Acts 2:1-13

Tongue of FireActs 2:1-13

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Have you ever heard of xenoglossy?  Xenoglossy is the phenomenon in which a person wakes up from a coma or emerges from some traumatic experience speaking a foreign language.  It is somewhat akin to Foreign Accent Syndrome, or FAS, accept that FAS involves a person suddenly having a thick foreign accent that they somehow cannot turn off.  (Think, for instance, of Madonna and the strange British accent she developed upon moving to England.  I jest.)

Xenoglossy is apparently a disputed phenomenon, with many doctors questioning if it is even real.  Even so, for those who claim to be suffering from it, it appears to be real enough.  It would indeed be a strange phenomenon, would it not, to wake up speaking a foreign language?

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on xenoglossy lists our text as an early example.[1]  Of course, the New Testament sees what happened at Pentecost as something else entirely.  In the scriptures, this is not a freak occurrence resulting from trauma or other mysterious causes.  Rather, it is the deliberate act of God, granted at just the right moment and for very specific reasons.  This miraculous and astounding visitation of the Spirit was foretold by Jesus and had the worldwide proclamation of the gospel of Christ as its aim.  As such, it has distinctly theological, not neurological, overtones.

To get at the events described by Luke in Acts 2:1-13, let us construct a sentence.  Our sentence will have three parts, each highlighting an aspect of this miraculous display.

The Church is a God-empowered body…

We will begin our sentence like this:  “The Church is a God-empowered body…”  Whatever else is happening here, it is clear that God is visiting His people in power.  This is more than evident in the vivid imagery of our passage.

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4a And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit

First of all, note carefully the way in which Luke describes what happened here.  John Polhill explains.

Luke was well aware that he was using metaphorical language in these verses by carefully employing adverbs of comparison:  “like the blowing of a violent wind”…”what seemed to be tongues” (literally “tongues as of fire,” v.3).  He was dealing with the transcendent, that which is beyond the ordinary human experience and can only be expressed in earthly analogies.[2]

Yes, Luke was trying to describe something that required descriptive powers that no language possesses:  a movement of God.  What is most telling is that he speaks of this movement in elemental terms of “wind” and “fire.”  These are images that are pregnant with theological meaning.

First, Luke says that there came “a sound like a mighty rushing wind.”  The word for “wind” here is pnoe, which is a form of pneuma, also the word for Spirit.  Luke uses pneuma in verse 4, undoubtedly intending to create a link between the wind that fills the house and the Spirit that fills the disciples’ lives.

The Hebrew word for wind or spirit is ruach.  Tellingly, we find this word at the beginning of the Bible.  In Genesis 1, we read:

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Fascinating!  At creation, the Spirit of God hovered “over the face of the waters” or “the deep,” bringing creation out of the void as God spoke.  The Spirit, then, is the divine breath or divine wind that brings something from nothing, the Spirit of the living God that creates everything from nothing and that can make a dead heart live!

We see the same image in Ezekiel 37, when Ezekiel prophecies over the dry bones.

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Here again we see the animating, empowering, enlivening Spirit of God bringing energy and vitality and life to that which previously had been still and dormant and inactive and dead.  This is what the Spirit does to the unregenerate heart:  it resurrects it, bringing life into its otherwise dead chambers.  The wind that fills the house is the Spirit that fills the heart!

Then we see tongues as of flame descending.  This image of divine fire is likewise filled with provocative theological imagery.  You will recall that the Lord appeared before His people in the wilderness as a pillar of fire in Exodus 13.

17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” 18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. 19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” 20 And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.

God goes as fire before His people.  Furthermore, at the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist foretold that Christ would one day baptize His followers with fire.  Interestingly, John says this in Luke’s gospel in Luke 3.

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Here the two images are combined:  wind and fire.  Both bespeak the mighty movement of a holy God in and among His people.  A Christian prayer from the 9th century says this:

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,

Vouchsafe within our souls to rest.

Come with thy power and heavenly aid,

And fill the hearts which thou hast made.[3]

The Church is a God-empowered body!  He has come to His people!

…of worldwide Jesus proclaimers…

The Church is a God-empowered body of worldwide Jesus proclaimers.  The holy fire of God falls upon the Church and it falls for a particular purpose.

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.

Fire falls, and, significantly, it falls in the shape of tongues…and the tongues of the gathered Church are loosed with bold proclamation about the greatness of God in Christ.  Fire falls, and the Church speaks!

Throughout human history, one of the most shocking, brutal, and violent acts that a person or group of people would commit against another person whose words they found offensive or dangerous was the act of violence against that person’s actual tongue.  Consider Giordano Bruno, who was accused of writing heretical tracts at the close of the 17th century.  On February 17, 1600, Giordano Bruno was executed after being condemned to death by the Inquisitor Robert Bellarmine.  As an act of mercy a pouch of gunpowder was tied around his neck before the flames were lit.  His tongue was also nailed to his jaw.

Or consider Denise Stephenson.  Her parents were slaves in Halifax County, Virginia.  She relates the following story:  “The master wouldn’t even allow the people to pray.  They had to have their prayer meeting in secret.  Once they saw a man praying and they nailed his tongue to a tree…Had to be careful in those times.”

Or consider Pope Leo III.  Pope Leo III had his tongue cut out by an officer named Pascal.

Or what about a monk named Erluin?  In 910 AD, after Erluin “suggested that his monastery return to strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, his fellow monks ripped out his tongue and blinded him.”[4]

What is interesting about this disturbing trend is that it is the exact tactic the devil takes when he wants to derail the Church:  he seeks to remove our tongues.  He does not do so, normally, by actual physical violence, but rather by tempting us to employ our tongues in the service of every topic but Christ, by silencing us on the most important issues.  How unbelievable it is that the Church seems so often to remove its own tongue when it comes to proclaiming the truth of Christ!

The tragedy is further compounded by the fact that those who deny the truth are in no way silent or shy about their errors.  It seems at times that the only people who will not bear witness are those who know the truth.  This should not be!  Commenting on our text, the 7th/8th century English Christian, the Venerable Bede, put it beautifully when he wrote:

Now the Holy Spirit appeared in fire and in tongues because all those whom he fills he makes simultaneously to burn and to speak – to burn because of him and to speak about him.   And at the same time he indicated that the holy church, when it had spread to the ends of the earth, was to speak in the languages of all nations.[5]

“To burn because of him and to speak about him.”  Friends, how can we be silent about our King?  When the Spirit fell upon the Church at Pentecost, it fell to enable them to speak!  The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “What is pronounced strengthens itself. What is not pronounced tends to non-existence.”[6]  Would that we understood that fact:  “What is not pronounced tends to non-existence.”

