Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

American Religious History Archive

Saturday

6

April 2013

2

COMMENTS

The Nature of Christian History Revisited

Written by , Posted in Books, History

One of the perennial debates among believing historians is the nature of Christian history. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in history and first contemplating eventually pursuing a PhD, I began to wrestle with this question. Would I become a church historian and teach in a seminary or Christian college or a historian of Christianity who teaches in a secular school? How would my confessional commitments affect my historical interpretation? What subjects would I choose to write about, and why? Over the years, I’ve answered some of these questions for myself. Others … not so much.

This discussion has recently flared up again on account of a recent collection of essays titled Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. The volume has provoked considerable discussion among historians, including symposia at scholarly meetings and several published responses in a recent issue of the journal Fides et Historia. Recently, several historians have been discussing Confessing History on various websites, including the widely read blog Religion in American History. Tommy Kidd, blogging at The Anxious Bench, provides a helpful round-up of the various posts on the topic around the historical blogosphere.

 

Thursday

10

May 2012

0

COMMENTS

New Blog: The Anxious Bench

Written by , Posted in History, Links

I keep up with several blogs related to the history of Christianity in America. Some of my favorites include Religion in American History, Religion in America, and Confessing History. I also like to read History of Christianity, which deals more broadly with the field of church history. These blogs often offer great initial forays into important topics in American Christianity. They’re also often good places to read some of the earliest critical reviews of new books in the field.

I was excited to learn about a new blog connected to Patheos, cleverly titled The Anxious Bench. The early posts are promising. The contributors include historians Tommy Kidd and Philip Jenkins of Baylor, John Fea of Messiah College, and John Turner of George Mason University. I look forward to regularly reading their insights.

(Image credit)

Wednesday

21

December 2011

1

COMMENTS

Searching Out the Sacred in US Political History

Written by , Posted in Books, History, Links

Darren Dochuk has written an insightful article for Perspectives on History titled “Searching Out the Sacred in US Political History.” In his article, he notes that seven years ago Yale historian Jon Butler called upon scholars to make religion central to understanding twentieth-century history. Dochuk, a political historian, recounts several recent works in his field that have highlighted the central role of religion (especially evangelicalism).

This is especially true in my own field of 20th-century U.S. political history. When Butler identified the lack of religion in 20th-century historical scholarship, he singled out politics as one potentially rich area of inquiry still in need of revitalization. In the years since his appraisal, several historians—junior and senior alike—have stepped forward to fill the gap. Aided by the cultural turn in political history, whose enlivening of the field in the 1990s paved the way for broader interpretations, they have produced first-rate studies that do exactly what Butler wants them to do: embed and empower religion in larger historical narratives, and make everyone take notice.

If you’re interested in twentieth-century American Christianity, particularly the intersection between Christianity and politics, then you should read Dochuk’s article. It’s a great introduction to some of the most recent scholarship in the field.

(HT Paul Harvey; image credit)

Tuesday

20

December 2011

0

COMMENTS

Whatever Happened to Christian History?

Written by , Posted in History, Links

During my last couple of years in college, I became increasingly interested in American religious history. It seemed like a reasonable fit: I was intent on attending seminary and preparing for pastoral ministry, but was also a history major who loved studying the past. The more I read, the more I became particularly interested in a couple of areas: American evangelicalism and Baptist history. These interests ultimately came together in my 2007 dissertation, “The Development of Baptist Fundamentalism in the South, 1940-1980.” I hope to rework the dissertation into a monograph one day.

When I began pondering doctoral studies in church history, I was particularly encouraged by an April 2001 article Tim Stafford wrote for Christianity Today titled “Whatever Happened to Christian History?” Stafford introduced me to some of the leading debates among self-confessed evangelical historians. He also recounted the professional journeys of historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Harry Stout, scholars whose works I was already beginning to read. The article helped to cement my desire to become a church historian.

