search this site

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Get the eNews

* indicates required
Email Format
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    find ben simpson on facebook
    twitter updates

    Entries in Church History (6)


    Review: Wesley and the Anglicans

    The Methodist movement is commonly described as an initiative of the Holy Spirit, driven by the zeal of a persistent leader, grounded by the practical innovation of bands and societies, and as yielding a theological distinctive or two. I have heard Methodism described as an ongoing work of gospel renewal begun to instill life in denominations and churches, as well as in individuals. There is some truth in that account, however simplified it might be. The events which gave birth to Methodism are much more complicated.

    Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (IVP Academic, 2016) unearths the strata of early Methodism, revealing the complexities surrounding the movement as it arose. The book is written by Ryan Nicholas Danker, who serves as assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Danker carefully chronicles the Anglican and English contexts that shaped and influenced John Wesley in an effort to help the reader understand both his life and theology.

    Early in his account Danker states that “social, political and ecclesiastical issues have not been given proper weight” which led to  a divide between Wesley, Wesleyan Methodism, and some of the evangelical clergy who were Wesley’s contemporaries. The divisions which occurred during the early Methodist movement are more often described as theological in nature, such as in the case of George Whitefield’s Calvinism and Wesley’s Arminianism. Danker effectively shows that the historical evidence yields a more complex reality.

    Danker first outlines early English evangelicalism and Wesley’s place within it. Danker notes, “Although the term Methodist is now thought to be synonymous with Wesleyanism, at the beginning of the Evangelical Revival in England it was an elusive term.” Evangelicalism was first broadly defined and loosely organized, though it was understood to be evangelistic in nature and stressing conversion. 

    Evangelicalism was also opposed and viewed as dangerous. Even though evangelicals understood their work as yielding revival, established clergy viewed their results as potentially schismatic, particularly when converts were organized into their own small societies quite apart from the Church of England.

    Danker also tells of ways in which revivalists were attacked and criticized, as well as why Methodist structure would draw out opposition. Danker’s description of the Act of Toleration, the Conventicle Act, and the implications of both, as well as the general posture toward non-established religious groups in post-Cromwellian English society is very helpful and revelatory. Danker also describes the tension between Methodist societies and Anglican clergy, who expected all Christians to participate exclusively within the parish structure of the Church of England.

    Danker further analyzes the history of the Evangelical and Methodist movements geographically, showing why certain disputes arose and why they were perpetuated. Some itinerant lay preachers were frustrated by the parish system. Local clergy took umbrage with field preachers and with the organization of Methodist societies. Wesley was urged to channel his efforts into the existing forms of the Church, but for Wesley, the proclamation of the gospel was of greatest importance. This got Wesley into trouble.

    Methodist identity, distinct from Evangelicalism, was solidified through the development of a “distinctive ethos,” and also thanks to decisions concerning the administration of communion. Danker writes, “Attempts by Wesley’s lay preachers to administer communion or gain the right to administer it, either as laymen or after ordination at Wesley’s hands, were seen by many within the Evangelical ‘party’ as the end of their association.” 

    Danker devotes a chapter to the fallout from the controversies between evangelicals and Methodists, highlighting the case of six Oxford students who were expelled for “methodistical behaviour.” He also shows the reasons why Wesley and the Evangelicals came to be distinct. Danker writes, “The Evangelicals, as a group, represented a Reformed vision of Christianity stemming back to the Puritans and the English Reformers, while Wesley represented a restorationist vision based on the church fathers as read through high church Anglicanism and the Caroline divines.”

    Throughout his account, Danker removes some of the polish from Wesley. Many accounts of John Wesley and the early Methodists are hagiographical, rather than historiographical. Hagiography minimizes negatives and hardships, and elevates the person to the status of saint.

    Wesley was far from perfect. He did not always do the right thing. He was human, with his own particular flaws and vices. The Methodist movement was not always received positively, and while it did bring some theological and practical distinctives that are gifts to the church, it created certain political problems within the Church of England as well as within British society.

    The same flaws, however, gave rise to a boldness that should not be forgotten. I think Danker strikes the right balance here. Boldness in many instances should be emulated. Wesley was focused strongly on evangelism. He possessed a love for the church. Perhaps naively, he assumed that his work and legacy could reinvigorate and renew the Anglicanism that had so strongly shaped his life and ministry. Methodism, instead, budded as a new branch.

    We do not always fully anticipate the outcome of our choices. We do not know what disputes may result, what ideas might take root, which friends we might make, and which ones we might lose. We may not fully grasp the weight our social setting or our political milieu places upon us even now, and how that may shape our positions and our actions.

    But good historians can help us to perceive the present more clearly by initiating us into the complexities of the past. One result may be a greater understanding of ourselves, and what our moment requires. In this way, Danker’s history of early evangelicalism and John Wesley is a helpful and worthwhile offering.


    Book Review :: How God Became Jesus by Michael F. Bird

    Bart Ehrman is a boogeyman some evangelicals like to hate. Ehrman consistently takes positions that undercut Christian orthodoxy, and his scholarly positions often lead you to believe that most of what you have heard in sermons and all of what you have heard in Sunday School is erroneous. That is where he believes the evidence leads, and like any scholar, he wants to convince his students.