If Christ is real to you, you will proclaim His Kingdom!  If Christ is your King, you will not be shy to speak of Him!  If Christ has raised you from death to life, you will not be timid about this amazing miracle!

And to whom does the Church proclaim?  To the nations!  They speak in the tongues of the nations present.  While the New Testament does speak of “speaking in tongues” as we traditionally think of it, that is, of speaking in unearthly languages, that does not actually appear to be what is happening here.  Will Willimon explains.

            It is doubtful that Luke is describing ecstatic speech here, the glossolalia of 1 Corinthians 14, because that sort of speech needed translation for anyone to understand.  Judging from the discussion of glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 14, the Spirit manifested its presence in a variety of ways in Paul’s churches.  Luke’s concern is with the description of a Spirit-empowered intelligible proclamation in foreign languages (2:6,8).[7]

At Pentecost, then, when the Spirit fell, He fell upon the assembled Church to empower and enable them to speak the gospel in the languages of the gathered nations.  Jesus had already told them that they would be His witness “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Now it begins.  And as it began so it should continue.  We should, we must continue the worldwide proclamation of the gospel!

…whose message inevitably causes people to be amazed, perplexed, or angered.

The Church is a God-empowered body of worldwide Jesus proclaimers whose message inevitably causes people to be amazed, perplexed, or angered.  These are the reactions the disciples received as a result of their bold and surprising proclamation.

7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Let us be clear:  wherever the gospel is truly proclaimed, people will respond by being amazed, by being perplexed, or by being angered.  The reactions of the crowd were not all of one type then and they are not all of one type now.  Then, as now, the reactions are diverse.  Some believe.  Some are confused.  Some mock, accusing the disciples of being drunk.

What is significant is the fact that the early Church was too struck by the beauty of the message and the privilege of being able to proclaim it to worry about the divers responses of the crowd upon hearing it.  Their task was to speak, not to worry about the reactions of those to whom they spoke.  They clearly wanted all to believe, but the fact that many would not believe did not dissuade them.  They were a people on fire, a people on fire with holy fire.  Tongues of flame had taken up residence in and among them.  The incendiary message of the gospel was their message because it was God’s message, and they were God’s!

Church, when we read of this amazing miracle and hold it up against our current practice and our current witness, how stark is the contrast?  The God of 1st century Pentecost is the God of 21st century Central Baptist Church.  If you have come to Christ, He has poured His Spirit out upon you.  If the Spirit caused the early Church to speak with passion and boldness of Christ, how can He, who does not change, not cause us to do the same?

Brothers, if we do not speak, we achieve our silence only by fighting against the Spirit’s desire to be heard!  If we are quiet in the face of the watching world, it is to our shame.  The Spirit is a proclaiming, revealing Spirit.  He bears witness to Christ.  This means that if this Spirit takes up residence in the repentant, believing hearts of Christ’s Church, the Church must do what the Spirit does….and He has!  He has taken up residence within us!

Church:  speak!

Church:  speak!!


[2] John B. Polhill, Acts. The New American Commentary. Vol.26. David Dockery, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.98.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), p.50.

[4] /Bruno_Giordano.html / PA51&lpg =PA51&dq= %22nailed+his+tongue%22&source=web&ots=2OdB7722Dv&sig= L4av RRhkeh LN8KQCwsVqtosbCsk#PPA51,M1 / cut+out+ his+tongue%22&source=web&ots=mP0JzYuN9V&sig=PBQ6vA5tlg9w1tSHZg-5TPwAo5k#PRA11-PR7,M1 /

[5] Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.22.

[6] “The Church’s Way of Speaking”, id_article= 224&var_recherche=tongue

[7] William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988), p.32.

J.N.D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop

1433119J.N.D. Kelly’s Gold Mouth is, simply put, one of the better biographies you will ever read.  Learned, engaging, illuminating, and well-paced, you will learn a great deal not only about this amazing Bishop of Constantinople, but also about the complexion and intrigues of 3rd/4th century Christianity.  I personally found many of the side details to be as compelling as the primary focus of the study.

Chrysostom was a fascinating, focused, and intense follower of Christ.  There was an edge to him, we might say.  This edge could lead him to be unbelievably stubborn, incendiary, and difficult.  He was a man with big faults…as men of big virtues sometimes tend to be.  He was a polarizing figure, but I daresay his excesses were born more out of genuine convictions about who he was and what the right course of action should be than out of any kind of arbitrary cruelty.  There can be no doubt that Chrysostom loved the Lord and loved the church.  He could be an austere and extreme person, but he was a pastor above all.

Kelly does a masterful job of showing us Chrysostom’s mind and heart, the good and the bad.  He demonstrates effectively the amazing devotion that large portions of the populace held for John even after his death.  It is interesting how the loyalty of the people and their reactions to this or that move surrounding the whole drama of Chrysostom affected the course of events.  Kelly does a great job explaining the ecclesiological climate of the day:  the ongoing chess game between bishops and church leaders, the uneasy relationship between the Church and the state, the turbulent clash between orthodox believers and schismatics, the political maneuvers, the ambitious, the ideologues, and the peacemakers.  What a fascinating period of history this was!

In all, one gets the feeling that Kelly has been honest and fair with Chrysostom.  Those wanting romantic hagiography will be disappointed by this book as will those who want a hatchet job.  But if you would like a clear, honest depiction of one of the more compelling and enthralling figures in Christian history, you will not want to miss this biography.

Very, very good!

G.K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi

Chesterton’s little biography of St. Francis is essential reading, not only because of its penetrating insights into the magnificent person of Francis but also because of its insights into the magnificent person of Chesterton.  It is not a conventional biography, but then it is not a conventional subject, much less a conventional author. (See how you start sounding like Chesterton when you type right after reading Chesterton?! Ha!)  Rather, it is a spiritual biography of Francis of Assisi that seeks to explore a matter more interesting than the details surrounding his life, mainly, Francis’ actual mind and heart.

The book does assume some knowledge of Francis, but, in truth, enough of the rudimentary details of his story are provided where the reader with no knowledge of Francis will not be completely lost.  Still, if Chesterton’s approach is confusing, it may be better to read one of the more fundamental biographies available today, probably Omer Englebert’s work (which is at least available on ebook format).

