Department of oxymorons: Ten “hot issues” in Christian history today

Another re-post from Christianity Today’s history blog:

Department of Oxymorons: Ten “Hot Issues” in Christian History Today

by Chris Armstrong


We moderns (and even we postmoderns) love top-ten lists. David Letterman has even managed to prop up a wilting career by providing one daily.

This list reaches fearlessly into the land of the oxymoron – you know, those lovely self-contradictory statements: “jumbo shrimp,” “airline food,” “Microsoft Works™.” The oxymoron for today: “Hot issues in history.”

That was the topic put to me a couple of years ago when my seminary’s sister undergraduate institution, Bethel College, was looking to spiff up the Christian history content of its Western Civ curriculum. Would I come talk to the course’s cadre of professors about what’s “new and exciting” in this field of history? So I took my best shot.

I can’t say my colleagues in the guild of Christian historians are staying awake nights wrestling with any of the following 10 issues. But these are all matters that I’ve recently seen discussed – some of them with some heat – by historically conscious evangelicals. If there is a theme to the list, it is this: How does our history define us, and how should it?

So here goes:

1. Should we uncover and renew “lost Christianities” that early believers found valid (i.e. Gnostic options, Eastern Christianity), but were “squeezed out” for various political as well as theological reasons? See for example Christian History & Biography Issue 96: The Gnostic Hunger for Secret Knowledge, Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.

2. Have Roman Catholics always believed in justification by grace through faith alone? This is one historical component of Mark Noll and Caroline Nystrom’s modern question: “Is the Reformation over?

3. Should conservative Protestants in today’s fragmented postmodern world recover a role for tradition alongside Scripture? See for example D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition and, for engagement along more specific lines, Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey Greenman.

4. More generally, did the Reformation – as modern Catholic critics have claimed – destroy medieval theological and social ideals that we desperately need to reclaim in the modern church? See not only Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton (his “distributism,” with Hilaire Belloc – on which see this article) and Christopher Dawson (e.g. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture), but also Anglicans such as C. S. Lewis (e.g. The Discarded Image), Charles Williams (his “affirmative way” and “romantic theology”), and Dorothy L. Sayers (who insisted that what the world needed now was Dante – see especially the marvelous intellectual biography by her friend Barbara Reynolds, The Passionate Intellect).

5. Should Western Christianity seek to learn from, and correct itself from the resources of, Eastern Christianity? See for example Daniel Clendenin’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective or Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church.

6. Was Celtic Christianity a purer, gentler mode of faith that can be used as a template to correct all of the problems in the modern church? See for example the discussion of this in Robert Webber’s Younger Evangelicals.

7. Is some sort of “new monasticism” a good idea? See for example this article, or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s New Monasticism.

8. Has evangelicalism, as historians like Donald Dayton and theologians like the late Stanley Grenz have claimed, been too narrowly defined in terms of a Reformed heritage – and do we need to rediscover Pietist and/or Wesleyan roots if we are to move forward in the postmodern world? See Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology.

9. Is there anything in American evangelical history or theology that should legitimately prevent us from reclaiming (1) ecumenism and (2) social action as our own crucial concerns and arenas for action? See James S. Cutsinger, ed., Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics & Orthodox In Dialogue, Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

10. Have Christian faith and science been always and fundamentally at odds? See the work of David Lindberg, especially his introduction and first two chapters of David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, ed., When Science and Christianity Meet, along with the interview with Lindberg in Christian History Issue 76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution.

So, what thinks the blogosphere? Are these really “hot issues” today? Where, beyond my brief bibliographic suggestions, are these issues being discussed most helpfully? What obvious issues did I miss in this list?

I look forward to hearing from folks on this – because after all, that’s what a blog’s for: to foster conversation.

3 responses to “Department of oxymorons: Ten “hot issues” in Christian history today

  1. By the way, it was a great list. I think you know me well enough to know that my previous post actually implied this, but in case you don’t. . . .

    I just went to the conference on evangelicalism and the early Church at Wheaton a couple of weeks ago, so these issues are on my mind.

  2. Edwin my friend,

    Your thoughtful response deserves much more time than I can give it while grading. However, here we run up against the limitations of (1) top ten lists and (2) blogs: there’s little room for complexity.

    To be brief, I DO want to allow pre-Reformation voices to challenge, not just to ornament or complement, Reformation and evangelical assumptions. I am particularly sensitive to the whole discussion of monergism vs. synergism in salvation, in a way not reflected in my list.

