Friedrich Zuendel’s The Awakening

The Awakening is a fascinating true story of one pastor’s courageous stand against evil and the revival that resulted from it. The tale concerns a 19th century German pastor named Johann Christoph Blumhardt who’s parish was the village of Mottlingen in the Black Forest. There are two main interrelated sections in this book, Blumhardt’s helping of a young possessed woman named Gottliebin Dittus and the revival that resulted in and around the Black Forest as a result. It is also a story of persecution, as Pastor Blumhardt lost many of his friends and received the guarded censure of the church due to his involvement in this case.

The book is written by a nineteenth century Swiss pastor named Friedrich Zuendel. Zuendel truly created something beautiful with this work. While one of his intentions is the historical defense of the events surrounding Blumhardt and Gottlievin Dittus, he obviously intends to speak to the issue of the church’s reaction to extreme instances of spiritual warfare and unusual movements of the Holy Spirit as well.

The first section of the book does an extremely effective job of helping us understand the admittedly bizarre events surrounding Gottlievin Dittus. Zuendel’s account of the possession and deliverance avoids all of the pitfalls that fictional accounts (and some historical accounts) of such events fall prey to: excessive sensationalism and an over-obvious appeal to the reader’s sense of spiritual voyeurism. He handles it with care and obvious sincerity. His use of Blumhardt’s letters from the time not only lend credence to the alleged events, but also paint a picture of a very careful pastor who battled with own his feelings over the possession.

This is book that both skeptics and gluttons of possession accounts would benefit from. Skeptics will be moved, if not to the point of conviction, then at least to the point of appreciation for both Blumhardt and Dittus. Gluttons of this type of thing will see the painful reality of true demonic possession and, as a result, will be encouraged to treat the issue with more care and caution than they currently do.

In truth, I felt that the last section would be anti-climatic, given the nature of the first section, but I was wrong. Instead, Zuendel’s account of the revival surrounding Blumhardt is even more powerful. The deliverance of Gottlievin Dittus set off a fire storm of controversy and accusations. In a sense, Blumhardt’s involvement in the case set in motion events that he certainly could not control by himself. People, seekers and skeptics alike, began to flock to him. Many claimed that Blumhardt’s prayers resulted in physical and mental healings. These claims brought Blumhardt a great deal of criticism and even some restrictions from his higher ups. Yet, the fact that many people’s physical, mental and spiritual lives were greatly enriched was beyond dispute. There truly was a revival in the Black Forest.

Blumhardt’s letters show that he was no charlatan. On the contrary, they validate the contention that he was actually a man of great moderation and care when it came to matters of healing and deliverance. He struggled himself over who was and who was not being honest in their search for healing, and he even turned many people away when he felt that they were just looking for a show. This meant that Blumhardt received opposition from those on both sides of the controversy surrounding him.

I found this book to be one of the most inspirational and moving stories I have ever encountered. Blumhardt’s moderation in the midst of admittedly extreme circumstances is admirable. The churches obvious reluctance to acknowledge the revival in the midst is perhaps understandable but ultimately regrettable. There are lessons in this book for all of us today and I would encourage you to buy and read this beautiful work.

Timothy George’s (ed.) God the Holy Trinity

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this collection of essays on the Trinity was.  Edited by Timothy George, these essays were originally delivered at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.  The contributors are an impressive lot:  Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T. Charry, Cornelius Plantinga, and Timothy George.

The essays approach the Trinity from a number of interesting starting points.  James Earl Massey (a prince of a man!) discusses the Trinity and African-American spirituals.  Avery Cardinal Dulles discusses the Trinity and Christian unity.  In a brief and fascinating essay, Frederica Mathewes-Green discuss the Trinity in the Old Testament.  J.I. Packer gives a very interesting look at Trinitarianism in the thought of John Owen.  Timothy George has penned a very helpful essay on the Trinity and Islam.

As I say, these are compelling essays, and each of them, to varying degrees, is helpful.  The highlights for me are (in this order):  (1) Cornelius Plantinga’s fascinating and soul-stirring sermon, “Deep Wisdom”, (2) Alister McGrath’s balanced and level-headed overview of and cautions concerning modern Trinitarianism, and (3) Timothy George’s careful but clear call for courageous Trinitarianism in the context of conversing with Islam.

I found Ellen Charry’s essay, “The Soteriological Importance of the Divine Perfections”, to be tedious initially, but it ended well and I think I get what she was driving at.  Furthermore, James Earl Massey’s essay, “Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals”, was good but I do wish it would have been longer.

Get this book.  It will sharpen your thinking about the Trinity.