What Chesterton does (with uncanny but, for him, typical brilliance) is draw the reader into the mind-boggling simplicity and singleness of vision that characterized Francis’ view of life after breaking with his old way of life as the son of Pietro di Bernardone.  Chesterton treats Francis sympathetically, describing him as a man who, quite literally, started over.  When Francis gave himself to God, embracing the principles of poverty, charity, and obedience, he did so with a startling purity and, some might say, naiveté.  Chesterton is at his best when defending this naiveté.  He recognizes the danger of trying to institutionalize or force these virtues on all of Christendom in the way that Francis embraced them personally, arguing that it was more necessary for Francis to be absorbed into Christendom than for Christendom to be absorbed into Francis, but he sees Francis nonetheless as a necessary and crucial reminder and challenge to the church and the world.

Chesterton fairly marvels, as any observer must, at Francis’ courage and daring.  His treatment of Francis’ attempt to convert the Muslims to Christianity during the Crusades is fascinating and insightful.  Furthermore, Chesterton’s treatment of Francis’ “ignorance” (in his discussion of Francis as a poet) was really well done.

Along the way, Chesterton rightly skewers the skepticism of the modern world, specifically regarding the more fantastic stories surrounding Francis (which Chesterton, himself, does not necessarily buy hook-line-and-sinker), but more generally regarding the modern penchant of swallowing camels and straining on gnats.  He is right to do so, and Chesterton is at his best in pointing out these modern hypocrisies.

Above all, however, this book, more than any Chesterton book I have ever read, is amazingly inspirational.  There are times when your heart soars reading a book like this.  I suspect that part of this is the similarity between Chesterton and Francis.  Now, of course, there are MANY dissimilarities.  Chesterton could not be called a champion of self-discipline and restraint!  However, they both maintained a kind of childish wonder at the world that God has made.  They both evidenced a purity of faith.  They both, in a sense, lived lives quite against the current of the cultures into which they were born.  One can imagine Chesterton laughing at a bird just as easily as one can imagine Francis doing the same, and both from the same deep theological storehouse.

Chesterton is no Francis.  Chesterton himself would say that very quickly.  But it is hard to imagine a writer who could understand Francis like Chesterton did, or who, in ways fascinating and compelling, saw the world in the same way.

This a very good book.

Read it.

Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism

Here is a fascinating, insightful work on a particular little slice of church history.  Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism explores the nature of 4th century baptism in Milan and in Hippo through the stories of the two figures that dominated those two cities in that time:  Ambrose and Augustine, respectively.  The book also explores the complex relationship between Ambrose and Augustine and how, over time, Augustine was driven to a more explicit appreciation for Ambrose as he, Augustine, conflicted with the Pelagians (who likewise attempted to appeal to Ambrose).

The baptismal details are utterly fascinating.  Wills demonstrates Ambrose’s almost theatrical approach to the act of baptism with persuasive detail.  This is not to say that Ambrose indulged in empty, cheap theatrics.  Rather, it is simply to say that Ambrose developed a much more exhaustive, detailed and visual pageantry around the act than Augustine would after his departure from Milan for Hippo.  To some extent, Ambrose’s approach to baptism was shaped by his battle with the Arians just as Augustine’s will be by his battles with the Donatists and Pelagians.  Augustine’s more scaled-back approach would also be influenced by the more rustic and less-sophisticated nature of Hippo itself, in contrast to Milan.

As a Baptist Christian, the details of the baptismal practices of both men challenged me in many ways.  On the one hand, the seriousness with which they approached the preparatory rites for the catechumens has caused me to think long and hard about the amount of care we take in preparing people for baptism today.  While Ambrose’s approach was more exhaustive on the front end, he also held to an inappropriate (if I dare say it) degree of progressive revelation concerning the mysteries of the faith, many of which were only revealed in more detail after the act.  Augstine’s pre-baptism activities were less detailed overall but more forthright and, in this sense, preferable to Ambrose’s.  I was also appreciative of Augustine’s freedom of thought in not tying the act of baptism so stridently to Easter and being willing to baptize whenever it was needed.  In short, there was, I think, I kind of helpful reductionism in Augustine’s approach to baptism whereby he honed the act more succintly and more strategically (a relative term, I know) than Ambrose’s more flamboyant approach.

The relationship between the two men was very interesting, as Wills demonstrates with great effect.  In fact, it is legitimate to ask whether or not there really was a “relationship” per se between Ambrose and Augustine at all.  The younger Augustine found Ambrose to be an admirable, imposing but somewhat aloof character as he prepared for his own baptism at the Milanese bishop’s hands.  One can feel the frustration in Augustine’s complaint that all he wanted was a few minutes with the bishop to ask some important questions, but also the admiration in Augustine that the bishop was so busy and so focused in handling the behemoth amount of tasks before him that he could not grant such coveted one-on-one time.  Augustine appears to have shaped some of his ecclesiastical practices in contrast to Ambrose, but there is no real hint that this is done vapidly or merely to make a point.  Again, Augustine’s circumstances and the nature of North African Christianity played their own parts here.

In the end, Augustine is driven back to an appreciation for Ambrose and employs the man’s name and writings effectively in his battle with the Pelagians.  While a skeptical reading of this may suggest that Augustine simply needed Ambrose’s name, it seems evident enough that, despite their differences, Ambrose did indeed leave a significant mark on Augustine that lasted throughout Augustine’s life.

This is a wonderful and very insightful book on a fascinating period in Christian history.  Check it out.

An Interview with Arminius Scholar Dr. Keith Stanglin

Dr. Keith Stanglin is the Associate Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Austin, TX.  He and Tom McCall are the authors of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace that will be out next month from Oxford University Press.

I have become aware of Dr. Stanglin’s work on the often-misunderstood and often-neglected theologian Jacob Arminius and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions.

Dr. Stanglin, let me begin with an odd question, but one I think you might appreciate:  was Arminius an “Arminian”?  (I ask this in the same sense that people often ask, “Was Calvin a Calvinist?”)

            If “Arminian” means a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian who believes we somehow earn salvation by making the first move toward God, then Jacob Arminius was not an Arminian.  Arminius’s rejection of Pelagianism and his affirmation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone could not be clearer in his writings.  In fact, John Calvin was more of a Calvinist than some modern theologians presume, and he was more of a Calvinist than Arminius was an Arminian.  The Arminianism of the Remonstrants (Arminius’s followers in The Netherlands) and that of the Wesleyans have continuities with Arminius, but the discontinuities are also significant.

