Jesus: A Short Life [Book Review]

Jesus: A Short LifeJesus: A Short Life by John Dickson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a short, punchy, summary of what a large number of New Testament scholars and historians agree on regarding the historical Jesus. Although Dr. Dickson is a believing Christian and a pastor himself, he focuses the book on what we can know about Jesus from a purely historical perspective. Turns out we can establish quite a lot. Dickson’s main sparring partner in this project is Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is quite radical in rejecting large swaths of the New Testament as mythical. Spong is simply one among many of the never-ending stream of modern pundits and shock-scholars who try to re-invent Jesus every few years. Dickson counters with an array of scholarly opinions from various perspectives (not all are believers, and some are quite agnostic) to lay a foundation of historical bedrock for the life, mission, and aims of Jesus and his followers. The book is artfully bound and illustrated with paintings from many different historical eras, as well as pictures of archaeological sites and artifacts. Although now a decade old, this is still a valuable resource for anyone interested in the once-obscure Jew from Galilee who began a movement which has impacted the entire world.

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Christmas & the Imago Dei

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us that God made humanity in the image and likeness of God. This is narrated in Genesis 1:26-28. Throughout history, scholars and theologians have debated what this means. At LAMP Seminary RDU, we’re currently reading Anthony Hoekema’s Created In the Image of God, which is a wonderful treatment of this sometimes controversial and confusing concept.

Hoekema

Hoekema (1913-1988) was long-time professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, and was a theologian in the Dutch Reformed tradition. But, this book is not a dry and dusty tome of big theology words. Although there is some meaty content, Hoekema always brings his Biblical and theological insights to bear on the realities of practical life. He consistently surprises in showing how relevant the doctrine of the imago dei is. Our last “Mission Monday” post considered the inadequacy of the phrase “give a hand up, not a hand out,” with help from Professor Soong-Chan Rah. To build a solid theology of helping others, we need to understand the doctrine of the imago dei. And yes, this is related to Christmas. Hang with me until the end!

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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

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:

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“The Cross & the Prodigal”

 

cross and prodigal

At Cary Christian School, I occasionally try to summarize the findings of New Testament scholars in a way that shows the relevance for studying Biblical Greek.  Kenneth Bailey has done ground-breaking work in what he calls “Middle Eastern” Biblical interpretation. He argues that we need to read the Bible through Middle Eastern eyes if we are to truly understand it. His reading of the familiar story of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15 is especially helpful as we discuss the Bible with our Muslim friends.

Here’s the power-point presentation.  But, don’t stop there–get the book for yourself!

Muslim and Christian Scholarship

In Muslim vs. Christian arguments, I’ve heard it said that Muslim societies were much more advanced than medieval Western cultures.  Also, it’s claimed that we should thank Muslim scholars for preserving the classics of Greece for us.  Philip Jenkins has a different view.  In The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins reminds of the history we never knew.  In particular, he writes:

“It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim.  It was Christians–Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox, and others–who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world–the science, philosophy, and medicine–and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus.  Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic, and it was not necessarily Muslim.  Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph.  Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as ‘Arabic,’ and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers,” (The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, 18).

“The Lost History of Christianity” – Philip Jenkins

I’m enjoying (and learning!) from almost every page of Philip Jenkins’ outstanding book, The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died.  Here’s a paragraph which summarizes the thrust of the book:

ancient eastern tower

“For most nonexperts, Christian history after the earliest centuries usually conjures images of Europe.  We think of the world of Charlemagne and the Venerable Bede, of Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi, a landscape of Gothic cathedrals and romantic abbeys.  We think of a church thoroughly complicit in state power–popes excommunicating emperors, and inspiring Crusades.  Of course, such a picture neglects the ancient Christianity of the Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, but it also ignores the critical story of the religion beyond the old Roman borders, in Africa and Asia.  We suffer perhaps from using unfamiliar terms like Nestorian, so that the Eastern religious story seems to involve some obscure sect or alien religion rather than an extraordinarily vigorous branch of the Christian tradition.  Only by stressing the fully Christian credentials of these Asian-based movements can we appreciate the abundant fullness and diversity of the global church during the millennium after the Council of Nicea–and the depth of the catastrophe when those movements fell into ruin.  Anyone who knows the Christian story only as it developed in Europe has little inkling of the acute impoverishment the religion suffered when it lost these thriving, long-established communities.”

Clement of Alexandria’s Aesthetic Theology

Clement Alex

I just found out about the group Read the Fathers, and jumped right in.  We’re reading Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Heathen, and Clement’s extended musical metaphors soar!  Some excerpts from ch. 1:

“Behold the might of the new song!  It has made men out of stones, men out of beasts.  Those, moreover, that were as dead, not being partakers of the true life, have come to life again, simply by becoming listeners to this song.  It also composed the universe into melodious order, tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.”

“And He who is of David, and yet before him, the Word of God, despising the lyre and harp, which are but lifeless instruments, and having tuned by the Holy Spirit the universe, and especially man,–who, composed of body of soul, is a universe in miniature,–makes melody to God on this instrument of many tones; and to this instrument–I mean man–he sings accordant:  ‘For thou art my harp, and pipe, and temple.’–a harp for harmony–a pipe by reason of the Spirit–a temple by reason of the word; so that the first may sound, the second breathe, the third contain the Lord.”

“A beautiful breathing instrument of music the Lord made man, after His own image.  And He Himself also, surely, who is the supramundane Wisdom, the celestial Word, is the all-harmonious, melodious, holy instrument of God.  What, then, does this instrument–the Word of God, the Lord, the New Song–desire?”

“The instrument of God loves mankind.”

“Well, inasmuch as the Word was from the first, He was and is the divine source of all things; but inasmuch as He has now assumed the name Christ, consecrated of old, and worthy of power, he has been called by me the New Song.”

“This is the New Song, the manifestation of the Word that was in the beginning, and before the beginning … The Word, who was in the beginning bestowed on us life as Creator when He formed us, taught us to live well when He appeared as our Teacher; that as God He might afterwards conduct us to the life which never ends.”