The Roots of Slaveholder Religion: A Review of “Christian Slavery” by Katharine Gerber

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery is a meticulously researched, insightful, and at times haunting read—haunting because it feels like the past is always with us. First and foremost, this is an academic work of religious history, but as Gerbner goes into the historical roots of, to use Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s phrase, “slaveholder religion,” the book’s significance doesn’t seem confined to the past. Throughout its pages, Gerbner endeavors to trouble accounts of this historical period that overly-focus on searching for possible early precedents of the 19th century antislavery movement. She argues that it’s significant to acknowledge and recognize that the history of early Protestant missionary efforts unfortunately includes both ideological accommodation to slavery as well as struggle against it (3-4).

In terms of scope, Gerbner spends most of the book’s pages exploring the dynamics of Atlantic Protestantism in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, tracing especially the entanglement of Anglicans, Quakers, and Moravians in the African slave trade (3-4). Near the heart of her subject is an examination of the changing ways in which people in these societies thought about the relationships between Protestant identity, freedom, and slavery. In these societies, Gerbner tells readers, owners were often deeply set against allowing slaves to become Christians and participate in religious rites such as baptism or communion. She explains that this was the case because, “In these colonies, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran slave owners conceived of their Protestant identities as fundamental to their status as masters” (2). This ideology of “Protestant Supremacy,” as she calls it, was undercut by the conversion of African slaves to Christianity. Gerbner suggests how this helped lead to the formation of White Supremacist ideology by noting that: Continue reading

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Tracing the Reformation’s Unintended Legacy: A Review of “Rebel in the Ranks” by Brad S. Gregory

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

It’s now been five hundred years since Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses. Whether or not he actually pinned them to a church door in Wittenberg or just sent them to Archbishop Albrecht, the ensuing movement of reform and protest against aspects of Roman Catholic practices and beliefs that began with him ultimately shook the foundations of the Western church and led to both religious renewal—for both Protestants and Catholics—and sadly also centuries of strife, division, and bloodshed. To say the least, the legacy of the Reformation era that we’ve inherited is a complicated one.

In Rebel in the Ranks, University of Notre Dame professor Brad S. Gregory argues that this legacy was also for the most part unintended. He thinks many of the long-term outcomes of the Reformation would have surprised and even dismayed the Reformers themselves (1-2). The book begins with a rather narrow focus, exploring Luther’s inner religious struggles and what happened when he acted on them. By the end, though, the book’s horizon has expanded to a consideration of how the Reformation era as a whole shaped the emergence of modern Western society, focusing specifically on the eventual secularization of public life (13-14). Continue reading

Putting Paul in his Place? A Review of “Steward of God’s Mysteries” by Jerry L. Sumney

How should we understand Paul’s significance as a leader in the early Christian movement? He was a passionate, strong-willed man, and his legacy has been deeply influential. In his missionary efforts, Paul was remarkably successful at planting and fostering communities of Jesus followers in towns and cities scattered across the Roman Empire, and in the course of these efforts, he was no stranger to disagreement or conflict. Remarks in his own letters and other New Testament passages like Acts 21-22 give ample evidence for this.

But how did Paul’s theological convictions stand in relation to the rest of the early church? This is the basic question probed by Jerry L. Sumney, who currently teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, in his new book, Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. It’s not surprising that there were some differences between Paul and his contemporaries, given the real theological diversity present in the first-century church. That strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial statement. However, some go further and take a somewhat more radical position, contending that Paul more or less “invented” Christianity as we know it today. It is with these thinkers that Sumney engages in most of his book’s pages. Continue reading

Seeking to Recover an Overlooked Metaphor: Thomas Andrew Bennett’s “Labor of God”

Thomas Andrew Bennett is convinced that something has gone awry when it comes to how many Christians speak about the cross. Near the beginning of his new book, Labor of God, he suggests that most of the traditional atonement metaphors have become stale, or as he puts it, “toothless through long repetition” (p.1). Consequently, the Christian confession of a crucified messiah—which Paul called “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23, NRSV)—no longer carries with it the sense of shock, mystery, or absurdity that he thinks it originally did (pp.1-2).

Given Bennett’s perspective, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him push for the development of fresh, alternative atonement metaphors, ones free from the weight of past use in the Christian tradition. However, he thinks the route forward actually consists in retrieval rather than innovation (p.2). Inspired by passages from the Old Testament and the Johannine literature, as well as the works of Medieval figures like St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich, Bennett advocates for retrieving an oft-neglected metaphor: “The image of the cross of Christ as God’s labor to bring about spiritual birth” (p.5). By embracing this image, he is convinced we can revitalize atonement theology and recover a fresh appreciation for the “radically gracious self-giving love” embodied by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection (p.5).  Continue reading

Introductory Patristics for Regular People: A Review of Bryan Litfin’s “Getting to Know the Church Fathers”

church historyFor many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathersthis is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (though not all) parts of contemporary Christianity. Continue reading

Meal, Word, and Prayer: A Review of Andrew B. McGowan’s “Ancient Christian Worship”

ancient christian worship

First, a slightly provocative—and hopefully not completely unsubstantiated—claim: It seems to me that Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship explicitly tells a story and implicitly makes an argument. In each of his colorful and well-written chapters, McGowan takes people on a trek through the different ways in which ancient Christians worshiped. He introduces readers to influential theologians like Augustine, Origen, and John Chrysostom, sharing ample examples from their writings on worship. McGowan also incorporates archeological research and makes use of fascinating early Christian documents like the Didache and the Apostolic Tradition, which give glimpses of how these ancient communities lived out (or sought to live out) their worship practices.

In other words, McGowan intentionally brings together multiple streams of academic research on early Christian worship in order to tell a coherent introductory narrative of how these worship practices originated and developed, while avoiding the tempting pitfalls of over-simplification and excessive generalization. He’s realistic about what is known, unknown, and unfortunately lost to history regarding how these early believers lived. Continue reading

Anathematize Them: A Review of David Wilhite’s The Gospel according to Heretics

gospel according to hereticsWhy should the Church ever listen to heretics? How do you define a heretic in the first place? In David Wilhite’s engaging and informative introduction to the early christological conflicts of the Church, The Gospel according to Heretics, he takes on these questions and more with admirable clarity, depth, and sensitivity. Wilhite teaches at George W. Truett Seminary in Texas and specializes in the study of North African Christianity in late antiquity, giving him a good background for taking readers into the world of the Patristic era.

In much traditional Christian thinking, heretics were viewed as evil and malicious (p.2). They were to be avoided and their voices were to be silenced if efforts to persuade ended in failure. The early church father Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, records that the Apostle John supposedly once fled from a building in order to avoid the heretic Corinth’s (3.3.4). Ignatius also exhorted readers in his Letter to the Trallians to, “cover up your ears in order to avoid receiving the things being sown by them” (9). Continue reading