Calvin would have been comfortable as a delegate at the Synod of Dordt, and probably as a Westminster divine, too.  But when one hears of “Arminian” doctrines of grace, predestination, perfection, atonement, sin, free will, and human reason, these accounts often owe very little to Arminius himself.

I have heard even a Reformed stalwart like R.C. Sproul bemoan the fact that seemingly nobody reads Arminius.  Why do you think so few people, especially those who profess to disagree with Arminius, actually read his works?

Most people don’t read Arminius for the same reason most people don’t sit down and read Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth.  Arminius was a Protestant scholastic, and he wrote academic works not intended for laypeople.  Besides the academic disputations, he did not write anything for publication; his works were published posthumously.  He has no magnum opus with the appeal of John Calvin’sInstitutes.  Although he preached for fifteen years as a pastor in Amsterdam, we do not have a single transcript of a sermon.  Whoever reads Arminius must be prepared to wade through Aristotelian causality, Ramist bifurcations, and many lists.  Of course, I think the reward is worth the effort.

It could be that opponents in particular don’t read him because it’s easier to refute a caricature and tear down a straw man.  I remember hearing Reformed M.Div. students at Calvin Theological Seminary say that, once they read Arminius, they really found out he wasn’t so bad after all.  Some, in fact, were inclined to his position.

Do you believe that publishers and Arminian scholars have not done a sufficient job of making Arminius’ works available in more user-friendly and accessible formats, or is the absence of such formats attributable to a lack of market demand for such?

Luther, Calvin, and Arminius are the three most important and enduring figures of the Reformation, each lending his name to a distinct theological trajectory.  But if one compares the status of the works of Luther and Calvin with those of Arminius, the Arminians should be embarrassed.

There has never been a modern critical edition of Arminius’s works, and the editions that we have are incomplete.  Many of his works have never been translated, and many letters have never been transcribed.  The translations that do exist at present are in stilted, nineteenth-century English.  A new, readable, and accurate translation would go a long way in making Arminius accessible.  Some of us are making plans to remedy these shortcomings, but doing these transcriptions, critical editions, and translations takes time and funding.  If you know any interested donors, let me know!

Scholars have definitely dropped the ball.  Arminius has often been dismissed as an anti-Calvinist who only had one important thing to say.  Scholars are rediscovering the breadth and virtuosity of his theological system, but I can count on one hand the Arminians who are currently doing technical work on Arminius, and still have a couple of fingers left over.  There is no denomination, seminary, research or study group, or institute that bears the name of Arminius; but this is incongruous with the extent of his impact.  If the scholars, churches, and seminaries most influenced by Arminius do not promote within their own circles the importance of claiming their heritage, then the market will never demand what it doesn’t know about.

There is some demand, though, despite the neglect.  The Nichols and Nichols edition of Arminius’s works was last reprinted in 1986, and it’s still selling online for at least $70.  Never-before-published works and new translations would be a real shot in the arm.  Completing Arminius’s works and making them accessible should be one of the top priorities of a Protestant and evangelical ressourcement.

What do you think Arminius would make of the modern American Christian landscape were he dropped into our country today?

I have often thought of how historical figures would react to life today.  Remember that Arminius is closer in time and in worldview to Aquinas than he is to us.  He would be absolutely disoriented by American Christianity.  His head would spin when he learns how the Enlightenment and the modern nation state have undermined Christianity in the West and what historical criticism has done to the church’s Scripture.  Because he despised dissension among Christians, Arminius would probably be quite disappointed with the ecclesiastical fragmentation that has happened among Protestants over the last four centuries.

Once his eyes got used to the scenery, Arminius would see some positive aspects that continue his legacy.  He would appreciate the ecumenical spirit and the overall openness of churches to cooperate across denominational lines.  He would be pleased to see that, in general, Americans need not fear persecution or harassment for their beliefs.  He would feel a little satisfaction to know that many (or most?) “Reformed/Calvinist” Christians don’t really believe in unconditional predestination.  He would love the practical emphasis on good deeds and social justice that permeates American churches.

Arminius would be happy to find that we do not spend so much time fighting about doctrinal intricacies and opinions, but sad to learn of our biblical illiteracy and loss of theological grammar.  He—along with any of his contemporaries who happen to time travel with him—would wonder why mainline churches don’t seem to believe the Bible, and why evangelical churches have loud bands and sing kids songs in worship.  Arminius and his friends would be astonished at the secularization and lack of piety in the church.  But, above all, these time travelers would be alarmed to discover television and how much time we waste in front of it.

You are not a Baptist, but do you have any thoughts or perspectives on the current controversies surrounding Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention? 

Both Calvinism and Arminianism are present in Anglo-American Baptist history.  What I find interesting about the SBC is that many non-Calvinists do not want to self-identify as Arminians, and many non-Arminians do not want to self-identify as Calvinists.  Efforts to transcend the categories of these debates are generally well-intentioned but usually not well-informed.  I have my doubts whether Arminianism is accurately understood.  Most so-called “Calminians” are probably unwitting Arminians.

Can both groups get along in the same denomination and congregation?  They have in many places for a long time.  The practical similarities between Calvinism and Arminianism—especially their milder forms—make close ecclesial fellowship and cooperation possible.  Both groups will evangelize; both will admonish Christians to repent of sin; both will acknowledge God’s grace and love in their lives. On the theological level, however, there are significant differences in the doctrine of God and the extent of his salvific intent.  Baptists will simply have to ignore these differences or agree to disagree.

I would add that, of the two, Arminianism seems to cohere better with believer’s baptism than does Reformed theology.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin understood this point in their polemic against the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists understood this well in their affirmation of free will in salvation and their voluntary submission to baptism and membership in the church.  This is not to say that Reformed theology and believer’s baptism are absolutely incompatible, or that Arminius couldn’t be a paedobaptist (which he was!).  There just seems to be more tension with those combinations.  Like his Reformed predecessors, Arminius opposed Anabaptism; unlike his predecessors, he did not oppose their doctrine of free choice.

Where would you direct a modern reader to go if he or she wanted to begin studying Arminius and his thought?

The Declaration of Sentiments is the best place to start.  And skip his introductory account about attempts to have his hearing.  In the main body, Arminius addressed the principal controversies of his day one year before he died.  It represents his mature thought on these issues, though it is by no means his whole theology.  He directed this speech to laymen, so it is less burdened than other writings by scholastic categories, and therefore more accessible to beginners.

