Method and Historical Theology: Introduction

ed5c933f4486e1962ecf9a902280b8f4Long attentive to its past, Western civilization often fails to address questions concerning how to appropriately and accurately understand history. This is especially true in the realm of Church history and theology, where faith has often found itself cast as the reason for not engaging the inconvenient events of the past. Over the month or so, I will be running a series which reflects on important tenets of historical methodology and their value for the study of Christianity. These reflections arose not only at the end of a doctoral course devoted to reading and thinking about what historical methodology is, but also came about within the wider context of a mind which attempts to take seriously the truth claims of Christian orthodoxy, the Modern climate of historical inquiry, and the Postmodern critique of monolithic perspectives. The approach offered here, then, is one of historical theology, where history and theology[1] are read together. Continue reading

Reflections on the Institute for Creation Research

Institute for Creation ResearchThe topic of “Creation versus Evolution,” at least in many circles, often elicits a good deal of debate, many times in rather a heated manner. The point of this post is not to provoke strong emotions in anyone, but only to offer a few thoughts about the Institute for Creation Research, an outspoken advocate of scientific “Creationism.” The integration of faith and reason in science has been an important consideration for many American Protestant Christians over the past 120 years. In the early 1900’s, intellectual change on a number of levels was sweeping across America, especially in relation to biological science. In 1925, the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN made Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (first published in 1859) and brought a creation/evolution dichotomy to the forefront of American culture. Over the next few decades, the increasingly divided American Church responded to an increasingly secular scientific culture in a variety of ways. Many of the more “liberal” denominations acclimated to the changes in the philosophy of science, while many “conservative” denominations either fought against such changes or (more often) merely abandoned serious scientific inquiry altogether. By the 1970’s, the divide on creation and evolution was nearly complete, a divide that has directly impacted the nature of American Christianity on a variety of topics (scientific, theological, ethical, and political) since. Continue reading

Book Review: The Joy of the Gospel (Pope Francis)

The Joy of the GospelFew people alive today are more popular and polarizing than Pope Francis. No one seems sure quite how to respond to the Bishop of Rome, nor are they sure whose side (if any) he is taking in ongoing theological and cultural debates. Sensational media claims about Francis “revolutionizing” the Catholic faith are overblown, to be sure, but Catholics of a staunch traditionalist bent also right in noting that the current successor to Peter is no mirror image of his papal predecessors. It was thus with great anticipation that I read Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, if for no other reason than to engage the Pope on his own terms. Continue reading

The Bible In American Life

Not too long ago, a report titled “The Bible in American Life” was released by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Based on a nation-wide survey on Bible use and knowledge, this report found a number of things, some of the most interesting being:

— About 50% of Americans read “scripture” at any point during the last year; 48% of Americans read the Bible at some point last year
— 9% of American read their Bibles daily
— The King James Bible is the most popular English Bible translation by far
— The favorite passage among Bible readers is Psalm 23 followed by John 3:16
— Less than half of those reading the Bible sought help in understanding it
— 31% of those reading the Bible did so on the internet; 22% used devices of some sort
— Generally, Protestants read their Bibles more than Catholics, and (theologically) conservative Protestants more than liberal Protestants Continue reading

Facebook Trends and Book Lists

BooksThe past several weeks my Facebook friends have been swapping lists of their “Ten Most Influential/Important Books.” Now, typically social media trends don’t excite me and giving into peer pressure does not sound very enticing. But when it comes to books and reading, the bibliophile within cannot resist. So I gave in. But seeing all those lists got me thinking: we all have books we have read. What about books that we should have read? In other words, are there some books, or at least some types of books, that educated Christian men and women should read in order to understand who we are and how we have gotten where we are culturally?

As both a lover of books and creator of lists, I had made a “Ten Books You Should Read” list before (and, whatever else I’m about to suggest, we should all consult and read the “Canon” of Western Civilization). Never are my lists intended to be “closed canons”, but instead starting points. So I returned to and modified my list of books that every American Christian should read: Continue reading

