A “Must-Read” Booklist For Those Who Want To Study Theology (3)

Part Two

This post will be the last set of recommendations for those whom one might call “beginning students.” I had said that I would do Church history and biography, but first let me say something about the apologists Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis. Surveying some of the works of these men does not mean that I endorse everything about their methodology or substance, but the importance of their work speaks for itself.

Francis Schaeffer wrote small but thoughtful books about worldview. His style requires a little effort to adapt to, but his concerns are of great relevance today. The first works by him that you should seek out are those which comprise what is known as The Trilogy. Those are, The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. They can now be purchased in a single volume. These books deal with the consequences of abandoning Truth and Reason, and the reality of God. Yes, you’ll have to put your thinking caps on.

Also important by Schaeffer are his Death in the City, True Spirituality, and The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. Finally, his How Should We Then Live? is a sweep through history with a diagnosis of Western despair. I’m not saying you have to read all these titles, but do try and read some of them.

C. S. Lewis was a man of great erudition but with a working man’s outlook. Of his fiction works, everyone should read (or listen to) his Chronicles of Narnia. As well as being rattling good stories they explore Christian themes such as temptation, folly and its consequences, the virtues, sacrifice, redemption, the struggle to do the good, and hope. After that I recommend the deeper, more “philosophical” yet still entertaining “Space Trilogy” (or “Ransom Trilogy”). These are remarkable reflections on the fallenness of our world, on providence and the reality of the spirit world. Lewis displays the arrogance and folly of intellectuals brilliantly; something we need to put our fingers on today.

Two more fictionalized accounts from his pen are The Great Divorce; an imaginary bus trip from “Hell” to the border of “Heaven.” The depictions of slavery to sin, and of the half-light in which we live when contrasted with Heaven are memorable. The second is The Screwtape Letters, which is profound yet delightful set of correspondence between an older demon to his apprentice regarding keeping a man from seeing truth, from dwelling on reality, and from trusting “the Enemy.”

Other non-fiction books by Lewis are Mere Christianity, and Miracles. Lewis is a thinker of the first order and his works need to be reread regularly.

Church History

Church History as History generally, seems to have suffered in our perverse and narcissistic times. It is essential that Christians have some grasp of their heritage. It links them with those who have now gone to their reward. In this regard I think the following books are most helpful:

Sketches From Church History by S. M. Houghton, and The Pilgrim Church by E. H. Broadbent. Of American authors see Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, and Earl Cairns’ Christianity Through the Centuries.

A few books highly recommended to go with the above are J. C. Ryle’s Five English Reformers and Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century. Both are superb. S. M. Houghton edited the book Five Pioneer Missionaries which is very good. Then there is Leland Ryken’s study of Puritanism called Worldly Saints which is worth a mention, as is the similar volume by Peter Lewis called The Genius of Puritanism. But I’m pushing it a bit by including those titles as they’re a little tougher to get through.


There are countless biographies of notable men and women of the Church. Some of them are maudlin encomiums of a revered individual, few are warts and all portrayals. Here are some suggestions:

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton is still the classic biography of Luther, although I also like Herman Selderhuis’s Martin Luther – A Spiritual Biography.

Since I referred to warts and all I am reminded to include Lady Antonia Fraser’s terrific biography of Oliver Cromwell: The Lord Protector (in England its title is Cromwell: Our Chief of Men after Milton’s description).

We have to have a biography of Spurgeon, and Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biography fits the bill admirably. Anything by Dallimore is worth reading. If you can get it I advise reading H. C. G. Moule’s brilliant biography of Charles Simeon. Then there is the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by A. A. Bonar. Most of the biographies of John Pollock (Whitefield, Cambridge Seven, Hudson Taylor) are very good. Much the same holds for Kevin Belmonte (Wilberforce, Chesterton, Moody), although I can’t recommend all his stuff.

There are several good biographies of C. S. Lewis by Roger Lancelyn Green, George Sayer, and Alan Jacobs.

I close with Christopher Catherwood’s fine Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Family Portrait. I know there are many volumes I could and probably should have included, but I must end somewhere. I shall pick things up when I do the list for “Advanced” readers.

Review: Martin Luther – A Spiritual Biography

Review of Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography, by Herman Selderhuis, Wheaton; Crossway, 2017, 347 pages, hardback.

Quite rightly, in view of the historical and spiritual importance of the Reformation, there have been a spate of books about Martin Luther; this year, and indeed this day, being the five hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the movement into flame – the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses onto the church door at Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517.

The author of the present book, Herman Selderhuis, has distinguished himself with his work on John Calvin, including a study of Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms and The Calvin Handbook.  He has also written a similar biography to this on John Calvin.

