Book Review: Why Church History Matters

Robert F. Rea, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from our Past. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014. 231 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-2819-7. Paperback, USD $20.00.

Most Seventh-day Adventist colleges have an undergraduate course or two on church history. Rea, a professor at Lincoln Christian University, argues that “Christianity is essentially historical” (16). Thus Christian colleges are justified in offering such courses in their department repertoire. Rea goes on to argue that by studying earlier Christians that it provides the student of history greater accountability. “The problem is this: when we ignore centuries of God-loving Christians and the rich well of resources that have passed on to us, sometimes ignoring even Scripture itself in the process, our perceived needs are often little more than mirrors of our fallen culture” (15).

The book is neatly divided into three parts. Part one covers how we understand the tradition (28-80), followed by a second section on expanding circles of inquiry (81-132), and completed by part three on tradition serving the church (133-190). A reflective essay on how to “celebrate the body of Christ” (191-194) along with a list of recommended resources for ministry (195-200) round out the volume. I personally found this last section extremely useful as I checked the holdings of my own institutional library to make sure that we have a well-rounded collection. There can be a tendency within institutional libraries of collections to reflect the whims of administration, faculty, and librarians. And just like book acquisitions, the student of history is reminded by studying the past that objectivity requires not just consulting authors who share your perspective. Ultimately objectivity, argues Rea, requires understanding those views different from your own (27-28). He agrees with C. S. Lewis that assuming that previous generation are inferior is nothing short of chronological snobbery (148).

A fundamental thesis of this volume is that it was not until the Protestant Reformation that a dichotomy was created between tradition and Scripture. He thus argues that Protestants minimize Christian history thus exhibiting a fundamental distrust of tradition (72). I would argue that certainly Protestants in general could do better about emphasizing such history, yet the real issue is that of authority. The author recognizes that the Reformers did not reject tradition outright, but rather that tradition could overturn tradition. The very diversity among Protestants, Rea argues, is evidence that the church must provide a proper interpretation of Scripture (65). Thus I wish the author had done a bit more in clarifying the role of tradition within Protestantism because the underlying problem is more a problem of authority rather than a neglect of the past. Protestants simply do not place the same authority that Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches do upon tradition (although the author recognizes that for the Eastern Orthodox that they do not see any distinction between Scripture and tradition as superfluous [63-64]). He thus rightly notes that Protestants deny that tradition is revelation (73), yet many Protestants have provided rich and deep insights into Christian history. It appears that the author’s own biases in this regard shine through. Despite this, the author argues that church history provides a helpful corrective across time and space, even if it functions authoritatively in different ways for different Christian groups. Yet I could not help but desire  a more nuanced analysis in this regard.

What I found valuable, particular for when I teach courses on research, are some of the pedagogical hints richly dispersed throughout the volume. Thus the author notes how teaching faculty do a disservice to their students when they teach their students to form their opinion first because it falsely implies that we can come to the text without any presuppositions. I find this one of the most common pitfalls in my teaching experience so far. Students tell me what they are going to argue before they have begun to examine the evidence. Such patterns have led to many false teachings in Christian history. Modern biblical students will benefit from the historic community because studying the past allows us to become more sensitive to the presuppositions and worldviews of those whom we study (90).

This is a helpful volume that belongs in religious library collections. It is a perceptive treatment that convincingly argues about the significance of Christian history. The author urges us to make friends across the centuries (190). “By studying the past we learn to be cautious. We could misunderstand God’s will and take a wrong position, sometimes with disastrous results” (187).

New Biography on Uriah Smith

Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2014. 247 pp. + 3 pp. Appendix + 6 pp. Index. Hardcover, $22.99.

New Book by Gary LandThe late Gary Land was a master of the craft of history. After four decades of teaching history, he left two posthumous jewels, a third edition of his Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) and this latest contribution to the Adventist Pioneer Series. Land utilizes many unpublished materials that Eugene F. Durand for whatever reason did not incorporate into his dissertation (later published in 1980 as Yours in the Blessed Hope, Uriah Smith). However, the real contribution by Land is his ability to contextualize Smith’s life and background, which in turn gives the modern reader a special opportunity to critically, yet empathetically, understand the world of early Adventism. [Read more...]

