Not All Turkey and Touchdowns

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony weren’t the first Europeans to settle in North America, nor were they the first permanent English colonists. But because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America’s national memory. Although modern Thanksgiving has become largely non-religious — focused more on food, family, and football than explicitly thanking God — the Pilgrims’ experience reveals a compelling religious aspect of our country’s roots. Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as “Puritans,” they technically were English Separatists. These were Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607. The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts. All adult men on board the ship signed the “Mayflower Compact,” which many consider the first written constitution in American history. It is a very brief document, but it powerfully articulated the colonists’ commitment to God and government by common consent. It reads, in part: Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern… Read More

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Opinion Polls and the ‘Evangelical’ Illusion

Virtually every day some media story tells us what “evangelicals” believe—usually what they believe about some political issue. I have become convinced that many of these stories are simply unreliable. The primary reasons that they are unreliable are (1) the difficulty in getting solid polling data on any subject, (2) unclear definitions of “evangelicals,” and (3) ideological biases against “evangelicals” among pollsters and reporters. Observers have noted that ever since the advent of cell phones, reliable polling has become ever more difficult. Polls routinely get no more than a 10 percent response rate. Some academic experts (including colleagues of mine at Baylor) have begun to despair about using polls to gather reliable information about anything at all. FiveThirtyEight gave a good, balanced overview of the problems in polling four years ago. The problems have only gotten worse since then. The second issue is that many polls depend upon self-identification to determine who is an “evangelical.” Some polls do use other means of determining who an evangelical is, such as church affiliation. But typically, pollsters simply ask a person if they identify as an evangelical. If the answer is yes, then that person is taken to have “evangelical” views about Donald Trump’s latest antics, or whatever the topic is. This is highly dubious. For instance, if you ask more probing questions, it turns out that significant numbers of these “evangelicals” do not go to church. In many cases, we have no idea how many of these “evangelicals” read the Bible regularly, have been born again, or share other hallmarks of historic evangelicalism. As I have argued repeatedly, I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as “evangelicals” are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious. To be fair, many polls do explicitly break out… Read More

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Billy Graham at 99: A Look Back at the Evangelist and the Presidents (From Truman to Trump)

Evangelist Billy Graham turns 99 years old today. One fascinating part of Graham’s life is his interactions with the presidents of the United States. He has personally met with 13 of the nation’s 45 presidents—nearly 1 out of 3—dating back to 1950. In other words, he has personally interacted with (and usually prayed with) all of the presidents following World War II—from Truman to Trump. For information on each relationship, see the book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House. (And by the way, if you want to read the definitive biography of Graham, wait until March of 2018 and get the updated edition of William Martin’s magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.) I won’t make comments on Graham and each president, except for the first and the last, since they are both somewhat unusual. On July 14, 1950, when the evangelist was just 31 years old, he had his first meeting in the White House with a president: Harry Truman. Graham was joined by his three associates, Jerry Beavan, Cliff Barrows, and Grady Wilson. Afterward, as the four men stepped out on the White House lawn, they were met with reporters, who suggested they pause, pose, and pray before the cameras. The men took a knee and prayed for Truman to have the Lord’s guidance in his handling of the Korean crisis. Truman took the action as grandstanding and was not impressed. No picture exists of Graham meeting with Truman in the White House. Seventeen years later, however, Truman welcomed Graham to his home in Independence, Missouri. In November 2013, Graham met Donald Trump, who was a guest at the evangelist’s 95th birthday party. Seventeen months later, Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States. So though Graham has not met with… Read More

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Blaming the Reformation for Secularism?