The very first thing I want to say about this biography of Luther is that it is very well written.  Selderhuis has a plain, pithy and subtly tongue-in-cheek style that really makes the material flow.  The second thing I would say is that this is not biography lurching into hagiography.  The book presents the Reformer as a very flawed but endlessly fascinating individual.  Luther was, for example, proud (179) and stubborn (181).  His greatest sin was undoubtedly his anti-semitism (286-288).  Even though there is some mitigating evidence provided by Ernest Schweibert’s The Reformation, who states that four times Luther sought to employ Jewish instructors of Hebrew at the university, there is overwhelming evidence that Luther’s attitude towards Jews was bigoted and ungodly (Further confirmation of this can be found in the first chapter of Hans-Martin Barth’s very fine The Theology of Martin Luther).  And even though it is anachronistic to blame Luther for the use made of him by the Nazis, the fact that his invectives could so easily be utilized makes it difficult to remove the odium that has subsequently been heaped upon him.

It is a testament to the many-sided character of the man that Martin Luther is still eminently inspirational and worth reading about.  He was a man of decisive character and great courage, being able to go against convention for conscience sake.

The world was a different place then.  Satan and demons were at large everywhere:

Miners, who worked in darkness deep underground, were terrified at the thought of meeting an evil spiritual being. (21)     

As for God, He was too lofty, too holy, and far too demanding for any sinner to know if he had done enough to receive his grace (e.g, 63), although after his trip to Rome he began to have doubts (71).  His lectures in theology and the Bible from 1513 to 1517 saw him searching for and developing a distinctive theology of grace which eventually found its center in God’s offer of righteousness in Christ (89, 108).  The whole thing is so well summarized at the start of chapter 6 that I quote it below.

A society that was based on the conviction that people have to restore their relationship with God changed radically when a new foundational conviction emerged: that God in Christ accomplished everything.  God’s justice was no longer the threat that drove someone to pursue a morally upright lifestyle, but rather, it was a gift that motivated people to gratitude.  This theology, this new relationship between God and people, removed the logical basis of the mass, pilgrimages, veneration of relics, celibacy, monastic life, purgatory, preoccupation with the salvation of the dead, and the all-encompassing and supreme position of the church.  Luther’s theology brought something totally different from what previous attempts at reformation had sought.  The fact that God provided righteousness instead of requesting it made it necessary to reconsider the church, preaching, lifestyle, marriage, education, politics, heaven and hell, death, and the Devil. (135-136).

This really was a sea change in European culture.  The knock-on effects are still being felt in our day.

Along the way Selderhuis dispenses with a few of the myths surrounding Luther’s oath to St. Anne in a thunderstorm (43-44), that Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German, and even the fact that Luther himself almost certainly did not nail the 95 Theses to Wittenberg Church door.  The Theses were nailed to the door, but it would have been a student who would have been entrusted to put them there (100).  Whatever romantic notions have to disappear before these details, the main facts are unaltered.

The author is an expert in the Reformation and he moves with ease from one personality or to another and one stage of Luther’s career to another.  He provides his information in such a winning way that I have to agree with Michael Haykin’s assessment on the flyleaf: “This is how biography should be written.”

Crossway Publishers (who provided me with this copy) are to congratulated for producing such a readable Life of Martin Luther.

An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 2)

Part One

 3. Allegorical Interpretation continued.

But what we must keep in mind is that allegorical interpretation was not foreign to Jewish understanding of their Scriptures in the first century.  Maier can say, “Jewish interpreters of the first century were convinced that the Holy Scriptures contained more than what the sensus literalis offered.” – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 68.

Thus, we should not yield to the naïve temptation to think that the Jews held to single-sense literal hermeneutics.

So what did the use of allegory accomplish?  In one important sense it enabled Christians in earlier ages to locate themselves and their situations in the Bible story.  As one writer puts it,

“…allegory was one of the main means by which Scripture continued to be a channel of the life of Christ to the church, rather than a dead letter.  It especially helped maintain the identity of a people.  It enabled Christians of the fourth, or seventh or fourteenth centuries to see themselves in the sacred text – and they can still do so today.  It is a community building manoeuvre, in which Christians of any ‘present’ are bonded with those of the past.” – Stephen I. Wright, “Inhabiting the Story,” in Behind The Text, eds, Craig Barthlomew, etc. 509.

Looked at that way, it is easy to see the attraction of allegory, just as it is easy to understand the urge to apply every verse in the Bible to Jesus Christ, or to erect large theological edifices via typology today.

