The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian Church by Owen Chadwick

The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian ChurchI have never read a better organized or more interesting book about the Reformation. First sentence:

1 “During the fifteenth century the Germans improved the use of metals, with startling results. Guns that destroyed less inefficiently, clocks that more or less kept the time, organs that played in tune, and a new way to making books easy for readers.”

The book consists of 18 topical essays into which he inserts the narratives. “The book,” the first, of course tells us about Gutenberg, but also about Stephanus. “Conversion” of course deals with Luther. “Radicals,” had Thomas Munzer, “Toleration” Servetus, and “Divorce,” oddly enough, is called Divorce rather than “Sex and Marriage.” It is almost courtly, though the chapter is not.

85 “Hesitant government, or slow change, or moderation, could produce worse results for public order than accepting at once what the majority of councilors, their leading pastors, and a majority of the people now thought to be a necessity for the health and prosperity of the city.”
There was a real balancing act. Judgment was needed and mistakes were made. Chadwick examines all kinds of situations and the various outcomes. He provides shrewd insight. His topical arrangement permits it. This book is ingeniously organized.

383 “It was an axiom accepted by everyone but anabaptists that a state cannot exist safely unless it contains only one religion—with large exception that many sates allowed hedged communities of Jews.” This is how the chapter on toleration begins. It is the best chapter of all. It shows how the confusion of the Christian religion with a Christian society played out in the Reformation. It is very important to understand what was and was not obvious to the Reformers when we consider their views regarding church and state. Also the view of the radicals, which they reacted against. Chadwick works though chronologically from Servetus to Castellio to Acontius developing the dilemma, showing how the personalities involved figured, and the limited horizons. Servetus was a contumacious heretic arguing with intelligence and without wisdom for religious toleration, as it transpires.

396 “This much only is certain: the Protest divided Europe in religion and a divided Europe was forced to tolerate or destroy itself.” That sentence is the statement of a very great historian; he says a great deal, but he only says what can be said. And that sums up the book.

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Athens and Jerusalem: An Interpretative Essay on Christianity and Classical Culture by E.G. Weltin

This book provides “the story of the intellectual give and take between Athens and Jerusalem during the first four and one half centuries when Jewish-Christian convictions encountered the commitments of the honored but aging Greek and Roman Classical world. On the whole, it would appear that Christianity was quite selective in its rejections, compromises, and endorsements of Classical values. It was fortunate that such was the case because the choices were momentous ones destined to have an incalculable impact on emerging western thought arising out of the synthesis of the two cultures, a synthesis so profound that it would reach its apex only in the thirteenth century and would suffer serious dissolutions only in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.” (233)

Notice: (1) the apex of the synthesis rests squarely on Aquinas, and (2) the dissolutions come when the premodern philosophy the Classical world supplied was jettisoned. These last are observations Weltin throws out, not things he researches or argues, but they map onto what Muller and Trueman teach, so I include them. The synthesis is the burden of the book.

“Though born in Hellenized Judaea, young Christianity quickly leaped over the wall of Palestine, alienated its Jewish parentage, and chose to risk its future among Gentiles in the Classical world of Greece and Rome.” (1) This is as good a summary of the first three centuries of the church as you will find in one sentence.

Weltin works through five different areas, explaining the synthesis. What kind of sense of the individual did the pagan world had? It was not strong. “As the original but persistent tribal consciousness yielded to the inexorable drive toward the larger commonwealth of polis and empire, the individual’s consciousness of his meaning and importance became blurred and more remote.” (22) Weltin himself is good at synthesizing. You read of Cicero and his moment, of Augustus and his moment, of Tiberius, of what Constantine did. Weltin puts it into a story, from the growing totalitarian concept of the Empire to its eventual demise. In order to achieve his ends, Weltin has to understand classical civilization thoroughly. He demonstrates that he does by showing he has read all there is to read, both in Antiquity and in Christian Late Antiquity. Of course, since I’m not an expert and have not read as widely or deeply as he has, I am in a way unqualified to judge. But what little I do know—thinly but widely distributed—rings true. His interpretations make sense. His argument is sound.