What do you see as Arminius’ greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Tenacious perseverance was one of his strengths.  He could pursue a theological question with unbridled energy and with little concern for whether his contemporaries would approve of the outcome. Arminius comes across as someone who was not easily intimidated.  He was on a faculty filled with the strictest “Calvinists” in the land.  He was well aware that his words and deeds were always being scrutinized.  When he died at about 50 years of age, his sympathizers all seemed to realize that they lost someone irreplaceable.  He had the right balance of humility and confidence.  Arminius promoted Christian piety and practiced what he preached.  He was a dedicated minister and family man, a popular teacher, and an indefatigable polemicist.  He could see through the arguments of his opponents and communicate his ideas effectively.  And it helps that he was, as his theological opponents also acknowledged, wicked smart.

It’s hard to say what Arminius’s weaknesses were.  In some ways, we don’t know enough about his personal life to note any vices.  His opponents accused him of teaching things in private that he wouldn’t say in public.  He denied such charges, though he readily admitted that he didn’t always say everything he privately believed.  In so doing, he was merely being prudent with his words, something that most pastors and theologians have found to be a good practice.  Otherwise, I think that most “weaknesses” we could come up with would simply show that he was a child of his age.

Why do you believe the legacy of Arminius is worth safeguarding today?

            Arminius’s legacy includes an emphasis on Christian unity and toleration within limits, the priority of Scripture above confessional documents, and the role of good works in the Christian life.  These issues are still important in the church today.

Above all, he dealt with the relationship between God and humanity, and this is where he made a lasting contribution in the history of theology.  The doctrines of God, humanity, and their mutual relationship are fraught with notorious difficulties.  Arminius articulated a system that resolves most of those difficulties in a historically orthodox, balanced, and coherent way.  The questions related to these doctrines are also perennial issues in the church.  When the church wrestles with God’s love, foreknowledge, grace, human freedom, sin, providence, predestination, sanctification, and assurance, but fails to consult older brothers such as Arminius, we do ourselves a great disservice.


Baptist Theology with Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

The following interview with Dr. Garrett took place on March 2, 2009.  The occasion for the interview was the publication of his Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study in January of 2009.


Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. has been a Baptist theological educator for over fifty years.  He has taught primarily in three Baptist institutions: Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University.  He was at Southwestern Seminary from 1949 to 1959 and from 1979 to 1997 with post-retirement teaching until 2003. 

We really do appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Garrett.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. Garrett, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment.  I wanted to share just a brief word of appreciation for you as a former student, if that is ok.  I thought I might do so by sharing just a small paragraph from Paul Basden’s chapter on you in the 2001 edition of Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Broadman & Holman).  Paul Basden wrote this:

“For five decades now James Leo Garrett, Jr. has taught and written about Baptist theology.  Given the size of the schools which he has served, one can only begin to estimate the number of students whom he has influenced to think biblically, historically, and theologically about the Christian faith.  Who knows how many young seminarians had their minds broadened in his introductory theology courses or received flashes of inspiration in his famous ‘after-lecture’ discussions, or first encountered the mystery of the Trinity in his beloved patristics elective, or learned to grapple with Luther or Augustine in one of his doctoral seminars?  Who knows how many times he invited classes into his home for a meal or recommended former students for church positions or faculty appointments or counseled confused young ministers about their calling or career?  He has had an enormous influence on Southern Baptists during the past half century.  Beloved by students and fellow professors alike, Garrett is recognized by many of his peers as the most knowledgeable Baptist theologian living today.” (p.298)

Dr. Garrett, I just wanted to say here at the beginning that I share in those words of Paul Basden and just want to thank you here at the outset for your life, your ministry, and your work.  As a former student, I owe you a great debt of gratitude as do so many others.  So, thank you very much.

Well, Pastor Wyman, those words, I am sure, are vastly exaggerated, but I am grateful to have had you as one of my students.  Thank you very much.

The occasion of this interview is the publication in January of this year, two months ago, of Dr. Garrett’s new book, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which was published by Mercer University Press.  I have only recently finished reading the book and it is a kind of education in and of itself.  So let me begin, Dr. Garrett, by asking this question:  “Why this book?”

Well, Pastor Wyman, I will answer it in two ways.

First of all, I will give a more personal answer.  In 1950, when I was a very young instructor at Southwestern Seminary, the faculty allowed me to introduce a new elective course in the curriculum called “The History of Baptist Theology.”  I taught that course at Southwestern during the 50’s and again, later, in the 80’s and 90’s and at Southern Seminary during the 60’s and early 1970’s.  That course involved having students write papers on many subjects.  Then, after my 2nd retirement from teaching in 2003, I began an intensive reading of all of these sources and a research project which eventuated in this book.

Now, why this book?  No book of this kind, of this nature and scope, on this subject, had ever been written in the history of the Baptists so far as I knew.  I did not know when I started that William Brackney would write A Genetic History of Baptist Thought and that it would be published in 2004.  I did not know that when I began my book and I’m sure he did not know, when he was writing his, that I would be writing mine.

So these are the only two books that have attempted to cover comprehensively Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist theologians, and theological movements and controversies.  There have been books on each of those three areas, many books, but only these two on the whole field.

It is a massive book, well over 720 pages of text, not including the index of names, and I imagine when you sit down to begin to write a Baptist theology covering four hundred years that you have really got to think through your methodology and your approach.  What was your methodology in writing this book?

As I just said, it sought to cover in an integrated, not a segregated, interpretation, the major confessions of faith adopted by Baptists, the major theologians among the Baptists, and the major theological movements and controversies that have affected Baptist life.

Now, I tried to do this by using both what we call “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” that is, the original writings of the people we are discussing and then what’s been written about them.  Take two examples:  one is John Gill, back in the 17th century, the other, E.Y. Mullins, at the beginning of the 20th century.  Both of those were very influential Baptist theologians and it’s important to read, study, and interpret their own writings.  But because of their importance, there have been many things written about them, both favorable and unfavorable, both positive and negative.  So it is important to look at those assessments as well as what I would say in interpreting these.

Then we tried to let the authors speak for themselves before I attempted to make any assessment of their work.  Then, too, I operated on the basis of a five-continent or a six-continent view of Baptist history.  It depends on whether you include Australia and New Zealand in Asia as to whether you have five or six continents.  When I was a very young seminary student, I bought Latourette’s seven-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, which was the first comprehensive missionary history of the world from a Christian viewpoint.  It greatly influenced my life.  Then, working with the Baptist World Alliance, as I have since 1965, I was intent on having a book that would include more than Britain and North America.  Dr. Brackney confines his work to Britain and North America, and Dr. McBeth, in his history of the Baptist movement, included North America, Britain, and continental Europe, but not the other continents of the world.

