Author Archives: npstrom

From Couch to 5k

518zs+XMmWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” “You gotta start somewhere.”  Whether it comes from an ancient chinese proverb or really bad country music, the point is the same.  As far as humans are concerned, everything has a beginning.  When it comes to Church History, not only could one do worse, but it is hard to imagine one doing better than beginning with Richard Muller and James Bradley’s Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods.

The volume is especially appropriate for the graduate of most seminary and divinity school programs.  Often one leaves seminaries with a basic knowledge of the major personalities, movements, and events of the history of the church, and little experience or guidance in doing personal historical research and reflection.  This volume will have you digging in archives and feeling like a real researcher in no time.

The opening chapter begins by introducing the technical labels for the sub-disciplines (e.g. historical theology vs. Christian thought) of church history.  For someone who has been lost during a seminary lecture because the professor seemed to be jumping haphazardly between centuries, this chapter is simply a must.   This is followed by a summary of the  various methods of organizing the study of history (Famous figure, synchronic, diachronic, general/special) and their relationship to the rise of the critical outlook on history.

The next chapter raises the problems of perspective (i.e. bringing modern, even parochial, questions to ancient texts) and meaning (where is historical meaning to be found).  At 27 pages, the issues involved are presented succinctly and clearly.  One must refrain from believing that a developed philosophy of history can be developed from this short section.  The authors compensate by including a bibliography on history and historical method on pp. 211-12.  For those with a deeper interest in historical method, I heartily recommend Richard J. Evans In Defence of History & Quentin Skinner Visions of Politics Vol. 1.

The early chapters, though helpful, do not hold a candle to the usefulness of the second half of the book.  Research in any field is as much a craft as it is an art or a science.  Calling history a science implies that one is guaranteed results by following a recipe.  Calling it an art implies that results are the product of inspiration, talent, etc.  History involves procedure and it involves talent.  Like any craft becoming a good historian is the product of years of experience.  The best craftsmanship will learn from the experience of previous generations.  This handbook allows the young student to avoid wasting time using resources that are redundant and doing research that has already been done.  This book is also an introduction to the etiquette of working with librarians, doctoral advisors, and fellow scholars (established and aspiring).

Chapters three through five are a crash course in serious historical research.  Research libraries are minefield for the uninitiated and one can waste hours of precious time with the wrong reference materials.  This discussion is a bit dated but still holds much value for current students.  At this point, it is important to note that this volume holds value for biblical studies students as well.  The separation between New Testament and Early(est) Christianity is always shrinking.  For the aspiring Old Testament scholar, this book will offers helpful reflections on methodology, practice, and transferable research skills.   There is much to be gained here for the entire spectrum of the theological encyclopedia.

One very helpful section of the book describes a process for transforming scattered notes into unified prose for the final dissertation.    The authors advise using homemade cards (or 3×5 cards if you are unmotivated) and writing the reference on the top right corner.  Then one is to summarize and evaluate the relevant resource  in a single paragraph.  It is important to limit this into one paragraph because it will be directly inserted into the cumulative project.  Then revised to make it flow and part of the overall argument.  It is incredibly helpful to read about how established scholars go about organizing their research, and compare notes.  For having been written in 1995 the book has plenty to offer on incorporating computer-based research methods and resources.  This is where the book certainly shows its date. I laughed out loud at the mention of dial-up modems. At 20 years old, the book does not discuss research programs like EndNote or Zotero. A lacuna that the reader must fill.

The final chapter offers advice on transition from the doing research so that you know absolutely everything about very little to teaching at an undergraduate level (often outside of one’s expertise) and trying to maintain active research in one’s area.  Muller and Bradley argue for a balanced approach claiming that research inevitably makes one a better teacher and vice versa.  The book is rounded out with an extensive bibliography that is divided into the four major periods of church history, alongside of a bibliography of the major comprehensive histories and surveys.  These bibliographies alone are worth the price of the book.

My enthusiastic endorsement of this book should be evident.  What are the short comings?  Apart from being slightly dated I can think of two.  First, the book describes the life of a Christian historian without much discussion about the temptations one will face.  As mentioned earlier, doing history is a craft and like all crafts there are ethical questions raised for the individual in the study of history.  It is not so much that the book contains a bad ethic, but it neglects to discuss the allure of historicism for those who deal in the social causes behind theology.  More discussion on this would be helpful for beginning historians.

