Category Archives: Witnesses

What the Church Can Learn From the Death of Queen Elizabeth II

Over the past week, I have been thinking about the death of the United Kingdom’s sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. There might be some lessons for Christians in this time of mourning.

First, a quick and curiously fun anecdote: The right-most carriage attendant, in a tricorne hat, in the above photograph was a dear friend of my parents. His son works in my building, where I work at the College of William and Mary today. This man had the opportunity to accompany the carriage that carried Queen Elizabeth II through Colonial Williamsburg some 65 years ago. Elizabeth is seated, smiling and facing the camera. Her husband, Prince Philip, is seated to her right.

At age 31, in 1957, just five years after she was declared as Queen of the British Empire (1952), Elizabeth II made this visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the English colony at Jamestown. My parents’ friend years later told me that it was quite a spectacle to be with the Queen, and ride down Duke of Gloucestor Street, through the center of town.

During those years, Elizabeth II had begun to oversee the dissolution of the British Empire, as one-by-one, former colonies declared their independence from the English island. This led to the modern creation of the United Kingdom, with its associated British Commonwealth of Nations. Some today still protest that the British monarchy has not done enough to apologize for the injustices inflicted during those centuries of British colonial rule. After all, the monarchy is not very democratic. The whole idea of having a “king” or a “queen” seems really quirky to some, even unfair…. even unjust!

Perhaps this will pigeon-hole me, and typecast me as a hopeless traditionalist, but I have been profoundly moved by the Queen’s death. Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill, was born during the Victorian era in 1874. Elizabeth’s last prime minister, the current Liz Truss, was born in 1975, just over a hundred years later. The span of time that Elizabeth II has served has been breath-taking. The events during her lifetime, from her service as a driver and mechanic for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, during the crisis of World War II, to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic have been world changing.

Her life encompassed 30% of the entire history of the United States.

Staggering.

She even parachuted into the London 2012 Olympics with James Bond…. well, sort of...

But as an American, Queen Elizabeth was not my sovereign. So, I am left trying to figure out why I have been so emotionally struck by her death. Why have I been so choked up about her? I have a few thoughts, so I await your comments in the comment section of the blog.

What strikes me the most about Queen Elizabeth II was that she served out of a profound, even sacred sense of duty, even in the most spiritual way. She assumed her role in the most sacramental manner, in the best sense of the word. She was a type of guardian of traditional values over a long period of time, during a period of great cultural upheaval. For 70 years as chief monarch, she was able to rise above partisan politics, surviving many prime ministers and political shifts. But there she stood, resolute in her duty, and in every Christmas message, she was quite explicit in making her Christian faith known.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, the Queen served as a symbol, a steadiness, empowered by her Christian faith, that reassured us that “everything will be all right.” In one address, as we were all hunkered down at home, she famously said, “We will meet again.”

I found her testimony comforting. Was this sense of comfort completely rational? Probably not. Does the idea of a monarch in a democratic society makes sense today? Not really. But intuitively, I believed that the Queen was right. I believed that she carried with her a strange sense of moral authority…. kind of weird, if I think about it. But the sacramentality of it all is indeed real.

We Americans have something to learn from our former overlords in the U.K. In many ways, the institution of the monarchy today in the U.K. is merely a figurehead type of reality. Most of the real work that gets done in the U.K. is in Parliament. Nevertheless, the role that Elizabeth II served reminds us that we need something, or someone, to help lift us out of our never-ending political scandals, squabbling, and social media frenzies.

We Americans on the other hand have responded differently. We scrapped the monarchy, but what have we gained from it? Instead of Kings and Queens, we have Presidents. But each and every President has appeared to be captured by some form of partisan politics.

I am not saying that we should go back to a monarchy. I like my baseball and American apple pie, thank you very much. But sadly, we have tried to substitute the notion of duty, that Elizabeth II so ably embodied, with a kind of celebrity culture that continues to disappoint. Elizabeth II, on the other hand, managed to rise above it all.

OK. She was not perfect. No one is. No one, but Jesus, that is. But for most of her time as the United Kingdom’s Queen, she was held above reproach.

Sadly even more still, Christianity particularly in America suffers from the same type of celebrity culture, that knocks us down when Christian leaders fail us. Unfortunately, the celebrity culture system in our churches has created a crisis where many have left Christianity, not because they no longer really believe in the Christian faith to be true, but rather, because they no longer trust that our churches are being led by godly, loving people.

The democratic ethos that drove the Great Awakenings in America’s Christian history has not been without its faults. The celebrity culture system, especially in Protestant evangelical circles of Christianity, has and continues to put enormous pressures on pastors of churches and ministry leaders. They are expected to be superhuman, when they are not. So, when we read about yet another megachurch pastor or evangelist falling from grace, or find out about yet more reports of spiritual or other abuse perpetrated by burned out Christian leaders, it demoralizes us.

For years now, I have been puzzled as to why the New Testament teaches that local Christian churches should have elders. Upon reflection of the Queen’s death, I think I have a better idea as to why the New Testament insists that churches need elders.

See what you think.

