Saturday, March 17, 2018

Basic Readings in Church History: Suggestions for the Beginner

Many Christians are poorly versed in Bible content and in theology, and last week I gave some suggestions for changing that. But compared with their knowledge of church history, those same Christians are virtual scholars in Bible and theology. For many, it seems that the history of Christianity began with their birth, or perhaps their rebirth. There is little to no sense of where they currently live in relation to the broader scope of the entire history of the church. Yet there is a vast library of accessible books that can correct that problem. For the person looking to begin an exploration of church history, I would recommend the following books.

First is S. M. Houghton’s Sketches from Church History. This is not a continuous history, but rather, as the title suggests, glimpses into episodes and persons from the past. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the first 1,400 years of church history, with the remainder focusing on the Reformation and, after the Reformation, focusing on the Protestant Church, especially in the West. While the selection of material doesn’t give the reader much on the Eastern Church or on the development of Roman Catholicism after the Reformation, it is a good introduction for a modern American evangelical. It has plenty of illustrations, which is also helpful.

Second would be Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. This book is now in its fourth edition. It is also light on the Eastern church but gives more information on Roman Catholic developments in the post-Reformation period. It is divided into forty-eight chapters, most of them in the ten to fifteen-page range. Thus, over the course of about a month and a half, at the rate of one chapter a day, the reader can get a decent introduction to the history of the church.

A third recommendation is Church History: The Basics from Concordia Publishing House. I am less familiar with this work, but it appears to be a good alternative to Shelley. It is an abbreviated form of the book The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, also from Concordia. This is a substantial church history in one volume. One advantage of it is that it includes readings from primary sources in each of the ages. A similar work would be Justo Gonzales’s The Story of Christianity, a popular choice for use in seminary church history survey courses

A little more advanced treatment can be found in the Pelican History of the Church series. This is a seven-volume collection consisting of the following: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages; Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789; Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions; and (a relatively new addition to the series) Owen Chadwick, The Christian Church in the Cold War. As indicated, this is more demanding reading, but it gives a more thorough treatment of many of the doctrinal disputes that characterize the history of the church.

Finally, I would recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson is not a church historian, but this is a readable account. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. From Kirkus Review: “Though the narrative is fast-paced and the style vigorously economic, the account brims with telling details and reasoned judgments and never seems superficial, Johnson eschews all special theological pleading and abides by professional canons of evidence and objectivity. Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, he maintains a healthy balance between the internal and external dimensions of Christianity's development; events and ideas mesh into a coherent story.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Basic Readings in Theology: Suggestions for the Beginner

Most Christians learn what theology they know from the preaching and teaching of their pastors. For some churches in the Reformed tradition, this has been accomplished by expository preaching in the morning service and catechetical preaching in the evening service. Expository preaching moves through books of the Bible, explaining and applying the teaching of the biblical text. Catechetical preaching uses one of the Reformed confessions or catechisms as the basis for explaining the doctrines of the Scriptures in a systematic fashion. In our day, however, this dual approach is uncommon, and the biblical and theological knowledge of people in the pews is scattered and unsystematic. Though people may have some vague ideas of the general content of the Bible, and some similarly vague ideas of such basic Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the full humanity and full deity of Christ, their knowledge is weak. The following suggestions are provided for those who want to learn more about the Bible and more about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Bible Content

I recommend Michael Williams’ little book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens. This book devotes about half a dozen pages to each book of the Bible. He gives a theme verse for each book, a summary of the content of the book, and a brief treatment of how that book points to Christ. It is very helpful to read the section, then read the book of the Bible that the chapter discusses. This works very well with a Bible reading program that goes through the Bible in a year. Another useful tool is the KJV Reformation Heritage Study Bible. This gives commentary on each chapter of the Bible designed to help the reader understand and apply the text. The Reformation Study Bible is also quite helpful, with detailed introductions to each book, as well as commentary throughout, and additional essays on key topics.


