Religion Of, By, and For the People

I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again.  This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States.  If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book.  Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.

In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.

“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before.  People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing.  This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of [this] movement.  By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion.  John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’  Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will.  Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”

I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth).  Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy?  Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church?  In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian?  How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches?  What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?

Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems

If You Confess With Your Mouth…

Tyndale New Testament Commentaries #6: Romans Cover Here’s a great section of FF Bruce’s commentary on Romans 10:6-13.  I love how Bruce just says it clearly, succinctly, and plainly, doing his best to simply reflect what Paul said. 

“This is the gist of his commentary: God has brought his salvation near to us, in Christ.  We do not have to ‘climb the heavenly steeps’ to procure it, for Christ has come down with it; we do not need to ‘plumb the lowest deeps’ for it, for Christ has risen from the dead to make it secure to us.  It is here, present and available; what we are called upon to do is to accept it by inward faith – believing in our hearts that God raise him from the dead – and to acknowledge him aloud as Lord.  The saving faith is resurrection faith: ‘if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.’ (2 Cor. xv.17).  And the confession of Christ is public confession: ‘Jesus is Lord’ is the earliest, as it remains the sufficient, Christian creed.”

“Those who put their faith in Christ for salvation have as their encouragement the assurance of Isaiah xxviii.16 (already quoted in ix.33): those who commit themselves to Christ will never be ‘let down.'”

“This righteousness which God imparts is open without distinction to all men and women of faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.  His saving mercy is lavished without discrimination or restriction: all who call on him will receive it.  At an earlier stage in Paul’s argument the words ‘There is no difference’ had a grim sound, because they convicted Jew and Gentile together of sin against God and incapacity to win his acceptance by personal effort or desert; now the same words have a joyful sound, because they proclaim to Jew and Gentile together that the gates of God’s mercy stand wide open for their entrance, that his free pardon is assured in Christ to all who claim it by faith.”

These quotes can be found on page 202 of Bruce’s excellent Romans commentary (in the Tyndale series).  If you don’t have this one, get it!  I’d even recommend it for laypeople who want to do their own study of Romans.  You can find older copies of it used on Amazon for less than $5 shipped to your door.

Barth on Church Confession and Language

I ran across a great section of Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline (p. 86-87) that is important for us in our age of language-games, equivocation, and loss of definite truth.

“The Church…looks in its message at this immeasurable and unfathomable fact, that God has given himself for us.  And that is why in each really Christian utterance there is something of an absoluteness such as cannot belong to any non-Christian language.  The church is not ‘of the opinion,’ it does not have ‘views,’ convictions, enthusiasms.  It believes and confesses, that is, it speaks and acts on the basis of the message based on God himself in Christ.  And that is why all Christian teaching, comfort and exhortation is a fundamental and conclusive comfort and exhortation in the power of that which constitutes its content, the mighty act of God, which consists in the fact that he wills to be for us in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ” (emphasis in original).

Great stuff. 

This is also a good time to remind readers that when we post a blurb from a book, it doesn’t always mean we love (or hate, if the post is critical) the whole book.  We do think that most of the books we post on are helpful to some extent, even when we disagree with small or large parts of their theological content.  

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Turing From Idols: Ancient Syriac Documents

In volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), there are some ancient Syriac documents which “made the cut” and are included, though the authorship, date, and occasions are not always known.  It is also clear that some of these Syriac documents have additions and subtractions.  However, they do preserve for us at least in general what a part of the early church looked like.

One fascinating document from this group is the Acts of Sharbil.  Sharbil was supposedly a pagan high priest (possibly in the 2nd century AD under Caesar Trajan – c. 112, in Edessa of the Parthians) who was converted to Christianity.  A bishop, a certain Barsamya, along with an elder and deacon in the church told him to repent of his horrible idolatry and believe in the eternal Son of God, to worship Him alone.  To make a long story short, Sharbil was convicted of his sin and repented; he was received in the church and asked for prayers of strength as he was about to renounce his pagan priesthood.  In some areas of Rome in the early church, of course, worshiping only Jesus was not a matter of “private values,” for it meant a clean break from the habits and customs of the Empire.  Saying “Christ is Lord and King” meant “The State or Caesar is not Lord and King.”  And Caesar usually didn’t like that.

So Sharbil was put on trial for refusing to participate in pagan sacrifices.

The judge said, “How is it that thou art not afraid of the emporers, nor moved to shame by those who are listening to the trial, that thou sayest, ‘I am a Christian?’  But promise that thou wilt sacrifice to the gods, according to thy former custom, so that thy honor may be great, as formerly – lest I make to tremble at thee all those who have believed like thyself.”

Sharbil’s answer: “Of the King of kings I am afraid, but at any king of earth I tremble not, nor yet at thy threats towards me, which lo! thou utterest against the worshipers of Christ: whom I confessed yesterday, and lo! I am brought to trial for his sake today, like as he himself was brought to trial for the sake of sinners like me.”

Much of the rest of the discourse is about idolatry – how Sharbil refuses to acknowledge false gods or sacrifice to them.  The judge responded with insults and much torture.  He accused Sharbil of being so “intoxicated” with Christianity that he lost his mental capacity.  Sharbil, despite great pain, stood firm.  “I will not again confess idols, which I have renounced; nor will I renounce the King Christ, whom I have confessed.”

Near the end, Sharbil holds up the cross (as it were).  “This cross of Christ is the great boast of Christians, since it is by this that the deliverance of salvation has come to all his worshipers, and by this that they have had their eyes enlightened, so as not to worship creatures along with the Creator.”

The judge responds with something that sounds so familiar today.  “Let thy boasting of the cross be kept within thy own mind, and let incense be offered by thy hands to the gods.”  Of course, Sharbil said it was impossible to worship Christ privately and do something else with the hands.  He stood firm in his confession.  As the story goes, Sharbil was sawn until he was almost dead; then his head was taken off with a sword.  He died asking Christ to forgive him of his idolatry and receive him like the penitent thief on the cross.

Again, though the precise authenticity of this story is debatable, the point for now is that stuff like this happened.  Christians said “no” to the world, the state, the King, and they were treated like the scum of the earth.  Though Hebrews 11 is mostly about the Old Testament pilgrims, we might think “of whom the world was not worthy” as we consider some of our brothers and sisters who have died because they would not renounce Jesus.

The above is taken from ANF VIII.676-685.  This whole document is available on the web – Google “Acts of Sharbil” if you want to read it yourself.

shane lems

sunnyside wa