The second major flaw in this book is its failure to elaborate on how the field of Church history relates to broader cultural and intellectual history.  What impact did the Vietnam war have on American theology in the sixties?  The authors clearly press home the importance of such a relationship, but offer little advice for situating one’s own narrow field in the broader stream of history.

These minor criticisms aside, it is hard to contain my enthusiasm for this little volume.  Many would benefit from its practical research advice.  If you are a student in any field that makes use of history and her sub-disciplines (philology, paleography, etc.), then this volume is simply “must read” material.

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‘Wo-field’ and Southern Genteel Charm

This past week, with a reprieve from my normal teaching and preaching duties at the church, I have been reading as much of the writings of B.B. Warfield as I am able. The research is for a paper I plan to give at the ETS Midwest regional meeting on March 28-29.  In my research, I found that Warfield’s peers at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) teased him for his southern accent by calling him ‘Wo-field.’ Warfield earned another nickname during his student days at Princeton–the pugilist.  Apparently, Warfield drew an unflattering caricature of a fellow student and this devolved into fisticuffs  on a Sunday afternoon.  This incident seems to have been both typical of Warfield’s ancestors (his maternal grandfather is said to have been suspended from Princeton for a similar altercation) and somewhat prophetic concerning his later work as a polemicist.5d77e5e13c9653a2cf693cbc46f4f355

Bradley Grundlach has written an interesting peace (which can be found here) discussing the impact of Warfield’s grandfather (the one mentioned above) and the impact of his southern upbringing on his polemical work.  Grundlach’s  article argues that Warfield intentionally used restraint when engaging even his fiercest opponents because of the experience of his grandfather.  I once heard a church historian remark that one of the often overlooked reasons the Princeton theologians have been so influential is because the were simply wonderful human beings.  We all tend to memorialize the dead, and must avoid our history writing becoming an exercise in hagiography.  That being said, such sentiments are not far from the mark in the case of Warfield.

Any man who cares for his wife for twenty plus years, not being able to leave the house for more than two hours during most of that time, with such joy and dignity sets an amazing example to be followed.  Warfield’s writings are marked with tremendous gentleness and grace, especially for a pugilist.  This project has been one of the most personally rewarding simply for the pleasure of getting to know such a personality.

In the spirit of never wanting to be stingy with the riches of church history, I wanted to point initiates to good places to begin when studying Warfield.

Secondary Sources

  • Bibliographic starting point must be: bbwarfield.com–many of B.B. Warfield’s writings can be found here for free.
  • Meeter, John E., and Roger Nicole. A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851–1921. Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974 (out of print)
  • For the most succinct and accessible summary of Warfield’s theology see Fred Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield
  • “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal by Paul K. Helseth
  • B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought edited by Gary L.W. Johnson

Primary Sources

  • Warfield’s collected works can be purchased in an electronic format through Logos
  • For those with less money to spend I recommend beginning with the following:
    • Faith and Life
    • Selecter Shorter Writings (2 vols.)
    • Counterfeit Miracles
    • Theological Life of Theology Students
    • Inspiration and Authority of the Bible

I hope that this reading blesses you as it has me.  And even if we do not follow Warfield down every trail, hopefully we will learn how to engage our opponents with gentleness and grace.

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He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

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You can trust the goodness and power of God.

There are some helpful thoughts on the justice of God in condemning those who have never heard the gospel here.

This issue has become a more pressing one for me over the past year.  Having our first child has made me appreciate in an acute way the pain felt by those who have experienced a miscarriage, abortion, or the loss of young child(ren).

The issue of God’s justice is never more pressing for us than when the thought of infants enters our mind.  “They have not heard the gospel, nor had the chance or ability to accept it through faith. What will you do with them?”

This is the cry of so many parents who have not embraced the Christian faith.  One can’t help but sympathize with their pain.

I have recently come around to covenantal paedo-baptist convictions, and the promises that Christ has made to me and my household are indeed a great comfort. Yet time and time again I go back to one thing that is a comfort that I will not be turned away on the last day for my many sins and a comfort that my child will not be unjustly turned away from God.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 4 says that “God is… justice and goodness.”  The only undeniable comfort we come back to is the character of God, which is chiefly manifested in Christ.  We entrust ourselves and our babes to the competent care of the Great Physician.  For to whom else shall we go.

