Tagged: History

Happy Birthday, Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889)

Today (March 7) is the birthday of Alfred Edersheim, the nineteenth-century Bible scholar who really made the grand tour: He was born in Austria, converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity in Hungary, studied theology in Edinburgh and Berlin, was a missionary to Jews in Romania and a preacher in Scotland. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland and then the Church of England, preached and lectured at Oxford, and died in France.

Edersheim’s greatest works are The Temple: Its Ministry and Service, and The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. These are sprawling, leisurely, learned works in which Edersheim’s delight in being a Jewish believer in Jesus are evident throughout. These are big books, but they represent a deeply conservative response to the lives of Jesus that flourished in liberal scholarship of the nineteenth century.

My favorite Edersheim book is (brace for a Victorian devotional title) his Golden Diary of Heart Converse with Jesus in the Book of Psalms. It only covers a select few Psalms, but Edersheim’s messianic reading of them is profound.

An oddity in the Edersheim bibliography is the posthumously published Tohu Va Vohu. What is a Tohu Va Vohu? It’s a phrase from the opening verses of Genesis, translated “without form, and void,” an appropriate title for this grab-bag of Edersheim quotations. Here are a few selections:

For a good many religious statements and preachers’ inferences there is no other Scripture reference than to Ephesians 12:95!

There are two facts which are never past: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ.

In Scotland they mostly learn the New Testament through the Old; in England, the Old Testament through the New.

Israel’s first sin was in asking, their last in rejecting, a king.

Man’s forgiveness is quantitative (‘how often shall my brother sin against me?’). God’s forgiveness is qualitative. Man forgives sins; God forgives sin. God’s forgiveness both cleans and cleanses; man’s can do neither.

With reverence be it said: Our modern theology has almost lost sight of the Father. Our thoughts and our prayers are almost exclusively directed to the Second Person of the Godhead. Yet it is to the Father we are to come through the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and it was the object of the Son to reveal the Father, through the Holy Spirit given unto us.

Christianity is a constant negation. Its teaching is a negation of what naturally occurs to the mind; its practice a negation of what naturally presents itself to the imagination and the heart.

Neither is it sanctification that causes justification, nor yet justification that causes sanctification. The cause of both alike is our new relationship towards God through and in Christ.

The chief use of apologetics is to answer a fool according to his folly; that is, to silence him.

There is no depth so deep but the everlasting Arms are underneath.

Thank God for what He reveals, and thank God for what He conceals. The faith which follows God into the light is supplemented and completed by that which follows Him in the dark.

Spiritual life has its double beat of the heart: receiving all from God, and bringing all to God, as it is written: ‘All my springs are in Thee.’

The Korahite Psalms differ specially in this from the Asaphite, that the former treat chiefly of the Kingdom, the latter of the King.

For the German word Haltpunkt, the French have point d’appui. Does not this mark the intellectual difference between the two nations? What to the French is merely a point du’appui whence to make a spring, is to the German a Haltpunkt, or ‘Hold-fast-point.’

Most of our modern theology consists of casting the grand old Jehovahism into Western mould –substituting logic for worshipful intuition and intuitive worship. But, after all, those ideas belong to the Isles of the West, where the sun goes down, not where it rises.

…the inapplicableness of old sermons –I have read most of the Puritan divines and Jonathan Edwards. In morals –see the slave question.

He is great who is great in small things and on small occasions.

Some people always oscillate between faith and unbelief, like the pendulum of a Dutch clock, and with the same loud and disagreeable tick.

Every man has his own idol, unless he has a God.

There is no ignorance so dangerous as experienced ignorance.

Twelve Days of Christmas Jollification

For many, the famous English carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is lost on them. This became clear to me one rather cold evening on January 2 of last year, when I was at the checkout stand at a CVS drug store. After I made my purchase, the kind clerk wished me a “Happy New Year”, and I responded with “and Merry Christmas”. She looked at me with some befuddlement, and I think I know what she was thinking. Her look communicated something like this: “You poor, ignorant, kind and gentle fool! That was eight days ago”.

