Tag Archives: Church History

On Robert E. Lee Statues, the Reformation, and The Danger of Forgetting History

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

Having recently returned from a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I am all too aware of the tragedy of racism, and its intermingling with the story of Christianity in the American South. But I am left with a question: how are we to remember our history?

Headlines have been popping up this year, with various cities across the South, such as New Orleans, and Charlottesville, Virginia, that have been removing or planning to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, and an evangelical Christian. As might be expected, white supremacist groups, who seek to have Lee fit their agenda, are protesting such statue removals. On the other extreme, counter-protestors deface such monuments. Like the Confederate flag, such symbols mean different things to different people, and their meaning can be hijacked out of their historical context, for good, or for ill.

As long time readers of Veracity know, we regret how the Bible has been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify slavery and condone racism. Efforts to correct tragic misunderstandings of the past, by retelling forgotten stories, are essential. However, I am bothered by this recent trend of dismantling historical monuments.

A June essay in the Atlantic magazine, by journalist Adam Serwer, seeks to justify such monument removal. Robert E. Lee, Serwer argues, is not the hero or saintly figure that many defenders of Lee’s heritage seek to admire. In some ways, Serwer is correct, hence, the KKK’s ill-informed effort to make Robert E. Lee into a god. But it would serve Mr. Serwer better to take a closer look at R. David Cox’s The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, a book on my “to-be-read” list, for hopefully a more in-depth look at Lee’s Christian spirituality, that grew from a type of nominalism; that is, Christian by name only, to a more mature evangelical faith, later in his life.

In a rejoinder essay in The National Review, Dan McLaughlin modestly, yet rightly, observes that Serwer’s efforts to attack Robert E. Lee, are more about the present, than they are the past. Robert E. Lee was far from being perfect, and though I greatly respect Lee’s example of Christian faith, I am also painfully aware of the man’s shortcomings. We should be doing more to balance the story, adding historical context, and listen to forgotten voices. But does this mean we should diminish such characters as Robert E. Lee, even with their flaws?

How quickly we as humans are prone to forget.

I see no need to explore the politics of all of this, except to say that it seems like there is a cultural trend towards trying to erase painful memories of our past.

Martin Luther statue, in Washington, D.C. Beloved Protestant Reformer, but promoter of an anti-Jewish tract, later in life. Should his statue be removed next? I hope not. (credit: Wikipedia)

I even wonder what will happen later this fall, when people begin to talk more about the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, to the church door, that triggered the start of the Protestant Reformation. Surely, some press outlet will release an essay informing of us of Martin Luther’s horrid antisemitic statements he made, late in his life. Luther’s tract, On the Jews and Their Lies, was used by 20th century Nazis as a propaganda tool in their efforts to eliminate Europe’s Jews.

Not only that, but in 1525, Martin Luther infamously urged the German princes to brutally put down a peasants revolt, that left thousands of impoverished people dead. Luther’s ill-guided rhetoric, which he later regretted, helped to fuel the indignant imagination of Karl Marx years later, who described religion as being the opiate of the people, which led to other forces of extremism and violence, closer to our own time.

Could it be possible then, for people to start demanding the dismantling of Martin Luther statues, in response to Luther’s shortcomings? Where does the removal of monuments, that recall the dark side of our history, stop?

May I suggest that the Bible offers some help here.

When reading the Bible, we learn about a whole of host of people whom God used, to help introduce the world to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 11, many of these names are celebrated in the “Hall of  Fame of Faith.”  However, all of these figures were tragically flawed. Abraham, the father of Israel, pimped his wife. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, was a murderer. David, the greatest king in all of Israel, committed brazen adultery, arranged the death of the woman’s husband, and sought to cover up the whole matter.

Yet what strikes me about the Bible is that there is no attempt to cover up the flaws of these wayward sinners. Neither the Jews, nor the Christian church, have sought to revise the Bible, in attempt to remove the unsavory character on display. God saw fit to preserve the memory of those whom he used to achieve His purposes, including those parts that we would probably rather forget.

We live in an age where we desperately want heroes. However, unflawed heroes are hard to find. In our anger, we find it easy to point out the failures of others, particular of those in the past, but we all too conveniently ignore our own failures. The Bible gives a reason why this is the case: We are all sinful human beings, in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23). Jesus Christ, and Christ alone, is the one who can set things right. Sadly, contemporary society has a hard time recognizing the all-too pervasive impact of sin on all of us. So, we are all too willing to shove those uncomfortable things, like our own sin, under the carpet.

So, while there is a trend to remove those aspects of our history that either embarrass us, shame us, or even remind us of our shortcomings, the Bible has a lesson to teach us. Let us remember, as the Bible teaches, not only the good things that God does through human beings, but also those things that remind all of us, how much we all need a Savior, who can heal and redeem us.

For a fascinating, albeit disturbing history behind the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, you should read Brandon Wolfe’s essay.


The “Breaking of the Bread” … or Whatever You Call It

“This is my Body… This is my Blood.”

One Sunday of every month, and after the sermon, two ministers from my church, stand in front of a decorative wooden table, and instruct the congregation to receive the elements, in remembrance of Christ’s death upon the cross. But what to call this ceremony remains a subject of some debate.