Elders exist out of a sense of duty, to make sure that the teachings of the Christian faith are being passed down from one generation to the next, rising above the challenges posed to us by celebrity culture. Elders, or to use the New Testament Greek term, presbyters, are there to act as guardians of sacred tradition. It is a sacramental duty that they perform. It has been that way since the days of the early church.

Sadly, we have forgotten or obscured this aspect of Christian teaching and practice in our day. Too many elder church boards have adopted the mentality that they are first and foremost like a board of directors for a corporation, where the head pastor is like the CEO. The local church looks more like a business than a spiritual family.

Now, every institution does need a board of directors. Every organization needs something like a CEO. Administrative decisions still need to be made. It is still a noble and crucial calling to serve in that capacity. But when this administrative aspect of being an elder crowds out the New Testament requirement that an elder be above reproach, to be that spiritual guardian of the faith that was once handed down to the saints, to make sure that the traditions of historically, orthodox faith are properly being passed down to a new generation, then we risk missing out on why the New Testament teaches that local churches need to have elders to begin with.

It is not about power. It is not about exerting control. It is about being a spiritual example. Perhaps the New Testament understands something about how human psychology and sociology really works, at a deeply mysteriously spiritual level.

Evangelical Christians are divided as to whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church. To think that only qualified men should serve as elders seems really quirky to some, even unfair…. even unjust! But perhaps our biggest problem is that we view the notion of being an elder as a matter of competence, when really it is about something else entirely.

Being a Queen of a Commonwealth is not the same as being an elder of a local church, as the New Testament teaches. Far from it. But there is some overlap of ideas here.

What the U.K. has been able to figure out is something Christians churches need to figure out. We need spiritual “Queens” that offer stability in a rapidly changing world. Perhaps this is partly why the New Testament teaches that a local church needs elders.

Just something to think about. Let the comments section below be filled the voices of those decrying me as a hopeless traditionalist!

 


The Queen of England Has Died

Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning British monarch, for 70 years, died today at the age of 96. She was a devout Christian believer.

U.K. pastor Andrew Wilson describes her as an “oak of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour. What a life. Now the Queen meets her King. Well done, good and faithful servant.”


Rock and Sand: An Eastern Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformation

Most evangelical Protestants, particularly in the United States, know very little about the Eastern Orthodox faith. What they do know is often jumbled together with their understanding of Roman Catholicism. Likewise, many Eastern Orthodox remain unfamiliar with Protestant beliefs.

A lot of that is changing as Eastern Orthodoxy grows in America, with high profile conversions from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, ranging from apologist Hank Hanegraaff to Christian author Frederica Mathewes-Green. Other well known Eastern Orthodox Christians (or those with appreciative Eastern Orthodox backgrounds) include columnist Rod Dreher and the controversial radio personality Eric Metaxas.

Unlike the Christian West, where Protestantism split from the Roman Catholic Church, about 500 years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy has no exact equivalence of a Protestant Reformation in its history. Essentially, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy constituted one unified church for basically a thousand years, until these movements both split from one another officially in 1054 C.E. But, what exactly makes Eastern Orthodoxy different from evangelical Protestantism?

Father Josiah Trenham shows how Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestant evangelicalism differ from one another, offering a look at what Protestants can learn from Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

A Church Built on Rock… or Sand?

Father Josiah Trenham, an Antiochian Eastern Orthodox priest in California, has written a book, Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings, that helps readers answer this very question. Trenham was raised in a conservative Presbyterian church, eventually following the teachings of Ligonier Ministries founder, R.C. Sproul. But partway through his seminary training, Trenham came to see what he saw were weaknesses in the evangelical Protestant tradition, and he was received into the Antiochian Eastern Orthodox church and eventually became a priest there in 1993. Today, he runs a popular YouTube channel, Patristic Nectar.

Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings was written primarily to help Eastern Orthodox believers understand the roots of Protestantism, but I found it a helpful guide, as an evangelical Protestant myself, to understand the differences between the two traditions. As indicated by the title, the aim of Rock and Sand is to show that Eastern Orthodoxy is built on rock whereas Protestantism is built on sand. It is worth exploring how Father Trenham makes the case for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Father Trenham does a commendable job describing the distinctive teachings of the early Reformers, ranging from Martin Luther, to Ulrich Zwingli, to John Calvin. Trenham appreciates those reforms that sought to correct imbalances in the medieval Roman Catholic church, such as rejecting the doctrine of purgatory, indulgences, and papal primacy. He personally values his own experience within Protestant churches, particularly the evangelical Protestant zeal for the Bible and for missionary evangelism.

Trenham recalls a quote made by Martin Luther, when he was first publicly challenged by the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan in 1519, “The truth lies with the Greeks,” meaning the Eastern Orthodox. Trenham acknowledges that Luther had the most Eastern Orthodox-ish view of sanctification among the early Reformers, grounding the Christian life in our union with Christ, thus aligning towards the Eastern Orthodox understanding of theosis. Trenham warmly accepts Calvin’s measured view of the End Times, that avoids endless speculation derived from the Book of Revelation, and judges that Calvin “maintained a brilliant Christocentric hermeneutic” of Scripture. Very few Protestants today even know that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin positively affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary, which agrees with Eastern Orthodox teachings.

