Why Cynicism Is One of the Historian’s Great Gifts to the Church

I was recently reminded of this older piece from church historian Carl Trueman, and I thought it might be worth reposting an extended quotation on how the church can benefit from historians who take the long view and don’t get caught up in hyperbole and hagiography.

Some years ago, Phyllis Tickle likened Brian McLaren to Luther and the Emergent Church to the kind of paradigm shift that happens only once a millennium.

The amazing thing was not that she said this; in a world shaped by the continual escalation of sales rhetoric, this kind of language is to be expected in advertising.

No. What was truly amazing was that people actually took her seriously, friend and foe alike. Such people are in urgent need of help to stop them saying or believing things that are very, very silly and absurdly self-important.

Enter the church historians. Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.

The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle’s metaphysical works.

This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church. The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas,

revolutionized education,

transformed the philosophical landscape,

opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and

set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.

Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.

The second major moment was the Enlightenment.

Like the earlier Aristotelian renaissance, this was a diverse movement and the singular term is something of a scholarly construct; but the various philosophical strands covered by the terms served to remake university education and to demand new and fresh responses from the church in a way that the Reformation had never done.

In this light, to hear that the work of some trendy representative of the angst, insecurities, and obsessions of middle America somehow represents the kind of paradigm shift that comes along once in a millennium in self-evidently laughable. He may have an enviable gift for writing popular books and speaking (the musical talent is, I fear, more questionable) but he is not bringing about a comprehensive revision of the whole of theology, establishing a comprehensive framework for understanding the world, or reshaping the very foundations of knowledge as either the church or the wider world understands it.

Further (and here is the real historical rub) even if he were doing so, it would be a hundred years or so before anybody would really be able to make that judgment with any confidence. . . .

And that is why church historians play such an important role and our cynicism is such a boon. Church history keeps things in perspective. Through reading the texts and studying the actions and events of the past we can truly say that we have seen it all before. Thus, whatever it is that the latest guru is suggesting, it definitely will not work as well as expected, probably will not work at all, and anyway it will be a hundred years or more before we can say whether it made a real difference or not.

Thus, the next time someone comes along and tells me that a movie by Mel Gibson is the most significant contribution to church culture since the Apostle John laid down his stylus and parchment, my eyes can glaze over in confident knowledge that what I have just been told is complete drivel. When I am informed that a book by the Rev. Tommy Tweedlethumb is the most important piece of Christian literature since Augustine’s Confessions, I can politely stifle a yawn behind my hand and go back to reading the newspaper, for I know full well that in a hundred years time Tommy’s complete works will be as long-forgotten as genre-shattering pop bands such as ‘Men Without Hats.’

The old saying has it that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Whether or not that is entirely accurate, it is certainly true to say that cynicism is one of the historian’s great gifts to the church. To put it bluntly, cynicism serves to keep things, especially us, in proper perspective. After all, most of what goes on today in the name of earth-shattering paradigm shifts has no value, whatever the price tag.

Of course, cynicism is not the only thing a historian offers to the church, and cynicism by itself can be a vice and not a virtue. Neverthless, Trueman is right. We should listen to those who have a built-in skepticism about the latest hype because they know enough to have a proper perspective.

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The Former Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments

James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America offers a remarkable account of Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist pastor who lost his Philadelphia church position due to his opposition to the Great Awakening. Kinnersley then improbably became the greatest popularizer of Ben Franklin’s discoveries in electricity.

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th-century revivals. As a 3-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Kinnersley, contemptuous of religious enthusiasm and superstition, proclaimed that his shows were subduing fearful apprehensions of electricity and lightning, and bringing them into the realm of rational understanding. “Another miracle! the ignorant would say,” Kinnersley scoffed. But now through Franklin’s experiments, “the mystery was understood.” Yet Kinnersley did not see himself as undermining faith with science. Instead, he paired the de-mystifying of nature with greater worship of God. Scientific knowledge leads us “to the First Cause,” he wrote, “by refining, enlarging, and exalting our ideas of the great author and God of Nature.”

For many believing scientists, knowledge has continued to produce doxology. But in Kinnersley’s popularization of Franklin, we can see tangible ways in which a former pastor also helped open new opportunities to believe that the natural world is all there is. Divine mysteries, the secular rationalist says, will all eventually dissipate before the bright sun of science.

I also discuss Kinnersley, Franklin, and the religious implications of Franklin’s experiments in my biography Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017).

This post originally appeared at the Anxious Bench blog, Patheos.