I can certainly understand her confusion, for it is a common one. For many of my fellow Americans, Christmas begins after Thanksgiving. Whichever Thursday on the calendar that quintessential American movable feast occurs, we see Christmas decorations come out with a vengeance. Christmas carols and “Christmas” parties follow thereafter. Celebration, singing, Christmas trees, holly and ivy, frantic shopping—this characterizes the month of December, until December 25. December 26 is considered a “discount day” at many malls around the country, one of the big high holy days of American consumerism. On the 26th of December, Christmas carols cease, and some even take down their decorations. The next big thing: New Years parties. Any further mention of holiday cheer has gone by the wayside.

This is sad indeed, considering that Christmas, like the Advent season that precedes it, is a season all its own. When most people are finished with it at midnight of the 26th of December, in reality the party is just getting started, and it’s a whole twelve days of jolly-making and good cheer. Our ancestors knew this, and perhaps too well.

In medieval and early modern England, where many of our Christmas traditions were birthed and developed, Christmas was a twelve-day spectacle that  came closest in its revelries to our own Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. For those twelve days, the whole feudal social order seemed to be overturned, as bands of singers, or carolers, would come to the homes of powerful dukes, sing their Christmas ditties, and then demand entrance into their homes. The nobility, of course, were obliged, for these twelve days, to grant their requests. Overseeing these twelve days of Christmas revelries was the “Lord of Misrule”, usually a poorer member of the city or a local peasant, or a subdeacon, one of the lower orders of the Church. The carols Wassail and We Wish you a Merry Christmas give us some glimpse of the nature of this twelve-day social upheaval. Consider the verses of the latter carol, with its demand that the master of the house “bring us some figgy pudding”, enjoined with a mild threat: “We won’t go until we get some.” All of these festivities culminated on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany (January 6). In many places, it was on the eve of Epiphany that gifts were usually given.

All of this jollification could get a bit out of hand. Certain nobles had to post guards to guard their property, lest the revelers get out of hand, and destroy their property.

Today, our celebrations are much more tamed, but we seem to have reversed the whole cycle of celebration. The Advent season, beginning on the Sunday on or closest to the feast of St. Andrew (November 30) began a season of fasting, which ended on Christmas Day, whereupon the twelve-day revelries commenced. Today, most people, after having had their turkey, begin the Christmas festivities thereafter, ENDING on Christmas Day. While not quite a reveler on the high scale of our medieval forebears myself, I think I rather like the former way of doing Christmas better.

So what will you see me doing from December 25 to January 6? I will be jolly, and bid a hearty “Merry Christmas” to every man, woman and child, wishing them all the blessings of our Incarnate Lord upon them and their homes, and perhaps having a bit of “Bishop’s Punch”, a nice Dickensian treat.

Anyone want to crown me “Lord of Misrule”?

Merry Christmas to you all—all twelve days of them!

Claus von Stauffenberg: German Patriot and Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

Today, November 15, is the one-hundred and fourth birthday of Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a Catholic aristocrat and officer of the German Wehrmacht who led the anti-Nazi resistance within the German war machine.

On the 21st of July, 1944, this man, along with two other German army officers, Henning von Treskow and Hans Oster, attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and the High Command of the Wehrmacht and remove the Nazis from power. He and his cohorts, Catholic aristocrats and lovers of their land, desired to save Germany from the devastating war Hitler had doomed the nation into, and saw it as their duty to bring this murderous regime to an end. They almost succeeded.

The plan was to have Colonel von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve, plant a suitcase with a bomb inside at Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), five miles east of the East Prussian town of Rastenberg (now Kertzyn, Poland), one of Hitler’s many command posts. Once the bomb had done its work in disposing of Hitler, Operation Valkyrie would be put into action: overthrow the central government in Berlin, and make peace with the Allies. The conspirators had an inside man in Berlin–General Olbricht–who would coordinate the operations in the top command.

