We have come to the final excerpt in our ongoing series from Jonathan Hill's book, The History of Christian Thought. It is rather poetic that we should end on Hill's short article about postmodernism. Although he seems to be somewhat skeptical of the influence of postmodern thought on the church, we can be assured that postmodernism, as a philosophy, has now infiltrated the masses. In fact, this is the true measure of an intellectual movement: how it gets adopted (if it gets adopted at all) and used by the popular culture. Postmodernism has been adopted and we can say this confidently because of one simple word: whatever.
The history of Christianity in America is a fascinating (and exhausting) study. No more divisive a group of people can be found than in the professing Christians of the United States. When I became a Christian in 1997, I knew that Christianity was not some monolithic, universal cult where every single member believed (or claimed to believe) the very same things. I knew there was diversity and I found this to be a very good thing. But I wasn't prepared for just HOW diverse Christianity really was.
A recent article by Timothy George posted to the Christian History website is interesting for a number of reasons. The article is entitled, "What Baptists Can Learn From Calvin," and it goes a long way in dispelling some of the more venomous charges laid against John Calvin by Protestants who don't share his theology. Calvin is often the subject of misrepresentation by people who have never bothered to read his own words. While it is true that Calvin could be sharp-penned at times, it is also true that more often than not he is devotional, reverent, and contrite. George, who is a Baptist, offers a balanced approach in recommending that his fellow Baptists take a second look at Calvin.
Every generation presents a unique set of challenges to the Christian Church. Missionaries have a term for this task: contextualization. Although contextualization itself is a broad concept that holds different meanings for different people, Dean Flemming sums up the meaning this way: "Contextualization seeks to enable the people of God to live out the gospel in obedience to Christ within their own cultures and circumstances."  In other words, contextualization is the way the church shapes the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and presents it to the surrounding culture. The mega-church movement has successfully popularized another term for the same basic idea: relevance.
I was mildly interested in getting some information about how Labor Day began, so I did what any 21st-century seeker of knowledge would do: I Googled it. I came up with a few decent links (the omni-present Wikipedia being somewhere near the top), but one from the History Channel website was probably the most relevant. After reading the short article, I was struck by two things that should serve as an encouragement and a lesson.
Today's excerpt from The History of Christian Thought is a timely reminder of the simple truth taught by Proverbs 23:7 which states that "as a man thinks in his heart, so is he." Man is much more than the sum of his parts, he is a spiritual being with a physical body and a soul that will never die (WCF 4:2). God has ordained that man works from the inside out, that is, man's outward actions are merely a reflection of his inward state. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes for being hypocritical in their outward demeanor, comparing them to dirty cups and whitewashed tombs. "You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also...outwardly [you] appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:25-28). Jesus warned them (and us) that external appearances are not always what they seem. Human beings—in their sinfulness—have a high talent for not only deceiving others, but deceiving themselves as well.
One of the more troubling doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church—from a Protestant perspective at least—is "papal infallibility." In today's excerpt from The History of Christian Thought, we read about the First Vatican Council, which is where this doctrine was first officially publicized. It is interesting to note that even some Catholics could not accept this bold-faced grab for ecclesiastical power. Even though it certainly is beneficial in having an ultimate human authority on all matters pertaining to "faith or morals," it is not a benefit that the Bible imparts to any one man.
One of the easy things to forget in our modern, information-saturated era of history is just how unique it is to have instant access to a Bible in our own language. Forget for a minute that we don't just have one Bible available, but literally hundreds of Bibles available in the English language alone. There is a study Bible for nearly every demographic imaginable, including some that aren't (imaginable that is). We have teen Bibles and senior Bibles, we have white-collar Bibles and blue-collar Bibles, we have boy Bibles and girl Bibles, and we even have a Bible that has no gender. Even though we have far more Bibles lying around than any other time in history—to the point that every American home has at least three copies—it is also paradoxically true that we are the most ignorant of what the Bible actually says. Further, very few modern readers have much of an idea about the history of how we came to have a Bible in English in the first place.
In "Independence," the second episode of HBO's powerful docudrama John Adams, the title character takes the congressional floor and excoriates his fellow congressmen. Adams was keenly aware of the decision before them: to rebel against the tyrannical actions of the English crown or quietly submit. Adams knew that no compromise would ever work and in his short speech to the Second Continental Congress, he makes the point that a "third way"—a middle-ground between the two extremes—was not an option; the colonies would either stand united or fall divided.