Category Archives: Topics

Why Saint Augustine Changed His Mind About the Millennium

"The Course of Empire: The Destruction." Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D.

The Course of Empire: The Destruction.” Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D. Click to enlarge for more detail.

It was the year 410 A.D. The Visigoths had come down from the north, sacking the city of Rome, the capital of the world’s greatest empire. People all over the Mediterranean were in shock, as they heard the story of the ruins and dead corpses laying in the streets. This was the “9/11” event of their day.

The pagans blamed the Christians, and they had their reasons…… Pardon some of the anachronisms, but I can imagine their rant…..

“Within a few decades, these Christians had gained the political power of the emperorship. Rome’s centuries of pagan gods were then officially abandoned by the government. Now these Christians had messed up everything. They had put a bunch of ‘Bible-thumping’ idiots into power, offending our pagan moral sensitivities, and leaving the empire vulnerable to their northern enemies.

The once-great empire was now on the verge of total collapse, no thanks to these ‘Bible thumpers.’  These Christians are to blame for our troubles!”

…..  so thought the pagans, in their mockery.

Most Christians were unable to effectively respond to these charges. After all, Christianity had finally ascended to the top echelons of Roman society, and now it looked like the whole Roman world was falling apart! The Christian community provided the perfect scapegoat for Rome’s collapse.

Yet one man, the venerable bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, Saint Augustine, rose to the challenge. In his monumental work, City of God, Augustine instead laid the blame for Rome’s troubles on the moral dissolution and steady ethical decline that had plagued pagan Roman culture for century after century. To this day, City of God remains one of the greatest classics of Western culture, and a high watermark for Christian apologetics.

Augustine’s defense of the faith, however, came with a twist. Put in today’s terms, Augustine appeared to have “gone liberal.” But Augustine would not have seen it that way at all. After some reflection, Augustine came to believe that many Christians had misinterpreted the meaning of the “millennium,” the 1000-year reign of Christ, described in Revelation 20:1-6. Augustine, once a confirmed believer in a literal millennium, had basically flip-flopped, and changed his mind. But why?1
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Jordan Peterson’s Lessons for Christians

Have you ever heard of Professor Jordan B. Peterson?

I had never heard of him until a few weeks ago, when an explosive TV interview with him by British journalist Cathy Newman went “viral,” as folks like to say these days. I finally got a chance to see it, and it really is worth the 30-minutes. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, promoting his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson made waves over a year ago when he publicly opposed a new Canadian law designed to protect transgendered persons from being exposed to offensive speech. Peterson is definitely not “PC,” and his most provocative thesis is that there is a crisis of masculinity in the West today, and that so-called “identity politics” are fundamentally wrong.

In my view, public discourse on important topics is now at an all-time low. Cathy Newman is surely an intelligent, competent and engaging woman, but apparently there were some serious problems afoot in the Channel 4 newsroom that day. The Peterson interview by Newman might be the most eggregious example of an increasingly common rhetorical style, that so captivates both conservative and liberal news media, and that makes up a good chunk of what you find on social media. As Conor Friedersdorf put it in The Atlantic,

First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.

Was Cathy Newman’s aggressive style simply a case of not being able to understand what Peterson was saying, kind of like how I do not “get” what people are saying when they are speaking in a foreign language? Or, was it because she understood Peterson’s message, but was intent on trying to verbally destroy him? Or, was it because she is so ideologically driven that it rendered her incapable of really hearing what Peterson was trying to say? Much of public discourse today takes on one or more of these characteristics, though in Cathy Newman’s case, my guess leans toward the latter.