All went awry, however, when the suitcase was removed several feet away from Hitler. It went off, but Hitler suffered minor injuries. In the meantime, von Stauffenberg was on his way to Berlin to carry out Operation Valkyrie, and he and General Olbricht arrested some top officials, inlcuding General Fromm, commander of the reserves, until word came back to them that Hitler was alive. Fromm was released, with the understanding he would support the conspiracy, but in the end, he turned on them. Staufenberg and Olbricht were shot the next day, Oster and Treskow were arrested and executed the following week, along with seven-thousand Germans suspected of conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (including German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel).

The Allies were not too keen on Operation Valkirie, since, according to Prime Minister Churchill, an early overthrow of the Nazi regime from within the ranks of the Wehrmacht might have given Hitler underground support, thus frustrating the Allied plan to make Hitler’s defeat so humiliating and certain that any Nazi resistance would have been unthinkable. They might have been right on that count. But von Stauffenberg and his companions can be credited with rising to the call of duty, the call every patriot feels when his beloved land is in the throws of murderous madmen intent intent on taking his countrymen to hell.

While the plot failed, the name of Claus von Stauffenberg is nevertheless the most beloved and revered name in Germany, giving proof to many Germans that even in that darkest hour of their history, chivalry, honor and goodness were not lacking.

For this singular act of courage and commitment to the life and welfare of his countrymen, may his memory be eternal.

Vatican II

Today (October 11) is the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Vatican II meant a lot of things to Roman Catholics on the ground (from changes in practices of fasting, to rumors that everything was about to blow wide open), but here is a theological overview of this epochal Roman Catholic event, as reported by Avery Dulles and Walter Kasper, according to me.

Vatican II is such a major event for Roman Catholicism that twentieth-century Catholic theology can be instructively viewed in two movements: first, leading up to the council, and then developing from it. The rise of the “nouvelle theologie” in France (the big names are de Lubac, Bouillard, Daniélou, Congar, Chenu, Montecheuil, Dubarle, and even Teilhard de Chardin) is exemplary of the form taken by theological progress in the first half of the century: it was deeply rooted in a historical recovery of the grand tradition (especially Thomas and the Fathers, including the Eastern Fathers), open to revising ingrained Neo-Scholastic assumptions, and under constant scrutiny from a suspicious magisterium (in fact the name “new theology” was given to the movement by opponents charging it with innovation).

Avery Dulles once offered a list of ten basic teachings of Vatican II, which he considered to be “obvious to anyone seeking an unprejudiced interpretation of the council” (The Reshaping of Catholicism, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1988, 19-33).

Aggiornamento. Translatable as updating, adaptation, or even modernization, John XXIII’s catchword seems specifically designed to counter the hostility and suspicion of all things modern which had become characteristic of recent Catholicism. The council expresses great respect for the truth and goodness that modernization has brought with it, including the new humanism. The church should keep pace with the times, in order to enrich itself and better understand the treasures of Christ.

Reformability of the Church. The church is to be understood as the biblical People of God, which, though always sealed by the covenant, is nevertheless sometimes unfaithful. Since the Reformation, the idea of church reform has been understandably suspect to Catholics, but Vatican II harkened back to the earlier tradition of admitting, confessing, and repenting of abuses. The term “sinful church” remains off limits and distasteful, but “church of sinners” is appropriate.

Renewed Attention to the Word of God. After a period of neglect in which the Bible seemed to be a remote source of doctrine, Dei Verbum recovered the primacy of Scripture. The two-source theory was set aside in favor of a view of the teaching office which is “not above the word of God, but serves it, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully (DV 10).” This constitution also recommended the use of Scripture to all of the faithful, and called for a renewal of scriptural preaching.

Collegiality. Without denying the primacy of the pope, Vatican II did much to take apart the rigid pyramidal structure of the church. The pope is the head of the college of bishops, where all power in the church resides. Individual bishops are now seen as pastors in their own right, and even referred to as “vicars of Christ” (LG 28). This collegiality is expressed in many new institutions: the worldwide synod of bishops, conferences, diocesan pastoral councils, priests’ senates, etc. The quest is for structures that do justice to both pastoral authority as well as the spirit-filled community; neither an army nor a New England town meeting is a proper model.