4. From The Third to the Fifth Centuries.

It is no coincidence that allegorical interpretations of Scripture filtered into both the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church via Alexandria.  It was there that Clement (c. A.D. 150-215), and Origen (c, A.D. 185-254), used allegory to find ‘deeper’ meanings in the OT and NT. They particularly found difficulty in assigning OT prophecies about Israel to the Christian Church. But by discovering a mystical sense to Scripture, they could reassign troublesome passages and explain away what appeared to them to be incongruities within the Bible. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who was a native of North Africa, was the greatest theologian-philosopher of the Early Church.  He came to Christ through allegory (Maier, 69).  It was his endorsement of the allegorical method of interpretation which had the decisive influence upon hermeneutics up until the time of the Reformation. Thus it was that early Roman Catholic allegorism was given its impetus by the Alexandrian school under Clement and Origen, and then through the Bishop of Hippo.

Origen’s prominence as a Bible scholar influenced many interpreters of the Latin church. One of these, the Donatist Tychonius, was the man who would set out the principles of interpretation which Augustine would follow in his ideal of relating everything to Christ. A major premise of Augustine’s interpretation was that the Catholic Church was the City of God – the kingdom. Therefore, Old Testament statements which gave promises to Israel were to be re-interpreted so that the promises were now inherited by the Church.  He often allegorized Old Testament passages in order to solve its “problems.”  He did this so skillfully that it is hard to resist his conclusions, even if they are drawn precariously from an allegorical method.

Augustine’s elder contemporary, Jerome (c. A.D. 341-420), was a man of great learning, particularly in Hebrew and Greek. Although his first commentaries followed the allegorical approach, later in life he adopted a far more literal hermeneutic. This was due, in the main, to the influence upon him of the Antiochene school, which we will describe presently.  Jerome’s later Commentary on Daniel, says Dockery, “remained strictly within the confines required by the text.”  Thus, “Through Jerome’s influence, a modified Antiochene literalism was mediated to the later church.” – David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 133.

The school of Antioch in Syria was renowned for its exegetes Lucian (c. A.D. 240), Diodore (d. c. A.D. 394), and Theodore of Mopsuesta (c. 350-428), and for its great preacher John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 354-407), and its greatest theologian, Theodoret (c. A.D. 393-466). All of these men employed a more literal hermeneutic than the Alexandrians, wherein the literal sense was given precedence.  But it would be a big mistake to assert, as some do, that the Syrian approach to interpretation was the same as what has been called “grammatical-historical interpretation” in the present day.  To give two quick examples: Theodore of Mopsuesta was often so literalistic as to deny the prophetic teaching of many OT prophecies.  On the other hand, Theodoret often used spiritualizing in his expositions.

Still, it was true that, as a rule, the Antiochenes were far more concerned about reading the text for what it said rather than seeking for secondary meanings.  But, in the end, it was the spiritualizing of the Alexandrian school that prevailed and which was to hold sway for the next thousand years.

Next time:  Approaching the Reformation



An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 1)

This is a revision of a series I wrote some years back.

The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a long and involved one. For many centuries some have approached the Scriptures supposing that they should be interpreted literally whenever possible. Others have believed that one ought to look deeper than the surface meaning to find its true spiritual center. Still others have believed that the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament is opened up by means of three or four hermeneutical strategies. Today, the amount of interpretative proposals for various parts of Scripture is dizzying.

In this article I shall try to review the main schools of interpretation throughout the history of the Church. But we’re going to start off where I intend to end: with the Bible’s own witness.

1. Pointers within the Bible.

If we take certain statements in the Bible itself as our guide, it will help us to see how the Holy Spirit wants us to interpret His Word. For example, Isaiah wrote,

To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isa.8:20).

What is important about this verse is that it implies a standard by which false teaching can be measured. For that standard to have any credence it has to be stable and clear. The prophet’s reference to “the law and the testimony” (cf.v.16) implies that the whole Old Testament is to be viewed as possessing this stable character. Taking a different example, in the opening lines of the Book of Ezra we read,

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. (Ez. 1:1-2)

A simple passage like this presupposes a lot. For one thing it assumes that what God said to Jeremiah could be easily verified by Ezra. It only follows from this that if Jeremiah’s prediction of a return from exile after 70 years had not actually come to pass the rest of the Book of Ezra would have never been written. In the Law the test of a true prophet was whether what he said came true (See Deut. 18:22). For that to be a reliable benchmark the fulfillment would have to match the wording of the original prophecy literally. If this were not the case then anyone could spiritualize the prophecy and claim its fulfillment, no matter what the original wording said.

In John 21:21-23 the Evangelist seems to want to make a point that what God says must be grasped before we can correctly interpret. Thus, we think there is scriptural warrant for stable and plain hermeneutics. The anchor-points for this hermeneutics are God-given and are themselves clearer than perhaps anything else in the Bible. These are the Covenants which God Himself has made with men. But this is something we shall have to return to.

