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.”

Luther:Man between God and the Devil, by Heiko A. Oberman

LutherThis is a book to be read with careful attention. It is not ordered strictly chronologically. Rather, it is structured around certain strands of the story Oberman wishes to emphasize. The main events of Luther’s life have several layers, and by treating individually, Oberman can give a greater sense of the complexity of the whole. The result is a deeper take on a familiar figure.

If you look at the table of contents you will see three parts. The first explains the events in which Luther figured as German, Medieval and elemental. For example, the reformation as a German event is a look at the politics of the situation. The reformation as a Medieval event is a look at the continuities with the past–that from which this new thing arose. In the second section Oberman goes into Luther’s influences more, and shows how his thought changed over time. The third section deals with the problems facing Luther once the break was made and there was no return. He still deals with individual issues diachronically, such as Luther and marriage, a most interesting chapter. And in the end he evaluates the reformer.

It is hard to think how any biography of Luther can be more readable (a good English translation), more intelligently ordered to provide the facts a maximum of meaning, or, curiously enough, better illustrated. Rather than include a section of glossy paintings and woodcuts in the center of the book, the illustrations are lavishly scattered at the point of the text with which they have to do. It dampens the effect of some of the paintings, but since most of the illustrations are woodcuts and frontispieces, it works.

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, by Carl R. Trueman

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and FreedomOne of the things this book endeavors is to contrast Luther with contemporary evangelicalism. It is done in the interest of historical accuracy and proper Christian memory of the past, but also in the interests of contemporary evangelicals. Christian history is a great repository of wisdom, insight and warnings, but we have to get it right to obtain the benefits. Trueman’s message about Luther is: accept no substitutes, they aren’t worth it.

It’s a good book.