Religious Freedom. Each person has religious freedom, and the right and duty to follow conscience with regard to religious belief: that this principle was endorsed by Roman Catholicism at Vatican II was not something self-evident, and was largely due to the influence of John Courtney Murray, whose advocacy of a religiously neutral state had previously called his orthodoxy into question.

Active Role of the Laity. Catholic Action, between the two wars, had managed to involve elite members of the congregation in the affairs of the apostolate of the hierarchy, but Vatican II went further than this by teaching the laity has an active apostolate in its own right as baptized believers. This is not simply a division of labor (clergy have a churchly mission, laity a secular), but a call for lay action “in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders” (AA 5)

Regional and Local Variety. Instead of emphasizing the universal church, Vatican II conceived of the church as a communion of particular churches, each under a “vicar of Christ,” its own bishop (LG 23). Speaking specifically of the difference between East and West, Vatican II said that diversity of customs and observances is an enrichment and not an obstacle to unity (UR 16).

Ecumenism. Anathema yielded to dialogue as the Catholic Church began to recognize in other Christian churches marks of truth and salvation, and accorded these heritages due reverence. Formal reunion seems a remote possibility at best, but ecumenical dialogue has led to greater mutual understanding, respect, and solidarity.

Dialogue with Other Religions. A corresponding shift took place in the attitude toward other religions: holding mission and dialogue in dynamic tension (rather than the antithesis that is often portrayed), the council called for respectful and mutual relationships of learning from each other, as well as the abiding necessity of missionary work so that Christ may be acknowledged among all peoples. Special attention was given to Jewish-Christian relations.

Social Mission of the Church. Working toward a just social order, though it has been on the modern Catholic agenda since at least the social encyclicals of Leo XIII, was previously based on adherence to natural law. With Vatican II, the apostolate of peace and social justice began to appear as part of the church’s mission to carry on the work of Christ himself. The preferential option for the poor has its roots in the theme of the church’s special solidarity with them, mentioned in GS 1.

Implementation and Interpretation of the Council: Walter Kasper has described three phases in the reception of the council (“The Continuing Challenge of the Second Vatican Council,” in Theology and Church (New York: Crossroad, 1992)). The first phase was exuberant celebration, especially on the part of those who had been longing for change: the council seemed to be a complete new beginning, the start of an ongoing conciliar revolution in the church. The doors seemed to be flung wide open, and new ideas were advanced “in the spirit of the council” which went further than the documents themselves (167).

Inevitably, the next phase was characterized by disappointment, as collegiality and communio did not characterize the church at all levels, or in the radical way that some observers hoped for. Also, influenced by the general change of atmosphere in the 1970s, the church seemed to experience an identity crisis, a diffusion of the specifically Catholic, and church attendance and religious vocation declined. Conservatives and progressives squared off over against each other.

The third phase was officially inaugurated on January 25, 1985, when John Paul II convened an extraordinary synod of bishops to discuss the reception and interpretation of the council, an official admission that implementing the council was a task yet to be accomplished.

One of the most important challenges in reaching this goal is developing a hermeneutic of the conciliar statements: how are we to read them? This is a thorny problem for three reasons: 1. Vatican II issued no condemnations, so its positive declarations cannot be sharpened by polemical definition. 2. John XXIII deliberately gave the council a pastoral tone, rather than a dogmatic or disciplinary/legal tone; pastoral statements are harder to interpret. 3. The documents contain purely formal compromises between conservative and progressive statements, which stand side by side and unreconciled. There is especially “a juxtaposition, a double viewpoint, a dialectic, if not actually a contradiction between two ecclesiologies” (170), the hierarchical and the communio model.

There is a kind of reversal in the constitution of the so-called progressive and conservative parties: the council’s “progressives” were in fact the representatives of the greater and wider tradition as opposed to its leveling and simplification in neo-scholasticism, while the “conservatives” were mainly interested in upholding recent tradition, especially Vatican I. In this situation, Vatican II followed the standard conciliar method of reconciliation: it described the limits of the church’s position on either extreme, but did not generate a comprehensive theory to explain their unity. As usual, this theoretical mediation is the task of post-conciliar theology.