It is not how we usually think of the ancient world: they were totalitarians. But it is not a hard argument to make. You were for or against. You were in or you were out. You had everything or nothing. How did Christianity do with this totalitarian empire? “Once a larger number of individuals found meaning outside the corporate, the totalitarian sweep of the Classical commonwealth was threatened. When Jesus remarked ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ he not only enraged the Jews but eventually upset the whole Classical consensus.” (49) And so Christianity challenged, but as Weltin argues, it also modified and adapted the Classical consensus. The church and the state would vie for the individual afterward, resulting in a sense of the individual’s domain, or human rights.

His second area is the Rational, his third is Legal and Institutional, fourth the Aristocratic, and the last is Humanism. His survey of the philosophical outlooks is accurate, from what I can tell, and daunting: he has done his reading. The argument is that Christianity opted for appropriating speculative thought and providing rational answers (with Clement and Origen at the center of the story, as they should be), and that it got from Rome the way of practical, consistent laws and viable institutions to perpetuate itself. He argues that Christianity made a compromise with the Aristotelian aristocratic ideal (an elitist trap otherwise). Where he gets bogged down is in the chapter on Humanism, which ends up tangled Augustine’s views on free will. Yet he concludes that the classical project of humanism was uninterrupted, indeed, made more possible by Christianity because of the reaction to Augustine’s hard, dim outlook.

This was a hard book to read because the pages are so very full. One does not go as quickly as expected. I think its 236 pages could easily be 400, so one senses little progress. It is worth persevering through, however. It is always a joy to read a historian who can demonstrate a deep and wide knowledge of the primary sources because it is more interesting: there is more to learn, more to observe, more to connect. I was surprised how rich the book was. That it is long does not mean it is not lucid and interesting, but it does mean that the sustained effort of concentrating is protracted.

How much is the modern world indebted to Christianity? What might have been had Classical Antiquity not encountered Christianity? “Would not Protagoras, Aristotle, and Cicero have lived largely in vain?”

David Jones: A Biography by Thomas Dilworth

David Jones: A BiographyIt is not easy to write a good biography about an artist. Not only do you have to understand the artist, be absorbed in his life, do the history and be sensitive. You still have to put together a good book.

What a good book this is! How refreshing to read a good telling of an important artist’s life. Dilworth illuminates the man and his work, and does it all with good prose, with interesting paragraphs, with an approach devoid of tediousness. The great interesting thing, David Jones, is always properly displayed. Dilworth has done outstandingly.

David Jones was wounded in the battle of the Somme. He was an artist who made important engravings, metaphysical watercolors and ambitious poetry. He was a difficult poet. Considering the manuscript of The Anathemata, T. S. Eliot remarked that one had to read it three times to understand it. I’ve read elsewhere that Auden kept reading it without really understanding it. It is not an incomprehensible work, but it is ambitious in what it seeks to accomplish. If you have seen any of his paintings you’ll understand. They seem scribbly. You have to keep looking at them. They need explication, actually, and Dilworth provides it. One of the things difficult genuine art requires is a critic who can guide the non-specialist in appreciation. Dilworth provide this.

One learns about the people who befriended Jones (Christopher Dawson and Kenneth Clark), about the books he read and re-read (Finnegan’s Wake and Morte d’Arthur), about his poverty and financial difficulties, and many other useful bits. One of the best things about this book does is the lavishly illustrations (you get some very generously large reproductions of Jones’ best works), with the reproduction usually on or facing the section of the text discussing it. Indeed, the size of the margins, the typesetting, the colors used, all these are part of the enjoyment of this book. It is properly bound, not just glued, weighs nicely, and only has one peculiarity: a bad, rubbery smell. This last may seem odd, but when you spend so much time in close proximity to an object so otherwise enjoyable, it stands out. It is an intriguing failure.

