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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’


Another quarter, and another volume of Nick Needham’s church history set, 2,000 Years of Church History. The second volume covers The Middle Ages. I mentioned the layout of the books in discussing volume 1. This volume is about 440 pages long. Reading about 10 pages per day, I was able to read a chapter a week and be done in 10 weeks. This makes for a very doable project, and you aren’t overwhelmed with all the information that is found in this thus far excellent series.

He  begins this volume with Islam and the Church. We’d join Paul in saying that even if an angel preaches another gospel to you, they are to be anathematized (Gal. 1). While Mohammad claims to have received a vision from an angel, his message is very different from Paul’s gospel and therefore to be rejected.

Islam did spread through military conquest. Some of the churches in conquered lands were treated fairly well, particularly the Arian and monophysite churches. He distinguishes between the Sunni and Shia muslims in addressing their first “civil war”. Most Christians were placed in segregated communities and treated as second-class citizens, often with a heavy tax. At times they benefited from the Christian community. Nestorian Christians in Persia translated the great Greek philosophers into Arabic. Generally “Christian governments” waged defensive wars against Islam. A few people like Francis of Assisi preached the gospel to them. Some of the crusades seem far less interested in protecting pilgrims and freeing conquered Christians than gaining fame, power and wealth.

Needham then discusses Charlemange and the Holy Roman Empire. The struggle between civil and religious authorities would take up much of the Middle Ages. This was not limited to the Pope, but we also see the Eastern Patriarchs, at times, seeking to bring the civil authority to heel. It was a back and forth. He also addresses developments in theology and worship in both the Eastern and Western Church.

This volume continues Needham’s broader than usual focus. This is not a Eurocentric approach to church history. For that I am thankful. For instance, much is said about the development of both Eastern and Western monasticism. We see the repeated influence of Augustine in controversies involving predestination and the Lord’s Supper. Communion controversies appear at least 3 times in this volume.

The third chapter focuses on the Byzantine Empire and brings us to the Great Schism. The iconoclastic controversy takes up a bit of space. It was a ruthless controversy with Emperors deposing Patriarchs; Patriarchs excommunicating Emperors, exiles and cruel punishments. Church history is not pretty! This should put to rest any mistaken notion about the consensus of the Patriarchs as preferable to “sola Scriptura”, but sadly it won’t. The filioque controversy regarding the Nicene Creed is discussed.

“Following the Cappadocian Fathers, the East tended to being with the persons of the Trinity, and saw their unity as lying in the person of God the Father. For Eastern theologians, the Father guarantees that the three persons are only one God, because the Father alone is the “fountain of deity”, the one source of the Son and the Spirit, … By contrast, the West began, not with the persons, but with the nature of God. Following Augustine of Hippo, Western theologians tended to think of God’s nature or essence before the three person of the Trinity, and to see the oneness of the Trinity as lying in the one common nature shared by Father, Son and Spirit”

In the east, you had some dissenting movements: the Manichees, Paulicians and Bogomils. All three were connected to Gnosticism. Paulicians often allied themselves with Muslim Arabs against Byzantium, whom they saw as oppressors. The Bogomils were in Bulgaria, which was a region over which the Eastern and Western Churches struggled. They would not survive the conquest by the Muslim Turks in the late 14th century.

Needham then moves back West for the Cluniac Revival, influence of Hildebrand and the Investiture Controversy. The Norsemen proved to be a problem for much of the Western church. But eventually they were converted to Christianity. Over the course of about 100 years the gospel spread from the lands the Norseman conquered to the lands they came from (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland). The gospel also made headway into eastern Europe as the Bohemians, Poles and Croats were converted. Alone with this was a reformation of Western monasticism aka the Cluniac Revival. They also sought purification in the leadership of the church. Hildebrand led the efforts to reform the papacy. He wanted it to be independent of the state in order to pursue its spiritual purposes. This would lead to the Pope investing kings with power. Popes, for a time, were king makers. One unfortunate side effect was that ecclesiastical officers were freed from prosecution from the state. Their crimes were considered sins and subject to the discipline of the church- a practice that helped produce the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the American Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Boston (don’t worry, I don’t deny that Protestants like to cover up a “good” scandal too).

The fifth chapter examines that less than period of time covering the Crusades. He looks at the causes and history of the Crusades. Not all crusades were created equal. Some were worse than others as the trade cities exerted their power.

Needham then moves into the manner in which the gospel came to the Rus, how they had their own patriarch and became an independent Eastern Church. The Mongols factor heavily in this. After the defeat and removal of Mongol control, many Russian Orthodox began to think of themselves as the “third Rome”. Because Byzantium had “sold its soul” in the Union of Florence (in order to receive military assistance against the Turks) Russia saw itself as the heir of orthodoxy.

Back to the West, the book then delves into the rise of the universities and scholasticism. Aristotle “came west” and exerted great influence on the theology of the Church at this time. Needham gives summaries of Anselm, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Bonaventura and Aquinas among others.

The Papacy reached its height in the time of Innocent III. There were a number of theological developments (transubstantiation was made dogma), new monastic orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and humbling of kings. There was also the crusades against dissenters like the Albigensians and Waldensians.