According to Kasper, this situation suggests four hermeneutical principles for the doctrinal statements: 1. The texts must be understood as a whole, with constitutive tensions. 2. The letter and spirit of the council must be understood as a unity. 3. The council must be viewed in light of the wider tradition, rather than as the watershed between an old church and a new church. 4. The continuity of what is Catholic is to be understood as a unity between tradition and a living, relevant interpretation in the light of the current situation (171-2).

Archduke Otto von Habsburg: A Belated Eulogy

It has been one month since the passing of one of my greatest heroes of the twentieth century. I heard of his passing from my friend Charles Coulombe when I rang him that day, July 4. Both of us agreed that he had been a salient influence in our lives from childhood. He had been a part of my conscious experience for as long as I can remember taking an interest in the history of Europe, which for me began when I was twelve years old.

We both lost someone we had both looked up to for many years as children of the post-World War II era, having in him a living link to a world that no longer exists.

When he was born on 20 November, 1912, he was heir to a dynasty that had ruled a series of realms known first as the Holy Roman Empire, and then, from 1867 to 1918, with the union of Austria and Hungary, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of the history of the European continent can’t be told without some reference to this illustrious house, having expanded its dynastic influences to over sixteen kingdoms and duchies. His father, Karl I, was the last ruler of an ancient dynasty that had played an important role the European political scene since 1438. Under his reign, Austria-Hungary was a diverse set of kingdoms representing many nationalities and cultures, and also many faiths, primarily Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish. His “abdication” in 1918 was done under duress, and therefore carried no legal authority.

Young Otto, then, saw the end of one world, and the beginning of another. He was witness of the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” sweeping away, in an instant, not only the Habsburgs, but also the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties as well. The Treaty of Versailles, eager to exact a victor’s peace upon the vanquished Germans and Austrians, laid the foundations for the scourge of Fascism and Nazi-ism.

Hitler wanted to meet the young Archduke Otto, but the young Archduke could not countenance shaking hands with the nefarious and murderous tyrant. Hitler returned the favor by marking him for death upon his capture.

Thankfully, the Archduke was able to escape Hitler’s grasp, and lived to see a new Europe emerge after the war. He desired to lend a hand in building this new Europe, on the basis of tradition, faith, and respect for the rights and dignity of every individual. He was active in the European Parliament, championing traditional virtues, and being a powerful advocate for Europe’s Christian heritage. He did not experience many legislative victories, as the politicians running the new Europe wanted to take it in a decidedly “new” direction, but his legacy will always be one who stuck by his deeply-held Catholic principles in the face of insurmountable opposition, and let the chips fall where they may. He never folded and gave up the fight, struggling for the Europe he loved to the very day he left this world.

The world seems a bit poorer now that he is not around. In him we had a man who represented a Europe that was conscious of its Christian character, and of the fact that there are things worth preserving and fighting for. The world has lost a true Christian gentleman.

My wish now is that his son Karl will take up the mantle, and carry it further than his father so valiantly did.

Baptism of Aethelbert

Today (June 2) is the day King Aethelbert of Kent was baptized into the Christian faith by Augustine of Canterbury in the year 597.

Bede tells us that Aethelbert “was the third English king to become High-King (Bretwalda) of all the provinces south of the river Humber, but he was the first to enter the kingdom of heaven.” So for anybody who wants to trace British Christianity back as far as possible, and has the good taste to avert their eyes from Glastonbury, Aethelbert the king and convert is a great and solid starting point.

Bede goes on to say of Aethelbert,

Among the many benefits that his wisdom conferred on the nation, he introduced, with the consent of his counsellors, a code of law framed on the Roman pattern, which was written in English and remains in force to this day. The first of his laws is designed to protect the Church he embraced, and decrees that satisfaction must be made by any person who steals property from the Church, the bishop, or other clergy.

So the origins of written British law go back to the first Christian king of the land. Aethelbert’s big idea seems to have been connecting specific fines to specific crimes; not so much “an eye for an eye” as “that eye will cost you fifty bucks, sir.” That seems pretty British. This ninety-law treatise is one of the first written documents in Anglo-Saxon.

