Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Review of Davide Bentley Hart's Atheist DelusionsDavid Bentley Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The old saw goes: you cannot argue someone out of a position that they were not argued into. Apologetics is accordingly most useful in convincing oneself of the reasonableness of views that you already loosely hold. For critics who engage primarily in slander, correcting the veracity of arguments propping up such slander does not normally lead to retraction of the slander so much as the advancement of new arguments of similar veracity, particularly when political or financial incentives motivate the slander. Even weakly argued slander can imperil loosely held faith so the apologist is bound to remain fully employed.


David Bentley Hart opens his book, Atheist Delusions, with these words:

“What I have written is at most a ‘historical essay,’ at no point free of bias, and intended principally as an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.”(ix)

Hart’s concern about bias is interesting because quickly proceeds to outline his decision criteria for establishing historical truth:

“It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt.”(ix)

Again, this is interesting because Hart begins playing by postmodern rules of argumentation—a modern writer might appeal to objective truth (or rationality) at this point, which would invite derision from postmodern critics.

Central Argument

As an historian, Hart focuses on using the past as a vehicle for understanding the present, writing:

“This book chiefly—or at least centrally—concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of last antiquity. My chief ambition in writing it is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred up on the human person…”(x-xi)

What struck me in the middle of this lengthy essay was how much paganism of these first centuries of the church resembled the anxiety that we see every day in postmodern culture.

The Mythology of Modernism

Through the lens of historical observation, Hart furthermore chips away at the mythology surrounding the modern period. He writes:

“…what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology, but by its very nature…”(xi-xii)

Hart’s comment about barbarism is particularly interesting because today’s culture is quick to forget about the millions killed by the National Socialists and by various Marxian governments in our time yet obsesses about the thousands killed during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago, where the historical veracity of various claims requires close scrutiny that is almost never offered.

Faith in Choice

An important critique that Hart examines at length is the postmodern obsession with personal freedom. He writes:

“…there is no substantive criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.”(21)

This observation is damning in its implications for the banality of our time. Freedom defined in terms of market choice for goods and ideas leaves no philosophical room for God, the development of personal character, or even the organization of communal activities, present or future. Inherent in this focus is an assumption that individual making choices has the resources required to make them and society is eager to provide them. Focusing on choice accordingly leaves decisions about everything else up to whoever is powerful enough to enforce them. Even the choices offered today may disappear quickly as a lack of interest in the future may lead one to eat one’s own seed-corn or to trade away one’s own freedom in the rush to consume.


Hart writes his book in 17 chapters divided into four parts:

  1. Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present
  2. The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past
  3. Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human
  4. Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human(vii-viii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by notes and an index.


David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is an interesting read for the historically sensitive and philosophically astute. Hart offers commentary on current cultural controversies that both enlightens and challenges one to probe deeper, if for no other reason than to understand his voluminous vocabulary.

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

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Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 2

niebuhr_review_11072016H. Richard Niebuhr. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Skeptical postmoderns might wonder how Richard Niebuhr could see the doctrine of the kingdom of God explaining the history of the American church. But this skepticism rests in the habitus of a secular worldview, which permeates even the church today and is predominately ahistorical. Writing in 1937, Niebuhr observes:

“Any attempt to trace the pattern of the Christian movement in America must begin with the Protestant reformation” (17)


“was characterized above all by its fresh insistence on the present sovereignty and initiative of God.” (17).

In some sense, Niebuhr sees Protestants differing from Catholics in three primary doctrines, summarized in the distinction between two Latin phrases: visio dei (God’s vision) and regnum dei (God’s rule; 20). Niebuhr explains:

“The principle of vision suggests that the perfection of the object seen is loved above all else; the principle of the kingdom indicates that the reality and power of the being commanding obedience are primarily regarded.” (20)

Niebuhr sees three outcomes from this distinction: (1) the rule is direct, not delegated to a hierarchy of priests and bishops; (2) God’s sovereignty immediately negates all human sovereignty—God’s freedom, not human freedom, is in view; and (3) the idea of a kingdom implies immediacy—God is sovereign now as well as the future; for the Protestant, the kingdom of God was truly at hand (20-25).