Jesse C. Fletcher’s Bill Wallace of China

I would like to encourage any and all of you to take some time and read Bill Wallace of China. It is currently out of print, but shouldn’t be too hard to get a copy of.  I do not think I can recommend this book strongly enough or that I can adequately describe how powerful an experience reading it was for me. Jesse C. Fletcher is to be commended for crafting a work that is at the same time beautiful, shocking, convicting, and inspiring.

This is the story of how a quiet, unassuming, humble, middle-aged, American bachelor from Tennessee gave his life to the people of China. William Wallace was a medical missionary in Wuchow, China, during the turbulent times of the Japanese assault on China leading up to World War II and the rise of Chinese communism that ensued in the wake of that war. It is the story of a man who refused to leave his post when all others had. It is the story of one who won fame as a doctor among the Chinese, won many to faith in Christ, committed heroic deeds in his obstinate refusal to let a Baptist hospital die, and who ultimately died a brutal death in a Chinese communist prison at the hands of his guards.

If ever a culture and people needed true heroes, it is our culture and our people. Dr. Bill Wallace should rightly be presented as just that: a hero. It is hoped that you will purchase and read and share and be moved by this powerful testimony of one of God’s special children, martyr Bill Wallace.

G.R. Evans’ John Wyclif: Myth & Reality

“Wyclif,” writes G.R. Evans at the end of the Preface to her John Wyclif: Myth & Reality, “may not be lovable, but he deserves sympathy and a kind of respect.  What kind, and for what, the reader may judge from the following pages” (p.11).  Based on the pages that follow her Preface, I would say that the respect Evans appears to think Wyclif deserves is minimal at best.  Two-hundred-and-forty-five pages later, Evans concludes her biography with this:  “History gains rather than loses when it becomes possible to treat a hero as a complex and fallible human being, with all the dimensions which enrich as much as they challenge the earlier, simpler pictures of the man who was hero and villain” (p.256).  True enough.  Balance is important.  It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t seem to have much.

Let me stop before I’m guilty of being as unfair to Evans as she occasionally appears to be to Wyclif.  The book is very well written, even if it is fairly tedious at times.  The problem seems to be the scant biographical evidence that actually exists on Wyclif, at least the kind of interesting and anecdotal personal information that has become the staple of the genre in modern times.  This is, in fact, a historical and intellectual biography of the enigmatic figure that has been called (Evans believes naively) “The Morning Star of the Reformation.”

And, to be fair yet again, Evans does make her case very well that what biographical work has been done on Wyclif (and there has not been very much at all) has tended to be hagiographical.  That’s common enough.  Such romanticizing and glossing is common in John Foxe, for instance, as well as in the writings of those who wish to present the Reformation, and, in the case of Wyclif, its precursors as a monolithic movement of like-minded saints driven by pure conviction and principle.

Evans demonstrates that this is, indeed, naïve when it comes to Wyclif.  Wyclif was an enigmatic figure:  an Oxford intellectual who appears to have smarted about being passed over for career advancement in the heady intellectual, ecclesiastical, and civil crosscurrents that intersected in and around 14th century Oxford.  Evans also demonstrates clearly enough that Wyclif was prone to brooding, bitterness, and anger.

I cannot help but believe, though, that Evans overplays her hand.  Time and again we are told that Wyclif is bitter, that Wyclif is angry, that Wyclif seemed unable to pull himself out of a pit or resentment.  When Wyclif returns to a favorite theme of his – that true religion is, as James said, caring for the orphan and widow – Evans opines that there’s no real evidence of any concrete philanthropic tendencies in Wyclif and that his appeal to this definition of true religion was more a polemic against the friars and religious orders he detested as being predatory and parasitic on the laity than an actual conviction that this was, in fact, the true nature of religion.  In fact, Evans suggested that most of Wyclif’s positive assertions were probably, in fact, responses to his enemies and not so much positive convictions.

We are told that Wyclif’s views of Scripture really weren’t so revolutionary.  There were plenty of others who wanted the Word to be made available to the people.  Regardless, Evans assures us, it’s unlikely that Wyclif actually did any translation work himself anyway.  We are told that he was a snobbish preacher, insulting the congregations he should be nurturing.  We are told that he drove most or all of his friends away, that he was inconsistent in what he thought should be and in what he actually did.  We are told that, in most respects, he was a typical medieval scholastic.  We are told, in essence, that Wyclif was essentially a man of his times…which does seem odd indeed.

In short, I believe that Evans goes too far even while making an overall helpful contribution to Wyclif studies.  Her appeal for biographical balance seems to lean towards the negative in ways that are disheartening.  We do not need to naively gloss our heroes.  And it’s probably true that Wyclif’s role as a pre-Reformer has been glossed in this way.  But without Evans’ consistent meanderings that probably what Wyclif was actually writing and arguing was driven more by anger than conviction, we would probably see from the same raw data that Evans presents that Wyclif’s views were, in a very real sense, precursors to what would become the fully bloomed doctrines of the Reformation two hundred years later.