Baylor recently hosted a splendid conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with talks by Mark Noll, Bruce Gordon, Beth Allison Barr, and many more. One of the most intriguing talks I attended was by Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman, who addressed the work of a trio of scholars—Charles Taylor, Carlos Eire, and especially Brad Gregory—who have blamed a host of modern ills on the Reformation. (Collin Hansen and TGC have recently produced a book on Taylor’s thought, in which Trueman is one of the contributors.) These ills include radical individualism, moral relativism, and an utterly fractured church and culture. Most profoundly, they blame the Reformation for the secularism of modernity. This is not secularism as the “absence” of religion, but a secularism that turns religion into one choice among many, as opposed to an inheritance. It is also a secularism in which the world becomes “disenchanted,” and naturalistic explanations rule in science and in everyday life. Trueman’s talk raised a number of problems with these types of criticisms. He readily conceded that modern Western culture is characterized by most of the ills highlighted by the Reformation’s critics. But how do we know the Reformation caused the ills, when there are so many other possible causes? Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Trueman proposed that we consider material explanations for individualism, relativism, and secularism, as much as ideological and theological explanations. Here I want to give just one example of such material explanations: the advent of the automobile, a development that Trueman says was devastating to church discipline. Sure, the Reformation helped to inaugurate the fundamentally divided nature of Christendom, but the Catholic Church itself had long since aided that process in episodes such as its break with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. Trueman notes that religious… Read More

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Johnny Cash and the Evangelical Fascination with Celebrities

Evangelical Christians have had a longtime fascination with celebrities. The latest example was Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas inviting Fox News host Sean Hannity for an interview at the church on October 22. To be fair, evangelicals may not be any more consumed with celebrity than American culture at large is. But evangelicals have often seen celebrities as a means to get the word out. Friendship with celebrities could also signal evangelicals’ own status as cultural and political “insiders.” The temptation of celebrity, however, has routinely caused problems as evangelicals have platformed people who have only a distant grasp of evangelical beliefs, and who show little sign of conversion, or of personal devotion to Christ and the church. Sometimes evangelical leaders have also given their blessing to celebrities who have brought embarrassment to the evangelical movement by issues in their personal lives, or when their faith turns out to be a short-lived “Christian phase.” One could write a book on the saga of evangelicals and celebrities from the worlds of politics, sports, music, and more. But perhaps one of the most representative evangelical relationships with celebrity was Billy Graham’s platforming of Johnny Cash. Robert Hilburn’s tragic biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, explains that as Cash’s celebrity crested in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cash’s sincere sympathy for evangelical faith made him an alluring candidate to appear at Graham’s crusades. Instructively, it was Franklin Graham who first promoted Cash to his father as the kind of star who “could attract millions of people to the Crusades, especially young people.” Johnny Cash and June Carter, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. The problem was that Cash in this era was a deeply troubled person who was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and who hardly ever attended church in spite of his wife June Carter… Read More

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Exploring Jonathan Edwards’s World: With Drawings and Google Maps

Using the very helpful research of Tony Reinke, I recently plotted the major locations of Jonathan Edwards’s life on a Google Map. If you click through, you can zoom in. This plots not only the major towns where Edwards lived, but also tries to zoom in to exact locations, like the house where he was born, the church where he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and so on. In his excellent book,  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP, 2009), Douglas Sweeney explains what it would have looked, sounded, and even smelled like if you went back in time to Jonathan Edwards world: Perhaps the first thing you would notice as you entered one of the small towns that structured Edwards’ world is the quietness of the daily lives of its residents. To be sure, you would hear noises—people talking and working with tools, the rhythmic clopping of horses’  hooves, the lowing of cows and bleating of sheep. But you would not hear any engines, whether of cars or heavy machinery. You might well hear a town crier making announcements to the community with the help of a hand bell, a conch shell or even a drum. But you would not hear any planes, trains, automobiles or trucks. Nor would you hear the steady humming, beeping, honking and general wailing of industrial equipment. In fact, the loudest sound to be heard in  many early New England towns was the ringing, by the sexton, of  the church bell. As you traversed the town green, you would notice the smell of dung. (In early New England these spaces were often used for grazing.) But once you became inured to it, and learned to watch your  step, your gaze would likely be… Read More

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Will There Be Law In Heaven?