Yet in other ways, Father Trenham does not shy away from showing where the Protestant Reformers fell short in comparison to the Eastern Orthodox. At various points, he focuses on certain details that expose the more odd and embarrassing side of the Reformers. Little did I know that Martin Luther argued against certain traditional views of incest, by allowing for Christians to marry their first cousins. Trenham uses Luther’s, Melancthon’s and Martin Bucer’s awkward approval of Philip of Hesse’s bigamy as an unflattering illustration of the Protestant Reformers willingness to compromise with the political powers of the day, in order to gain the favor of the state.

Father Trenham also zeroes in on some of the more idiosyncratic views of certain Reformers, to illustrate the failure of sola scriptura as a coherent doctrine, from his perspective. He blasts the Reformers, like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, for their failure to agree upon the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the central act of worship throughout the entire history of the Christian church. Both Luther and Zwingli believed that the “plain reading of the text” clearly taught their respective views, despite the fact that they contradicted one another. This argument supports Trenham’s contention that only a church guided by the light of tradition, upheld by a college of bishops, apostolic succession, and ecumenical councils can prevent a Christian community from falling prey to idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible, that will inevitably cause church splits, an endemic feature of nearly all Protestant churches.

Father Trenham illustrates that the evangelical Protestant prejudice against church tradition is even reflected in some popular Bible translations. For example, the Greek word paradosis is used in the Bible regarding “tradition” in two senses. In the negative sense, “tradition” refers to the man-made traditions of the Pharisees, which Jesus exposed as hypocrisy, as in Matthew 15:3. But it also has the positive sense of “tradition” in other contexts, where “tradition” is in reference to what Christians are to pass down from one generation to the next generation, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Unfortunately, the popular NIV translation for years has translated this positive sense of paradosis very differently as “teachings,” instead of “traditions.” Thankfully, more recent translations, such as the ESV and the CSB, correctly translate this as “traditions”: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” At least the NIV does mention “traditions” as a possible translation, in a footnote, for those who bother to notice. Nevertheless, among many Protestant evangelicals, some reading habits are hard to break.

An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation for Infant Baptism

In his argument against the Anabaptists, Father Trenham gives a very coherent defense of infant baptism, against all forms of “credobaptism”; otherwise known as “Believer’s Baptism.” He demonstrates that the practice of baptizing infants is in continuity with the Old Testament practice of male infant circumcision. However, whereas circumcision was the primary marker for membership in the Old Covenant of the Jews, it has now been replaced by the practice of baptism in the New Covenant. In other words, baptism carries forward the original Old Testament concept of covenant membership to include Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free, as grounded in the New Testament (Galatians 3:25-28).

Interestingly, Father Trenham argues against the Protestant insistence that salvation is primarily an individual act, and his case for infant baptism is used to buttress his more communal understanding of salvation. The repeated experience that entire households were baptized in the New Testament, even though only one member of the household professed faith initially, calls into question the claim that “Believer’s Baptism” is the clear teaching of Scripture. In the case of the conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), the passage tells only of Lydia’s conversion and no one else in her household. Nevertheless, everyone in Lydia’s household was baptized. In the case of the conversion of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), the passage tells only of the jailer’s conversion and no one else in his household. Nevertheless, everyone in the Philippian jailer’s household was baptized.

Is it possible that the other members of Lydia’s household had become believers at that time, and the text never tells us? Yes, but it is also possible that there were infants in Lydia’s household, who were baptized. Is it possible that the rejoicing of the Philippian household in the jailor’s conversion signaled their own faith in Christ? Yes, but it is also just as likely, if not more so, that they all became believers after their baptism, and not before. The Bible’s silence on this issue, in these two cases, is profound. The argument presented by Father Trenham is something that most Protestant proponents of “Believer’s Baptism” rarely address.

On occasion, Father Trenham makes some rather suspect claims about the Protestant Reformers, but these are very rare. He states that John Calvin taught a very clear doctrine of double predestination, but that some of his closest followers after him did not, such as Theodore Beza. This is highly problematic as many Protestant students of Calvin suggest that Theodore Beza developed Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in greater detail and force than did Calvin himself, who relegated the doctrine of predestination to a lesser position in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

One of the more interesting features of Father Trenham’s book is a summary retelling of the history of dialogue between the Protestant Reformers and the Eastern Orthodox, a topic often completely ignored among historians of the Reformation. Lines of communication between the early Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox led to a fruitful dialogue between both sides, despite their ultimate disagreements. Cyril Lucaris, an Eastern Orthodox patriarch and theologian in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, urged other Eastern Orthodox theologians to study in Western Europe at Protestant universities, in hopes of stimulating a reunion of the churches. Lucaris was even rumored to have written a confession of faith along Calvinist lines, yet Father Trenham vigorously denies that Lucaris was the real author of such work.

