Dr Jim Gifford has just completed a terrific series called ‘Saint Augustine and Southern Baptists.’ The series title does not do justice to the usefulness of Gifford’s work. The posts and the discussions in the combox are very helpful for anyone interested in Augustine. You might not agree with all his insights, but you will appreciate Gifford’s demeanor and careful scholarship:
The series is hosted by SBC Tomorrow, which is dedicated to analyzing “the Calvinizing of the SBC.” The site has its friends and enemies, but wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, I hope you will be benefited by Gifford’s work.
A Review of Augustine: A New Biography, by James J. O’Donnell, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, paperback, 396 + 15.
This review is written to help those wanting to read a good book on Augustine who might be fooled by this bad one. The book has been on the market for 7 years, but since I endured reading it, I felt I should record my opinion of it here.
Augustine is not one of my favorite theologians. Yes, he was brilliant and persuasive. Yes, he deserves an exalted place in the history of Christian Doctrine. He certainly elicits my esteem. But in my view his teachings have done more harm than good. Augustine’s ecclesiology and eschatology have skewed the teaching of the New Testament. His predestinarianism, with its consigning of non-elected babies to perdition, I find a cold and unbalanced logic.
I say this so that the reader will know that I am no member of the Augustine Fan Club. But neither am I such a bumptious snob that I cannot admire this great man. Any reader of Peter Brown’s marvelous biography (as O’Donnell agrees – 73), or of Augustine himself, will find it hard to come away without abiding respect for the man. Augustine is an intellectual giant whose writings, both for good and ill, have shaped much of the Western World. He deserves respect even while he merits critical scrutiny.
But readers will find neither quality in evidence in this dismal effort by James O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s book suffers under the unbearable personality of its creator. It is a vehicle for his feelings. A pulpit for his professorial cynicism. Augustine himself is not the leading figure of his biography, O’Donnell’s ego pushes him aside so that he can retell his story. The saint must be quiet; someone really clever wants to speak! I was reminded of the whit who said, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
Augustine, it seems, told us a tall tale which we all believed. O’Donnell is here to tell the truth. The best way to do that is to let the author don the garb of a surrogate storyteller. First order of business is to dismiss Augustine’s own witness. The gaping hole that is left can then be filled with the sort of history which this bitter writer thinks should have been written but, until now, wasn’t. That is how the truth is arrived at in the Classics Departments of some Universities. The would-be hip postmodernist O’Donnell deconstructs Augustine before our eyes. There are, in fact, several Augustine’s; none of them particularly attractive or worthy.
Now it is true that Augustine was a master rhetorician, and O’Donnell is right to signal this fact loudly and clearly. But to cynically cast Augustine as a ruthless brown-noser and showman (36, 92-93, 119), and sub-par intellectual is another thing. For O’Donnell, Augustine is like “Dickens’s Mr Macawber,… always waiting for something to turn up” (51); a man who “was always on the make” (89).
O’Donnell introduces us to an Augustine who presents us with several versions of himself, none of whom is the real man. But in his attempt to lay bare the true saint, O’Donnell presents various specimens of himself. First he is the well versed Classicist. But he quickly changes into O’Donnell the Shrink (a character he enjoys playing). We also meet O’Donnell the Cynic, O’Donnell the Storyteller, O’Donnell the Postmodernist; Oh, and O’Donnell the Moralist!
Every so often he wanders off into a scenario of his own making to make some point or other against a worldview which he all too clearly bitterly despises (80-81; 171-172; 174; 202ff.). His real motives are all too apparent to everyone but those fellow academics laboring under the same delusions of grandeur.
He wonders why nobody has had a good laugh at Augustine’s expense. He writes a whole chapter comparing Augustine and his beliefs with Don Quixote. Such kitschy sentiments, while telling us nothing about the saint, speak volumes about his “biographer.” Here the author fits the bill of the Hollywood stereotype liberal prof who has a sardonic comment for every occasion and who quickly becomes a bore. Really, when will professional academics learn that in patronizing their readers and speaking condescendingly about their betters they turn themselves into the choicest fools? Rather like the hardened atheist who hates God so much he cannot stop talking about Him, O’Donnell uses his 400 pages to pour his scorn into (with plenty left over for the interview the back of the book). What is truly laughable is that the author has invested his academic life in the study of someone he obviously dislikes intensely. Now there’s grist for the psychologists mill!
