Happy Columbus Day?

The wonderful thing about studying historical theology is that we can sometimes lose ourselves in the past and forget about the constant stream of superficial tripe that dominates the media. But, we often find the past impinges on the present in countless ways. Today marks “Columbus Day,” and I have no desire to delve into the political furor that surrounds it. I’d rather just quote a contemporary source. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) labored as a pastor in Strasbourg, trying to “reform,” or re-shape, the church according to his understanding of what the Bible taught.


Bucer, like most of the other Protestant reformers, had a deep appreciation for church history and the church fathers, and so he also found inspiration for his activism through his encounter with the past. Bucer also labored strenuously to bring factions within the Christian world together. He wrote Concerning the True Care of Souls (Von der waren Seelsorge) in 1538, to encourage the city authorities in Strasbourg to take seriously their role in promoting moral purity and holiness in their churches, and in their city.

Part of Bucer’s agenda, of course, was to demonstrate the short-comings of the Roman church, which had previously held sway in Strasbourg and throughout medieval Europe. Seeing God at work in historical events was part of the sixteenth-century mindset, on all sides. Harsh criticism across religious lines was also the norm (the relative constancy of human nature is another fact we learn from the study of history!). So, Bucer routinely condemns the Roman church for their lack of true spiritual concern and for their preoccupation with worldly wealth and political power. We do not have to completely agree with Bucer’s diagnosis in order to appreciate his point of view. On this “Columbus Day,” his critique of colonial conquest (by countries which were still faithful to Roman church–primarily Spain) are particularly interesting. Bucer writes:

“The severe wrath of God is also to be found in the discovery and conquest of new lands and islands, which people exult over so much, as if by this means Christendom was being greatly increased; in fact all that happens is that the poor people are deprived first of body and possessions, and then of soul through the false superstition which they are taught by the mendicant monks” (87-88). Of course, Bucer’s anti-Roman polemical intent is obvious, but he continues to sharply criticize the colonial project itself:

“I have heard Jean Glapion, His Imperial Majesty’s confessor complain in front of important people that the Spaniards in the newly discovered lands so forced and tortured the poor people to make them work to find gold and other things for them, that they could not bear the work and torture and took their own lives. Secondly, what is achieved as far as our own people are concerned? How many fine people are lost on the voyages, and when it is said that much has been achieved, all they can offer is the occasions and allurements of terrible wars, splendour and arrogance, and the oppression of the poor ordinary people; for through all this trade and conquest just a few get hold of all the world’s goods and possessions and then use it to impose all sorts of mischief and power on the rest, many of whom can scarcely earn a dry crust by their hard and bitter labours. And then they call this the increase of Christendom. The Lord grant our princes and rulers the understanding and will to increase and improve Christendom in the right way” (88).

Bucer’s criticism of the oppression and subjugation of the indigenous populations stands in stark contrast to many conservatives and Christians, who extol the European conquest as either the judgment of God against the “pagan” native Americans, or who focus on Columbus’s “Christian” and missionary ideals, while down-playing the violence and tragedy which marked the arrival of Europeans in the New World. This short post can’t begin to sort out the complexities involved here, but this short foray into an obscure text and a little known early modern pastor hopefully shows us that not all Christians applauded the European colonization of the Americas.

For further reading, consult Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1984.) [Disclaimer: I haven’t finished this book, and I don’t like to recommend a book prematurely. However, Todorov treats the encounter (clash!) of European and Native cultures philosophically and theologically. Todorov is well-aware of the classical background and Christian understanding of Columbus and other European colonists, but he also sympathetically helps us enter into the worldview of the Aztecs and other native peoples. He does not downplay the violence on either side of the clash of cultures.]

I must also admit that this is not my area of expertise. What resources would you recommend?



“Greek Life” @ Cary Christian School – Training the Next Generation of Reformers

[Some All Saints Day (and late “Reformation Day”) musings, tying together my dual roles as a high school Biblical Greek teacher and a student of church history.]

Martin Luther did not mean to start the Reformation. In 1517, Luther, a teacher of theology in Germany, posted some items for an academic discussion on the church door in Wittenberg (really a community bulletin board back then).  At this point in his career, he had no intention to break away from the Roman Catholic church—as a “doctor” of theology Luther had the right, and the obligation, to express concerns about the church. Luther was attacking the practices of some extreme “indulgence preachers” who were basically selling get-out-of-Purgatory-free cards (indulgences). Luther had no idea how far up the chain of authority this corruption went. In fact, Pope Leo X gave his official blessing to this indulgence fund-raiser in order to finance his massive building project at St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom. Continue reading

“From Modernity to Auschwitz”

Thus begins Joe Keysor’s provoking article in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone magazine.  (Yes, I’m behind in my Touchstone reading …)  Although this article is sadly not available on-line at the Touchstone web-site, it worth buying the entire issue just for this article.