Aethelbert was succeeded by his son, a pagan who went pretty far toward re-paganizing the territories Aethelbert had Christianized.

Constantine at the Milvian Bridge

Today (October 28) is the day in the year 312 that Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius at Pons Milvia, the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome. This decisive victory (in which Maxentius himself drowned in the Tiber) put Constantine on the path to consolidating Roman power again into the hands of one emperor, himself. The victory is commemorated by the Arch of Constantine, an important landmark in Rome to this day.

The date is important for Christianity because Constantine went on to end imperial persecution of Christians (with the Edict of Milan in 313). He also converted to Christianity personally, and empowered and enriched the church in countless ways, from copying Bible texts, to gathering the first ecumenical council, to beginning Christian architecture. What’s not to love?

In fact, some fourth-century Christians loved this Christian emperor so much that it’s rather shocking for us to read now. Eusebius of Caesarea was his chief panegyrist. In his Ecclesiastical History, but even more in his Life of Constantine, Eusebius sang the highest praises of Constantine. He thought the rise of Constantine was a miracle, or at least a special providence in answer to the prayers of the church. Eusebius saw the hand of God raising Constantine to the throne.

According to the official version of the story, the battle of the Milvian bridge was something of a miracle. Constantine and his men had a vision of a cross in the sky, and the words “In This Sign, Conquer.” So they did, by the sign of the cross. And according to Eusebius, that victory was a brand new Exodus, in which God vindicated his people, exalted his chosen leader, and cast the horse and chariots of his enemies into the sea. Or the Tiber.

Peter Leithart defends Constantine, and Constantinianism, and Christendom, and just about any other unfashionable concept he can get his hands on, in a 2010 book called Defending Constantine. N.T. Wright, who has been known to murmur the awful word Constantine, says in his endorsement of the book that “Too many people, for far too long, have been able to murmur the awful word Constantine, knowing that the shudder it produces will absolve them from the need to think through how the church and the powers of the world actually relate, let alone construct a coherent historical or theological argument on the subject.” He goes on to praise Leithart’s work because it “challenges all this, and forces us to face the question of what Constantine’s settlement actually was, and meant. Few will agree with everything he says. All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received ‘wisdom.'”

War is Swell: Crispin’s Day

Okay, war is not really swell. But today (October 25) is the anniversary of two battles that live on in our memory because of the martial virtues conspicuously displayed in them. These battles conjured poetry from two of the greatest poets in the history of the English tongue.

First, the Battle of Agincourt, on the Feast of St. Crispin, 1415. Henry V’s outnumbered troops whooped the French with fancy footwork, English longbows, good old British pluck, and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, the greatest battlefield speech ever. Of course Shakespeare is freely inventing the words in Henry’s mouth, nearly two centuries later.

But what words! Noting how outnumbered the English army is, the king’s cousin quite sensibly remarks that he wishes some of the men at home in England were here with them now. “What!” replies King Henry. On the contrary, having more soldiers would be a major disadvantage, because then the glory of the day would have to be divided more ways.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Second, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaklava, 1854. This was not a victory for the English, but a slaughter. Based on botched military intelligence, the commander of the British cavalry sent his men straight into the path of the heavily-armed Russian army. The Russians gunned them down easily, thinking they were probably drunk or crazy to attempt such a direct assault. But above the wasted lives, what stands out with astonishing clarity is the radical obedience and courage of the soldiers. And this is what poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson captured in his contemporary poem about the charge:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

There was a third major battle on October 25, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It is far more epic in scope than Agincourt or Balaklava: Probably the largest naval battle that has ever been fought, it shut down the Japanese Imperial Navy. But it has not been the subject of poetry, to my knowledge. Get busy, ye poets of war!

Adam Clarke and the Whole Bible

Today (August 26) marks the death of Adam Clarke (1762-1832), one of the greatest of evangelical Bible commentators. His masterpiece and lifework (first published from 1810 to 1826) is the voluminous commentary on the entire Bible, which is stunning for the amount of detailed investigation it brings together in one place.