It seems to me an uncharitable way to do biography.  But, you will learn a great (excruciating?) deal about the workings of Oxford as well as of Wyclif’s own views.  You will get some fascinating insights into the tumultuous religious, political, and intellectual landscape of Wyclif’s day.

Was Wyclif “The Morning Star of the Reformation”?  It’s a bit hard to say after reading Evans’ biography.  He was an imperfect man, prone to fits of temper, but he did articulate Reformation tenets in a pre-Reformation era in ways that were compelling and admirable.

Thomas C. Oden’s Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements

Note to self:  do not, I repeat do NOT get Thomas Oden mad.

Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements is Oden’s partially autobiographical story of his movement away from 60’s liberal radicalism (here called “The Feast I Left”), around Roman Catholicism (“The Feast I Missed”), and finally into postmodern Protestant paleo-orthodoxy (“The Feast I Did Not Expect”).

I’ve been intrigued with Tom Oden’s theological programme of paleo-orthodoxy ever since I heard him lecture at Southwestern Seminary while I was a student there, and I’ve read some of his more didactic works on the theological programme in which he must be considered the key player.  I’ve only just read, however, Oden’s fascinating Requiem (1995).

Now, anybody who has read any Oden at all knows that he has a flourish for polemics.  In fact (though I gather that Oden would deny this or not be pleased with it) his writings often seem primarily polemical in their thrust and focus.  Oden, by his own admission, is building an iconoclastic programme in the ruin of modernity, a period of time that he defines as resting roughly between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  But this collapsing and collapsed modernity is a sphere in which Oden used to be quite a major and fad-obsessed player.  In fact, I would be tempted to question exactly how Oden could have been involved in all of the movements (he says that he was a movement theologian) that he claims to have been involved in were in not for the fact that he has a lifetime of publishing in these movements.  But the movement is now dead, and Oden drives a rhetorical nail in the coffin of modernity in ways that only a child of the movement could.

Oden identifies the four hallmarks of the collapsed modernity as “autonomous individualism”, “narcissistic hedonic assertiveness”, “reductive naturalism”, and “absolute moral relativism and modern chauvinism” (p.118).  For Oden personally, the last straw in the failed experiment of modernity was a eucharistic service at the chapel of Drew University (where he was a member of the faculty) in which a radical feminist explicitly invoked and called for the worship of the goddess Sophia instead of Jesus Christ.  Oden walked out of that service, the first time he had ever walked out of an observance of Holy Communion.

Oden is now calling the church away from such faddish blasphemies into the rich and fertile ground of a postmodern retrieval of what he sees as the classic consensual tradition of patristic exegesis.  This call is most effectively seen in his Agenda for Theology (later republished as After Modernity…What?) and more recently inThe Rebirth of Orthodoxy.  He’s worked this paleo-orthodox program out in a myriad of impressive and significant works touching on exegesis (the multi-volume IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scirpture), his three-volume systematic theology, his work on pastoral care and ministry, and his patristic readers on issues like justification.

But here, in Requiem, Oden seems primarily concerned with diagnosing a cultural and university/seminary climate where the last vestiges of the dying/dead modernity still hold sway.  Oden bemoans “the McGovernization” of the seminaries, the rise of radical feminism, the maddening proliferation of new fads and movements, and the reduction of theology to just about anything that a professor with a fetish and the freedom to define elective courses might wish for it to be.

In Requiem, Oden levels one of the most blistering attacks on the modern tenure system that you’re likely to ever see in print.  His advice to orthodox students within modernistic seminary settings is fascinating and insightful.  Again and again, Oden shows that he’s no hack with a grudge.  Rather, he’s seen the belly of the beast and lived within its dying walls.

This is what separates proper polemics from irritating screeds:  genuine heartbroken concern.  And, though perhaps Oden occasionally gets lost in his very impressive verbiage, there is no doubt that he is genuinely heartbroken.

For a fascinating former-insider’s look at the machinery of modernity run amuck, and a compelling call for a return to what the late Robert Webber called “ancient future faith,” you’ll want to read Oden.  He is indeed the granddaddy of postmodern paleo-orthodoxy, a proposal that, while not without problems (i.e., Oden’s own idiosyncratic acceptance of certain portions of the paleo-orthodox tradition and rejection of others and the ever-vexing question of just how this classic consensus is to be defined), nonetheless is, in my opinion, the most significant and helpful proposal before the church today.

Here is provocative and edifying theology at its best.  Put on your helmet and give it a read.