This is the question I recently posed in two of our New Covenant Theology groups on Facebook, inviting thoughts and discussion. I will reveal my reason for asking that, along with my own thoughts. Interestingly, the response from both ‘sides’ of the ever-ongoing ‘law for believers’ debate is in agreement – a resounding ‘No’! In support of that, the consensus seems to argue that as law is to do with the control of sinful behaviour, and there will be no sin in heaven, there will thus be no need for God’s law. Indeed, Paul says to Timothy: “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1 vs 9 – 11) It is not difficult to see where this conclusion comes from, and I agree with the argument. But, strangely, I do not agree with the conclusion. I think there will be law in heaven. Follows my explanation. Priesthood and Law Hebrews is key when we are considering the old covenant. There is an important statement in chapter 7 which, I believe, helps us to answer my question. Verse 12 says: “For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.” The writer’s argument is contained in the preceding verse: “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come,… Read More

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Living for the Lord – Bareback!

Thinking about the difference between old covenant lifestyle, under the Law of Moses, and new covenant lifestyle in the Spirit of God, perhaps we struggle to find the agreement between obedience and our freedom in Christ. The vigorous, ongoing debate between the respective views over whether there is or there  is not a ‘law’ in play for believers contrasts two legitimate desires. On the One Hand … Those who want to insist there is such a law are concerned with our obedience to God, in committed and specified choices and activities in our Christian living. Thus, they say, there have to be law-like commanding going on in the New Testament Scriptures which function in the same way as Mosaic Law did in the old covenant, binding the believer in law-like function, and holding him accountable. There is, then, a definitive prescribing in God’s word for our lifestyle, which stand against any thought that we can just do as we ‘feel’ the Spirit is leading us. … And On The Other … Those who want to emphasise that we are not under law, but rather under grace, and that we are to live lives led by the Spirit who indwells us are concerned to explore, to the glory of the risen Lord, all the joy and freedom, within the parameters of a holy life, unrestricted by the law-keeping of the old covenant. In its place, they argue, is the guiding hand of the Spirit, who imparts not only God’s standards, but the very desire to live to them. Concessions and Allowances There needs to be grace on both sides. For the concern on the other is good. But the tendency is for both ‘sides’ of the argument to push the conclusions of the other to extremes, and then to accuse accordingly.… Read More

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How Historians Are Quietly Rewriting the Typical Story of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

Writing 10 years ago in Books & Culture, David Bebbington suggested that the general consensus regarding the American evangelical story needs revision. The typical story in his retelling goes something like this: [I]n the wake of the Great Awakenings, first and second, America was thoroughly impregnated with evangelical values in the years down to the Civil War. Afterward, however, there arose the challenges of industrialism, non-Protestant immigration, Darwinism, and higher criticism that together toppled the evangelical dominance. Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century to oppose the debasement of the faith, separating from the liberal mainline denominations and so becoming socially marginal. Only with the emergence of neo-evangelicalism from fundamentalism in the 1940s were the foundations of the modern movement laid. In sum, “There was . . . a period of evangelical decay in the late 19th century and a hiatus in the evangelical tradition during the early 20th century.” Bebbington points out that this narrative is not true of Britain, but asks, “Is it really even true of America?” Bebbington has his doubts. On 19th-century evangelicalism in America, he writes: The Second Great Awakening generated not so much “an Arminianized Calvinism” . . .  as a full-blooded paradigm of moderate Calvinism that retained its hegemony in the pulpits of America down to the end of the century and beyond. Alongside it among the Methodists was a warm-hearted Arminian theology. The two seemed increasingly similar as the century wore on, but both remained thoroughly orthodox sanctions for vigorous evangelism. D. L. Moody, who could count on supporters from both camps, made his enormous impact because the culture was still permeated with evangelical assumptions. Black Christians were far more numerous and far more committed to evangelical doctrines in 1900 than in 1850. Liberal theology was admittedly beginning its course, especially at Andover Seminary, but it was… Read More

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Timothy George Lectures on the Reformation

Bruce Ashford, professor and provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, made the comment the other day that “It would be difficult to identify a scholar who can deliver a better public lecture than Timothy George.” Dr. George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, delivered two of the Page Lectures at Southeastern this week on the Reformation: An Overview of the Reformation What Did the Reformers Think They Were Doing? You can watch both lectures below, or go here to download the audio or video. Timothy George’s most famous book is probably Theology of the Reformers (first published in 1988; revised in 2013). The Biblical Training website also offers a free 15-hour course from Professor George on the subject. Visit TGC Evangelical History