So that’s what I would say about methodology.

It is an interesting look at Baptist theology over the last four hundred years, and I am just curious to know why the world would need such a book on Baptists appearing in January of 2009?  Why Baptists in 2009?

We need the book, first of all, because we haven’t had this kind of thing before.  Dr. Brackney and I have, in that sense, been breaking new ground.  We needed an overview.  We need to rise above the particulars.  Some people would understand the 17th century and some might understand the 19th century, but we need a view of Baptist theology that is comprehensive.  That is why the effort was made.

Now, Baptists need that for their own self-understanding.  This is a great need today in our churches:  that people understand what the Baptist identity is.  What are the distinctives and what are the beliefs that Baptists share with other Christians?  So there was a need for the book for Baptists and, then, for others to know what theology Baptists have had.

At one time there were people saying we did not have any Baptist theology.  Theology was only written by Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians or somebody else.  But this book is, I think, quite clear evidence that that is not true.  So, the Baptist movement with its distinctives- -its religious freedom, separation of church and state, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition without rejecting all tradition,  the tendency to want to go back to the New Testament to recover apostolic or primitive Christianity,  the baptism of believers only by immersion and, with that, the goal of a regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions; these are some of the things that are important for Baptists.  Sometimes these distinctives have been taken by other groups.  They are not altogether distinctive of Baptists today, but the mix of these distinctives is what has made the Baptist movement distinctive.

You mentioned regenerate church membership, and you have written on regenerate church membership.  I know of at least one article you have written specifically devoted to the issue of regenerate church membership and, of course, you have published on the issue of church discipline as well.  Let me just ask you about your thoughts concerning the recent discussions that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings concerning an effort to see a resolution passed, that was ultimately passed last year, to call churches back to a regenerate church membership.  Do you think this is a favorable development?

Yes, I do.  I think that the Convention cannot mandate that, of course, because that is a decision that the local churches have to make, but to advise and counsel and encourage is certainly in order.  I am very grateful for the good work that you have done in the field of church discipline.  I think what you have written is the most practical set of helps that we have out there, available today, to help existing churches recover some sense of church discipline and positive discipleship.

So, yes, I think the regenerate church membership goal is a worthy one and it means, of course, that in the last century or so, many Baptist churches have been very loose in terms of their membership rolls and this is what they are trying to address today.  It is at the front end, in terms of members being received, and then it is a continual problem of authentic membership in the years that follow.

Let me ask you to generalize just a little bit.  You are a historical theologian, and you cover, obviously, a very long period of time, four hundred years, in your study of Baptist theology and much longer, of course, in your two-volume Systematic Theology.  But I am curious to know, as you look at four hundred years of Baptist history, who you would see as the top three or four Baptist figures, from any time period, whose work, in your opinion, ought to be carefully studied by Baptist pastors and laypeople today?

Well, Pastor Wyman, I have a hard time limiting my answer to your requested three or four.  I tend to want to identify more.  Initially, in responding to you, I might be prone to say, “Oh, we have so many of the older works of Baptist theologians that are not in print.”  But then I have to reckon what the electronic revolution has done.  I have been told, on good authority, that almost all the works of Baptist theologians that are more than seventy-five years old are now available electronically.  And through Google search, most of them are free, and there are other places where you have to pay for the text to be produced.  So the availability will not be a big issue in my answer.

I would say, if we’re going back to the 17th century, that John Bunyan is the one who, above all, should be read.  Not because he is necessarily right on all points, but here was a man who, with limited formal education, but with a passion for God and for the Bible, was able in rather remarkable literary form to write on many theological themes, not only in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  We have today a wonderful thirteen-volume edition from Oxford if you want to buy the whole thing, but I believe you can get it free electronically.  So I would say, from that early century, John Bunyan.

From the next century, I would take John Gill and Andrew Fuller, especially Andrew Fuller.  His works have been republished in recent years.  He was a very practical theologian, a pastor.

From the 19th century, I might want to mention John L. Dagg, whose work is in print.  He was a Southern theologian.  Then the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are still filled with theological content and can be read widely because they were preached from a pulpit in Spurgeon’s day.

In the 20th century, I would speak of people like Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm and Millard Erickson.  Most of these works are still in print.

And then, of course, in my book I have a group of baby boom theologians that certainly have works in print.  So I’ve given you a broader answer, but these are some of the ones that I think would be worthy of attention.  Now, that is not to say there are not others.

This may overlap a little bit, but let me ask you more personally, for yourself, who the Baptist figures are who have had the greatest impact on your own thinking and work?  Let me put it another way:  do you have favorite Baptist authors that you return to time and time again?

Pastor Wyman, as you may know, I was a student of W.T. Conner, the theologian at Southwestern for thirty-nine years, and my own teacher during the last days of his teaching career.  When I began as a young teacher, of course, he had shaped my own thinking.  I had read his works.  I wrote my dissertation on his theology.  So it would be important for me to list him as the number one influence in the early formation of my own theology.

In the 1950’s we did not have many evangelical theologians writing at that time.  Non-Baptists like Emil Brunner, for example, were greatly helpful to me as I struggled with the teaching of theology.

But then we had to deal with Landmarkism, which was alive and well at that time in Baptist life, still exerting quite an influence.  So I had to read J.R. Graves even though I didn’t always agree with Graves.  I had to interact with him.

And later on, as I began to be more mature in my theology, I had to rely on people like A.H. Strong as well.  Then I was colleague to Dale Moody at Southern Seminary, and nobody who lives with Dale Moody could be unaffected by Dale Moody.  And then, of course, Carl Henry was very active.  When I came to write my own theology, beginning at the age of 63, I had to deal with Millard Erickson, who had already written his Christian Theology.

So these were some of the people who were very formative.  Now, I read others.  I read P.T. Forsyth.  I read E. Y. Mullins.   I read Luther.  I read Augustine. I read Calvin. I read Schleiermacher.  I taught Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in seminars. But for Baptist theologians, these would be the first.  And then I would say, as far as biblical theologians, I think I was more greatly influenced by H.H. Rowley, as an Old Testament theologian.  In the New Testament field, Ray Summers, my teacher, was very influential on my views of last things, or the doctrine of eschatology.

This is likewise a bit of a personal question, along the same lines, but I am just curious about your own reading habits.  Do you read daily, every day?