Keysor subtitles his article, “The Secular and Anti-Christian Origins of the Holocaust.”  What follows is a  convincing case that Hitler was more influenced by Enlightenment philosophers than by orthodox Christianity.  Why probe the pre-history of Nazism?  Because some historians persist in maintaining the opposite–that Christianity prepared German soil for the flourishing of Nazi ideology.  Keysor writes:  “In his lengthy book The Holocaust in Historical Context, Steven Katz of Boston University links biblical Christianity to the crimes of the Nazis.”

Continue reading ““From Modernity to Auschwitz””

Idolatry and Sexual Confusion

Idolatry always leads to sexual confusion.  We are living in the midst of rampant idolatry, and in the midst of rampant sexual confusion, disorder, and an epic struggle to re-define our sexual identities.  But, this is nothing new.  One reason I love ancient history is that there really is nothing new under the sun.  Witness the “ritual castration” of the Galli, the ancient priest who served the “Syrian Goddess,” Atargatis of Hierapolis:

“Lucian’s On the Syrian Goddess 51 tells how men became Galli.  While the pipes were wailing and the men were dancing, frenzy seized many of them.  The man who was seized stripped off his clothes, grabbed a sword, and castrated himself.  He ran through the city and threw what was cut off into any house he chose and took from the house women’s apparel.  Thereafter he belonged to the goddess and wore women’s clothes” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 264).

Ironies of Socrates and Plato

Speaking of Socrates and Plato, Joseph Heller captures the delightful irony in the philosophies of the two intellectual giants and the complexity of Plato’s relationship and portrayal of Socrates: 

“[Socrates] was a dedicated philosopher who had no philosophy, an educator without curriculum or system of education, a teacher without pupils; a professor who professed to know nothing; a sage with faith that a knowledge of virtue exists unborn inside each of us and might, perhaps, be brought to life through persevering search.

“He did not like books, which should have nettled Plato, who wrote so many.

“He had low regard for people who read them.

“He mistrusted books, he said in the Phaedrus, because they could neither ask nor answer questions and were apt to be swallowed whole.  He said that readers of books read much and learned nothing, that they appeared full of knowledge, but for the most part were without it, and had the show of wisdom without its reality.

“He said this in a book.

“The book, though, is by Plato, who denounced dramatic representations as spurious because the writer put into the mouths of characters imitating real people whatever the author wished them to say.

“Plato said this in a dramatic representation, in which he put into the mouth of Socrates and other real people exactly those things Plato wanted them to say”

(Joseph Heller, Picture This, 94).  This novel is fantastic!  That is, if you like history … It takes a painting by Rembrandt of Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer as its starting point, and then ranges over the vast fields of Greek, Dutch, and modern history, drawing an astonishing number of connections and parallels between the eras.  It’s rough going, if you don’t know much history, but it’s well worth it!

Descendents of the Magi?

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is amazing! Bailey lived for 60 years in the Middle East, and has literally lived through the Bible story. The book begins with a stunning study, which presents a convincing case that Jesus was actually born in a house (since many poor, Middle Eastern homes actually have mangers in the house!).   I won’t give away the rest of his argument, but I did want to share another tid-bit that lept out at me.

Speaking of the Magi, and who they might have been, he writes: “In the 1920s a British scholar, E.F.F. Bishop, visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. This Muslim tribe bore the Arabic name al-Kokabani. The word kokab means “planet” and al-Kaokabani means “Those who study/follow the planets.” Bishop asked the elders of the tribe why they called themselves by such a name. They replied that it was because their ancestors followed the planets and traveled west to Palestine to show honor to the great prophet Jesus when he was born. This supports Justin’s [Justin Martyr – ca. 165 A.D.] second-century claim that the wise men were Arabs from Arabia,” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 53).

View all my reviews >>

Lutheran Sanctification

Two bits from my reading diet caught my eye:

“Nevertheless we still experience sin and death within us, wrestle with them and fight against them.  You may tie a hog ever so well, but you cannot prevent it from grunting.  Thus is is with the sins in our flesh,” (Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 1, 247).

“Precisely because the totality of the gift, the new being [the one justified by faith] knows that there is nothing to do to gain heaven.  Thus the Christian is called to the tasks of daily life in this world, for the time being.  Students, for instance, are sometimes very pious and idealistic about ‘doing something,’ and so get caught up in this or that movement ‘for good.’  It never seems to dawn on them that perhaps for the time being, at least, their calling is simply to be a good student!  It is not particularly in acts of piety that we are sanctified, but in our call to live and act as Christians” (Gerald O. Forde, “The Lutheran View” in Christian Spirituality:  Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander, 31).