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The Death of Death and the Walking (no longer) Dead

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Get up and walk!–You were dead…but God made you alive together with Christ. (Eph 2:1, 4)

This past week a number of resources have colluded to press on my heart and mind what it means for us to walk out the Christian life. For the next five months I will be preaching through the book of Ephesians for the students at my church.  The first sermon in the series is on Eph 2:1-10.  The passage argues (among other things) that our new life and empowerment is for the purpose of walking in the good works that God prepared for us beforehand.  This walking out is the interpretation of what Paul means when he says that “he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus,” and “so that no one can boast.”  It is the walking out of the good works that is the great evidence of God’s wealth of kindness.  Paul applies this to the racial and religious alienation between Jews and Gentiles during his own time, but it has application to all sorts of struggles. So do you want to be a demonstration of the kindness of God around you? Walk in the good works God has prepared for you.

You might cringe at that call.  You might sink in your soul because you feel powerless to break your addiction to pornography, sexual fantasy, money, power, or gossip.  Take heart Christian! There is help for the weak and weary.

John Owen

John Owen is one of the most rigorous and precise thinkers in Protestant thinking.  But more than a brain, he was a man who desired to obliterate his sinfulness.  Many Christians will never read his Mortification of Sin or The Death of Death because his prose is so dense.  But even if you never read him, you should check out these lectures by Carl Trueman which summarize the relevance of Owen for your Christian life.

So take a listen, and keep getting up, and keep walking!

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Time is money, so spend wisely!

I have been silently listening in on the social buzz created by a certain young women formerly known for her work as a twelve-year old actor.  (The intentional vagueness of that sentence will become clear in a moment).  The evangelical chatterrati have made their appropriate comments about the character of the young women who created this buzz by breaking into the stripper game at a major music award event (and the underlying culture that supports even promotes her behavior).  But we have to ask ourselves, “Don’t all of our comments and many of our common-place objections to this sort of thing inadvertently draw attention to it and thus promote it?”

If your wondering why I am speaking in such vague terms about this event, it is because of the way that media outlets and advertisers use social media like blogs, Facebook,  Twitter, and other sites as data collecting resource.  The Onion, as is usually the case, uses satire to make an important point about the way social media function and are manipulated by advertisers (check it out–here–warning profanity alert).

The man behind the curtain knows how much Christians desire to be relevant and how much we thirst to keep pace with the 24-hour media cycle.   Our failure to comprehend how social media and overall internet usage are monitored and used by the man behind the curtain leads us to become the biggest promoters of the things we oppose.  When you click on a link to the video of this young women or even mention her name on your choice social media outlet you are giving websites reasons to give that material a more prominent place.  We can complain all we want about the things the market provides, but as long as their is a market their will be people seeking to provide that service.  As long as we are willing to give our time to viewing and then denouncing elicit material, we are perpetuating the market for our time.  We are not helpless before media outlets.  We can simply choose not to invest our clicks and our time in their market places.

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What does Rachel Held Evans (and the rest of us) have in common with Nietzsche and his National Socialist intellectual children?

The evangelical twitter/facebook/world wide web of spin and PR control has been firing on all cylinders in responding to the latest from the grabbiest of headline grabbers, Rachel Held Evans  (see here and here for some of the more popular).  So I thought I would join in the fun and add yet another line of thinking.

For those of you who do not know, Ms. Evans is a Christian journalist (not that the word means much these days) and blogger who routinely causes ripples among evangelicals with her comments about why the church is doing X wrong and will crash and burn if it does not heed her advice.  In a world where any mad nutter with a library card and some spare time can publicize their views and spin their credentials to gain credibility, can we really blame Ms. Evans? For the sake of my own readership, please ignore the questions this raises about the reasons you read this blog.

