I came across a very insightful quote this morning, which I think applies well to the American civil religion situation. H. Richard Niebuhr writes:
It is logical that when a synthetic answer has been given to the problem of Christ and culture, those who accept it should become more concerned about the defense of the culture synthesized with the gospel than about the gospel itself. The two things then seem to be so interconnected that the perennial gospel seems involved in the withering of the annual culture. Whether medieval of modern, feudal or democratic, agrarian or urban civilization has been united with the gospel, whether the synthesist is Roman or Anglican or Protestant, he tends to devote himself to the restoration or conservation of a culture and thus becomes a cultural Christian. The tendency toward cultural conservatism seems endemic in the [synthetic] school.
— H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1951), p. 146.
In the words of Cicero’s Cato the Elder:
In my Youth I had always a Set of select Companions; for those Societies or Clubs now in Practice, took their Beginning when I was Quaestor, at the Time when the Mother of the Gods was brought to Rome. My Friends and I then had our Meetings and Collations duly; but these were always moderate, tho’ it was at an Age when our Blood was warm, which inevitably cools as Years come on. Nor did I ever measure my Pleasure in those Entertainments by any sensual Gratifications whatever, but solely by the Conversation or Discourses we held on various Subjects. For our Ancestors very wisely called those Meetings of Friends to eat and drink together, by the name of Convivium, or Living-together; as if Society were the Design of them: A Term much more proper than that of the Greeks, whose Name for them imports nothing but Eating and Drinking together; as if they preferred that Part of the Entertainment, which is truly in itself the least valuable.
— Cicero, De Senectute, ch XIII.
- Kirk, The Roots of American Order // A very helpful survey of the title subject (though misguided in a few places). Most helpful to me were the surveys of the Graeco-Roman civilizations and their impact on the development of “order, above all.” Most irritating to me was his tired appropriation of the Mosaic economy as “useful” apart from its place in the history of redemption. (See Machen’s comments on using the Scriptures to promote ‘patriotism’ in What is Faith?, ch. 4 “Faith Born of Need”.)
- Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative // A modern-day classic, very brief, worth reading. Changed my mind on 1) the validity of trade unions–provided they’re voluntary–based on the freedom to associate; and on 2) the validity of many Gov’t departments we take for granted today (i.e., the Dept. of Education, etc.). Worth a read for anyone on either side of the political spectrum.
- Farmer, The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values // The race-based slavery, manstealing, physical abuse, and marriage-wrecking issues aside (and that’s a lot!), I’m otherwise fascinated by the Southern complex of social thought. Same with the Boers in South Africa, before things went so awry regarding race. De Tocqueville’s dictum on the French Revolution–that “Half-way down the staircase we threw ourselves out of the window, in order to get sooner to the bottom. Such, in fact, is the common course of events. It is not when a system is at its worst that it is broken up, but when it begins to improve; when it allows men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate with one another, and to measure the extent of their rights and of their grievances by comparing their present with their past state.“–seems to apply to the American Civil War. Forcing change on those whose proper responsibility it is to see it done, in a culture of honor, only provokes resistance and a decreased impetus to effect that change. Good quotes here. I have more sympathy for the social and political reasons for their secession now–while retaining an objection to race-based slavery, abuse, manstealing, etc.
- Berry, Watch With Me // Beautiful, haunting. Sehnsucht.
- Durant, The Lessons of History // Helpful survey apart from his departure into godless speculation about where history can “prove the existence of God.” Very interesting insights otherwise, about the effect of geography on civilizations, etc. Worth checking out of library–probably not worth owning.
- Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming // Good for what it is. Oddly, what I took away most was his account of a poor preacher’s funeral sermon. I’ll leave that little gem for you to find on your own. I wept on “the occasion.”
- Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy // Perhaps it’s just an early-onset of a midlife crisis, but this volume made be weep for another reason. The recounting of the Norman Shepherd controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary — which took, incredibly, seven years to resolve. As our pastor has wondered aloud, “isn’t it simply amazing that the Church still exists at all?” Sadly Shepherd’s ghost still haunts too many halls.