At the first Pentecost, following the Resurrection, that signaled the birth of the church, we read that:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”(Acts 2:32 ESV)

Many Christians still speak of “the breaking of (the) bread” to express what goes on at that table, though by association, it also includes the partaking of wine, or grape juice, as is done in my church.1 A long standing debate in the church at large, over what this means, invites rigorous discussion among believers. Does the bread and wine/juice merely symbolize the presence of Christ, as a memorial, or do they somehow point to a real, even physical(??), presence of the Lord Jesus, at that very moment?

We have explored some of the details of this controversy some time ago on Veracity. But for the moment, I have a simpler question: What do we call the whole thing, with the bread and the wine or juice, to begin with?

One of most original terms was the Greek “eucharist,” meaning “thanksgiving.” The terminology of “eucharist” goes back to the late 1st century, or early 2nd century worship manual of the early church, the Didache, to reference this most sacred meal. The term has biblical precedence behind it:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”(1 Corinthians 11:23-24 ESV)

Nevertheless, a number of terms have arisen since then to describe the sacred meal, not just “eucharist.” So, what is the best terminology? Eucharist? The Divine Liturgy? The Blessed Sacrament? The Mass? What else? Continue reading


Why the Reformation (Still) Matters

Yesterday, Halloween, we also recognize (or “should recognize,” more importantly) that this year marks the 499th year after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church, in Wittenberg, Germany. Does the Reformation that Luther’s hammer triggered all those years ago still matter today? Pastor/teachers Don Carson, John Piper and Tim Keller answer that question.


Kirk Cameron’s Monumental Missed Opportunity

Kirk Cameron's 2012 film, Monumental, is worth seeing, but only if accompanied by good, historical scholarship to correct the inaccuracies and misguided theology.

Kirk Cameron’s 2012 film, Monumental, is worth seeing, but only if accompanied by good, historical scholarship to correct the inaccuracies and misguided theology.

I love history. I love it because history tells us who we are. The study of history tells us about where we have come from as individuals and as societies, and it helps to tell us where we are going. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, we live in an age where we suffer as a culture, and particularly as a Christian church, from chronic amnesia. We risk fulfilling the prophecy of Santayana with such terrifying disinterest and apathy.

The story of the Christian faith is rooted in history. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the narrative of ancient Israel, are events that exist within space and time. As believers, we are under obligation to get the story right. So, it bothers me when those of us as Christians, who should care the most about history, tend to misrepresent that history, fudging on the story at certain points to advance misguided theological agendas. Even if we deem the motives to be well-intended, we do no favors to the church and the surrounding world with unsubstantiated alterations that distort the telling of that history.

This explains the frustration I felt when I recently viewed Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary, Monumental. I was indeed entertained by watching Monumental, but I am not so sure if I was equally educated. As a work of amateur historiography, Monumental is worthy of consideration and a thoughtful discussion starter. But as a serious documentary of responsible scholarship, Monumental falls short. It made me want to plead with Kirk Cameron, the famous actor turned film producer, “can I call for a do-over?” I know that I am just a few years “late to the party,” but please allow me to explain.
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Saint Augustine on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis

Saint Augustine.  Champion of the biblical doctrine of Grace..... but troublesome to many regarding the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Saint Augustine. Bishop of Hippo. (354-430)

In recent years, some have argued that anything other than a “literal” reading of the first few chapters of Genesis would be a compromise against the authority of the Bible. Any other approach is a capitulation to the spirit of the modern age that would undermine the faith of the believer, smuggling in a materialist, evolutionary worldview that is inconsistent with and hostile to Holy Scripture.

The modern concern is genuine, and it should not be taken lightly. The idea of injecting philosophies that are at odds with Christian faith should indeed be rejected by those who care for the absolutely supremacy of God’s Word. Nevertheless, such an argument with respect to materialist evolution would have been completely incomprehensible to the early church scholar and Bible teacher, Saint Augustine.

For the great African Christian intellectual of the early 5th century, Augustine had other concerns. An atheistic, “Darwinian evolution” could not be anachronistically inserted into his thought or vocabulary. In his classic work, De Genesi ad litteram, known in various ways in English as “On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis,” Augustine wrestled with the most appropriate way to interpret God’s Word faithfully. For Augustine, to interpret something “literally” means to interpret “in the sense intended by the author.”

Studying the history of the church is a neglected task in today’s evangelical Christianity, which is obsessed with the supposed virtues of “newness,” continually reinforced by rapid changes in technology (would you have read this blog on your phone ten years ago??). But church history can tell us a lot about ourselves today. Do we have the courage and discipline to learn from our forebears?

In the early church, Christians held different views on the interpretation of Genesis, just as we find today. On one side, there were those like Basil the Great, who saw the days of Genesis as being 24-hour creation days, thus rejecting the allegorizing approach advocated by Origen of Alexandria. Augustine was well aware of these debates, and he sought a different way to work through the issues. Augustine’s theory that God created everything instantaneously, based on his understanding of Psalm 33:6-9, is surely out of step with most Christian views of earth’s origins today, but nevertheless he still offers some advice that might help believers who wrestle with these challenging biblical texts.

Does Augustine help you? Read on, and let me know what you think.

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