I recommend here Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine. This is an abbreviated version of his Systematic Theology, which in turn is something of a condensed presentation of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was done originally for high school and college students as a summary presentation of systematic theology. Another good resource is Basic Christian Doctrines, edited by Carl F. H. Henry. It is a collection of forty-three short essays by a variety of evangelical scholars. They were originally published in Christianity Today in the 1950s and were collected into one volume in 1962. It is available used at a very modest cost, and is also available in PDF form online:

Another useful book is Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Alexander was one of the first professors at Princeton Theological Seminary and, though written in the nineteenth century, his presentation is clear and accessible.

For those in Reformed churches, the classic confessions and catechisms also provide a solid foundation for the beginning reader. My recommendation would be to start with the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is available online in both its original form and in modern English. From there, the reader can move to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Commentaries are available on all these documents. The Westminster documents were written in the middle of the seventeenth century to provide a standard for the Church of England, though the Church of England never adopted them. The Belgic Confession was written in the sixteenth century for the churches in the Netherlands. The Heidelberg Catechism was another sixteenth-century document from the German Reformed churches. The Canons of Dort came out of the disputes over the teachings of Jacob Arminius in the early seventeenth century. These resources are all available online.

The person who studies these is well-equipped to move on to more substantial reading regarding both the Bible and systematic theology.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Pastors and Congregational Reading

Most pastors realize in seminary that they have gotten themselves into a profession that requires reading. Whether they read much before seminary, the class requirements force them to read a great deal. This is especially true for Presbyterian and Reformed pastors, as these churches have always put a high value on an educated clergy. By the time they finish seminary, they have gotten used to reading demanding material—academic biblical studies, systematic theology, church history. It is easy, then, to forget that at one time they really struggled with that material.

I have been a voracious reader since I learned to read. But until I got to college, I didn’t read anything that made any demands on me as a reader. Then my first class in college was a philosophy class. I passed the class, but I’m pretty sure I understood no more than about ten percent of what I read for that class. After I was converted, I read the Bible a lot, but I didn’t read a great deal of Christian literature. I did read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Sit, Walk, Stand (both perfectionist standards back in the day), but I remember almost nothing else of what Christian literature I read. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which seemed to me to be heavy reading. I also read another work by Lewis, either the Problem of Pain or Miracles, I’m not sure which. I think I finished the book but found it a very difficult slog. Then I read his Pilgrim’s Regress, which I didn’t understand at all.

After seminary, I have gone back and revisited some of those books and didn’t find them difficult. But by then, I had read enough difficult theology that I had the context and the foundational understanding to read Lewis with ease. I think something like this happens with most pastors. They have gotten used to reading difficult material, so they tend to think that everyone ought to be able to read it. 

I may be entirely wrong about this, but I think most people who can read don’t read. And most people who read don’t read anything that makes demands on them as a reader. They read what is comfortable for them. Pastors need to keep this in mind when they recommend books for people in their congregations. The fact that a given book is not difficult for you does not mean that it won’t be difficult for them. There’s a reason that most of the books on sale in a Christian bookstore are theologically substandard. They are written by people who have a substandard theological training, but they are also written for people who don’t know much theology. These authors may have bad theology, but they know their audience and they write to their audience
It’s something to keep in mind when recommending books for people in your congregation. Ask yourself if the person will not only willingly read the book but also understand it. If you have visited the person’s home, you should have a good idea of what they read (or whether they read). You should also keep a list of less demanding, more accessible, sound Christian books. Avoid recommending the fat books with small print, unless you know that is what the person reads. Avoid reprints of the Puritans. There’s nothing wrong with the Puritans—a lot of good stuff there. But most modern Americans would not be able to work through Puritan works without a lot of help. The Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks are about the most accessible Puritan works available. As a pastor, you are a shepherd. You want to feed your sheep good food, but it had better be food that they’re willing and able to eat.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A prayer for today

O Lord, we pray today for those who are anxious and in distress. Let them put their trust in you. Let them know that in you they will never be put to shame. Be quick to hear their prayers and deliver them speedily from their distress. Teach them to find in you a rock of refuge, a fortress of defense. In their trouble help them to commit themselves into your hands. Direct them, that they may not trust in useless idols of their own making, but instead teach them to place their full trust in you, their saving God. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (Ps 31:1-6)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reading the Bible: For Content vs. For Devotion

What does it mean to read the Bible “devotionally”? Does reading the Bible for content compete with reading the Bible devotionally? My guess is that most Christians would see contrary purposes in the two ways of reading. As part of the requirements for one of my classes, students are required to read 6-7 chapters of the Bible each day. One student commented at the beginning of the semester that he wasn’t used to reading the Bible that way. He usually read the Bible “devotionally:” certainly no more than a chapter at a time, more likely just a few verses. After reading, he would then spend time reflecting on what he had read. That is, perhaps, what most people mean by reading the Bible devotionally. The problem with that approach is that it is almost impossible ever to get the scope of the section, let alone the scope of the whole book, or the place of the book in the Bible as a whole.