The Achilles Heel of the Protestant Evangelical Movement

The most stinging critique of Protestantism comes in Father Trenham’s chapter on “Evangelicalism”:

Many modern Protestants do not even recognize themselves as the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. The most vibrant and demographically explosive forms of Protestantism are so ahistorical, so radically detached from the historic Christian ethos that an organic association even with their own Protestant lineage is too much of a chronological and dogmatic commitment. For many of these Protestant Christians the only relevant history of Christianity began with the history of their own particular congregation or even the history of their particular preacher and no tangible connection to the Christian past is considered essential. What matters to them is that their spiritual experience is real, not that their spiritual experience is in harmony with that of their forebears

Ouch. That really hurt. That paragraph alone was the most griping of Rock and Sand.

It pretty much explains my own encounter with evangelicalism, particularly that of the megachurch variety. The relatively ahistorical character of evangelicalism is responsible for the absurd notion that those who wish to defend any 2,000 year old teaching of the church bears the burden of proof for its defense, as though a Bible believer today can simply read something in the Scriptures and declare such tradition to be false, with very little evidence to show for it. This is nothing more than Protestant hubris that devalues the importance of church history.

Evangelicalism brings in the numbers, and reaches a lot of people for Jesus, something that I celebrate (as does Father Trenham), but it does so at the cost of producing a relatively shallow form of faith, that does not always weather well when the storms of doubt trouble the soul. The contemporary “ExEvangelical” deconstruction trend in some circles serves as evidence for that deficiency within Protestant evangelical subculture. Eastern Orthodoxy has its own skeletons in the closet, but that paragraph above from Father Trenham about my own tradition hit me like a two-by-four across the skull.

Alas, Some Hesitations Regarding Eastern Orthodoxy

Rock and Sand does not address this, but it would have been helpful to touch on some of the problems internal to Eastern Orthodoxy, as a means of self-critique. Ongoing disputes concerning the Protestant doctrines of sola scripture, sola fide, and sola gratia, not withstanding, there are other reasons why many Protestants still wrestle the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Despite the enumerated strengths of the book, and Protestants wrestling with the implications of sola scriptura, the Eastern Orthodox have their own struggles with schism, mostly along ethnic, even nationalistic lines.

A case in point dominates the 2022 news cycle: The 2018 quarrel between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Russian patriarch, over the jurisdiction of orthodoxy in Ukraine, has served as an unfortunate backdrop, contributing to the tense political situation that precipitated the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Father Trenham rightly questioned the ties that 16th century Reformation leaders had with the European political authorities of that day, it is fair to say that certain strands in Eastern Orthodoxy have become enmeshed in an unhealthy way with certain political powers as well, throughout its history. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians have condemned Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, but not all have done so. In the past, I have held out hope that reconciliation among the churches was within grasp, but recent events have rocked that hope for me. The 2022 crisis in the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s role in Eastern Orthodoxy threatens to raise even more skepticism among non-Eastern Orthodox Westerners about the supposed purity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Perhaps the primary deficiency of Rock and Sand is the underlying polemical nature of the book, casting serious doubt on the possibility of the reunification of the East and the West. An appendix in the book includes the records of several attempts towards Eastern Orthodox and Protestant reconciliation, including the 1672 Confession of Patriarch Dositheos, at the Synod of Jerusalem, and the more recent 1912 effort by American Episcopalians and Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, the first Eastern Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil. to dialogue with one another. Sadly, none of these efforts have born lasting fruit in favor of ecumenism.

The tone of Father Trenham may come across as negative at times to some readers. The idea of being called a “heterodox believer” is not always very comforting. Father Trenham notes a distinction between “heresy” and “schism,” the latter being less serious, but does at times unflinchingly place Protestantism in the category of “heresy.” A number of Father Trenham’s fellow Eastern Orthodox readers concur that the tone of Rock and Sand comes across as somewhat mixed in this regard.

Rock and Sand: An Excellent Resource for Understanding the Differences Between Protestantism and Easter Orthodoxy

However, in his defense, Father Trenham does seek to be charitable, broadly throughout the book, and frankly his critique of Protestantism is not that far off the mark. In an age where evangelical Protestants have the unceasing propensity towards the division of churches, while simultaneously making awkward pleas for “unity,” it is quite understandable why Eastern Orthodoxy offers a refreshing appeal towards disaffected Protestants who desire to take the best of their Protestant evangelical background and make the move towards of Eastern Orthodoxy, with its extraordinary reverence, and holistic integration of worship and theology, which is so often absent in many Protestant circles today.

My own interest in Eastern Orthodoxy comes from a growing sense that the “agree to disagree” posture of popular evangelicalism, that dominates the greatest segment of megachurch American Protestant Christianity, is extremely difficult to sustain over the long term. Many evangelical churches adopt a very broad concept of handling “disputable matters” in the church, but there is not always a very cohesive understanding as to what the New Testament’s teaching on “disputable matters” even means. Many evangelical churches are extremely weak in catechizing (or teaching) their members about the basics of the faith. Then, when certain persons growing up in evangelical churches later fall away from their faith upbringing, those who remain lament the fact, but they often do not know what to do about it, because they lack the historical perspective offered by older traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy, or even Roman Catholicism.

Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, finds no attraction to this kind of evangelical populism, that ignores the lessons of church history, particularly of the early church. A worship experience in an Eastern Orthodox church is wonderfully awe-inspiring, rich in symbolism and mystery, rooted in centuries of tradition, whereas the typical evangelical megachurch formula of singing a bunch of songs, followed by a TED-talk-style sermon, often lacks depth. Eastern Orthodoxy is not perfect, and some Eastern Orthodox doctrines and practices may have a quirky feel to them, but Protestant evangelicals have a lot to learn from our Christian friends in the East. Protestant evangelicals would do well to read Rock and Sand, even if they are not completely won over by all of Father Trenham’s arguments.

The Bosphorus is the body of water that divides Europe from Asia in modern day Turkey, near Istanbul. But for centuries Istanbul was known as the central home for Eastern Orthodoxy. The slogan of “crossing the Bosphorus” is today commonly used as a metaphor to describe one’s conversion from Protestant or Roman Catholic brands of Western Christianity to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy. A read through Father Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand will help Protestants like myself to rethink their own faith experience, and it even might provide the impetus for some to make that journey to “cross the Bosphorus.”

 

In the following video segment on Gospel Simplicity’s YouTube channel, Father Josiah Trenham offers his reasoning as to why the Protestant doctrine of “sola scripture” begets all of the other “heresies” associated with Protestant faith.  View the whole video interview here. Or you can follow the link to Father Trenham’s own YouTube channel.


Robert E. Lee: Symbol of Christian Reconciliation or Symbol of Hatred?

When I attended Washington and Lee University (W&L) in the 1980’s, I was drawn to the school’s sense of tradition, civility and honor. But I was only a few months into my freshman year at W&L, before I wondered if I had made a mistake in going to college there. I had walked passed by a fraternity one Saturday night, when they were celebrating an annual tradition of having a Confederate ball.

W&L was all-male back then, one of only five all-male colleges remaining in the United States (now we are down to only two all-male schools, Hampden-Sydney and Wabash College). The men of this fraternity had all rented Confederate military uniforms, and their dates wore elegant dresses, with hoop skirts, as they danced the night away. But when I later saw a few of my African American friends on campus (of which there were few at W&L to begin with), I realized that my friends might have felt a bit out of place at this school. They surely would not have fit in at that fraternity Confederate ball, as every fraternity man and respective date were strictly white caucasians.

I had already applied as a transfer student to a different school, when I stumbled upon some essays about the life of W&L’s second namesake, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, who after the Civil War, essentially saved the struggling college from extinction. I read that the defeated Confederate leader did not support a type of guerrilla warfare that many of his fellow Confederates had advocated. Instead, upon surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Lee turned his attention towards healing the rift between North and South. By promoting a concept of the “Christian gentleman,” it was through Lee’s presidency at W&L that the education of Southern men was seen as a way of seeking reconciliation after a bitter military conflict.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was removed in September, 2021. The power of symbols exercises tremendous influence over the human psyche: Some see the statue removal as an attempt to erase history, or more so, a desecration. Others see it as a liberation from a lie that has perpetuated a legacy of racism. But who really was Robert E. Lee, anyway?

R. David Cox’ The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which I reviewed a few years ago on Veracity, tells the story of a man conflicted by the ethics of slavery and yet loyal to his native Virginia. He had strong misgivings regarding the slavery system, but nevertheless supported the system, through his dedication to his Virginia homeland. There is no doubt that Robert E. Lee was a complicated figure.  In the end, Lee saw the military defeat of the South as divine judgment against him, and therefore his service as an educator at W&L after the war stemmed from his Christian convictions.

It was the image of Lee “the Educator and Reconciler” and not Lee “the Southern Military Hero” that helped to inspire me to turn down the offer to transfer to a different college, and then finish my 4-years at W&L. Fast forward to the early part of the third decade of the 21st century, and the popular opinion regarding Lee’s legacy has shifted dramatically.

After the defeat of the Civil War, and before his death in 1870, Lee rejected any notion that he should be memorialized and statues set up depicting him as a great Southern military leader. Rather, attention should be focused on bringing the United States back together, and accepting the dissolution of the slavery system as the will of God.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, was unveiled in 1890 (credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, the myth of the “Lost Cause” had firmly taken hold in the imagination of Southern folklore, and statues of Lee had popped up all over the South, a deliberate attempt to recall the “glory days” of the Antebellum South. The most prominent statue, in my mind, was the 60-foot tall depiction of Lee on his famed horse “Traveller,” in the midst of a traffic circle along Richmond, Virginia’s historic Monument Avenue. The refashioning of Lee’s image was complete by then, as even Traveller was transformed from a moderate sized breed to a stronger, more muscular-looking thoroughbred. Needless to say, not everyone has been impressed with the symbolism represented by the Lee statues.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020, protests turned their attention in Virginia to that Lee statue on Monument Avenue. After quite a bit of legal back and forth, the statue was finally removed from the top of its pedestal on September 8, 2021. As the statue was lifted off of its perch, cheering crowds sang “Nah-nah-nah-nah nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey, goodbye!!

So, how does one go about remembering someone who did not want to be remembered in the way he has been most often remembered?

People gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument on June 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. After 2020 protests graffitied the monument, a Richmond Circuit Court Judge ruled to extend an injunction preventing the Virginia governor from removing a historic statue. The injunction was later rescinded, and the statue was removed by Governor Northam nearly 15 months later, September 2021 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

 

The Quest for the Historical Robert E. Lee

During the 20th century, most biography readers looked to Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume, 1934-1935 Pulitzer Prize winning R.E. Lee: A Biography. Freeman was a great admirer of Lee, who seemed to imbibe the “Lost Cause Narrative” that tended to elevate Lee to an almost semi-divine status. So, by the time controversy over another Robert E. Lee military statue in August, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, a revisionist re-evaluation of Lee’s legacy was long overdue.

The often cited essay at The Atlantic, by journalist Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” published just weeks before the Charlottesville protests captivated the nation, is representative of this revisionist picture of the famed Confederate general. The subtitle for Serwer’s essay, “The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed,” pretty much sums up the disdain for Lee’s memory, as the honored military hero for the Confederacy.

A more fair and accurate portrait lies somewhere between Freeman’s distorted hagiography and Serwer’s campaign to dismantle any remaining virtue in Lee’s reputation. But where does one go to find a such a nuanced biography? Thankfully, former Gettysburg College and current Princeton University historian Allen Guelzo has set his sights on demystifying the matter with his expansive 2021 R. E. Lee: A LifeAllen Guelzo is an evangelical Christian, along with being a well-regard historian. Guelzo manages to bring out dimensions of Lee’s character and life that humanizes Lee in ways that others have not always done so.

Guelzo’s portrait of Robert E. Lee is framed around Robert’s attempt to distance himself from the shadow left by his revolutionary war hero father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee. “Light Horse” Harry was known to the general public to be a decorated military leader, serving under the Continental Army of General George Washington. But by the time Robert E. Lee was born, Harry Lee’s reputation had sunk. Robert’s father became known as a “swindler,” a man who speculated on various means of getting wealthy, encouraging others to join him, only to have such efforts fail, and force the family into debt.

When Robert E. Lee was only two-years old, his father was thrown into debtors prison. Robert’s father spent most of Robert’s young life trying to escape creditors. Robert hardly even got to know his father, as his father died while Robert E. Lee was still a child. Robert E. Lee endeavored to be everything that his father was not, except for the fact that Robert E. Lee chose to make life in the military a career. It took 50 years before Robert E. Lee made any effort to visit his father’s grave, and when he finally did so, he made little mention of his father’s grave to other members of the family.

Robert E. Lee refused alcohol, became exceedingly frugal with money, and determined to live a life of responsibility and duty. He vowed not to make the same mistakes his father did, and not leave his own children in the type of desperation that Harry Lee left him in. This characteristic of Robert E. Lee helped to shape some of the most significant decisions in his life, that would eventually impact the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.

Partly through the influence of his mother, Robert E. Lee sought to honor the reputation of his father’s militarily most distinguished supporter, George Washington, even to the point of marrying into the Washington family, by marrying Mary Custis, a descendant of Washington. Lee made top honors at West Point, and served the U.S. Army as an engineer for decades, before coming into his own as a trusted supporter of General Winfield Scott, during the U.S.-Mexican War. Winfield Scott essentially became the father Robert E. Lee never had.

The death of Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law precipitated a crisis, that led to perhaps the most morally damaging act in Lee’s life. The father-in-law,  George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson to George Washington, had himself inherited a considerable amount of property, mainly associated with a large estate plantation at Arlington, Virginia. The late Custis had decided in his will to follow the example of his step-grandfather, and release all of the slaves that he employed within five years after his death. In addition, Custis left his daughter (Lee’s wife) and grandchildren significant property, but bypassed his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, while still assigning Lee to be the late Custis’ executor. Lee effectively took this as a vote of “no confidence” by his father-in-law, though Lee would indirectly benefit. However, the situation was made awkward since a most successful transfer of the estate to other members of Lee’s family was contingent on the remaining years of service to be provided by the soon-to-be-released slaves of Custis. Still clinging to the desire not to leave his children in a financial distressing situation as his father had done for him, this put pressure on Lee to try to make more efficient use of those slaves, prior to their manumission.

In various letters, Robert E. Lee had made his opinion known, that while he viewed the slavery system to be a moral “evil,” he was not a supporter of urgent abolitionism, instead hoping that a process of gradual emancipation would eventually wind down the slavery system. When several of Custis’ slaves decided to try to escape the plantation, before the five years specified in the Custis’ will had expired, the slaves were caught, and in a fit of anger, Lee ordered that they be whipped for their premature release from slavery service, in order to teach them “a good lesson.” Lee’s otherwise steady, measured, moral disposition had cracked. It was apparent that Lee’s hopes for gradual emancipation would not necessarily be sped up by any intentional action on his part.

Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a New Orleans monument in May, 2017 (credit: Scott Threlkeld/ AP)

 

Choosing Sides: Why Did Lee Defend the Confederacy?