2. The First Two Centuries of the Early Church.

Before anything else is said, we must stress that the Post-Apostolic church was not inspired and should not be looked upon as authoritative in matters of interpretation. However, their use of Scripture is often instructional.

We cannot understand the church of the second and third centuries without knowing something about the difficulties which these early Christians encountered. On the one hand there was the very real threat of persecution from a Roman state not at all sympathetic to the beliefs and aims of these people. And on the other hand there was the persistent problem of heresy, which dogged the early church. These two major issues both played their parts in the formulations of hermeneutics. As a defense against the polemics of the influential anti-Christian Roman writers, such as Pliny the Younger, Menander, Celsus, and Porphyry, believers had to produce apologies that could address them, and in particular, their attacks upon the Old Testament, and their misunderstanding of the Christian God.

But alongside this the Christians had to respond to the rise of Gnosticism and the proliferation of Gnostic writings. To cite two examples, Valentinus (born, c.A.D. 100) was an extremely effective communicator who was perhaps even on the verge of becoming a bishop before his heresies were discovered. It was his followers who first composed commentaries on New Testament books. Second, Marcion (active ca. A.D.140-155) taught that the Old Testament was useless as a Christian document. He also severely edited the New Testament, producing one in which only Paul’s epistles were included, together with a condensed version of Luke’s Gospel, carefully purged of any Jewish “contamination.” All the Gnostics held that the God of the Old Testament was another lesser deity than the God of the New.

This then, was the kind of pressure that was being applied to these early saints and their Scriptures. It is hardly surprising then, that the most prominent Christians of the second century were apologists. The main three were Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Then there was Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern day France), who wrote extensively against the heretics, produced the first formulation for biblical interpretation: the so-called “Rule of Faith.” This formulation was really a short statement of doctrine. Irenaeus believed that a Trinitarian meaning attached to both Testaments. This Trinitarian schema was observed in the apostolic witness, which, in turn, placed an emphasis upon the Christological interpretation of the whole Bible.

Hence, the Rule of Faith gave a kind of unity to the Church. Consequently, any interpretation which did not measure up to this Rule of Faith (such as the teachings of the Gnostics) could be rejected as contrary to the preaching of the Apostles. The Rule of Faith also made the interpretation of the Bible a province of the Church, and so, of Church tradition. But Irenaeus also promoted non-literal interpretations. In the midst of dealing with heretical teachings he allowed for hidden meanings in some passages of the Bible. As one writer puts it:

“…the early Christians acknowledged that their claim to the Christian meaning of the Jewish Scriptures [i.e. the OT] was less a matter of what these documents said, and more a matter of how they were to be read…For passages obviously commensurate with the Rule of Faith, the reading would be literal (with allowance for genre distinctions and figurative expressions) whereas, for passages that required a second reading to agree with apostolic teaching, that second reading would be figurative.” – William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader, xviii.

One may notice how already the assumed doctrines protected by the Rule of Faith begin to authorize the kind of interpretations deemed acceptable. This side-effect would have serious repercussions later on.

It is worth noticing that all the early fathers of the Church were premillennial in their eschatology. Nevertheless, they also tended to drift to and fro between literal or face value interpretations and spiritual interpretations.  This was clearly the case with the third prominent writer, Origen (born 184/5).

Roy Zuck notes that, “From these early church fathers it is obvious that while they started out well, they were soon influenced by allegorizing.” Owing especially to Origen’s influence (he wrote commentaries on many books of Scripture), this form of interpretation became the dominant one from the middle of the second century until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It would therefore be helpful to review this phenomenon before examining the major figures of Jerome and Augustine.

To be continued…

A Great Set of Studies on Augustine

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:

Augustine and Southern Baptists: Introduction

Augustine and Divine Omnipotence

Augustine and Human Nature A

Augustine and Human Nature B

The Upshot of Augustine’s Assumptions: Divine Determinism

Augustine’s Exegetical and Hermeneutical Method

Augustine’s Critics and Legacy A

Augustine’s Critics and Legacy B

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.

Churlish Biography – Review of “Augustine: A New Biography” by James O’Donnell

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 let’s not leave out O’Donnell the Moralist!

Every so often he wanders off into a scenario of his own devising 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. Continue reading “Churlish Biography – Review of “Augustine: A New Biography” by James O’Donnell”

Yesterday’s Giants – Part 3

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).

Yesterday’s Giants – part 2


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.

Yesterday’s Giants – part 1 (Re-post)


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.

The Importance of Trying to Determine How Ancient MSS. Were Used

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.

Zetzel’s Observations on Textual Transmission