptists had. But I will confess, there was a draw to paedobaptism. It seemed more consistent with a reading of Old and New Testament, rather than just consistency with the New Testament.

I’ve told people before, the disagreement between Baptists and paedobaptists comes down to your understanding of the Old and New Covenants. If you see greater discontinuity between the Old and New covenants, you will hold to believer’s-only baptism. If you see greater continuity between the two covenants, you will hold to paedobaptism.

Even though I had deep respect for reformed theology, I would never have considered paedobaptism without the Lord opening me up to it. When He opened my heart to it I stopped studying the subject and started wrestling with it. I’m convinced that most Baptists never truly wrestle with paedobaptism, nor do paedobaptists wrestle with believer’s-only baptism. Not that wrestling is for everyone. Most are perfectly content to remain in their beliefs without questioning them. And it’s impossible to wrestle with everything. There was a time when I wrestled with Roman Catholicism in my early twenties. The Lord preserved me from that belief system and I’m thankful. I have no plans on wrestling with the beliefs of Islam; I will study them and attempt to refute them to evangelize Muslims but I will not contemplate that Islam is true. The same is the case for Eastern Orthodoxy. Having said that, why do I think Baptists and paedobaptists should wrestle with different baptism beliefs?

Perhaps I should define what I mean by wrestle. To wrestle with a belief is to open oneself up to the possibility that it might be true and deal with all the facets of the issue, all the while being willing to change if you are convinced it is true. It requires making yourself vulnerable and having the courage to change if you become convinced that it is true. Consider Jack, a young man who watches professional wrestling. His favorite wrestler, Mr. Wonderful is about to face William the Giant, a seven-foot-tall, four-hundred pound brute who flosses with barbed wire. While watching his beloved Mr. Wonderful receive the worst of a pounding, Jack says, “All he has to do it put the Giant in a choke slam and it would be over.” We observe here a disconnect with reality. On paper a choke slam would probably do the trick, but in this case neither Jack nor Mr. Wonderful is able to put the theoretical into practical use.

It is easy to listen to others make arguments against paedobaptism. It’s even easier when you interact with straw men, and I admit that building straw-men is something both sides do in the discussion. Because I’ve had a long-time goal of being faithful to the entirety of God’s Word, once He “put me in the ring” on this subject (to borrow from the earlier metaphor), I discovered that my theoretical Baptist arguments couldn’t hold under the weight of studying God’s covenant promises to man.

“That’s great for you,” you might say. Why write about it? For this reason: everyone faces transition points in his or her life. You have to decide whether to continue as you have before or open yourself up to new possibilities. When you arrive at one of those points, think carefully yet openly about it. You might just grow in the process.

Too many similarities

“We don’t see humanists bowing down to their gods, we but we do see them studying them, lecutring about them, writing books about them. and we don’t see Christians bowing down to the Lord either, but we do see them studying Him, preaching about Him, and writing books about Him.

Thus, there is indeed a big difference between ancient religions and modern ones. Ancient man primarily worshiped his gods, while modern man primarily studies his. This is true both of pagans and of conservative, orthodox Christians.” – James Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism, p. 35

Why reading Marx might not be a sin

 

It is time I make a confession. I’ve read a little of Karl Marx. What’s more, I’ve appreciated a few things I’ve read by Karl Marx. That’s not to say I agree with him, but he makes several appropriate criticisms of the capitalist economy in the way it currently operates. It might not be as bad since I’m an economics, political science, and history teacher. Nonetheless because we’ve been taught that certain people are wrong no matter what: Hitler, Karl Marx, Rousseau, etc., to admit that you’ve read them brings out an amount of surprise and sometimes scorn. “Why waste your time reading pagans and atheists?” The only thing worse would be to read a Roman Catholic or Arminian. The answer goes like this: Just because they are wrong on many fronts doesn’t mean everything they say is evil. This would likely be admitted, but the response would be along the lines of, “But there are so many better things to read.” And that’s true. But many times our enemies point out problems that are real problems. They may even point to accurate causes of those problems. We must be willing to call the truth the truth. It reminds me of a Doug Wilson saying that went something like this. “Reading liberal commentators can be helpful because they are willing to say exactly what the text means since they don’t feel the need to believe it. A conservative is not willing as often to fully explain a text because he knows he must believe it.”