This book abounds in silly statements of all sorts. For instance, he thinks Christians haven’t thought through the doctrine of resurrection (109); has a go at C.S. Lewis for taking for granted (according to O’Donnell!) that all cultured men would embrace Christianity (139). Lewis, of course, held no such foolish notion. Athanasius is redone and presented as “the greatest theological diva of the age” (196). But wait, this book is about Augustine isn’t it? Not really. It’s about James O’Donnell’s intense dislike of Augustine and Christian Faith. Being as it is a public declaration of his disdain, it is not surprising to find the author contradicting himself. Hippo was a prosperous city (88), but was “a nothing town” (1). Christians were not really targets for persecution (193), but they were (210).
When he takes on the mantle of a theologian O’Donnell is plain pathetic. On page 65 he recommends Sabellianism. Page 83 has him pontificating that no one can be sure whether his soul will be saved or lost (83). Paul apparently, “never met Jesus and became an “apostle” by virtue of his encounter with Jesus’s god on the road to Damascus.” (100). He doesn’t provide the reference; doubtless because he couldn’t find it!
O’Donnell claims that “the books making up the Old Testament (on Augustine’s reckoning) had been written some in Greek but mainly in Hebrew.” (198). Now to be charitable, he may mean that Augustine reckoned some of the OT was written in Greek, but that is highly unlikely both historically and grammatically. It is safer to assume the ignorance lies with the man who wrote that sentence. Read more »
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
America has produced many great minds; many men and women whose intellects have made them notables in the history books. One whose name shines as bright as any that could be named is Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was contemporary with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, but unlike them, he could not be called a child of the Enlightenment. He was a pastor of a medium sized Congregational church in New England, and one of the most remarkable things about him is that he was able to transcend the cultural outlook of those around him. Unlike even men like Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, two of the greatest theologians of the next century, he did not buy into the widespread belief that Christians shared the same basic evaluation of the world as non-Christians. He saw clearly that Jesus Christ not only saves souls but can save minds too. His sermons, which were heard by farmers and ironmongers and millers, as well as by schoolmasters and physicians, were weighty, highly organized examples of forceful yet spiritual reasoning. For example, his sermon on “Christian Knowledge” (from Hebrews 5:12) he maintains, “There is no other way by which any means of grace whatsoever can be of any benefit, but by knowledge. All teaching is vain, without learning. Therefore the preaching of the gospel would be wholly to no purpose, if it conveyed no knowledge to the mind…If men have no knowledge of these things, the faculty of reason in them will be wholly in vain…Therefore a man cannot have his faculty of understanding to any good purpose, further than he has knowledge of divine truth.”
In our day of cozy sermonettes this sounds like a theological lecture, but Edwards was convinced that God had created man’s mind to hear God’s truth, so he could not shortchange the Apostles and Prophets. These weekly deliveries of solid doctrine did not dry his people up. In fact the very reverse is true. Edwards was at the center of powerful spiritual revivals on two separate occasions. His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a fairly untypical message, was preached in the midst of revival in 1741.
As a writer Edwards showed himself to be a profound philosopher-theologian. He had a knack for close analysis, a skill he had honed by his notable investigating of spiders and their webs. Such a profound thinker was Edwards that he is usually accounted America’s greatest theologian and one of her greatest philosophers. I am not sure he deserves the first accolade. He did have some unorthodox views about reality (he was an idealist who also held to continuous creation), and his teaching of omni-causality makes it scarcely possible to make anyone but God the author of sin. But the broad scale of his Christian vision is a small marvel, and his determination to put truth ahead of status and security was admirable. Edwards died of smallpox in 1758, shortly after assuming the presidency of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).
JOHN NELSON DARBY (1800-1882)
J. N. Darby is not as well known today as he should be. He was a movement leader, a missionary, a scholar, Bible translator, apologist, and, unofficially, “the father of Dispensationalism.” The respected preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once publicly referred to him as “the great Darby.” He was born in London on the cusp of the 19th Century, a time of spiritual decline in England after the revivals of the previous half- century. Educated at the private Westminster School and then Trinity College, Dublin, where he was the recipient of the gold medal in classics, he spent the next few years practicing law. Around 1824 he abandoned that career and went into the Church of England, spending two years doing pioneer work in southern Ireland.
Increasingly, Darby began to find himself disagreeing with the Anglican Church and became convinced that Christianity had bedecked itself with unbiblical customs. Together with other likeminded individuals he started “breaking bread” and Bible study, first in Dublin, and then in Plymouth in southwest England. From these “assemblies” came a movement known as the Plymouth Brethren. With a simplified view of the Church and emphasis upon the imminent appearing of Christ for the saints at the pretribulational rapture, the movement spread rapidly, owing in no small way to the missionary endeavors of Darby, especially in Switzerland, France and Germany.