Why John Huss Matters after Six Centuries

John HusThis year marks 600 years since John Huss was burned at the stake. His remarkable life, along with his compatriot Jerome, are a compelling story of the power of God’s Word. For Seventh-day Adventists this is especially compelling as their story forms chapter six of The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White where she talks about their contribution as part of the “Great Controversy” drama between Christ and Satan. What stands out as their greatest contribution is there faithfulness to God’s Word.

Why did Ellen G. White see John Huss as significant? She gave three reasons.

First, the Bible was translated into the Czech language, but Gregory VII issued a bull forbidding public worship in the vernacular, especially with the Bible. This was during a time of great ignorance of the Bible. Instead Huss followed the maxim that “the precepts of Scripture” should “rule the conscience” as “the one infallible guide.”

Second, John Huss openly condemned corruption at that time that he saw within the Roman Catholic Church. “Huss thundered against the abominations which were tolerated in the name of religion,” noted White.

Third, John Huss had unflinching courage to face the Council of Constance and the emperor solely armed with the Word of God. On his way he reportedly said: “I have not quitted you to deny the divine truth, for which, with God’s assistance I am willing to die.”

Despite a promise of safe conduct by both the emperor and the church Huss went willingly to testify of his faith knowing that in all probability he would no return. He developed a theology of suffering that if Jesus suffered for him, then the least he could do was to suffer for his savior. After all, Huss believed, that suffering leads to purification.

Church leaders argued that “faith out not to be kept with heretics” as their justification for not honoring the pledge of safe conduct to the council. “During his long trial he firmly maintained the truth, and in the presence of the assembled dignitaries of church and state he uttered a solemn and faithful protest against the corruptions of the hierarchy. When required to choose whether he would recant his doctrines or suffer death, he accepted the martyr’s faith.”

Huss was then led to the place of execution. He was exhorted to save himself by renouncing his errors. “What errors,” he said, “shall I renounce? I know myself guilty of none. I call God to witness that all that I have written and preached has been with the view of rescuing souls from sin and perdition; and, therefore, most joyfully will I confirm with my blood that truth which I have written and preached.” And so his voice was silenced forever. Yet after six centuries his blood still speaks.

Writing a Book Review

book-reviewToday was helpful to listen to a panel of experts about book reviews: the session included some leading editors of journals and academic presses at the American Historical Association.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to sit next to a famous author who had been several times on the New York Times bestseller list while on an airplane. After a while we struck up a conversation that included advice about writing. I asked him if he ever wrote book reviews. He replied, “No, book reviews are for people who don’t know how to write. I choose to write books that are significant.”

With that in mind, and as the editor of a journal, I am forced to ask myself what is the value of the book review? I expected this panel to be a rather dour gathering, but as it turned out I was surprised at how optimistic they were as a group about the importance and future of the book review.

According to this group of experts book reviews are especially valuable as books proliferate. How does one triage so much reading material so that you can get to the best research in your discipline? Book reviews are a way to stay current in the field, identifying key trends, and debating significant ideas. It allows an author to get their ideas out there and to let other scholars in the field respond to their ideas.

What does a book review look like?

Book reviews vary in length depending on their context. Most academic reviews, panelists generally agreed, were not to be more than 700 words. Authors should be expected to receive a book and produce a review with three months, but sometimes it is worth waiting for a major scholar to take a little bit longer if the review is deemed significant enough.

One of the dangers of book reviews, according to the panelists, was that people tend to fall into the rut of simply summarizing a book as if that is a book review. In fact this is perhaps the worst kind of review. The best kind of reviews, instead, encapsulate the key arguments and then respond to them. Good reviews use critical thinking and do more than say nice things: they honestly evaluate a book pointing out its flaws, weaknesses, and challenge the author. In rare cases, this may mean pointing out shoddy or faulty research. Of course reviewers should not go out of their way to be mean. Obviously a top notch book review should maintain a professional tone.