Readings from Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Martin Luther remains one of the most influential men in Western History, as his attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church sparked nearly 500 years of debate and division within Western Christianity. It has been said that more has been written about Luther than any other person aside from Jesus of Nazareth, as vast amount of Luther’s writings and complexities concerning his life, teaching, and writing abound. In examining his Preface to the Latin Writings, the famous Ninety-Five Theses, and Freedom of the Christian, Luther presents a variety of concerns and ideas in the earliest stages of what is now called the Protestant Reformation, including his critique of institutionalized power, abuses concerning indulgences and the penitential system, the priesthood of the believer, proper Christian ethics, interpreting Romans 1.17 and justification by faith, and a variety of other theological tropes and concerns. Examining these writings as a whole, Luther’s main argument appears to be that God’s gift of faith should enable the Christian to live as both free from the necessity of works-based justification and the institutionalized penitential cycle as well as remaining duty-bound to love of neighbor and continued penitence for sin. Here we will look at each of these three accounts of or documents from Luther’s early reform program, drawing out their respective main concerns within the scope of Luther’s overall early reformation of the Church. Continue reading

The Historical Luther: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post summarizes the perspectives of Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb on Martin Luther, and offers some concluding remarks.
Martin Luther

Martin Luther

After this series on the Historical Martin Luther, we are left with some questions: Which of the works that we have surveyed best describes and explains the life, development of thought, and theology of Martin Luther? Does Oberman, Hendrix, or Kolb distinguish himself amongst scholars as presenting a perspective that offers adequate explanation for the general scholarly consensus regarding Luther? While there are certainly differences of opinion and scholarship concerning Luther, the core of this theology, his educational and theological influences, and the “reformation breakthrough,” each of the scholars that we have examined here has done a job worthy of commendation. To choose a single scholar over the other two would be a disservice to the great amount of unity between the accounts. Certain divergences can easily be explained as a difference in interpretation concerning facets of Luther for which we have little hard evidence. Each scholar presents contributions to the realm of Luther scholarship that are valuable resources for future study in the field. Continue reading

Comparing Historical Luthers: Reformation Breakthrough

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post examines Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb’s respective positions concerning Luther’s “Reformation Breakthrough.”
Rendition of Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses

Rendition of Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses

Scholars have long debated over Luther’s critical and radical breakthrough that led to the reform movement in Wittenberg (and indeed across Europe during the Age of Theological Reform); whether this understanding was a single idea or multiple ideas, where such an idea came from, whether the development of the idea was sudden or gradual, and so on. Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb each offer differing perspectives concerning Luther’s reforming principle that challenged and changed the Western Church.[1] Oberman argues that the road to the “reformation breakthrough” began in earnest with Luther’s development of the principle that, “careful heed to the scriptures was the only scholarly basis for theology and thus the reliable standard of truth.”[2] In terms of chronological development of ideas, much of Luther’s early processing appears to be lost to historical research. Despite the lack of much clear evidence concerning the breakthrough aside from Luther’s own autobiographical account of the incident, Oberman argues that between 1518 and 1519 Luther came to an understanding of ‘justification by faith,’ and began “teaching the righteousness of God as that righteousness through which we are made righteous.”[3] This landmark interpretation of St. Paul in Romans “rent the very fabric of Christian ethics” and caused a great deal of turmoil within the Church.[4] Though in Oberman’s interpretation this understanding for Luther was opposed at every turn by the Devil, this fundamental shift in the understanding of justification formed the basis for Luther’s subsequent theological development, as well as the theological development of many other reformers and Protestants. Continue reading

Comparing Historical Luthers: Education and Background

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post, the beginning of our second week, examines Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb’s respective positions concerning Luther’s education and background.


Woodcut of the medieval university

Woodcut of the medieval university

The educational and spiritual formation of Martin Luther has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and the studies of Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb all give treatment to Luther’s education, family life, and upbringing. Though citing the dearth of information from Luther’s early years in Eisleben, Oberman takes a critical approach to his formative years under Hans and Margaret, viewing them as important in an understanding of Luther, though not in the overbearing manner of earlier scholarship.[1] One social factor that Oberman attributes to young Martin as the result of his parents was his sympathetic understanding of the common folk; though not peasants in the strict sense of the term,[2] Oberman argues that Luther learned much practicality and commonality from his parents.[3] Additionally, Oberman infers from Luther’s prayer to St. Anne that he had received at least some form of training and understanding of traditional medieval Catholic popular piety.[4] In considering Luther’s education at Mansfield, Oberman seeks to refute the once prevalent idea that he had been influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life of the Devotio Moderna movement.[5] Oberman also writes at some length concerning the role of witchcraft in young Martin’s life, though he ultimately concludes that while the Devil remained a very real figure for the mature Luther, the folk lore of the common German people had a negligible effect on his thought, writing that, “How curious that there should still be the gullible Hanna and her superstitions which are supposed to have had such a decisive influence on Luther.”[6] Continue reading