However, the most significant decision that Lee faced in his life, was driven by a complex set of factors. Upon the eve of the Civil War, Lee had faithfully served for decades in the United States Army, and he seemed to be the best candidate to assume command of the Union army, under President Lincoln’s direction. Lee’s fatherly mentor, the retiring General Winfield Scott, personally asked Robert E. Lee to consider the offer, on April 17, 1861. Yet in the conversation that Scott had with Lee, Scott held the opinion that a Civil War could be averted.

Even though many states in South had seceded from the Union, Lee’s home state of Virginia remain undecided at the time. Lee was hopeful that perhaps Virginia could foster some type of middle position between the radical Southern states, like South Carolina, and the Northern slave-free states, for negotiating some type of mediating solution between the extremes.

At the same time, Lee was concerned about his duty to his family, and his responsibility towards the Arlington estate, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Lee believed that the family property was endangered by both sides, as Arlington held a high ground position, which would have been perfect for Confederate artillery to overlook the federal capital. Likewise, the Union side also recognized the strategic importance of the family property as well. Nevertheless, the family property was legally in Virginia, and he felt a certain obligation to defend his native state. Lee’s initial response to Scott included this, “General, the property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined if they do not go with their state. I cannot raise my hand against my children.”

It was this sense of duty towards Virginia and primarily his family, and his desire to get out from underneath the shadow of his father, that pushed him towards supporting Virginia, and declining Scott’s offer to lead the Union Army, three days afterwards on April 20. Lee’s middle-of-the-road, Southern view, that wished that slavery as an institution would simply go away over time, did not have a significant role in Lee’s decision.

In summary, Lee’s views on summary were complicated and contradictory. He disliked the institution of slavery, but he did nothing to try to end it himself. Instead, he opted to take up a different offer to eventually command the Army of Northern Virginia. Interestingly, Lee kept the provision specified in his father-in-law’s will and released the remaining Custis slaves, in 1862, while the Civil War was well underway.

Nevertheless, once the die was cast, the effects of that decision bore consequences that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Lee’s plan for “winning” the war were straight-forward. If he could lead the Confederate Virginia army to shatter northern confidence, it could have led to some type of peaceful settlement between the North and the South. That was the best Lee could hope for, as he knew well that the North had more resources at their disposal than the South. The plan almost worked. However, defeats at places like Antietam and eventually Gettysburg shattered Lee’s plan, at the cost of many lives. Serious mistakes were made, included the loss of Lee’s orders before the Battle of Antietam, and an overly ambitious attempt to smash the Federals with Pickett’s charge doomed the Gettysburg campaign. Lee may have even considered a third attempt to humiliate the North, had it not been for Grant’s final campaign that eventually led to the capture of Richmond.

It is fascinating to consider what was going on in Lee’s mind, in the waning days of the Confederacy, when Grant was slowly tightening the grip around Lee’s army in Petersburg. Lee was desperate, and desperately short on men. So he petitioned the Confederate government to conscript, not just white Southerners, who been already been drafted into the Army of Northern Virginia, but African American slaves as well. Lee was quite firm in insisting that those conscripted slaves be given their emancipation, following the conclusion of their military service. This was certainly not well received by Southern slaveholders, who overwhelming rejected Lee’s request. Nevertheless, this one particular act suggests on the one hand, that Lee continued to have certain misgivings about the slavery institution, foreseeing its ultimate demise, while continuing to fight to preserve that very system.

The Lee I have come to appreciate, that of being the President of my Alma Mater, Washington and Lee University, following the Civil War is given a critical yet fair appraisal by Allen Guelzo. Like many if not most white American men of his day, both in the South as well as the North, Lee did not think very highly of the aptitude of most African Africans. Lee can not avoid the stain of racism. But you would be hard pressed to find exceptions to that, in the mid 19th century.

In Lee’s favor, as President of the then “Washington College,” he discouraged actions taken by Southern whites that would denigrate former slaves, even to the point of expelling white students who engaged in such behavior. Many white voices in the South probably would have preferred continuing on with guerilla war effort to resist the North, in the name of defending the Confederacy, but Lee’s wise judgment at Appomattox Courthouse, to cease hostilities, and move towards reconciliation prevailed. But Lee did not go out of his way to lift up the African American. Nevertheless, it can be genuinely said that Lee wished to put the tragedy of the Civil War behind him and refocus on the rebuilding of a United States, encouraging the students of the college to purse the life of being “Christian gentlemen.”

One looks back on Allen Guelzo’s R. E. Lee: A Life and sees a rather complex man, who sought to do what he believed was his duty, first and foremost for his family, who had a rather complicated relationship with slavery. Revisionists will often depict him as a defender of racial slavery, and traditional defenders of Lee will portray him as being a principled defender of states rights. Neither view is truly accurate. Both judgments are overstated and overly simplified, and thus they distort what should properly be remembered of the historical Robert E. Lee.

Lee’s motive of defending his children’s inheritance at Arlington, thus seeking to reverse the dishonorable legacy left to him by his absentee father, as the prime motivation for him joining the Southern cause, as argued by Allen Guelzo, stands out as a convincing and neglected aspect of Lee’s life. This does not diminish the fact that Lee was at least in some sense a traitor to the Union, and it’s army that he faithfully served for decades. But it does illustrate how one’s family history can deeply impact one’s moral decision making ability.