More and more, words rarely carry meaning in public discourse. Rather, words are mostly used to create an emotive effect. However, in this interview, whether you agree with all that Peterson says, or not, this interview style is a complete disaster. Watch the interview and judge for yourself:

I highlight this YouTube video because it teaches us some very important lessons. First, Christians are foremost to be people of the “Word.” The Gospel is a message to be proclaimed, and not a mood to be effused about. Unfortunately, public discourse today tends to elevate mood over the actual meaning of words, making it often quite difficult to share the Good News with our neighbors, much less talking about anything else of substance. More and more of this worldly style of communication is creeping into the church, whereas Peterson, a secular psychologist, rejects the cultural trend. At one moment, Peterson stated, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

Secondly, consider the message of Jordan Peterson himself. His critique of the New Atheists (think Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) is spot on. But also, part of his popularity stems from the fact that he has delivered a set of lectures on YouTube, that focus on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. If you think that people are really not interested in thinking about and talking about the Bible, then you need to pay attention to what Jordan Peterson is doing. Peterson is an effective communicator, able to take a deeply, imaginative psychological view of the Bible, and apply it directly to the lives of millions of his listeners. Here is British pastor Matthew Hosier’s review of Peterson’s book, New York Times columnist David Brooks analysis of Peterson, and blogger Alistair Robert’s reflections on how Jordan Peterson can help pastors.

Thirdly, when evaluating Jordan Peterson’s teaching from an evangelical perspective, one should proceed with caution. In many ways, Peterson is an ally, but I would be very careful. Though Peterson’s message drinks deeply from the well of Christian thought and the Bible, Jordan Peterson is not a Christian in the historical, evangelical sense. Some of his interpretations of the Bible are problematic. He is closest to being a dualist in my taxonomy of different approaches to science and the Bible, but he pushes this dualism to the limit. Though Peterson believes in the power of the Christian story as true myth, he does not see any clear connection between Christianity as myth and Christianity as history, in a scientific sense, at least he is not sure how they could be related (TRANSLATION: Peterson believes in the power of resurrection as myth, but he does not know what to do with the claim that Jesus was literally, historically, and bodily raised from the dead). I, on the other hand, believe along with C.S. Lewis that Christianity is “myth become fact.”

I admit a struggle with how to properly interpret the Bible, with respect to history. If someone has been a Christian for awhile, who has struggled with how different Christians have interpreted the Bible, this should not come as a surprise. For example, some Christians understand the Book of Jonah to be historical narrative, whereas others see Jonah as fictional, a type of parable meant to teach spiritual truth, and others contend for a mixture of history and fictional elements . Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, so trying to sort out how different passages of Scripture should be understood within their historical context, is an essential (and probably life-long) task. But if we sever the link between myth and history, when such a move is unwarranted by the evidence, we risk distorting the very essence of the Gospel. Peterson takes his cues from Carl Jung, Dostoyevsky, Nietszche, and evolutionary psychology. This is powerful stuff. Deep stuff. I need to think about it a lot more. But I am not so sure Peterson’s message can be completely sync’ed up with orthodox, evangelical faith.

 

 

 


Is Jerusalem the Capital of Israel?… (A Blog Post Compendium)

U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, at Jerusalem’s “Wailing Wall,” January 23, 2018. While many American Christians enthusiastically supported the visit of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, to Jerusalem, many Middle Eastern Christian leaders refused to meet with him. Why the rebuff of the American leader, by fellow Christians? (photo credit: REUTERS, Ronen Zvulun)

U.S. President Donald Trump made news in December, 2017, by announcing that the United States would move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to honor the Israeli claim that Jerusalem is truly the capital of that modern nation-state. For many Christians, when they read their Bibles, they think that this is a “no-brainer.” Jerusalem has been the center of Judaism since the days of the Old Testament. Why not now?

But a lot of other Christians, when they read their Bibles, beg to differ.

As British theologian Ian Paul writes, Theodore Herzl, the pioneer of modern Jewish Zionism, modestly envisioned Mount Carmel as the capital for a modern Jewish state, and not Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of modern Israel, was willing to accept the loss of Jerusalem as the price to be paid for having a homeland at all, for the Jews, in the Middle East.

The 1967, Six-Days War, whereby Israeli forces took control of all of Jerusalem, changed all of that.

The latest move by the United States, as many see it, is simply accepting what everyone knows is the reality behind modern day Israel.  Why pretend? Jerusalem is, and should be, the capital of Israel.

Well, others are quite uncomfortable with the idea, The planned implementation of U.S. foreign policy creates concerns that this move could lead (and in a few cases, has already led) to unnecessary violence..

They call Jerusalem, the “city of peace.” Why then, is it so controversial? What does the Bible have to say about all of this? Continue reading


The Churching of Women?