Which can easily be forgiven. David Jones is as worth investing yourself in as T. S. Eliot is. Dilworth has drawn him nigh to you in his excellent biography. I urge you, draw nigh to David Jones.

The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580 by Ewan Cameron

The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580This book carefully sifts the historical evidence in order to demonstrate that much of the historiography of the Waldenses is smoke and mirrors. How can this be?

1 – the Waldenses were a rural community whose lore was oral and proverbial rather than written. There is very little we can say for certain about them.

2 – the accusation of Waldensian heresy was taken up by the Reformers and turned into a matter of pride. These retrospectively projected Protestantism on this particular, stubborn and somewhat religiously autonomous people. “They were special only because propagandists paid so much attention to them” (262).

3 – the Waldensians responded to medieval corruptions by developing self-reliant patterns of practice and piety, preferring their own confessors and variations in rites and practice. Rather than a monastic reform, which was more characteristic of the middle ages, they relied on their informal clergy, known as barbes.

77 “Waldensian teaching was that because priests lived too fast and loose, they had lost the power to absolve sins, or even administer sacraments, according to some; the barbes, by constrast, were saintly men, imitators of the apostles, and had at least as much, or possibly more power, when compared to the priests.”

253 “The first striking feature of the Waldensian heresy to emerge from this examination is its lay character.” This was a departure from the medieval order, which is what made them suspect to those who kept records.

254 “Equally, the most distinctive features of heretical practice were those which were on the fringes of religious behaviour. They were: a preference for intermarriage and the maintenance of a close community; a conscious avoidance of casual blasphemy, to the point of seeming sanctimonious; the use of separate rituals in burial; and the cultivation of special emblems, like the barbes’ needles. In contrast to these signs, the worship and beliefs of the Waldenses were distinguished by irregularity and conventionality.”

“The popular nature of this dissent, finally, is most important. Its popular character lay most visibly in its failure to use logic to sort out the implications of its beliefs.”

256 “In their doctrines we have seen little evidence to place the Waldenses amongst the precursors of the reformers.”

258 Cameron stresses the importance of the rural setting. There is more difference between rural and urban reformations than between differing rural phenomena. “In the countryside protestant and catholic could mix, and in the case of the Valtelline even share places of worship.”

261 “The Waldenses reveal themselves simply as a group of people dedicated to their distinct, communal vision of their own importance and their own holiness, a group which refused to be bullied or distracted by outsiders unless for the most pressing of reasons.” To what is this owing? Mostly their setting in deep valleys of difficult access in the Alps (12).

Sometimes that’s what research achieves. It is an interesting historiographical lesson.

All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, by James E. Dolezal

James Dolezal is a Baptist theologian who has already published a book on the difficult subject of Divine simplicity. This is his second book. His subject is a contemporary theological phenomenon he calls theistic mutualism. The book is a kind of sequel to the book on simplicity. “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” Dolezal’s object is to define theistic mutualism, show how it is different from the doctrine of God confessed throughout the ages by the church, how it is actually opposed to said doctrine, and why, therefore, it ought to be rejected.

Theistic mutualism is related to process theology and open theism. Unlike these, it affirms that God is simple, unchanging, eternal and one in substance. What theistic mutualism then does, however, is affirm that while God remains unchanged by external causes, he can nevertheless will change in himself in relation to his creatures. Theistic mutualists believe there is a mutuality between the creation and the Creator, a back and forth—hence the designation Dolezal coins. They want to have the changing, responsive God of process thought without the theological problems. What Dolezal does is show that this is substandard theology. “Unfortunately this sort of confusion with respect to the language of being abounds in the God-talk of many modern evangelicals,” he says on page 66 and note 7. I suspect he uses the hideous term “God-talk” advisedly.