The full title of the work is

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: The Text carefully printed form the most correct copies of the present authorized translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts; with a Commentary, and Critical Notes, designed as a help to a better understanding of the Sacred Writings.

I don’t have the relevant statistics about it (page count, etc.), but it’s big. The online edition at studylight.org is of limited usefulness because of persistent font trouble in Greek and Hebrew. Much of it is available at Google books (volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., including the whole NT in one volume), and a reasonably-priced CD can be had from Logos Software. (If you know a better online source, e-mail me via my Scriptorium author’s page and I’ll update this post with the info).

Spurgeon had this to say about Clarke’s commentary:

Adam Clarke is the great annotator of our Wesleyan friends; and they have no reason to be ashamed of him, for he takes rank among the chief of expositors. His mind was evidently fascinated by the singularities of learning, and hence his commentary is rather too much of an old curiosity shop, but it is filled with valuable rarities, such as none but a great man could have collected. Like Gill, he is one sided, only in the opposite direction to our friend the Baptist. The use of the two authors may help to preserve the balance of your judgments.

Spurgeon even joked that he had to keep his John Gill (very very Calvinist, dare I say hyper?) and his Adam Clarke commentaries (quite Arminian, maybe more consistently so than Wesley) separated on the bookshelf so they wouldn’t wake him up at night with their arguing. He put the commentary of the more neutral Doddridge in between them as a buffer. Spurgeon goes on:

If you have a copy of Adam Clarke, and exercise discretion in reading it, you will derive immense advantage from it, for frequently by a sort of side light he brings out the meaning of the text in an astonishingly novel manner. I do not wonder that Adam Clarke still stands, notwithstanding his peculiarities, a prince among commentators. I do not find him so helpful as Gill, but still from his side of the question, with which I have personally no sympathy, he is an important writer, and deserves to be studied by every reader of the Scriptures.

Clarke knew so much that he sometimes lost sight of the forest temporarily as he pursued his interest in one of the trees. Spurgeon cites as an example of Clarke’s occasional lapses of judgment the odd digression on Genesis 3 where Clarke follows out some etymological arguments to the conclusion that Eve was tempted by an ape, not a serpent. It is a mark of Clarke’s overall sagacity that he presents this argument in a way that is ultimately helpful to his readers, and illuminating about the dynamics of Genesis 3, even for those of us (by which I mean everybody but Clarke) who think that was probably a serpent, not a monkey. Selah.

Another time besides the day of his death, I will write about Clarke’s mis-steps in the doctrine of the Trinity. All told, Clarke was solid on the doctrine of the Trinity, and held a very high view of the absolute deity of Christ in particular. However, he dropped the ball on one of the sub-doctrines that make up the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the eternal sonship of Christ. Clarke believed that when the Scriptures talk about Jesus, they only call him “son” when they are referring to him as incarnate, and that Scripture never thinks of the pre-existent divine second person as being the “son” of the first person. “Son” only applies to the incarnation, not eternity past, according to Clarke.

But the great tradition of trinitarianism has always understood Scripture to be pointing to the fact that from all eternity, the second person is from the first, that “son” refers to the eternal second person, and that in the incarnation the eternal son became the incarnate son. In fact, without that argument, it’s hard to see how the church would have found a way to describe the incarnate son as divine. So Clarke’s position is an oddity, rejecting eternal sonship but affirming the doctrines of Christ’s deity and the Trinity. Sadly, Clarke’s view on incarnational sonship has had more influence than his idea about the monkey in the garden of Eden. But that is a topic for another day. I have nit-picked at a couple of problems in Adam Clarke’s monumental feat of scholarship in service to the church and the truth.

Take up and read Clarke on whatever passage of Scripture you are currently studying. You will find help and insight on every page of Clarke, for any page of the whole Bible!