Furthermore, Guelzo portrays Lee as more of a cultural Christian, than a truly evangelical one, more so than I had originally imagined. A good case can still be made, even from Guelzo’s book, that Lee eventually took his faith more seriously, while he assumed the great responsibility for leading the Confederate military effort. His self-acknowledgment that God had used the Confederate loss to judge and chastise Lee should not be underestimated.

I would agree with the review of the book offered by biblical scholar Mark Ward, that R. E. Lee: A Life can help one see more clearly the faults of Lee, while still appreciating his many virtues. As the history of racism in America continues to have an impact on the Christian church, and the broader culture, R. E. Lee: A Life offers an important look into that history. Many books on Lee focus on his accomplishments as a military field leader, but R. E. Lee: A Life explores much more than that. Complicated he was …. Robert E. Lee has been branded as a traitor, who lacked a better sense of moral clarity regarding race and slavery, but still was enough of a Christian gentleman, who sought to serve and honor his family, out of a profound sense of duty, all at the same time. This type of balanced look at a person is sorely needed in our day and age.

 

 


John Stott’s 100th Birthday

John R.W. Stott would have been 100 years old today. He died ten years ago, but the man left his mark on the history of the worldwide evangelical church. A tribute website to Stott’s influence rightly states that Stott was “an English Anglican who impacted evangelical Christianity in the 20th Century more than any other individual.”

John Robert Walmsey Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011)

I discovered John Stott as a college student, through a series of small booklets Stott wrote for InterVarsity. Over his life, Stott wrote about 50 fifty books, but what set Stott above many of his peers was a combination of three qualities:

  • John Stott combined the warmth and heart of a pastor with a crisp and keen intellect.
  • John Stott was a gifted leader.
  • John Stott had a heart and passion to reach the world for Jesus.

John Stott came to know Christ at age 17 in the United Kingdom, on the eve of World War II, after hearing a talk by youth evangelist Eric Nash, “What Then Shall I Do with Jesus, Who Is Called the Christ?  Stott would eventually go onto becoming the Rector of All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, in London, where he would serve for most of his life. He studied the Scriptures for hours and hours, and appreciated the value of sound, verse-by-verse expository preaching.

Though Stott never married, he was very much a “people-person.”  He partnered with the American evangelist, Billy Graham, to sponsor a series of revival meetings in England in 1950s, that sparked the worldwide ministry outreach of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Yet Stott was not content simply to be a pastor, as he believed that cultivating a Christian heart should also be accompanied by cultivating a Christian mind. He encouraged the development of British-based Bible commentaries, to revive an interest in thoughtful evangelical Bible scholarship, that had languished by the mid-20th century. One of my favorite Stott books to this day is his commentary on the Book of Romans. Stott was both a pastor and a teacher.

Together with Billy Graham, John Stott drew together evangelists and missionaries from all over the world to convene at Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, one of the most important statements of evangelical belief and practice, during the modern era. A tireless supporter of the work of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, John Stott traveled the world as a leader to promote the global work of spreading the Gospel.

Stott was not without controversy, as he clashed with fellow senior evangelical leader Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1960s, over evangelical involvement in the Church of England, which had grown increasingly liberal in theological direction. Lloyd-Jones urged evangelicals to leave the Church of England, while Stott urged evangelicals to stay, and maintain their influence in the national church. Stott also urged other fellow Christians to affirm God’s design for marriage, as being between one man and one woman for a lifetime, contrary to certain popular trends today.

Stott steered a middle-way through theological disagreements, that still plague 21st century evangelicalism. In the 1960s, he gently admonished the leaders of the Keswick Holiness movement to abandon their late-19th and early-20th century commitment to “let go and let God” theology and embrace a more classic, Reformed view of sanctification, that emphasizes gradual growth and change in the Christian life.  Stott was a critic of excesses in the charismatic movement, while avoiding knee-jerk reactions against the charismatic movement, by advocating an “open yet cautious” approach to modern manifestations of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Stott sought a middle-way in the debate over “women in ministry,” by affirming the principle of an all-male-only eldership in local churches, while simultaneously encouraging the development of female leadership in other ministries of the church. Stott accepted the antiquity of the earth, and was open to the scientific theory of evolution, while firmly believing in an historical Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, who later fell into sin.

Stott was no mere traditionalist, simply accepting tradition for the sake of tradition, as he sought to follow Scripture wherever it led him. Most controversially, Stott eventually adopted a “conditional immortality” view regarding the doctrine of hell, at least in a tentative matter, as opposed to holding to the view of hell as conscious eternal torment.

My favorite John Stott book is The Cross of Christ, which is my view the best, contemporary well-rounded exposition of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. In The Cross of Christ, Stott affirms the classic Reformation of view of penal substitutionary atonement, while emphasizing that God’s self-substitution at Calvary corrects certain misunderstandings that many often have about penal substitution.

Check out the John Stott 100 website to learn more about Stott and about his many helpful books.


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