Back to the Eastern Church he develops the fall of Constantinople. The battles with the Muslims, particular the Turks, continued to take their toll. There were also controversies like the hesychastic controversy involving Gregory Palamas. He relates the various attempts to heal the Great Schism, all of what came to nothing since they were mostly about receiving military aid than uniting the Church.

The decline of the Eastern Church was matched in the West by the decline of the Papacy, particularly in the Avignonese Captivity (the Papacy was controlled by French nobility and seated in France). At times there were two or three Popes. Proto-Reformers like Wycliffe and Hus arose. The church East and West was in sad shape at the end of the Middle Ages.

This is another insightful and interesting volume. It has good balance between East and West. It deserves a reading by all interested in church history.

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The other day I was about to check the newest Jeffery Deaver novel out of the library for the long weekend when I noticed Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates on the shelf. I hesitated. The subject interested me. It was written by Fox News Channel’s Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. I know some of the Bill O’Reilly books could use some more research. I bounced it back and forth in my mind for a few minutes and finally decided to go for it.

I’m glad I did. It was a fairly quick read as I finished it on Monday morning after starting Friday afternoon. It was an interesting read as well.

In some ways the story begins before the 1790’s as the Barbary coast pirates had been active for centuries making a living off of other nation’s trade. Some nations, like Britain had paid tribute to the Barbary nations of north Africa. This made no sense to me since they (Britain, France & Spain) had the more powerful navies in the world. Invest a little time and they could solve the problem once and for all.

While they were foreign ministers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debated this problem. Adams recommended a treaty based on tribute. Jefferson, uncharacteristically, recommended a military solution.

After the Revolutionary War was completed America was deeply in debt. They had sold off their warships to pay off some of that that debt. To become economically strong they needed to trade with other nations. That became difficult without a navy to protect their merchant ships.

The Barbary nations would steal ships, and their cargo and enslave their crews. These Muslim nations justified it on the basis of their faith. It was okay to take from and enslave the infidels (this is how they justified the beginnings of the African slave trade as well). A slave would be freed if they converted to Islam, but if you reverted to your other faith you would be killed.

So sailors and passengers would be held for ransom. Men who were not officers were subject to hard labor, and sometimes torture. It was such a big problem that when Jefferson was the ambassador to France for the young nation, he didn’t want his middle daughter to sail across the ocean after his youngest passed away.

Toward the end of Adams’ presidency, Congress approved the formation of a new navy. It was this slowly increasing navy that Jefferson used during his presidency to address the problem of the Barbary nations. This is the main focus on this book.

It is filled with early mistakes by captains, uncertainty of policy, utter incompetence and finally men committed to defending their nation, and its merchants.

In this history we see a few policies that would mark U.S. policy into the present. The first was not wanting to occupy other nations. The goal was not to colonize those nations, but simply end the conflict they initiated and restore the peace they would break in innumerable ways.

The second would be the beginning of the policy to not negotiate with terrorists, or terror states. The Barbary states, especially Tripoli exacerbated the situation by constantly changing the terms of the agreement and making outlandish demands on a new nation. They tried to take advantage of the fledgling nation.

We have generally kept this policy. It was violated recently when another Muslim state, Iran, captured one of our naval ships. Apparently our current President didn’t learn much from history, and shipped $40 million dollars to them for the soldiers’ release.

Thirdly, the plan that was being executed when Tobias Lear negotiated a treaty was regime change. The rightful ruler of Tripoli had been removed by his younger brother who was now living in exile in Egypt. His wife and children were hostages back home. The plan was to raise a large enough army to support his bid to take his rightful rule. The plan was working when Lear, who didn’t like the plan since it minimized his influence, jumped in to make a premature deal.

While Lear’s treaty brought peace in the short term, it didn’t solve the problem in the long term. During the War of 1812 the British encouraged them to resume plundering U.S. ships. After the war, our bigger navy was sent to set things aright in the Mediterranean. After this, future President John Quincy Adams wrote to Stephen Decatur “I most ardently pray that the example, which you have given, of rescuing our country from disgrace of a tributary treaty, may become the irrevocable law for all future times.”

This mission by Decatur, who served valiantly in the previous conflict with the Barbary nations, brought to an end “the centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror”.

This is an interesting period in American history, one which is not considered very often. We see some similarities to some current problems and there may be lessons to be learned from the actions of our founding fathers in this affair. This is the point Kilmeade ends with, though not in a heavy handed way. He sees the parallels but does not belabor them. I found this to be an engaging book.

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There are not many contemporary books on the on-going persecution of Christians so when I had the opportunity to get a review copy of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution I took it. This is an important book and I encourage American Christians to read it, but it is not without its weaknesses. It is helpful for American Christians to understand what their brothers and sisters in many parts of the world experience. This is not a book about what American Christians experience. It goes outside of our experience and this is important to do. This is why I think they should read it. They need to pray for their siblings in Christ, and also themselves because such persecution may not be too far away for us.