Actress Jenna Coleman plays Queen Victoria, with her first child (photo credit: ITV Picture Desk)

During the opening episode of the PBS’ Masterpiece series, “Victoria: Season 2,” we witness a curious scene. The 19th century English monarch, Queen Victoria, who had recently given birth to her first child, had to go through a special church ritual, in order to be properly received back into the Church of England. This “churching of women” is rarely practiced today, but the ritual gives us a glimpse into some interesting dynamics of church history.

Actress Jenna Coleman, in “Victoria: Season 2,” portrays the queen as someone who greatly dislikes this rite, traditionally having a long title in the Book of Common Prayer, “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women.” For Queen Victoria, she got the sense that the church had viewed her as being “unclean,” in the early period after giving birth to her child. This required a ritual of purification, which Victoria thought to be wholly unnecessary and paternalistic. Is it any wonder that most people today know nothing of the practice of “churching?”
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Why the Reformation Still Matters: A Brief Review

On long car trips, I like to listen to audiobooks. So, on a recent trip in late 2017, I listened to Michael Reeves and Tim Chester’s Why the Reformation Still Matters, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. If you think the Reformation is just something stuck in the recesses of the 16th century, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

I had heard of Michael Reeves, a theologian and president at Union School of Theology, in Oxford, England, and Tim Chester, a pastor in the U.K., through the teachings of Ligonier Ministries, founded by the late R. C. Sproul. Reeves and Chester take the core doctrinal concerns of the Reformation, like Justification, Scripture, Sin, Grace, Everyday Life, etc., establishing them in their original 16th century historical context, and then proceeding to apply this theology to living in the 21st century. The applications are framed in terms of questions like:

  • How can we be saved?
  • How does God speak to us?
  • What is wrong with us?
  • What does God give us?
  • What difference does God make on Monday mornings?, etc.

Reeves and Chester give us a feast of thought, showing how the principles of the Reformation are still applicable and necessary for 21st century people. The authors do assume you know the basic contours of 16th-century Reformation history, like who Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were, and what the Council of Trent was. Forget bumper-sticker slogans and sentimental positive thinking. This is a book of meaty theology, but it is focused on the practical, and thankfully does not go over people’s heads. Savor and chew on each chapter, and then see if your life is not changed.

Relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants have been thawing in recent years, causing some to wonder what the fuss was all about. Does it really matter as to how we become saved, through Jesus Christ? Does one’s view of the intermediate state, the period between death and the final restoration of all things, really make any difference?

Reeves and Chester address these contemporary debates. They have a very useful treatment of how the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, a doctrine championed by Martin Luther, stands at the very center of Gospel-oriented thinking about salvation, but that is often misunderstood or ignored today. Reeves and Chester also do a good job fairly explaining why folks like C.S. Lewis, have been able to advocate a Protestant version of purgatory, which may (or do not, for Reeves and Chester) improve upon a medieval Roman Catholic understanding of the intermediate state. These topics may seem obtuse, but Reeves and Chester lay out their arguments succinctly and practically.

While my top book in this category, of books that introduce the thought and theology of the Reformation, is still Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought, Reeves and Chester’s book is a much more concise, slimmer volume, just a little more than 200 pages, and easier to read.

Like any book, there are some downsides. In such a short book, it would be impossible to touch on every difficulty concerning the Reformation. Reeves and Chester open a few doors as to some of the weaknesses of the Reformation, without always shutting those doors with satisfactory answers. Luther and Zwingli battled themselves over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, in the Bible, and Anabaptists were persecuted by mainstream, magisterial Protestants over their commitment to believer’s baptism. But Reeves and Chester do not deal with the problem of pluralism in Protestant biblical interpretation, a chief reason why Rome opposed the Reformers. As Kenneth Stewart points out in his book review, Reeves and Chester fail to address the problem of religious violence that erupted in the wake of the Reformation. The Reformation is a huge topic, so given the scope of the book’s purpose, these limitations are to be expected.

These caveats aside, Why the Reformation Still Matters succeeds in getting the basic message across. Yes, the Reformation still matters.

The following 1-minute promotional video, by co-author Tim Chester, was filmed in Rome.


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