Perhaps the difficulty is that we have the wrong idea of what it means to read the Bible devotionally. Devotional reading is a way of reading that is intended to increase our devotion to the God we serve. We best increase that devotion by getting to know the content of the Bible in a more thorough fashion than is the case for most of us. One thing that we will find in gaining a more thorough knowledge of the Bible is that we have often put God in our own convenient little boxes. Another way of putting it is that God is stranger and more unpredictable than we think. Because Achan violated the ban, God required that the Israelites stone him and his family to death (Joshua 7). When Saul violated the ban, God merely told him that he would not become the head of a dynasty. Saul remained king (1 Samuel 15). When David committed adultery and murder, he was not executed. He was not even explicitly required to offer a sacrifice (2 Samuel 12). I would argue that David did offer sacrifice (based on what he said in Psalm 51), because he also understood the requirements of the laws in Leviticus, but not based on an explicit requirement voiced by Nathan.

But how does one go about reading the Bible for both devotion and content at the same time? By doing a little more work than most people put into their devotional reading. The first step is to have a reading plan that takes you through the whole Bible in a reasonable amount of time (1-3 years). Anything slower is too slow. Second, use a Bible that does not have subheadings in the text. Instead, once you have read through your reading for the day, go back and outline what you have read. Pick out the major points of the section you have read. Then pick out the subpoints of the section. Having done that, you will then have a grasp of the development of the story (or the psalm, or the prophesy) that you are working on. Based on that outline, begin asking questions. What is happening here? Why is it happening? What is God doing in the passage? What is God requiring in this passage? Why are the people acting the way they are? What is motivating their behavior? From the answers to these questions, you can then begin developing points of personal application. These applications do not necessarily mean, “What do I do now?” The application may be, “What should I have learned here?” “What should I believe about God based on this passage?” In other words, application may have as much to do with what we are to believe as it does with what we are to do. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 3 summarizes it this way: What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Once you have worked through a particular book, go back and put all your outlines together. See how the story develops, see how one section naturally flows into the next. As I said, this takes more time than perhaps you ordinarily devote to your “devotional” reading. But you will also come away with a more satisfying view of the Bible, and of the God who gave it to you.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Pastor and Bible Translations

Except in certain very conservative Christian circles, the KJV is no longer the exclusive Bible of the English-speaking church. Despite sales numbers, it is probably no longer even the primary Bible of the English-speaking church. That means that in most congregations, there are perhaps as many as half a dozen different English translations being read by the people in the pews. In the PCA, my own denomination, here is the likely scenario: some few of the oldest members are still using the KJV. The adults are probably using either the ESV or the NIV. Some are using the NIV2011. Some of the younger members may be using the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV). Perhaps some of the children are using the New Century Version (NCV) which is aimed at younger readers. Given this variety, what is a pastor to do?
It doesn’t really matter which version the pastor uses, though some congregants will follow his lead on Bible choice. But the pastor should find out which translations are being used in his congregation; and he should familiarize himself with them. By this, I do not mean that he should look up a few of his favorite passages in them to see what the translation does. Nor do I mean that he should do an exhaustive comparison of the translation with the original Hebrew and Greek. Pastors, by and large, have neither the time nor the expertise to do that.
In what follows, I presume that the pastor is reading the Bible annually. I suggest that he find out which versions the people in his congregation are using. Then, over a period of several years, use each one of those versions as his reading Bible for the year. By the end of the year, he will be intimately familiar with it. For example, if the pastor is using the ESV, but the majority of his congregation is using the NIV1984, probably his first year he should spend reading the NIV1984. He then moves through, in subsequent years, the other versions that are being used. Who knows? In this process he may even find a translation he prefers to the one he had been using.
Another thing that the pastor should do is have a variety of translations to read and consider in his sermon preparation. This would not even involve any expense, as there are several online sites that offer a variety of English versions free.
I have, over the years, read through a good number of the English translations available, including some of the more obscure ones. I have learned something from each one, and I have benefitted from each one.
I would make one other suggestion. Take the time to read Mark Ward’s little book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Even if you have never read the KJV, it is a wise and useful survey of the issues related to Bible versions.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Note on Psalm 145:13b