Darby was no “sheep-stealer,” but was very effective as an evangelist and discipler. He also made successful trips to New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. As “the father of Dispensationalism,” as he is sometimes called, he gave definite form to the teaching (which predated him) that God had dealt differently with man in biblical history (e.g. giving the Law to Israel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Church – Jn. 1:14), teachings which relied upon a plain sense, literal (though not literalistic) interpretation of Bible prophecy. Perhaps his best known work is his five volume Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, though his Collected Works, totaling thirty-four volumes, should not be overlooked. He also produced accurate translations of the Bible in English, French, and German.
It is a shame that Darby is not more highly thought of in evangelical circles, even though few would rubber stamp all his views. One reason for this is his association with the Brethren, who have always tended to keep themselves to themselves. Another reason is the present state of evangelicalism; wrapped up as it is in new fangled interpretations of the biblical motifs and typology.
CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON (1834-1892)
When one is commencing a series of short “Bios” of Christians of former days whose lives advertised something of the glory of God, there are some names which almost force themselves upon us. Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Wesley, Edwards, to name but a few. One who was able to stand shoulder to shoulder with such men is Charles H. Spurgeon, a preacher whose name is as respected today as it was when he was at the height of his powers over one hundred and twenty years ago. Raised by his grandparents in a lopsided old house, the young Charles was a precocious child, with rare abilities in math, art and speech. From his earliest memories he was an avid reader. His grandfather, who was a Congregational preacher and lover of the Puritan divines, had a well-stocked library in a room at the top of the winding staircase of the manse. And in it, more often than not, one might come across the young Spurgeon, engrossed in one of those old tomes.
Reading at a rate of about one page every ten seconds he stored away a prodigious amount of the best theological writing of the previous three centuries. This was to stand him in good stead when in later years he published Commenting & Commentaries, an annotated buyers guide for students at his Pastor’s College in London. In addition to its solid recommendations, the book exhibits some of Spurgeon’s biting humor. Of one Greek scholar’s deprecating portrait of the Apostle Paul he suggested that the famous academician’s comments showed only that he was unable to come to an accurate assessment either of the Apostle or of himself. Another learned volume from Germany could not receive any plaudits since, unfortunately, he was quite unable to keep awake long enough to form an opinion of its contents.
But it was as a preacher that Spurgeon’s star shone brightest. In an age notable for its galaxy of great pulpiteers, Spurgeon was the greatest of all. This assertion can be proven in any number of ways. If one were to look at it in terms of sheer popularity, there was noone who could consistently draw crowds of six thousand (and usually entrance was by ticket only) twice every Sunday, and ‘the wrong side of the Thames’ at that. Then again, Spurgeon’s weekly printed sermons outsold all others, circulating internationally for years after his death. And they are still hugely popular today. If it were a matter of natural ability it is almost universally admitted that Spurgeon’s remarkably expressive baritone voice had no equal. Finally, one might point to his consistency; his unwavering stand for the truth, even when, during the so-called “Downgrade” over Biblical authority, it cost him much personal heartache. Only when it came to exposition would he have to yield the field to his friend and fellow Baptist Alexander Maclaren of Manchester.
Spurgeon’s brilliance can be come across today in any number of books and sermons, many of which are available on-line. Those who have not yet discovered him will mark the encounter. Those who have read him already do not need our recommendation.
Over on Larry Hurtado’s blog there is an interesting short article about textual transmission. The article reports on studies in ancient classical Latin texts by a scholar named James Zetzel. It is worth reading because it recognizes that understanding the purpose and use of a manuscript will help determine the degree of reliability of the manuscript, or at least the chances of it being changed.
I remember reading Kurt Aland’s opinion that it is imperative that textual critics become conversant with the history of the Early Church. This article reinforces that belief by showing the important connection between usage of a text and the integrity of its transmission.
Why Did Covenant Theology Take Hold?
We have already indicated that political expediency may have encouraged the covenant mindset, at least early on. But theologically speaking, there is one overwhelming reason for its attraction. The covenant concept, especially the Covenant Of Grace, brings the Old and New Testaments together into one unity (which Dispensationalists like myself would say is a artificial, forced unity). The Covenant Of Grace provides the continuity that is essential if the Church is to be the one people of God in both Testaments that Reformed theology claims it to be.