Historic Adventist Churches in Harlem

One of the highlights of attending the American Society of Church History (affiliated with the American Historical Association) is being able to join an afternoon tour of area religious sites. Yesterday we were able to visit three historic churches in Harlem. Stops included the Church of Notre Dame, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Mount Olivet Baptist Church. I think that probably most people are aware that Harlem is an example of racial and cultural change in America. For example, Harlem was predominantly White in the nineteenth-century. From 1900 to 1930 it went from 10% to 70% African American community as one of the largest–some even claim it was in fact the largest at the time–center of African Americans in the United States. This is especially interesting in that many churches closed, moved, or changed with racial patterns and migration(s).Temple SDA Church

Of special interest to me was the Mount Olivet Baptist Church because it was originally a Jewish temple, but I learned from our guides, David R. Bains (Samford University) and Daniel Sack (National Endowment for the Humanities) that in the 1920s it was a Seventh-day Adventist congregation before it became the historically Black Baptist congregation that has occupied the building since about 1930.

Temple SDA Church insideIn doing some preliminary research through the online portal of the General Conference Archives I discovered that the Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized here by Carlyle B. Haynes in 1920. Within a short time a Seventh-day Adventist School, Harlem Academy, was formed. The predominantly White congregation relocated to the Bronx some time in the late 1920s.

Just down the street is a series of African American congregations that during this same time period were led by James K. Humphrey. In some of the reports I noticed Haynes’ admiration for Humphrey who described the First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church (a congregation of some 600 to 800 members) as one of the “best organized” in the denomination. Tragically, R. Clifford Jones has documented that tragic story of race relations that culminated with his departure from the denomination.

Ephesus SDA ChurchAll the same, just down the street is the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1924 the First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church (pastored by Humphrey) spawned a church plant called the Second Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church. The original site, Carlton Hall (106 West 127th Street) is today a Mosque. In 1930 the congregation moved to its present site. Today the community continues to change as many of these churches that we saw are changed once again into new houses of worship, many of them Mosques. An interesting article about the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in The New York Times can be found here).

Power, Print, and Martyrdom: The Legacy of C. C. Crisler in China

Funeral of C. C. Crisler. At Brother Crislers grave. At Brother Crisler's Grave Left to Right: Harold Schultz, Chinese Worker, Brother Davies, treas. of NW Union, Doctor H. W. Miller, O. A. Hall, Pastor Appel-Supt. of NW Union, Chinese WorkerThis paper examines the life and contributions of C. C. Crisler who served as a Seventh-day Adventist missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. Crisler was a detailed statistician who put together the missionary statistics at the 1901 General Conference Session. He later worked for Ellen G. White who used the medium of print to share her prophetic messages. After her death in 1915 he went to China and concentrated his efforts on developing publications and a church structure for the denomination in the Far East. At the same time Crisler was an example of overwork, which ultimately resulted in his death from pneumonia while on a trip to Tibet. His emphasis on equating numbers in baptisms and institutions with success resulted after the 1949 Cultural Revolution with a reversal in his life work and he was largely forgotten. This paper outlines both his contributions as well as challenges as a Seventh-day Adventist missionary in China. To read the paper click here: Campbell Power Print and Martyrdom 2014-10-31.

The 1919 Bible Conference and Theological Polarization

1919All of the post in recent weeks and months about Women’s Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church lead me to reflect upon other times of theological turmoil in Adventist history. Perhaps one of the more tumultuous episodes occurred at the 1919 Bible Conference. It was intended to be the meeting that would unite Adventist Bible teachers, theologians and administrators into a cohesive whole and “finish the work” so that Christ will come. Such lofty goals were quickly not realized. Issues over minute details of prophetic interpretation led to theological polarization. As far as I can tell it is the first time in Adventist history where the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are bantered about. At one point the issues were so divisive that General Conference president A. G. Daniells forbade discussion unless he was present in the room to chair the proceedings, and even commented that he wished he could just take all these topics they were fighting, place them in a balloon, and let them float away. [Read more...]