The author, John Allen Jr., is a senior news correspondence and has many connections around the world to gain access that others may not have. He also draws on the research of a number of government and private agencies that track these things. As a result he will talk about bigger picture systematic persecution as well as more personal stories. These stories are not pretty and they can be difficult to read. For instance, in the introduction he talks about the Me’eter military camp and prison in Eritrea ( a country I hadn’t even heard of before) that is pretty horrifying to consider. Here the one-party nation, ironically called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, continues to imprison, torture and rape its citizens who are without legal representation and often without medical care in this desert prison. Though their actions are well-documented this has not been a matter of concern for the press, the UN or any nation.

The weaknesses of the book are obvious in some ways. It is hard to write a book like this. Due to the number of narratives it often feels disjointed. While they all follow a similar theme they aren’t connected by characters. This is not the author’s fault, but just the nature of the type of book he’s chosen to written. The reader can feel overwhelmed at times. At others confused as he will make mistakes in how he communicates this material. There are paragraphs in which he shifts from one event to another when there is no specific connection between the events except what all of them have in common.

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In this barren wasteland of books on the Trinity there are only a few oases out there. If you believe Michael Reeves, and I suspect you should, this is thanks to Schleiermacher who basically treated the Trinity as extraneous to Christianity. In Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith he treats the Trinity as the hub upon which all of Christianity turns. That is part of what makes this particular volume on the Trinity unique. He explicitly states and develops this as a steady drumbeat in the book.

“For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desireable.”

In part, the book is an apologetic for Christianity in general and the Trinity in particular. He spends some time examining what happens if you don’t have a Trinity, what does that mean about God. To put it simply, God is not love. He is wanting a creation, if he wants a creation that serves him. But if God is love, and there are more than 3 persons in this eternal community of love we understand creation (and redemption) as an overflow of the love they have for one another. This sets Christianity into a different light, a greater light.

“Before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.”

For instance, love is the motive for the mission of God. I am currently reading a book on that subject and the author of this otherwise good book seems to neglect this as the reason. He’s not seeing the mission as the Father sending the Son to adopt more children, but more a Creator wanting to be obeyed. This focus on God as loving community helps to clear the air of many misconceptions and present a more winsome Christianity.

“He creates as a Father and he rules as a Father; and that means the way he rules over creation is most unlike the way any other God would rule over creation.”

For instance, in the last chapter he explores how this focus influences how we view various attributes of God. God’s holiness, for instance, is that he is separate from us in that he loves. In Leviticus 19, he reminds us, that the call to be holy, or perfect, as he is is surrounded by the command to love your neighbor as yourself and explanations of what that looks like (caring for the poor, for instance). So our holiness is not to be mere obedience. Our holiness is to be a love that reaches out to others as God has reached out to us in order to meet the needs of others. Oh, there is obedience but as Jesus said in John’s Gospel this is because love Him who first loved us.

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For the next two weeks, my sermon series on Colossians will be in the portion of the household code dealing with slaves and masters. Later, we’ll explore Philemon. But this is not the only household code in Scripture that addresses the subject. We find them in Ephesians 5-6 and Titus 2. The subject appears in 1 Timothy 6, 1 Peter 2, 1 Corinthians 7 and some other places. It is important for us to remember that in Philippians 2 Jesus is called a slave who obeyed to the point of death, death on a cross.

It is hard for us to grasp all of this. Thankfully legalized slavery has been abolished in most of the world. We are still fighting human trafficking. We have a very different set of experiences than the original audience of the Scriptures.  So let’s look as this, at times with help from John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. (I am a bit uncomfortable with his reliance upon James Jordan at times. Some theonomists have fallen into what I think is the dangerous false doctrine of kinism).

Slavery was common in most of the ancient world. Not race-based slavery, but slavery. In the Old Testament we see that the Patriarchs owned slaves. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (which as man-stealing was punished by death in the Old Testament, and was affirmed as a heinous sin in the New Testament).

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Someone sent me a link today for an article in Psychology Today called Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.  It claims to have evidence to support this assertion. To steal a phrase, “that’s mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man, I mean soft science!”

What is the evidence offered? First, atheism is on the rise in industrialized nations. It is most prominent in Europe, and nearly non-existent in sub-Sahara Africa.

Atheism is correlated with higher education and affluence. The author sees religion as a way of coping with fear. In those prosperous nations, there is less to fear. This is particularly true as they have developed extensive social welfare programs.

These nations, he notes, are also marked by a decreasing birth rate. This is because fewer people are needed to work the land. He sees a tie between an agrarian economy, birthrates and atheism.  The modern man has “tamed” much of life’s unpredictability, he thinks, and no longer needs God. Or children.

As an “evolutionary psychologist’ the author, Nigel Barber sees this as a good evolution.

So, what is the problem?

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God,… Deuteronomy 8 (ESV)

Approximate 3,400 years ago God predicted this exact pattern in the life of Israel. It is not a new thing. Prosperity produces pride which means that people forget God. This begins with practical atheism and morphs into theoretical atheism. The rise of theoretical atheism in Europe should not surprise the biblically informed person. This has been happening for thousands of years!

But I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. 5 It was I who knew you in the wilderness,    in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me. Hosea 13 (ESV)

But can atheism replace religion? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no.

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