Finney, Finney, Finney

Today (August 29) is the birthday of Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), whose accomplishments as a revivalist preacher are staggering. The most striking statistic usually reported is that when he came to Rochester, the population tripled but the crime rate dropped by two-thirds. Other preachers might be bold enough to preach against the evils of saloons, but when Finney came to town, the saloon owners would close up shop and hang a sign on their doors telling would-be customers to go to the Finney meetings. Hundreds of towns reported revivals connected with his work, and some people put the numbers of conversions and church memberships in the hundreds of thousands. He preached moral reform and called for the abolition of slavery in a way that burned deeply into the conscience of the nation.

I grew up hearing Finney connected with all sorts of great accomplishments, and the name Finney is routinely ranked in that list that goes Edwards, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Torrey, Graham, etc. Moody, Torrey, and Graham even name him as someone who influenced their own work.

So when I started studying theology on my own, and saw that this epochal American soul-winner had also authored a Systematic Theology, I was eager to read it. I admit to being an incurable theology nerd: There’s almost nothing I enjoy as much as cracking open a system of doctrine I’ve never read before. And one by a certified revival-sparker? I’m in!

I can still remember the day I went to the library and got Finney’s Systematic Theology. I skimmed through the introduction and raced for the first page of the main text. How would he start his lectures on systematic theology? What decisions had he made about presenting this system of truth that had rocked American history?

Page 1: How we come to know certain truths. Well, that’s a little dry, but a lot of theologies start out with a bit of epistemology. Skim, skim, lecture 2: Moral Government. Hm, that’s odd. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s getting his momentum for a law-grace thing. No, this is a long chapter with a big list of characteristics of moral law. Well, let’s jump over it and see what tasty theological treats come next.

Lecture 3: Moral Government continued.
Lecture 4: Moral Government continued.
Lecture 5, Foundations of Moral Obligation.
Lecture 6: Foundations of Moral Obligation: False Theories.
Lecture 7: the same.
Lecture 8: the same.
Lecture 9: Foundations of Obligation… Lecture 10, same; Lecture 11, “summing up.” Ah! Now we can get on to the next doctrinal subject.

Ugh, no. Lecture 12: Foundation of Moral Obligation…Practical Bearings of the Different Theories…

Lectures 13 through 17, all Moral Government.

Hundreds of pages in, we finally get to some “Attributes of Love.” Divine attributes, maybe? Can we start a doctrine of God somewhere in here? No, these are attributes of “that love which constitutes obedience to the law.” And then this goes on for pages.

My excitement long since evaporated by the withering blast of red-hot moralism, I slogged through my survey of the rest of the lectures. Oh look, a governmental theory of the atonement instead of vicarious punishment. And no original sin. Lots of chapters on sanctification, but they are mostly controversial theology about perfection.

Here, under justification, there is a list of conditions. “Conditions” for justification; That’s awkward language, but it admits of an orthodox interpretation. The conditions are faith, repentance, and …sanctification.

Wait. Sanctification a condition of justification? As in, I’m only accepted by God when I’m morally right? Yes, it’s all there in cold print, with vigorous rebuttals of other positions involving imputation or legal fictions. That sounds more Roman Catholic than Presbyterian (and Finney was a Presbyterian of some sort). But Finney’s denial of original sin is not even acceptable to Roman Catholics, it seems to shoot past Rome and issue in outright Pelagianism. I know he was reacting against a cold hyper-Calvinism, and trying to awaken a morally sleepy nation, but excuses and situational explanations can only cover so much bad doctrine.

Well, Finney’s Systematic Theology, by my lights, is just a train wreck. Maybe my expectations would have been more realistic if the work had a different title: A title like “Law and Obligations” or something. My expectations might also have been lower if Charles Finney were not routinely praised as a great evangelical preacher. This theology of his, I hate to say it, but it’s just not evangelical. I listen in vain for good news in this moralistic logic-chopping.

I’ve never gone back to dig deeper into Finney. There may be a more fair way of understanding his writings sympathetically, but I’m a John Wesley fan who grew up Pentecostal and am basically pro-revival, and that should set me up for a pretty sympathetic reading. His autobiographical work is interesting, but I’ve seen more than enough of that theology of his. R. A. Torrey wrote a classic explanation of Why God Used Dwight L. Moody. The big question with Finney, though, is how God used him, when his theology was this messed up.