What modern evangelicals? John Feinberg, Kevin Vanhoozer, D.A. Carson, John Frame, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Donald Macleod, K. Scott Oliphint, Wayne Grudem and of course B.Ware. (That’s a lot! The remaining evangelical scholars are used to support his argument by being quoted positively, so the book is balanced in that aspect. All joking aside, it is worth saying that his support is catholic in the best sense of the term, not just evangelical.) Ware gets the most attention, and Eternal Functional Subordination makes it into the book, but only at the end. Dolezal mostly steers clear of that controversy with canny citations of material published prior to the debate, but this argument is the next logical step in that confrontation. Dolezal is far more concerned with Ware’s polemics against open theism. These, he argues, concede too much to the open theists, confirming the old warning about how we can become like our enemies.

The most interesting chapter is the one in which Dolezal inquires how this came about. He suggests that theistic mutualism arose in the 18th century when the full range of Aristotelian causality became uninteresting or implausible due to the philosophical climate of opinion. David Hume + Immanuel Kant = Enlightenment = Junk Philosophy = Junk Theology (Dolezal manages it more grandly than I; he’s more of a historian than systematic theologians tend to be). If final and formal causality are no longer considered useful, who needs an unmoved mover? He then traces the erosion of classic theism through some very interesting places. It runs through Charles Hodge and R.L. Dabney. The question is, how did we get to a point where so many orthodox theologians can do such bad theology? The answer Dolezal sketches out is that it happened gradually over the last 300 years.

Dolezal, as I have already indicated, defines and defends the classic formulations of the doctrine of Divine simplicity, eternity, immutability, and the unity of the Godhead. He argues that these need no change and ought not to be changed. He is good at getting to the heart of difficult matters such as these are and making the point clear. The book is worth it just for the lucid (and catholically supported) explanations of these doctrines. Theistic mutualists, he demonstrates, end up denying outright or misunderstanding and therefore jeopardizing these crucial doctrines. The result of the misunderstanding is that they do not use them for their intended purposes, and instead of denying, affirm, or instead of affirming, deny. The result, in short, is denying the God that the church has always confessed. The statement theistic mutualism cannot get around is his title: All that is in God is God. If you believe that statement is true and your theological gurus have been mentioned above, read this book. If you don’t know what that statement means, consider reading this book.

Dolezal’s aim is to show how alarming the ignorance of correct doctrinal formulation in contemporary evangelicalism now is. It needs to be exposed, it needs to be considered carefully, and it needs to be rejected. This book is a calm, reasoned, researched, readable and in no ways acrimonious statement of a problem that cannot be left alone anymore. If you don’t want to take my work for it, take Richard Muller’s. It’s the foreword.

Complaint: I heartily wish Dolezal was less given to using the inane phrase “the reason is because.” So much does he enjoy it that he actually finds a translation of Turretin where the great theologian is reduced to that turn of phrase. Dolezal sometimes uses borderline archaisms such as “suffice it to say” in his prose. One can’t complain about that, however. Suffice it to say, he actually talks that way. To what could this be owing? I think he is monotonously steeped in theological discourse to the exclusion of any other. And for what he’s doing, he needs to be.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, by Robert R. Reilly

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern IslamistThis book sets out to answer the question: what happened to Islam to make it such an enormous problem today? The author’s strategy is to explain what happened so that we can go on to make a correct diagnosis. Islam has been voided of reason (dehellenized) and as a result turned into an ideology: Islamism. “Islamism is grounded in a spiritual pathology based upon a theological deformation that has produced a dysfunctional culture. Therefore the problem must be addressed at the level at which it exists.”

Roger Scruton says in the Foreword: “In his celebrated treatise The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali set out to show that reason, as enshrined in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, leads to nothing save darkness and contradiction, and that the only light that shines in the mind of man is the light of revelation.” The result was incoherence. If you drive out good philosophy, your only alternative is bad philosophy. If you decide that God is not on the side of reason, then you have to be irrational.