I was recently reminded of Stafford’s article when I saw it referenced in the latest issue of Fides et Historia, the journal published by the Conference on Faith and History. I’m truly thankful that a decade after first reading the article I’m serving as a “professional” church historian. I’m also glad I’m writing about the very topics I became interested in almost a dozen years ago (though I don’t write as much as I hope to in the future). I’d encourage you to read Stafford’s thoughtful article.

(Image credit)

Tuesday

13

December 2011

1

COMMENTS

God’s Grand Design: A Brief Review

Written by , Posted in Book Review, Books, History, Ministry, Theology

One of the reasons I teach in a seminary setting is because of my desire to help form a generation of seminarians into pastor-theologians. Teaching in the field of church history lends itself to this emphasis. As I never tire of telling my students, many of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity were either pastor-theologians or theologians who also served as pastors. There is no shortage of historical role models for the seminary student who wants to put theological rigor in service to a local congregation.

My friend Sean Lucas is a pastor-theologian. He is a trained church historian who has previously served as  a seminary professor and academic administrator. But he is first and foremost a churchman. A few years ago, Lucas left an administrative post at Covenant Theological Seminary to become the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, MS. Lucas has continued his productive writing ministry since trading the lectern for the pulpit. (His authorial productivity makes some full-time professors jealous … but enough about me.) Lucas’s most recent book is God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2011).

Lucas argues that Edwards was, first and foremost, a theologian of the Christian life who sought to direct his own life and the lives of his parishioners Godward. Edwards’s theology of the Christian life was simultaneously cosmic/eschatological, Trinitarian, and experiential—all to the glory of God. It was this God-centered vision that permeated all of Edwards’s writings, from theological and philosophical treatises to revival polemics and personal journals. This was also the vision at the center of his influential preaching ministry. In highlighting these themes, Lucas has provided  a wonderful introduction to the man who is, with little doubt, the most influential pastor-theologian in American history.

Following the emphases of Edwards’s own literary corpus, Lucas divides his book into two main sections. Part I is dedicated to “Redemption History” and includes chapters on God’s glory, creation and fall, Christ’s saving work, and the consummation. Part II is titled “Redemption Applied” and digs deeper into key themes that emerge from Edwards’s sermons and writings. Lucas demonstrates that Edwards has much to offer to many of the controversial discussions among evangelicals today, including biblical hermeneutics, the relationship between revival and the ordinary means of grace, balancing personal spiritual experience with biblical authority, the role of preaching in individual and congregational spiritual formation, the relationship between indicatives and imperatives, and the influence eschatology should have on Christian living. In addressing these topics, Lucas engages the best editions of the primary sources as well as the arguments of the leading Edwards scholars, but he writes at a level that will connect with most any thoughtful reader.

In addition to the book’s main body, Lucas includes two helpful appendices. The first is a useful introductory bibliography to the massive amount of literature devoted to Edwards (including the highly acclaimed Works of Jonathan Edwards, a critical edition of Edwards’s writings published by Yale University Press). Lucas is one of the dozens of historians and theologians who have written about Edwards in the past generation; his bibliographical appendix is a great place for students and other newcomers to begin their own study of Edwards. The second appendix, dedicated to Jonathan Edwards and the spiritual formation of would-be pastors and other ministers, is especially helpful for seminarians and younger ministers. It offers useful gospel application for any reader tempted to get bogged down in the discussions of Edwards’s theology.

God’s Grand Design is an excellent introductory resource for those interested in Edwards’s theology. Lucas deftly uses his scholarly training to write a winsome book that will help many students, pastors, and other readers get excited about Jonathan Edwards. It would make a great supplemental textbook in a church history survey course or even a class on pastoral theology. I’d also recommend it as a good book for a church ministry staff to work through together. For those who want to combine Lucas’s book with a good biography, I’d recommend reading God’s Grand Design alongside George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003). Newcomers might also consider reading Lucas’s book alongside an anthology of Edwards’s writings; I’d recommend A Jonathan Edwards Reader (Yale University Press, 2003).