So how can I in good conscience read Karl Marx or anyone else and even appreciate some of his criticisms? By breaking down books and articles in several parts (modern educators call this analysis; classical educators called it reading). 1.) Explaining the problem, 2.) explaining why that particular happening is a problem, 3.) listing the causes and symptoms of the problem, 4.) giving solutions to the problem, 5.) explaining the end result of applying said solutions, a.k.a. how this would create almost utopia.

When reading a book or article, you can appreciate any one or more of those five points without valuing all of them. I agree with Marx that capitalism as he defined it is a stepping stone to revolution. It erodes tradition, religion, family ties, and intermediary groups that serve as a buffer between man and the state. In other words, I agree in large part with his explanation of the problem (#1) and the symptoms of the problem (#3). But even in his explanation of the problem, I disagree with him. He doesn’t see capitalism as a problem but a stepping stone to revolution, which is part of his solution to the problem. I see the erosion of the tradition, the family, etc. as something that should be stopped; he wants that erosion to continue because it will prepare the world for revolution. In other words, while I agree with him on part of #1 and #3, I disagree sharply with the rest.

So why read him? Because his analysis of the problem is crucial to understanding the why’s and how’s of world revolutions, from the French Revolution until now. People have followed what Marx described even before he described it. Many have been students of his philosophy; but the problem has not been those who agree with his analysis of the problems and their symptoms; it has been with their attempts to put the rest of his plan into practice.

So what does this have to do with reading other authors? It tells you how you can read those outside the faith without falling prey to their solutions. I’ve discovered, just like with Doug Wilson’s comment on commentators, secularists have some good things to offer in the realm of social criticism. Theological writers like N.T. Wright have wonderful books that describe things about the Lord and His Word that can’t be found anywhere else. But sometimes their solutions to the problems are beyond terrible. Does this mean they shouldn’t be read? No. It does mean that all our reading should be with caution. Unless you train yourself to break down what you read into these five areas and analyze each one, you are a sitting duck for false teaching. Even then you should proceed with great caution before reading just anyone. If you stay in a room with the hash smokers, even if you don’t smoke things will get pretty hazy for you too. If you don’t open your mind to the sea breeze of God’s Word and timeless good books (Pilgrim’s Progress, Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Works of Shakespeare, etc.), your thinking will get fuzzy. And having an older brother or sister in Christ who will direct you through these things is helpful as long as you actually listen to him/her.

Is it a sin to read Karl Marx? Not always. Could reading someone like him lead you into a trap? You bet. Therefore in all your reading, read with balance and care.

Understanding America

The Patriot's Handbook: A Citizenship Primer for a New Generation of AmericansThe Patriot’s Handbook: A Citizenship Primer for a New Generation of Americans by George Grant

It’s hard to be excessively great or terrible when compiling essays on American history. Primary source essays and speeches are useful for many purposes, research being just one. But they can go further than that. If compiled properly, primary sources can paint a picture of history. There are many books that appear as a grab-bag of essays and speeches with no apparent rhyme or reason.

This book, edited by George Grant, is no such grab-bag. It combines poems, essays, speeches, and quotes from Americans throughout our history. Continue Reading »

God’s Infantry

In Psalm 8:2, we’re told that God ordained small children to praise Him “because of Thine (God’s) enemies, that Thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” That God determined for small children and infants to praise Him is wondrous enough. But the reason is even greater: the God’s enemies would be stopped. Don’t go Baptist on me and spiritualize who the babes are (a.k.a. new born spiritual children). While that is true, David was referring to actual babies.