The spiritual pathology is to ratchet up a high view of God by degrading man excessively. No man can think. Man is not made to think, but to obey. Man must submit to God even by refusing to reason. The theological deformation is Voluntarism and philosophical occasionalism. There is no such thing as cause and effect: things follow because God arbitrarily wills them at every moment. We cannot know him, we cannot understand him, we can only submit. The dysfunctional culture is one in which power and authority are one, all inquiry into anything is discouraged, and the resulting degradation of life is resented. It can’t be blamed on God, it must be blamed on incomplete submission.

To me, al-Ghazali sounds like presuppositionalism, which is why I read the book. It is far more interesting than reading stuff by presuppositionalists.

Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, by Charles W. Ferguson

So much serious writing is merely adequate. Seldom does it excel. Ferguson excels: in description, in expression, in structuring his narrative, in everything. Because of this, there is added enjoyment to this excellent biography, even if sometimes there is excess. You will learn about the importance of the wool trade for England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. You will learn about the political situation, not only in England, but in the Holy Roman Empire and France. You will learn about the buildings Wolsey built, and how and why. Of course, the main thing you will learn is about the cardinal himself.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey is a tragic figure, fascinating for his weaknesses, rather than his considerable abilities. He rose from a very low condition to the highest eminence, with power, riches, honor, a concubine, and even a bastard son. Wolsey was till the end of his life a very worldly man, and in his last days he was pathetically religious—he was a man who would do anything to gain and retain temporal eminence. He desired to be the Pope, and would have thrived in Rome, the Rome that so disgusted Martin Luther in 1510. These were the days of the wool-trade in England, of encroaching sheep and continual pestilence, and the days after the chaos of the wars of the Roses. Henry VII laid the foundations for organizing the country again, and after him Wolsey, product of the advantages of a university, labored most diligently. Unfortunately for him, because his ambition was not limited to ecclesiastical, but mostly to political eminence, and because he only favored those beneath him, groveled to those above him, and competed with those equal to him, his successful career depended in the end too much on the capricious Henry VIII. His demise came when he failed to secure the annulment which was at that point in time the one thing Henry VIII had his heart set on. Of all the things Wolsey dared to do, this was the one thing he had no stomach for. Wolsey was proud, ostentatious, addicted to pomp and ceremony, besides being shrewd about the importance and uses of such things, and because of this his ruin was calamitous. The story of his life is a cautionary tale.

203      “It can be judged how he regarded himself when one notes the playacting he did whenever he received a fresh legatine commission from the Pope. He would absent himself from court, and then, having passed around the stage and changed his costume, so to say, he would reappear and be received in state as though he were really an ambassador fresh from Rome. By such posturing of his soul he lived, wrapping his nakedness in rich symbols, masquerading among the lords towering above the clergy. If he could not be Pope in Rome he would be Pope at home.”

359      “This was the anomaly of Thomas Wolsey. As with so many men, including the King, his devotions had at many junctures of his life little bearing on his conduct. Yet he did not neglect those devotions, and the office which he said daily and the obeisance which he made to religion at least served to remind and accuse his soul.”

421      “The forces that were carrying the Cardinal to his fall in the reluctant spring of 1529 were political as well as moral, the result of reasoned policies undertaken in good faith as much as of personality and behavior offensive alike to the nobles and the commons. These policies, in which he steadfastly if wrongheadedly believed, had been ambushed by events which none had foreseen.”

424      “In this stately setting, surrounded by the costumes of history, my lord of York was to play out the last act of his career. It was appropriate that he should do so under these implausible circumstances. The rise and power of this talkative fellow, sitting here in judgment of the King and the Queen, had been incredible, and the court itself was sheer fantasy. The fact that it was actually held and that it continued in session for two months taxes human credulity, and its proceedings would be dismissed as legend if they were not a matter of explicit record.”