    That said, it is unfair to Ehrman and his scholarship to dismiss him out of hand or make him a heel. He is a human being, a hard working scholar, and  an engaging communicator. This is why each time Ehrman publishes a book like his last release, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, evangelical scholars respond in print or in lectures. He deserves to be answered fairly and with good scholarship.

    In How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature---A Response to Bart Ehrman, Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling respond to Ehrman's How Jesus Became God. On short notice, this team of scholars offered their rebuttals to Ehrman's presentation of the historical Jesus. Their work offers an apologetic, or defense of Christian doctrine. And I think it is well done.

    I am not current enough in New Testament history to provide a wholesale evaluation of the arguments of Bird, Evans, Gathercole, Hill, and Tilling in this volume, but I am familiar enough with the biblical material and a broad enough range of scholarly research on the New Testament to approve and recommend this collection of essays. How God Became Jesus addresses the key questions raised by Ehrman concerning first century Jewish cosmology, Jesus' self-perception (Did Jesus understand himself to be God?), the evidence pertaining to Jesus' burial, the beliefs of the first Christ-followers, problematic elements within Ehrman's interpretive categories and his exegesis of Scripture, and the implications for our understanding of the formation of a bounded, exclusive community centered on Christ (as well as the emergence of heterodox groups).

    This book is a helpful companion to Ehrman's How Jesus Became God for those seeking to evaluate his arguments, or for those seeking to become conversant with Ehrman from an evangelical perspective.

    I heard Bart Ehrman speak in Lawrence, Kansas several years ago, right after his publication of God's Problem, an examination of Job and what theologians call theodicy. He's engaging, a good storyteller, witty, and clear. I am also familiar with his written works. I happen to disagree with him. Often.

    I disagree with Ehrman not only because I am Christian who believes the historic teachings concerning the incarnation, the resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and other core doctrines are reliable and true. I also disagree with Ehrman because I find his arguments unconvincing and his methodology suspect. Whenever I have read Ehrman's works or listened to his presentations, I have thought something is amiss. Admittedly, I have also had a very different existential experience concerning God--I am a Christian. Ehrman is an agnostic. Of course we will disagree.

    Scholarly fads come and go. Whenever a book is published claiming a new or never-before-told version of the life of Jesus, or a supposedly revelatory account of the ancient evidence that undercuts established orthodoxy, it will receive buzz. These books will be placed on end caps in every bookstore. They will sell. People enjoy controversy, and gravitate toward conspiracy theories.

    In those instances, it will be up to responsible Christian scholars, and responsible Christians, to listen to the arguments, examine the evidence, and offer a measured, accurate, and winsome response. How God Became Jesus assists those who wish to offer an evangelical perspective on the historical Jesus, and to do so as respectfully as possible.


    A Way of Life, Or Collected Teachings

    I was a bit surprised when I took the time to read the Didache, a Koine Greek word translated "The Teaching of the Twelve," and found myself longing for something similar to be used in our own time.  This ancient document, dating somewhere between 50-70 A.D., served as a rule of life for the earliest Christians, and was likely memorized by those in the early Christ-believing community.  I encountered this text in Aaron Milavec's translation and commentary, though the Didache is also available online here, if you would like to read it.

    The document begins this way:

    There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts).

    Some of the phrases will be familiar, and indicate that these sayings of Jesus had become part of the oral tradition that was passed down among early Christ-believers, eventually finding their way in to the gospel accounts.

    The Didache includes various other bits of instruction, including certain behaviors that are to be avoided, particular understandings of baptism and the Lord's meal, dispositions towards teachers and those in leadership, and a word of caution concerning visiting prophets.  

    I wonder, if such a body of teaching were to be compiled today, and systematically passed along to, say, new converts or confirmands, what would such a document contain?


    Book Review :: Jonathan Rogers - Christian Encounters: Saint Patrick 

    Some of you may have noticed that the frequency with which I'm posting book reviews is on the rise, and this is due to a couple of factors.  First, writing reviews helps me to recall key information from these books and crystallize the important ideas in my thinking.  Second, I'm being more intentional in contributing to the community, hoping my summaries and critiques help others looking for solid resources.  And thirdly, I'm part of Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program.  That's where I picked up Jonathan Rogers's account of the life of Saint Patrick.  This book is part of a larger collection Thomas Nelson has dubbed "Christian Encounters," and so far I'm impressed.  These small, compact biographies provide helpful insight into the lives of Christian people who made a significant impact on their generation.  Other volumes chronicle the lives of Bach, William Buckley, St. Francis, Anne Bradstreet, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, J. R. R. Tolkein, and John Bunyan.

    The life of Saint Patrick is particularly fascinating, and while there are many legends surrounding his life, Rogers, in his account, chooses to focus on the bits of history we know from Patrick's own writings and other relevant historical documents from his day.  Patrick, who was kidnapped from Britain and sold into slavery at the age of sixteen, found himself herding sheep in the land of Ireland.  After coming to faith during his enslavement, he heard the Lord give him instruction to escape, and after his return home shortly thereafter entered into the process to become a servant of the church.  He then heeded a missionary call to return to the Irish and preach the gospel.  In this biography, Jonathan Rogers tells the story of the life of Saint Patrick, bringing attention to those facets of Patrick's life that are instructive for us today.