I usually read something, yes, every day.  There will be days I do not because of schedule.  Right now I am reading the festschrift honoring my colleague Leon McBeth, which was published late last year, called Turning Points in Baptist History.  I am reading that and will be finishing that shortly.  That is a book that has theological as well as historical significance.

I know you are retired, but do you have any other writing projects in the wings?

I cannot answer that with a clear affirmative.  For some years, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and I have contemplated co-editing a history of the doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians.  I do not know if we will ever get that done.  He has done considerable writing on the Reformation period, and I have done some writing on the patristic period.  If we can ever get the medieval and modern sections done, we may be able to have a book.  There is no comprehensive, good, reliable history of that doctrine.  But Yarnell has other priorities, and I am not as well as I used to be; so we do not promise anything in that area.

There might be some things I wish I had done in the past.

Well, that raises another question:  are there any books that you have not been able to write that you wish you would have written?  I guess, perhaps, that would be one, to this point, that you would like to see done.

There are two others I will mention.  When I was at Southern Seminary, I gave an inaugural address on the methodology for the history of Christian doctrine, or historical theology, in which address I proposed that the best way to do this today would be to have an international, interdenominational team of scholars to do a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine.  No sooner had I given that address and it was published in the journal Review & Expositor that I received a letter from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University telling me that he was launching a big five-volume history of Christian doctrine and, by implication, he was saying that my project was not needed.  My later move to Baylor with different duties meant that I was not teaching the history of Christian doctrine for a while.  After coming back to Southwestern and resuming that teaching in 1980, although I gave some serious consideration to doing something myself, I gave up the project because there is so little market out there since most seminaries require systematic theology but not  historical theology.  So I did not attempt that big project which I originally had proposed as a massive cooperative effort.

As for the other, for many years I taught a course at Southwestern on the theology of the American cults.  We treated Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church, the Ba’hai World Faith, and various other movements that have been deviations from either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  I, at one time, contemplated a textbook in that area.  But, you know, each one of those religious movements is a field of specialization itself.  You can be very good on the Mormons and you may be much less competent on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time.  One needs to be competent on all of these in order to  write a first-rate text, I felt that I never got to the point where I could do that like I wanted to do it.  So I retired, after many years of teaching, without producing a book in that area.  We still do not have a very good textbook in that field after all of these years.

Let me go back for just a minute to this letter you received from Jaroslav Pelikan.  I know he passed away just a couple of years ago.  Is that customary scholarly habit to receive a letter saying that your proposed writings are not necessary because it is being done?

I do not think the letter was quite that specific.  I think it was more of an indirect statement.  I must say, of course, I have never received another letter like that.  I did not feel any resentment about it at the time.  My wife seems to remember the incident more than I do.  I do not know how common that is, because I never experienced it in any other setting.  But evidently he was wanting to be a little protective of his own interests.  He produced a very important five-volume set, which is very topical rather than chronological.  Therefore, it was not the method that I used in teaching.  Mine was more chronological than topical.  So I never did use his book in my classes, but certainly I have used the volumes.  They are a very important contribution to the literature.  There was never any ill-will between Dr. Pelikan and me.

Dr. Garrett, I really do appreciate, and I know that readers of this interview will appreciate, your taking the time to answer some questions and, God willing, if you will   allow it, when the next book comes out, we will talk again.

Well, let me say in closing, Pastor Wyman, that I appreciate talking with you and having these questions from you.   I would like to say to you as pastor of your congregation there in Dawson, GA, and other church people who should read or ponder these words, that I think one of our greatest challenges today is in the local Baptist church: to recover a sense of Baptist identity, to teach our heritage, to share with our people our stories, our heroes, our heroines, our triumphs and our tragedies, and to make being a Baptist Christian a much clearer and more responsible thing in today’s world.  I believe every local Baptist church has that challenge today, and I know if anybody can meet that challenge, you can do it there in Dawson, GA.

I appreciate that so much.  Thank you so much.  Let me just encourage, in closing, readers of this interview to consider purchasing Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study.  It is a great resource and would be a great help in the teaching of our distinctives and our identity and heritage in the local church, wherever you are.  I encourage all of you to get this book.

Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity

I highly recommend Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity.  This book is part of the Eerdman’s Guides to Theology series.  It appears that there are only two contributions thus far to this series (this and one on feminist theology), so I can’t make any comment on the series as a whole.  Regardless, this volume is a very well done and thought-provoking overview of the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the ages.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Trinity lately and trying to think through how a proper understanding of this biblical truth can impact not only our understanding of God, but also our lives together as Christians.  To this end, this book was very helpful insofar as it provides a concise but thorough look at how believers throughout the ages have understood this doctrine.  This is historical theology at its finest.  The snapshots are not so surface level as to be useless, neither are they so dense as to be cumbersome.  They provide, in my opinion, just enough information to give the reader a general but good sense of where Trinitarian thought was going in various ages of the Church’s life.

To me, this would be a good introduction to any study of the Trinity.  It sets the stage and helps us get a big-picture view of where we’ve been and where we’re going with the doctrine of the Trinity.  That’s a view I like to have when studying a particular doctrine.  It gives perspective and context.  And, as none of us arose out of a vacuum, it helps us understand our own minds.

If you’d like to begin studying Trinitarian theology, this would be a great place to begin.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition

In this fascinating and provocative book, noted historian Jaroslav Pelikan distinguishes between tradition (“the living faith of the dead”) and traditionalism (“the dead faith of the living”) and argues that tradition, far from binding the soul and stifling intuition, creativity, and freedom, provides the foundation on which these things exist and operate. As such, the book seeks to vindicate tradition against its detractors. Pelikan succeeds in creating a book that will cause all who read it to think deeply about tradition, whether one agrees with all of the particulars of the work or not.

As a Baptist, I found Pelikan’s frequent treatment of the Reformation to be very interesting. He is not altogether unsympathetic to Luther. This is good seeing as though he has edited a number of volumes of Luther’s works. Yet he devotes an entire chapter to John Henry Newman (a man he has also written on) and his journey towards understanding tradition that led him to the conclusion that to be intellectually honest he must join the Roman Catholic Church.

Regardless of one’s take on this, there is rich ground for discussion here. Furthermore, in an Evangelical Protestant culture in which the altar of the new seems to have been erected in a whole host of sanctuaries, this call back to the beauty of tradition is refreshing. There seems to be a growing Protestant backlash against the constant wave of innovation and, more so, against the presumptive attitude that demands this of “successful” pastors. I, for one, will attest that this backlash is largely responsible for my own reading of this book.