    In other words, I agree that the answer to my question #2 will be something like this: “No, they did not, at least in the sense intended by most Protestants today. Nor has the Great Tradition fully affirmed this sense, except perhaps in its most Augustinian moments.”

    And I worry that the Protestant way of looking at this issue may be “broken”–requiring an overhaul of the ways we understand our Jewish, Pauline, and earlier Christian heritage on law, grace, and salvation.

    I would still want to emphasize both the priority and the gratuity of grace in salvation. But I agree that Protestants have taken these ideas in some bad directions. If exposure to early and medieval voices can help us re-think this area, then that may be a good thing.

    Not to mention the typical univalent reading of the atonement indulged by most evangelicals.

    And much else.

    But when you are asked by an evangelical school to help revise their Western Civ curriculum, and you intend to raise controversial issues, sometimes it is best to frame them in the least threatening way possible. This is not to lie, but rather to understand your audience and to try to lead them toward deeper engagement one step at a time. And I think Noll & Nystrom’s book (for example) is a good first step, at least, in this engagement.

    Well, I know we could have a very very long discussion about this. And please feel free to respond again. But now I have to grade!

  3. A couple of caveats:

    1. Specifically, I don’t think Lewis ever said that the Reformation destroyed the heritage of the Middle Ages. As I read Lewis–and admittedly he didn’t address the Reformation itself that often–he seems to have thought that most of what was valuable in that heritage survived the Reformation. By and large, I think he blamed the Industrial Revolution and the changes of the French Revolution era more than anything that happened in the 16th century. This is a major difference between Lewis and Catholics like Chesterton.

    2. More generally, you repeatedly assume that the Reformation and the evangelical tradition more generally are standards by which everything else is to be judged, so that the question is “how can we recover these other things while remaining faithful to the heritage of the Reformation and the evangelical revivals.” I think this is the fatal flaw that makes the whole movement of recovering pre-Reformation voices and emphases trivial and ineffective. If at the end of the day we are just souping up Reformational Christianity with pre-Reformation garnish, then all the fuss we make about the importance of recovering ancient voices probably isn’t warranted. Protestants have frequently returned to the pre-Reformation past in one way or another. What would really be worth the hoopla would be a re-centering of evangelical priorities, in which we were willing to concede that the Reformers might just have been wrong about a lot of stuff. As long as this is off the table, nothing much is really going on.

    A valid objection to this might be that the equivalent movement toward recovering Jewish voices within the Christian tradition is not “trivial” even though it keeps basic Christian commitments off the table. And admittedly I’m using the word “trivial” for shock value. But I think a similar question does need to be answered with regard to folks like N.T. Wright who want to reinterpret the NT through a more Jewish lens. I largely agree with Wright, but for the most part that’s because I think what Wright is saying does agree with basic historic Christian commitments. In particular, with regard to justification Wright is (rather reluctantly, and without fully admitting it) vindicating all those obscurantist Catholic opponents of the Reformers from the 16th century whom we have mocked for hundreds of years for not getting the profound message of Paul, or even for deliberately rejecting it due to their blind commitment to tradition.

    So I guess in the end it’s not that an evangelical ressourcement that keeps the Reformation as normative is trivial, but simply that I want folks to make their priorities and their commitments explicit. There is a huge difference between recovering pre-Reformation voices to help us understand and apply Protestant Christianity more fully, and actually letting those voices challenge our basic Protestant assumptions. And evangelicals need to be clear on which of these two things they are doing. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between letting Jewish voices (whether those of Second Temple Judaism as recovered by scholars or those of the ongoing rabbinic tradition) enrich our understanding of Christianity, and allowing them to challenge basic Christian commitments such as the divinity of Christ. I can see why a neo-Ebionite would think that my interest in Jewish perspectives is basically trivial, just as I find the interest of committed Protestants in pre-Reformation Christianity to be basically trivial. That doesn’t mean that such an interest is without importance or value, just that in the case of pre-Reformation Christianity I think we ought to be playing for much, much higher stakes.

    The specific example I have in mind is your no. 2, justification. You assume that the issue is whether the Catholics always believed in “justification by grace through faith alone?” But as the “New Perspective” scholars have made clear, the much bigger question is whether Paul believed in justification by grace through faith alone in anything like the sense intended by the Reformers. Why judge the Catholic tradition by Protestant standards in the first place, instead of vice versa?

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