In here latest installment of the church is not good enough for me, Ms. Evans succinctly summarizes why she (and the generation she presumably speaks for) have left evangelical churches when she says,

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“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

On first read, this is a welcomed response to the pedantic cry of the by-gone seeker movement that insulted thousands by thinking that the historic baggage of the Christian church could be overcome with mere aesthetics.  As someone who regularly spends time with young people between the ages of twelve and nineteen I celebrate whenever someone refrains from telling me to be cooler.  I want to recognize that the church has bought into a model of branding ourselves to meet the impulsive desires of a consuming hoard, and that Ms. Evans is right to point out this silliness for what it is.

However, on deeper reflection Ms. Evans’ definition of what it might look like to “find Jesus there” turns out to be a rhetorical bait-and-switch that is as old as (if not older than) the general-issue M1 Garand issued to my grandfather.  Ms. Evans’ says the church is lacking because LGBT friends are not “truly welcomed” and because the lack of a challenge to holy living in the areas of  “living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.”

You see we all have Übermensch (superman or over-man) that we seek to emulate and to erect as the vision of a new humanity  (in theological circles this is called eschatology and/or protology).  The Übermensch  concept originated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  He developed the concept as an idealized humanity for which we should strive on this    earth, forsaking the other-worldly, supernatural aspirations of Christianity.  Nietzsche saw the need for the super natural as a sign of weakness; a sign that one could not handle the realities of life.

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Unfair as it would be to lay the crimes of WWII at Nietzsche’s feet, nevertheless it remains true that this concept was used by the National Socialist party in Germany as a propoganda tool to cast a vision for what they called all Germans to become.  The problem was that the National Socialist brass had added its own elements to this idealized man.  These elements included strong sentiments about how to resolve the issue of integrating the Jewish population into civil life in Europe.  It is this idealized man which was part of the ideology that fueled the widespread blindness to the crimes being committed.  Propaganda only works with a simple message.  They had sacrificed compassion because their wasn’t room for it within their idealized humanity, their propaganda machine.

This is the same tactic that is used (with an early American Republican spin) in the much more popular Superman figure of vintage television and graphic novel lore.  This franchise has become the ultimate tool for reinforcing the idealized portrait Americans have of themselves (the most recent manifestations being the Smallville franchise and the Man of Steel movie).   Clark Kent is the ultimate American: hard working, impeccable character, humanitarian sensibilities, and capable of overcoming what seem like insurmountable odds (read we can solve the energy crisis, the healthcare problem, and the turmoil in the Middle East).  He even has the same insecure, hero complex.  More profound is the obvious link made back to the ultimate Übermensch, Jesus of Nazareth, in both franchises.  In a climatic episode of the Smallville show, Clark willing sacrifices himself  and falls from a rooftop forming the shape of a cross (see it here at the 2:20 mark).  Following suit the producers of the Man of Steel film hired a theologian to help them write materials marketed to evangelical churches so they might “fill the pews!”  (see it here)

The problem with these Übermenschen, Supermen, and all messianic pretenders is that they have become so branded and marketed that they have lost their edge.  Rather than being a vision of the men and women we all wish to become, they are our own distorted, self-flattering versions of who we think we already are.  This is ultimately the reason why Ms. Evans’ rationale for the exodus of Millennials from the church is specious and duplicitous.  What Ms. Evans really means is that the reason she and ‘the generation she identifies with’ are not in church is because they do not see themselves their.

The reason why Ms. Evans stays away from the church is because it is there where Christ is encountered.  It is in this encounter where he ultimately confronts and condemns the flattened, domesticated Übermenschen we have replaced him with.  It is there that we see that we, as the church, have fallen short in countless areas and have sinned so grievously.  And it is there that we hear that this irreducibly complex God-man offers us forgiveness yet again.

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Vanity of Vanities all is Vanity

Now that the intellectual rush that is Westminster Seminary has fallen by the wayside, I thought I might address an issue that most faculty would not have addressed even if they were offered Gospel Coalition-type money for doing so.  I was making my semi-regular perusal of newspaper websites when I came across this surprising piece of feminist sanctimony.

My first response was to marvel that a newspaper of a sizable city would publish an article about the issue of modesty.  This is after all the twenty-first century when we have moved beyond those pretentious days when someone might tell us how to dress.  Doesn’t that kind of thing belong in the world where Jerry Mathers is an 8-year old kid and the most memorable jingle on the tube is the whistling of Andy Griffith?  Perhaps there is hope for this world after all.  By most accounts a secular newspaper discussing an issue that not even evangelical pastors have the fortitude to address is a win for the Right team.  Or is it?