In the KJV, Psalm 145:13 reads: Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations. In the ESV, the verse reads: Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.

Notice that the second sentence in the ESV is absent in the KJV. The NASB follows the KJV, while the NIV and the New Living Translation agree with the ESV. The question is twofold. Where does this line come from? And, is it a legitimate part of the biblical text?

The answer to the first question is as follows: The additional line is found in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is also found in the Hebrew text of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), one medieval Hebrew manuscript, and in the Syriac version. It is not found in the vast majority of medieval Hebrew manuscripts.

The answer to the second question is more difficult, and the following comments constitute my summary of the arguments.

Arguments in favor of the originality of the line:

1.      Psalm 145 is an acrostic psalm. That is, each line (verse, in this case) begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. Verse 1 (after the title) begins with aleph. Verse 2 begins with bet, and so on. However, there is no nun (n) line in the standard Hebrew text, making it an incomplete acrostic. The line in the LXX, the DSS, the one Medieval Hebrew manuscript, and the Syriac supplies this “n” line, making the acrostic complete.

2.      All other verses in the Psalm are one line long, whereas this verse, with the second line, is two lines long. A copyist could have inadvertently skipped this second line in his copying, and copies made from that copy would not have included the line.

3.      The fact that the line is found in one medieval manuscript, the DSS, and two ancient versions makes a case for the originality of the line.

4.      The line fits well with what follows in the Psalm, making a transition in the thought from what precedes to what follows.

5.      Though the second part of the line (“and kind in all his works”) is also found in verse 17, such a repetition is occasionally found in the Psalms.

Arguments in favor of omitting the line:

1.      Almost all Hebrew manuscripts, after the DSS, do not include the line.

2.      The Psalm could have intentionally been an incomplete acrostic. There are other examples in the psalms of such incomplete acrostics.

3.      The LXX is not always an accurate translation in the Psalms.

4.      The Syriac translation in general shows a fair amount of influence from the LXX. Hence, it is not always considered a separate textual witness.

5.      An early copyist, noting the missing “n” line could have supplied it, explaining its presence in the DSS copies and in the one medieval manuscript.

6.      The second part of the line, “and kind in all his works” is also found in verse 17, perhaps indicating part of the source for some copyist seeking to complete the acrostic.

I don’t think the arguments in either direction are compelling, leaving it a matter of judgment on the part of translators. It should be noted, however, that prior to the 1950s, no translation team had access to the DSS manuscripts. The NASB, the NKJV, the NET Bible, and the Lexham English Bible are, to the best of my knowledge, the only post-1950s translations that do not include the line.

The NET Bible adds the following note: Psa 145 is an acrostic psalm, with each successive verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, in the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) text of Psa 145 there is no verse beginning with the letter nun. One would expect such a verse to appear as the fourteenth verse, between the mem (‌ם) and samek (‌ס) verses. Several ancient witnesses, including one medieval Hebrew manuscript, the Qumran scroll from cave 11, the LXX, and the Syriac, supply the missing nun (‌ן) verse, which reads as follows: "The Lord is reliable in all his words, and faithful in all his deeds." One might paraphrase this as follows: "The Lord's words are always reliable; his actions are always faithful." Scholars are divided as to the originality of this verse. L. C. Allen argues for its inclusion on the basis of structural considerations (Psa 101-150 [WBC], 294-95), but there is no apparent explanation for why, if original, it would have been accidentally omitted. The psalm may be a partial acrostic, as in Psa 25 and Psa 34 (see M. Dahood, Psalms [AB], 3:335). The glaring omission of the nun line would have invited a later redactor to add such a line.