When you think about the entire Psalm, one that extols God for all His majestic works in creation and how He has given man dominion over all the earthly creatures, this verse might seem out of place. But it is exactly where the Father intended for it to be. The first exercise of dominion over all flesh is the act of praising God, an act which begins in infancy. This same act is an act of warfare against God’s enemies. While they are born in sin just like you and I are, God never calls His covenant children “vipers in diapers.” It would be closer to calling them God’s infantry.

And don’t forget Richard Hooker

I’ve had some discussion with friends recently about the “Future of Protestantism” discussion at Biola University with Dr.’s Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman. I listened to the discussion in its entirety and was impressed with portions of it; other portions were less inspiring. (If you haven’t seen it, you can go here.) I will give full disclosure to the fact that I attend church with Dr. Leithart and he is a mentor to me. I try to learn from him whenever I can. His gracious style is not just a public display; he is just as gracious in person as he is in public. I’ve read Dr. Sanders and Dr. Trueman before but have no personal contact with either one of them.

To begin with, I have long agreed with Dr. Leithart that the differences between modern-day Protestants and modern Roman Catholic theology is closer than many realize. That’s not to say that there is no difference; I despise the adoration of physical elements (also known as idolatry); think praying to Mary is useless (at its best); and believe that infused righteousness is no righteousness at all. That being said, I believe, along with all the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, that  Rome is in some form a church. If you doubt this, let me ask you: were the churches at Laodicea, Thyatira, or Philadelphia real churches despite the great sin taking place in them? If you say, “No” then your standards for a church surpass that of Jesus Himself. Despite her sinful beliefs, Rome believes in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, the atonement once for all for our sins, and the resurrection of the body. They are a church.

In fact, they are closer to Protestant theology than before. That is not to say that efforts like these answer all the questions, but it is a start. And Dr. Leithart is not calling as much for hierarchical meetings on doctrine as decentralized meetings in cities and towns throughout the country with ministers working together for the good of the cities in which they minister. The prototype for this is from Pastor Rich Bledsoe in Boulder, Colorado. He divided the city into parishes and established pastor gatherings in each one. In these gathers pastors from all Christian churches would get to know one another. It is going well and is being attempted in other cities. This is on-the-ground unity; the type that is more in line with Scripture than top-down unity agreements that many times paper-over differences. Continue Reading »

He was a good one

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of ChristendomDefending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart

Recently I finished Peter Leithart’s book, Defending Constantine. It is a scholarly work that describes how Constantine operated as emperor. It begins as a biography, explaining the setting of ancient Rome and how Constantine came to power. After the biography, Dr. Leithart approaches the questions many have raised over the years about the rule of Constantine. He provides a good summary of the sources on Constantine’s life and discusses the disagreements among historians with erudition. However that is not the primary focus of the book. The focus is to answer an age-old critique. Continue Reading »

What’s New Out There?

I’ve been insulated as a Primitive Baptist pastor for the last five-plus years, which certainly has its advantages. There’s been a lot of change in the Evangelical world since then and I’ve just now finding out about it. I’ve noticed it mostly in the area of corporate worship, but that is just one of many areas. Being away for a few years has given me a fresh perspective. A few things come to mind initially and I hope to write a few posts about them.This list includes both Baptist and Presbyterian churches we’ve visited.

First of all, there has been a decline in reverence for worship. Now call me a stick in the mud (a term I’ve started to embrace) but since when did ministers stop wearing ties? Since when did members start dressing like they were going on vacation? I understand someone coming in from working 3rd shift wearing work clothes, but most people aren’t in that position. If this were the only symptom I wouldn’t suspect there was a disease, but it goes deeper than that. Worship in most churches has all the gravity of a kernel of popcorn. And this is in conservative churches. Of course this is not to say all churches are this way. But too many are. And the way people dress (at least in the South) is one indicator of how much priority they put on worship. Does this mean you don’t love God if you don’t wear a tie? Of course not. But when the people at Wal-Mart are better dressed than people in the church, it raises a few questions. Continue Reading »