    Reading biographies of Christians has long been a practice of those in the community of faith, for it is in these stories that Christians are able to encounter lives of exemplary worship and virtue, and thus are better able to conceptualize and embody life following Jesus more truthfully.  The truths Christian people claim are not abstract, but have taken on a particular shaped in the lives of those who together are called church.  Therefore, accounts such as Rogers's are immensely helpful for the purposes of spiritual formation and growth. 

    I'm thankful for the gift Jonathan Rogers has given us.  And the book, because it is short and contains two primary documents from Saint Patrick himself, is edifying in two ways.  Rogers's telling of Patrick's life, first, is lucid, and second, the inclusion of the writings of Patrick enables the reader to evaluate Rogers's story and hear from Patrick with a fuller context in view.  The decision to pair these documents with Rogers's biography was a good one.  I'd recommend reading this book.


    In Search of The Great Tradition

    A reversal has occurred in our time.  The faithful have in fact outlived the collapse of the foundations of secular society.  Familiar dominant patterns of thought have lost their immune system for recuperation.  The modern outlook is disintegrating.  But communities of traditional faith flourish more than ever.

    It is a fact: evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic spirituality, scholarship, pastoral care, and institutional life have against all odds already weathered the waning winter of this modern decline.  So has traditional Jewish life.

    We are witnessing an emerging resolve in worldwide Christianity and Judaism to reclaim the familiar classic spiritual disciplines: close study of scripture, daily prayer, regular observance in a worshipping community, doctrinal integrity, and moral accountability.  Even though my voice is Protestant, the arguments and evidences equally apply to Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish life.

    Turning from the illusions of modern life, the faithful are now quietly returning to the spiritual disciplines that have profoundly shaped their history, and in fact have enabled their survival.  This is the rebirth of orthodoxy.

    -Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity

    As I read these opening lines of Thomas Oden's Rebirth, one question came to mind: "Can this be true?"  In the margins, my wife Molly had written, "really?"  Surely such a broad sweeping statement is overreaching.  Surely this cannot be the case.  Surely.


    If I had not also recently completed Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity, I might not think so.  I also might not be willing to consider Oden's thesis if his book was not so compellingly written.  At the very least, it has given me hope that classical, orthodox Christianity is emerging anew, possessing a deep commitment to the historic disciplines of the faith, and willing both to teach and embody those doctrines so that the church itself is strengthened in her witness in this generation and in the future.  To the degree which such a rebirth might be taking place, I do not know.  But at the very least, I know this: Oden's project, which is much larger than him, is one in which I can very easily see myself participating in and advocating for.

    Oden's book is worth reading, for the argument needs engagement.  I'm hoping he is right.  There are others who may believe that he is very wrong.  But he cannot be dismissed--his logic must be considered.  Oden chronicles his perception of "the rise of orthodoxy" that has given birth to a new ecumenicism that is rooted in the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly as they are captured in the creeds.  Such an ecumenicism, in his view, differs from older forms, which depended more on political alliances and bureaucratic structures in order to operate.

    Oden's tale parallels his own life story.  Having been a participant in the old ecumenicism (as typified, in his argument, by the NCC and WCC) and formed by it's institutions, Oden has found himself rejecting many of the presuppositions of that segment of Christianity and embracing Christian faith as he has found it constant across time.  As he has discovered ancient orthodoxy, he has found others who have embraced it in our time, and he believes this same discovery is being made by others from all segments of the faith.  At the heart of his argument he presents evidence for the rebirth of orthodoxy, marked by: (1) personal transformation, (2) faithful scriptural interpretation, (3) ancient ecumenical multiculturalism, (4) well-established boundaries, (5) ecumenical roots reclaimed, and (6) consensual ecumenical discernment.  He makes the case that each of these is now taking place.

    One thing is for certain: reading Oden's work ignited a passion in me to read the Church Fathers.  I also gained a deepening appreciation for the historic creeds--the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian formulas, and their role in shaping and guiding Christianity throughout her history.  I was inspired to study these more deeply in order to better help the church remember.  I was moved as Oden described the Vincentian rule, in Latin, "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est"--meaning that the church is to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all--knowing that in order to abide by this rule takes work.

    Oden's book makes it clear that the Holy Spirit has a history, and the church, at her best, has a long memory. Perhaps what I'm most struck by, as I read Oden's argument, was not just the idea that an old orthodoxy might be emerging anew, but by the resonances which such an idea brought forth in my own heart.  I am longing for something very old, as well as friends who will help remember and maintain that tradition alongside me as part of a community.  It is not that I only want the church to be her best as an outside observer, it is that I want to be part of such a church as an internal participant.  And I cannot do so apart from friendship.  I need friends daring enough to be orthodox, as well as daring enough to help me remember, as well as embody, those teachings of the church held fast everywhere, always, and by all.