Johannes Coccieus (d. 1669) issued in 1648 a book that presented an outline of the scriptural teaching on salvation. In tracing salvation from the creation of Adam (who was originally under the Covenant of Works) down to the end of time (the elect under the Covenant of Grace), Coccieus had presented his Dutch constituency with a progressive historical outworking of God’s decree (his system included the Millennium). Herman Witsius’ (d. 1708) scheme differs from that of Coccieus in that it is more concerned with systematic theology and practical living (including Sabbath-keeping) than with a mere outlining of salvation history. His book, The Economy of the Divine Covenants (1677), issued last in two volumes with a Forward by J. I. Packer, is a wonderfully devout work filled with the kind of robust theology which characterized the best of the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. It is hardly surprising that this work is seen as a premier account of CT. Read more »
As an outsider to Covenant Theology (CT), but one who has attended a Seminary that taught it and who appreciates the great men associated with it, I thought I would write a short history of Covenant Theology for those non-CT’s who might like to know a tad more about it.
[Don't worry, I'll return to the 95 Theses very shortly!]
My purpose in here is not to define what is known as Covenant Theology. What I wish to do is to provide some of the salient historical backdrop to it and then ask why it has proven itself so durable.
I think a good way to do this is to present four questions which I will then attempt to answer.
- How old is Covenant Theology (CT)?
- When did it gain prominence?
- Why did it take hold?
- Summary: What is its status today?
It is not my wish to get technical and sophisticated. This little presentation is just an overview. Read more »
95 THESES AGAINST DISPENSATIONALISM
1. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ claim that their system is the result of a “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie) of Scripture, it is a relatively new innovation in Church history, having emerged only around 1830, and was wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era.
Response: By “plain interpretation” Ryrie simply meant grammatico-historical hermeneutics (G-H) (see his book Dispensationalism, 79-88). There is nothing novel about this. G-H was employed by the Reformers. The issue is about whether to use G-H consistently across the board. This, as Ryrie sates, is what sets off Dispensational hermeneutics from other theologies.
That “plain interpretation” only came to light in the 1830′s is an egregious error which any textbook touching upon the subject will rectify. That it should be employed consistently when interpreting Scripture is more to the point. But the point is a minor one. The argument is that if something is “relatively new” it must be refused admittance. This commits two clear errors: 1. this would have to apply to G-H (or Covenant Theology) circa 1550-1650. G-H was not the preferred hermeneutic of the “Church” for over a thousand years! It used to be “a relatively new innovation.” 2. But the main point here is that this abuses the quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. One cannot use Tradition to trump Scripture. Tradition (as Reason and Experience) is subservient to Scripture. What really matters here is whether Dispensational theology is biblical. I say it is. The authors and signatories of the 95 Theses say otherwise. That is where the matter must be settled.
2. Contrary to the dispensationalist theologians’ frequent claim that “premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church” (Charles Ryrie), the early premillennialist Justin Martyr states that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” Premillennialist Irenaeus agreed. A primitive form of each of today’s three main eschatological views existed from the Second Century onward. (See premillennialist admissions by D. H. Kromminga, Millennium in the Church and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology).
Response: We are glad that the reader is directed to two books to check out this assertion. The “quotes” from Ryrie and Justin remind us of a Watchtower magazine. No way to check them out. But to get a better idea of Erickson’s opinion I submit the following:
“The first three centuries of the church were probably dominated by what we would today call premillennialism…” (Christian Theology, 1213 cf. 1215).
To this agree John Hannah (Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, 306), and James Orr (The Progress of Dogma, 345-346). Orr writes, “So far as the early Churchhad a doctrine of the last things it was prevailingly chiliastic, i.e., millenarian.” In a footnote he gives Papias, Justin and Irenaeus. It would not be difficult to find similar statements in most authoritative texts.
This is another incidental matter. That a minority held differing views on the millennium in the first three centuries may be true. But premillennialism (though not dispensational) was the popular view. Read more »
Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Muether, Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.
Any biographer of a man like Cornelius Van Til needs to assume certain things. First, Van Til’s thought, though brilliant, is not always easy to divine. Second, that this is made more problematical by the coming together of at least two different obstacles: a. Van Til’s sometimes awkward way of putting things, and, b. the difficulty many of us have with obeying the injunction to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Third, one who would write about Van Til must keep in mind that owing in no small part to the foregoing points, the famed Westminster apologist is often not closely or sympathetically read by his opponents, who content themselves too much with the misrepresentations of him which have been handed down as unquestioned truths over the years. Fourthly, these characterizations help serve the agendas of those conservative Christians who like to flirt with wayward evangelicals who enjoy rubbing shoulders with non-evangelical intellectuals like Barth, Balthasar or Ricoeur. It is for reasons such as these that the uncompromising thrust of Van Til’s thinking, and its conscious antithetical attitude towards unbiblical opinions must be explained if his important work is to be appreciated, especially by readers who may desire to be introduced to the man and to understand his influence.