After overcoming my initial shock I found myself struggling to hold back another thought.  What if ‘conservative evangelicals’ have become so eager to have modestly dressed women who submit to their man in all things that the enemy of their enemy becomes a friend?  Unfortunately, this sometimes happens on topics like homosexual rights, abortion, and that strangely conservative evangelical issue of second amendment rights.  Bigots, sexists, and gangsters all become political bedfellows in the crusade for a “Christianized” America!  (John 19:12-16)

The Church needs to speak as an institution and an organization that is above the modern mechanisms of shaping consensus and move beyond Transformationalists’ visions of grandeur.  The Church is meant to be a humble people which lets go of societal power and proclaims the news of a King who lived as a Jewish peasant and died as an enemy of the state.  Our job is not to have Christian vocations, our job is to make disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that Jesus Christ has commanded (which as far as I know did not contain instructions for making distinctively Christian textiles).  Otherwise, the vanity of Kim Kardashian equals the vanity of Hilary Clinton equals the vanity of the Religious Right and we are all just thirteen-year-old girls trying to change the world someday.

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Evangelicalism and Those Pesky Cretans…I Mean Creeds

“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts…” Or so was the sentiment of Paul in his letter to Titus.

If one substitutes the word “creeds” for the word Cretans”, she would have a most succinct summary of many evangelicals views of the documents our fathers held so dear.  If you share this view of those documents that have stood the test of time, I suggest that you at least pick up a copy of this new book to see if your aversion to these documents has more to do with our cultural moment than it does with what sola scriptura actually means.

N.B. I apologize for the recent lack of activity on this blog, I am currently working my way through a new biography of the Herr Doktor Brevard Childs, and hope to have a brief review posted in the coming weeks.

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A Difference without a Distinction….Yes, I’ve got that right way round.

As a seminary student, I cannot tell you how many hours I spend discussing all things theological.  From the relevance of perichoresis Trinitarianism to the singing of Psalms in modern worship services (which everyone should embrace!).  Round and ’round we go.  One of my favorite topics of discussion is theory and method for interpreting the Bible.

A bit of background for these discussions is probably required for the reader who is not a theological yuppie like  most who indulge in these debates.  There is a set of cultural attitudes  that, although they have begun to wane, exert force on modern culture called Post-Modernism.  Without seeking to define all of these attitudes, it is necessary to note the emphasis it places on the contribution that we contribute to what we know.  This is especially clear in its approach to interpreting texts, whether it be Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or the book of Chronicles.  Postmodern advocates would argue that it is naive to pursue the intention of the author or the meaning of a text because our minds (trapped as they are by language and community) so shape what they receive that it creates a whole other text.  (think Neo before that pesky red pill).

Okay, those of you who just stopped reading the above paragraph at “Post-Modernism” can just go back and read the parenthesis.  For the rest of you, thanks for bearing with me.  So whats the point of all this? Well, mostly it provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate where the rhetoric of my postmodern-leaning friends is often more powerful than the substance of their thinking .  When arguing for what might seem to be a common sense distinction between observation, interpretation, application in biblical interpretation; my friends often ask me to specify where one ends and the other begins.  I must confess I found this retort to be persuasive for a time, and experienced no small amount of existential frustration.

Yet clearer thinking has won the day, at least in my old attic.  If anyone uses this kind of argument with you, ask them to perform a simple exercise that should clear the matter up straight away.  Clearly, we all know (that pesky common sense again) what a forearm, elbow, and (upper) arm are.  Yet would someone please point out to me precisely where the elbow ends and the arm begins?  Or another anatomical example, where your foot ends and toes begin?  Ergo, it is possible to have a difference without a clearly defined distinction.

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Hello world!

Thanks for visiting Viking’s Holm!

This blog is an outlet for reflections on Biblical Studies (particularly issues regarding the study and interpretation of the Hebrew Old Testament), history (from the Ancient Near East to the modern era), theology, and contemporary culture. Hopefully you will find something illuminating and helpful for life, or at the very least will be entertained.

I will try to post something weekly, so keep your eyes peeled for some more content.

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