However, the reader will find no quick fixes here. This book is, at times, difficult, and not all will agree with Pelikan on every point (I didn’t). However, as an alternative to the cult of innovation that has invaded the modern church, we may see this vindication as a breath of fresh air.

Pelikan is to be commended. His is a voice deserving of consideration. I would encourage you to do just that.

Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion

Dancing Alone is the literary equivalent of finger nails on a chalkboard. It is shrill, intense, head splitting, and irrefutably attention grabbing. Having some familiarity with Frank Schaeffer because of my appreciation for his dad, the late Christian writer/pastor/apologist and pseudo-philosopher Francis Schaeffer, I was not completely caught off guard by this. Anyone who has viewed the film series for the book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? knows that Frank, who directed the film for his Dad, is not necessarily…um…subtle.

My wife and I read Frank’s thinly veiled autobiographical book Portofino and found it to be an extremely well written and hilarious book. We look forward to reading the sequel, Saving Grandma, as soon as we can. Dancing Alone is Portofino on speed. It makes and elaborates all of Portofino‘s basic contentions (i.e., the bankruptcy of the modern Protestant movement) but does so with none of Portofino’s charm. In this sense, it is louder than Portofino but not necessarily more persuasive.

But don’t get me wrong: it is persuasive. Frank Schaeffer is one of many Protestants who have joined the Greek Orthodox Church in search of a true depth of worship and a historical validation of theology and church practice. He rightly lambastes the cultural (for that is mainly what it is) “born again” movement and argues instead for a call to conversion that is substantive, grounded in the authentic church, and real.

Schaeffer’s answer to the shallowness of much Protestant life is the utter and complete rejection of Protestantism itself. He feels that Protestantism is inherently unsalvageable due to the fact that the shallowness and emptiness of Protestantism is a necessary outcome of its flawed foundation. I disagree. I disagree very much.

For one thing, Schaeffer’s brush is too wide. I know of no one who would not bemoan the current state of Protestant Evangelicalism. But I dare say that the assertion that there is not vitality in Protestantism borders on hubris and absurdity. God is certainly moving in mighty ways among Protestant believers and much good work is being done. There is also much substantive worship happening as well.

Protestantism is not a monolithic entity, and it appears that there is no longer a real consensus of theology under girding it anymore. I for one argue that certain branches of Protestantism are more legitimate than others. It is impossible to dismiss the whole.

Schaeffer disagrees. He argues that the Orthodox Church is the one, true, apostolic church. But in doing this he has bitten off more than he can possibly hope to chew. He cannot, I am sure, have hoped to dismantle the Protestant theology of the church, salvation, worship, and ecclesiology in this exhausting book, but this is certainly what he wants.

I am glad that Frank Schaeffer is Orthodox. He seems to have found his home. His experiences in fundamentalism were obviously troublesome, and I sympathize with him. In short, his diagnosis of the symptoms are irrefutable. But his diagnosis of the supposed disease behind the symptoms, much less his proposed cure, leaves much to be desired.

Fisher Humphreys’ Baptist Theology: A Really Short Version

I picked up this little booklet and read it while waiting to see my brother, David, receive his DMin. from the Beeson Divinity School.  They were honoring Dr. Humphreys and had just unveiled a nice collection of essays in his honor, so “Humphreys was in the air”, you might say.

I like Fisher Humphreys.  I never had the opportunity of having him as a professor during my time at Beeson, but I appreciate his work and I really appreciate his spirit and his obvious commitment to Christ.

Baptist Theology: A Really Short Version is part of The Baptist Heritage Library which is put out by the Baptist History & Heritage Society.  I was a tad bit on guard when I started this.  Dr. Humphreys is more “moderate” than I am, to use the language that surfaced during “The Controversy.”  The Baptist History & Heritage Society is likewise a fairly moderate group.  (I do not consider myself a fundamentalist and would frankly reject outright the suggestion that I am.  I’m an Evangelical and a conservative.  These categories overlap, at times, but there are also significant divergences.)

My suspicions were largely unnecessary.  This is a very helpful little booklet that I believe would be a good resource for helping laypeople understand who we are as Baptists.  It is, like all of Dr. Humphreys writings, accessible, practical, and helpful.  I’m very glad I read it and would recommend it, with some reservations.

I’m never terribly comfortable when somebody uses the phrase “most Baptists,” which Humphrey’s uses here a few times.  I probably don’t have any major qualms with the specific ways he uses it.  I did cringe a bit at this sentence:  “This is folk theology, the theology of most Baptists.”  But there again, I would not disagree.

Humphreys has a catholic heart, and he does want to stress that impulse: “The first Baptists treasured the great Christian traditions that they inherited even as they called for changes in beliefs, such as infant baptism.”

On page 12, Humphreys interestingly notes that Calvinism “entered Baptist life early.  It seems to have been a majority tradition for much of Baptist history; for more than two hundred years it was held by a majority of Baptists who wrote systematic theologies.  But today, most Baptists do not accept Calvinist theology.”  This last sentence is likely true, but, then, as Tom Ascol frequently points out, around 60% of Southern Baptists don’t even show up for worship at their own churches.  So there is a bit of a problem appealing to “most Baptists” today, which, let me qualify, Humphreys does only by way of observation and not for any overarching point. (Here, anyway.  He’s ground that axe elsewhere.)

I was intrigued by the suggestion on page 13 that fundamentalists believe in the “near” future return of Christ.  Is this so?  I’m not so sure.

I was prepared to grow irate on page 18 where Humphreys wrote that “Baptists who had been influenced by the Calvinistic theologian John Gill resisted the proposals of William Carey and his supporter Andrew Fuller to send Carey to India as a missionary.”  This is true, of course (i.e., “Sit down young man…”), but then there is the little matter of Carey himself being a Calvinist.  The temperature subsided a bit when I saw endnote 37 at the back of the book which points out that “Carey and Fuller were themselves Calvinists, but of a more evangelical kind than their opponents.”  I’m glad he included this rather important fact, but I do wish it would have been in the body of the text.

I was also intrigued by Humphreys’ definition of Founders Ministries as “an organization that promotes Calvinism among Baptists.”  I suspect that Tom Ascol would find that definition to be a bit too narrow for what Founders does and somewhat misleading as well.

Again, this little booklet is not without its flaws, and one may see the author’s leanings here and there, but, in all, this is an informative and helpful little introduction to Baptist theology.