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George Marsden on the Burgeoning of Christian Scholarship

The Fall 2017 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review features a roundtable with David Hoekema, George Marsden, Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga on “Christian Perspectives on Learning.” With that formidable lineup, this is a discussion of great interest, but here I want to focus on Marsden’s remarks. They are a brief and optimistic assessment of the “burgeoning of Christian scholarship,” as he calls it, over the past half-century since he started his first teaching job at Calvin College. Marsden attributes the burgeoning to several factors, including the development of “a vital, sophisticated, and substantial intellectual community among theologically traditionalist—or evangelical—American Protestants.” Marsden (my doctoral adviser at Notre Dame) notes that it was not this way in 1965, when he was finishing his PhD at Yale and starting his work at Calvin. Remarkably, Marsden says that in the mid-1960s Calvin and Wheaton College were about the only options that he knew of for intellectually serious Christian colleges. (Whether that reflected the reality, or just the limitations of Marsden’s northern Reformed network, he doesn’t say. Surely there were fewer such schools then than now, however.) He found Calvin a congenial destination, but even there, he found the school “insular” in its narrow world of Dutch Reformed life. “With my non-Dutch name, I was an exotic curiosity” at Calvin, Marsden recalls. What changed at Calvin and elsewhere to make the world of Christian academia more dynamic? Marsden says that one key was faculty tapping into the broader worlds of Christian higher education, and networking with like-minded Christian scholars. These came through visits and conferences at places like Wheaton and other schools associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (founded in 1976). Marsden also highlights his experience of networking with Catholic scholars. Eventually Marsden and Plantinga would join the faculty at Notre… Read More

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Who Was Charles Fuller?

Fuller Theological Seminary—founded 70 years ago by evangelist Charles E. Fuller (1887–1968), his wife Grace, and Harold John Ockenga—has produced a nice little video about Fuller’s life and ministry. [embedded content] George Marsden says that Daniel Fuller’s biography of his father, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972), was a model of the sympathetic insider biography. The entire thing may be read online for free. Visit TGC Evangelical History

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Did the Fundamentalists Really Retreat from Culture?

Matthew Avery Sutton argues against a persistent and almost ubiquitous myth about fundamentalists in 20th-century America: Cultural engagement rather than sectarian isolation remained both a priority and a reality between the late nineteenth century and the present. Fundamentalist’ reactions to the 1928 Al Smith presidential campaign and their attacks on the New Deal—to cite but two examples—reveal that they were were anything but withdrawn in the aftermath of Scopes. Despite the claims of post–World War II evangelicals such as Carl Henry, fundamentalists never expressed indifference to the world around them nor did they ever lack interest in influencing the broader culture. They never retreated. Fundamentalists and evangelicals have consistently insisted that God has called them to use their talents to occupy, reform, and transform their culture in ways that matched their beliefs and ideologies. Visit TGC Evangelical History

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A Brief History of Cessationism

No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.I wrote about this problem in a 2006 article [JSTOR subscription] concerning the healing of a woman named Mercy Wheeler during the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Wheeler had been unable to walk for years because of a childhood ailment, but during a revival meeting she came to believe that Jesus intended to heal her. Suddenly she was able to walk, and she apparently retained this ability for many decades afterward. Wheeler’s evangelical defenders wanted to make room for what they viewed as dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, yet cessationism was so deeply rooted that evangelicals struggled with how not to call such astonishing experiences miracles. To eighteenth-century Protestants, miracles were too closely associated with Catholicism, and anti-Catholicism served as an essential component of British Protestant identity. Opponents of the revivals attempted to associate the revivals with Catholic superstition whenever extraordinary claims surfaced. For New Englanders no worse aspersion could be cast on the revivals than to associate them with Catholic supernaturalism and gullibility. Some moderate defenders of the revivals, such as Jonathan Edwards, struggled to avoid mentioning the… Read More

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