- Helm, Calvin’s Ideas // Rigorous, patient, and insightful. Helm is a brilliant man who writes simply and clearly, able to condense and simplify complicated arguments. This has been a helpful and enjoyable read. I believe others (e.g., Oliphint) have misread him. An aroma of depth and seasoned maturity rise from every page. Helm is the kind of “elder” who one would treasure to have as a neighbor and frequent dinner guest. No doubt the after dinner conversation on the front porch would be deeply life-changing.
- Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life // I read this acclaimed biography to prepare for my 2nd annual Reformation Night performance (for the young kids of our congregation)–this year I was Calvin, last year I was Luther. Not quite as good as I was expecting, but Selderhuis does present a side of Calvin I hadn’t seen from his other biographers.
- Hyde, Welcome to a Reformed Church // Complimentary when I visited Danny Hyde’s church while on travel for work. A great little read; likely the gift I’ll give to each of my family at Sean’s baptism.
- Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology // Waters makes his way through the development and major players of the so-called “Federal Vision.” Helpful as this was, I think it could have been better. The OPC Report on Justification (pdf) is just as helpful (if not more so), though without as many source quotes. The complex of dangerous positions, and influencing streams, led to the chimera that is the Federal Vision; lion-headed enough to deceive, fire-breathing enough to burn. It is grievous and remarkable how many have been led astray by these men. While I may be a co-belligerent with them against ‘easy-believism’ and against the revivalism-influenced introspective stance of “evangellyicals,” co-belligerents are not always the best of allies. Claiming their differences to be only “exceptions,” their exceptions are better called “rejection of the entire system.” To draw a parallel, one cannot claim to affirm the Trinity as described by the confession, while “taking exception” to the hypostatic union.
- Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace // Rev. Brown first introduced me to the work of Samuel Petto on his excellent (but now defunct) blog a few years ago. Petto would’ve been a Savoy-man, with Owen, but for understandable reasons. The relation of the Mosaic economy to Covenant Theology is still a hotly debated issue today.
- VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (cheaper, cheaper still) // For anyone interested in the very old, but (oddly) “controversial,” idea of natural law, this is a very concise (and affordable) little introduction to one of VanDrunen’s arguments for the continuing validity of natural law–yes, even for Protestants.
- Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification // If not for Stonehouse’s bio of Machen, this would have been the best-of-year. An absolutely fantastic resource, highly recommended. Buchanan rehearses the historical and exegetical foundations for the Protestant Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone.
- Brown, Christ and the Condition // I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, but with the upcoming overture to the OPC GA regarding the doctrine of republication, it was an especially helpful read. Brown makes his case that the Mosaic covenant, for all its difficulties, has often been seen to have, “in some sense,” a works-principle involved. (Of course, the reward was temporal and typological, and based on meritum ex pacto, not meritum de condigno nor meritum de congruo).
Thanks for stopping by, and happy reading in 2014!
I’ve just stumbled across a few excellent posts, wherein a new-found favorite theologian of mine, Paul Helm, reviews Bishop NT Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London SPCK):
- Wright in General
- Why ‘Covenant Faithfulness’ is Not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be)
- Wright and Righteousness
- Wright and the Reformation
Professor Helm provides a very helpful analysis. He writes at Helm’s Deep.
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Historians have identified the mid-eighteenth century as the crucial point of transition in which a new culture of romantic love began to replace traditional matrimony determined by community and parental involvement. The same forces of mobility and marketplace anonymity that were transforming religion and creating an unprecedented focus on the self were transforming the family and relations between the sexes. “Falling in love” was becoming to marriage and the family what being “born again” was to religion and the church. In both cases, the experience was intensely subjective and personal, transcending understanding and rationality and appealing to the passions for corroboration and “assurance.” Trends begun in the 1750s continued into the nineteenth century, leading to the triumph of Victorian sentimentalism in the family and of highly emotional “great revivals” in Anglo-American evangelical Protestantism. Both were expressions of the same transformations. With the public square increasingly devoid of extended family, community, and national churches, the private self and its experience became the locus of meaning.
— Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist : George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 157.