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The ‘Jefferson Bible’ and a Founder’s Deism

The “Jefferson Bible,” or “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” is arguably the most controversial religious book produced in the American founding era. The Smithsonian Museum of American History has a remarkable website with a digital reproduction of the whole text, which is well worth a visit. The Smithsonian has also published a facsimile edition of the Jefferson Bible.

Although some popular Christian writers have tried to claim Jefferson as a Christian, he was actually a Deist whose contempt for traditional Christian beliefs became more clear in his retirement. Jefferson reviled beliefs like the Trinity and the virgin birth as irrational and implausible. He said that he looked forward to the time “when we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three.”

Jefferson did consider himself a Christian, but not of the sort that TGC readers would recognize. He wrote in 1803 that “to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.” In other words, he revered Jesus’s teachings but did not believe that Jesus ever claimed to be divine.

Jefferson was convinced that Jesus’s followers had imposed the claims of divinity on him after Jesus died. This accounts for the shape of the Jefferson Bible, which was Jefferson’s multi-language edition of the Gospels. Jefferson used a pen-knife to remove sections of the Gospels that he found unreliable, especially a number of the miracles attributed to Jesus.

In last verse of the Jefferson Bible, Jesus’s disciples “rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” There was no resurrection in Jefferson’s edition. The Jefferson Bible was not published until the early 20th century, but it illustrated the Deistic view of Jesus as a preeminent moral teacher, and nothing more.

Unlike many of Christianity’s critics today, Jefferson was deeply familiar with the Bible. He had to be in order to produce the Jefferson Bible. But Jefferson clearly put his own standards of rationality above the authority of Scripture. Lots of people implicitly cut out parts of the Bible they don’t like. Jefferson literally did so.

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Alvin York, Christian Soldier

Alvin York, arguably the most celebrated American soldier in World War I, was born on December 13, 1887, in a log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee. York was devout, having experienced conversion through a Church of Christ in 1914. York considered declaring himself a conscientious objector, recalling, “I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my bible. . . . And yet Uncle Sam wanted me.” When York went to training camp, however, an officer convinced him that the Bible endorsed a Christian’s participation in a just war.

Alvin York's Conscientious Objector Claim, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.Alvin York’s Conscientious Objector Claim, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

At the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in 1918, York and his fellow soldiers were tasked with flanking a German machine-gun position. York’s best friend was killed in the assault, but York, an expert sharpshooter, picked the Germans off one after another with his rifle and pistol, he said, the “way we shoot wild turkeys at home.” York convinced the Germans to surrender with the assistance of a captured German officer, and brought back 132 prisoners of war. He eventually won the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds. But York still struggled with the killings, not entirely sure that God approved of his actions.

York was reluctant to agree to multiple offers to sanction a film based on his life, but he agreed to do so in order to help him raise money for a interdenominational Bible school that would, as York put it, “prepare its pupils to live and practice a full Christian life.” So he agreed to the production of the 1941 movie Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Cooper won a Best Actor award for it, and the film was the highest-grossing film of 1941. Some critics interpreted the film as propaganda to encourage American intervention in World War II.

Although the film included much fictitious material, it was attentive to the religious themes in York’s life. Here are a couple of the key clips:

David D. Lee’s Sergeant York: An American Hero is a good, brief introduction to the life and American image of Alvin York.

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Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

Eerdmans has posted the chapter I wrote on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, in their recently published Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. In my endorsement for the volume generally, I wrote, “The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia assembles a remarkable cast of Edwards experts, whose entries offer a treasure trove of insights into Edwards’s vast body of work. A fitting monument to Edwards himself, this compendium will be an essential resource for scholars and admirers of this great preacher and theologian.”

Here’s some of the chapter:

Jonathan Edwards’s best-known sermon is his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in Enfield, Massachusetts (later Connecticut), on July 8, 1741, at the height of the Great Awakening in New England. Two days before that famous sermon, Edwards was preaching in nearby Suffield, Massachusetts, in a private residence packed with two hundred people, many of whom would be in attendance two days later. The scene was chaotic, with a cacophony of sobs, groans, yelling, and screeching nearly drowning out Edwards’s voice. One observer noted that the ecstatic penitents’ bodies dropped to the floor with such devastation that “you would have thought their bones all broken, or rather that they had no bones.”

