history

Still Crazy After All These Years: A Reformation Scorecard at 500

Amid the commemorations and celebrations of Martin Luther nailing several Latin points for disputation upon his local bulletin board, there has been some discussion about whether the Reformation “failed” or “succeeded.”  The answer, of course, depends on what you think the Reformation’s goal was.  But to enable you to reach your own conclusions, I thought a scorecard might be helpful. (more…)

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Is Talman Also Among the Islamicists?

In my previous post I discussed Harley Talman’s argument that Christians ought to entertain the notion that Muhammad might have been a prophet (though not a very good one).  Other critics have pointed out biblical and scriptural flaws with his argument.  But since very few Christian bloggers have specific training in Islamic studies (the academic study of Islam), I thought it might be useful if I pointed out some criticisms of Talman’s argument from the perspective of Islamicists (experts in studying Islam).  In addition to a few outright errors, Talman provides historically ignorant interpretations of the available sources.  In particular, the crux of my disagreement is that Talman argues that the Qur’an is not in fact anti-Trinitarian, as accepted by almost all Islamicists (regardless of their religious views).  Instead, he claims that the Qur’an only criticizes unorthodox Christian views which orthodox Christians ought also to reject.  I think this assertion is untenable, and this flaw is fatal to his entire argument. (more…)

Was Muhammad a Prophet?

For almost a millennium and a half, Muslims (and almost exclusively Muslims) have said yes.  Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and polytheists said no.  This was a sharp enough distinction that saying “Muhammad was God’s messenger” (i.e. prophet) was the defining act of converting to Islam.  That assertion is the second half of the Shahada (the Testimony), the first half of which (“There is no god but God”) is shared with Christians and Jews, and even some Zoroastrians.  The second half of the Shahada is distinctively Muslim, and it is the assertion that Muhammad was a prophet.

But I recently came across a Christian missiologist who argues that we Christians should re-think our negative answer.  Writing under what is apparently a pseudonym, “Harley Talman” has proposed that a Christian committed to the sole efficacy of Jesus Christ for salvation can cautiously and conditionally affirm that Muhammad may have been an actual prophet.  Unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial and has occasioned rebuttals.  My goal in this post is simply to lay out a brief consideration on the subject. (more…)

Partisanship vs. Factionalism

Now is a good time to pray for America.  I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now.  In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals.  Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism.  In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.

Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire.  The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended).  The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine.  Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner.  But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state.  And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war.  If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism. (more…)

The Problem with Prolegomena

The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.

Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else.  They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based.  Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally).  The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task.  But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning. (more…)

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)

The Dating Game: New Testament Edition

Many arguments about the reliability of the New Testament documents hinge on when they were written.  This makes sense: documents written shortly after the events they describe might be reliable, while texts written centuries after everyone described is dead are more likely to be legendary than accurate.  Fortunately, biblical scholars are (almost all) very confident about when the books of the New Testament were written, dating some of them within a year or two.  But should we believe the dates the experts propose?   Some might be inclined to do so based on the greater training of NT scholars, but as a historian, I wish to explore some of the reasons given for the dates, and evaluate for myself how valid those reasons are.  My conclusion from doing so is that we know a lot less about when New Testament documents were written than the scholars claim.  This claim is neither for nor against the truth of the Christian faith as reported in the New Testament; the documents might as easily be older than scholars claim as newer.  It is simply a statement of the lack of evidence, leading to a more humble and open view of the past. (more…)

Teleology Between Christians and Historians

Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians.  As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students.  As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting.  That sure looks like a contradiction.  It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade.  I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings. (more…)

Christian Historians when Those Two Conflict

Marc Bloch, a twentieth-century Jewish historian of medieval France, once wrote, “Christianity is a religion of historians.”  He meant not only that Christian scripture and liturgy recount and commemorate historical events, but also that according to Christianity the fate of humanity played out (and continues to play out) within historical time.  While it is not true that all Christians are historians, I find as a professional historian that my understanding of the past greatly enriches and deepens my faith.  But as a professional, I have been trained to think in certain ways about the past, and sometimes those ways of thought seem to conflict with my faith.  What is a Christian historian to do in such cases?

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Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)