The scene sets the backdrop for Edwards’s Enfield sermon—at this stage of the Great Awakening, Edwards was quite familiar with, and prepared to accept, the most radical manifestations of evangelical piety. Historians have sometimes thought of Enfield as an unanticipated outburst of enthusiastic fervor—one that became so heated that Edwards decided to conclude the sermon before he finished his text. But understood in the context of the Suffield excitement, Edwards may have planned the Enfield sermon to get precisely the fervent response it received, from some of the same people he had addressed across the Connecticut River in Suffield only two days before. Yet Edwards would come to wonder about the value and propriety of such heated scenes, and would expend much effort trying to craft a rubric to test the godly fruit, or the hypocrisy, of the intense awakenings.

The era of the Great Awakening saw its greatest upsurge of revivals in the early 1740s, catalyzed by the itinerant preaching of the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Historians have debated the extent and significance of the Great Awakening, but there is little reason to doubt that it was the greatest religious and cultural upheaval in Anglo-America prior to the American Revolution. Discussions of the Great Awakening have often cast it as a contest between Old Lights and New Lights, the former opposing the revivals as disruptive chaos, and the latter welcoming them as a gift of God.

But even in Edwards, we see that the New Lights could range from radical enthusiasm to cautious moderation. It was typical for the leaders of the awakening to make their own journey from radicalism to moderation. Edwards may not have ever fully plumbed the depths of evangelical radicalism in his personal piety, but he never repudiated the transcendent experiences of the radicals, either. Nevertheless, by the end of 1740 Edwards was already beginning to question some of the most incendiary practices of the radicals, and by the mid-1740s he had become hesitant about the scenes he once fostered in Suffield and Enfield.

Read the whole thing here.

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Religious Liberty and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case

Tomorrow the Supreme Court hears arguments in a critical religious liberty and free speech case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Christians should care about this case because it concerns whether the government can force people to act against their deeply held religious convictions.

The case involves baker Jack Phillips, a Christian who ran afoul of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for refusing to make a cake for the wedding of two men. The Supreme Court itself made such a case nearly inevitable when it declared gay “marriage” a constitutional right in the 2015 Obergefell decision. If gay marriage is a constitutional right, the reasoning goes, then businesses can’t refuse to provide services to gay weddings.

As The Wall Street Journal noted, Phillips says that baking a cake is an artistic expression subject to First Amendment free speech protections. Phillips has provided bakery services to gays under other circumstances, so his point is not that he won’t serve gay customers. It is that he objects to gay marriage and does not believe that the state should force him to create an artistic product under any circumstances, much less one that violates his conventional, traditional religious beliefs. As a matter of policy, Phillips also won’t produce Halloween cakes, or cakes that feature any profanity or suggestive themes.

Court precedent has generally frowned upon the idea of the government forcing people to act against religious conscience. Even at the time of America’s founding, political leaders were well familiar with extending conscience exemptions to groups like the Quakers. As I have noted elsewhere, the Constitution provides an exemption for Quakers and others who might have scruples about swearing oaths.

Twentieth-century cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly found that the government could not force them into making expressions of patriotic devotion, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

The case for Phillips may run into trouble, however, because of the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith (1990). This was a peculiar case in which Antonin Scalia, normally a great friend of religious liberty, argued in the majority opinion that a state could infringe upon religious freedom when doing so was an “incidental effect of a generally applicable” law. In that case, two men were fired for using peyote, even though they claimed that they were using it for ritual purposes in the Native American Church. The state of Oregon had banned peyote, and the Court found that since the law was not intended to discriminate against religious people specifically, the termination could stand.

Colorado will similarly argue that it is in the public interest to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that this requirement is “generally applicable” to all business people in the state, not just principled Christians. The problem is that it is hard to envision whom this policy might affect other than bakers of traditional religious views. And the commission has permitted other bakers to refuse to make cakes expressing hostility to gay marriage, so the law is not being equally applied. Employment Division v. Smith made clear that a state cannot “impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status.” Functionally, that is what Colorado has done in this case.

The Court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, has a good track record of defending religious liberty, so there is some reason for optimism that the Court might narrowly find for Masterpiece Cakeshop. If they do not, it will be a devastating blow to a number of Christian business owners who have been disciplined under similar circumstances. A decision against Masterpiece Cakeshop would also raise more questions, such as whether a state can force Christian adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples.

We can hope that in Masterpiece Cakeshop the Court will defer to the First Amendment’s free speech and religious liberty provisions, as compared to the right to same-sex marriage, which the Court majority only recently discovered in the Constitution. Of course, Jack Phillips hardly prevented any same-sex couples from getting married; he just resisted the state’s attempt to force him to create a cake.

See also Jack Phillips, “Here’s why I can’t custom-design cakes for same-sex weddings,” USA Today

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