The unique thing about kingdom of God in America was that the “New World” was free of the institutions that plagued the “Old World” in Europe. In the Old World, Protestantism was a reform movement against these old institutions; in the New World, Protestantism needed to build institutions of its own—it was not enough simply to protest the old forms. Niebuhr describes this new challenge as the problem of “Constructive Protestantism.” (36). He writes: “Here Protestantism could turn from protest and conflict to construction.”[1] (43)

Niebuhr argues his case for Constructive Protestantism in terms of:

“the three notes of faith in the sovereign [confession of loyalty to the sovereignty of God], the experience of the love of Christ [experience the reign of Christ] and hope of ultimate redemption [the hope of the coming kingdom].” (127)

He organizes his chapters around these three notes of faith and sees them marked out in history writing:

“The expectation of the coming kingdom upon earth which the Quakers had brought with them and the Great Awakening had made vivid was nurtured by the continuing revival until it became the dominant idea in American Christianity. If the seventeenth was the century of the sovereignty and the eighteenth the time of the kingdom of Christ, the nineteenth may be called the period of the coming kingdom.” (150)

Niebuhr traces these beliefs through the writings of many evangelists who participated in this dynamic movement of Protestantism in American history and likens it to the movements in a symphony which actually played out as a pattern in different times and places (164-165).

But what happens when the movement is played out and all that remains of a dynamic movement crystalizes into static institutions and creeds passed on to new generations? Niebuhr writes:

“With the loss of the sense of common task in proclaiming the kingdom of Christ, sectional, racial, and cultural differences assuming increasing importance. The more attention was concentrated upon the church the greater became the tendency toward schism.” (178)

In some sense, Niebuhr sees the current conflicts among protestant groups, dating back into the late nineteenth century, as conflicts between different strains of this greater protestant movement, some more crystalized than others, but all having reached the point of a spent force. In this context, the Pentecostal movement could be sense as an entirely new grand narrative which is replacing the older, mainline protestant movement that remains a vital force only in remnants.

Richard Niebuhr’s The Kingdom of God in America provides important insights into the current dilemmas facing Protestant churches in the United States. One gem stood out for me:

“Edwards sought to convince the mind rather than to stir the emotions and was genuinely surprised at the display of ‘religious affections’ which followed some of his stuffy logical preaching.” (106)

This statement suggests that in the absence of good teaching, revival becomes less likely.[2] Such gems make reading Niebuhr a real delight.


Elliott, Matthew A. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional. (Review: Part 1 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1dc) and Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1dv)).

[1] In some sense, Protestants then faced the same dilemma that deconstructionists face today. Having deconstructed every authority and institution in sight, what replaces them?

[2] This is an example consistent with what was later referred to as the cognitive theory of emotions (we get mad about things we think are important).


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Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Noll_review_06272015Mark A. Noll.  2002.  The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live stories.

When I worked as a chaplain intern, I discovered that I had a special connection with the drunks that came in and were strapped in gurneys to dry out. From their gurneys they would rage—often in Spanish—and many of the interns were intimidated. I talked with them; cried with them; and defended them in group. My affinity with these men was a mystery—I had never been drunk and strapped in a gurney.  Much later, I realized that although the gurney treatment was not a personal experience, my emotions had long been bounded and gagged—too dangerous to be expressed the omnipresent, polite company—for most of my life.  My affinity with the plight of the gurney men was a metaphorical story, not a life experience story.

We live stories. Stories give life meaning. This is why history is so important.  We find meaning in the stories that we tell and those that we cannot express.


Mark Noll starts The Work We Have to Do with the story of David Brainard.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (ix).

Expelled from college for a private conversation, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A man of great passion, Brainard died at the age of 29.  In the end, he was a friend of Jonathan Edwards and was at the time of his death engaged to marry Edwards’ daughter, Jeusha (ix-x).  Edwards, of course, went on to inspire a revival known as the Great Awakening; it was Brainard who inspired Edwards.  Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries.

Noll’s title, “the work we have to do”, is taken from Edwards’ eulogy over David Brainard (14). Noll focuses on providing a short overview of the role of protestants in American history. He writes:

“Even if Protestant beliefs and practices have often worked at odds with each other, there can be no mistaking the importance of Protestant religion for the national history. Although a short book on a big subject can hit only high points it is able to suggest some of the depth, drama, dynamism, and diversity in this story.” (xi)


Noll writes in 7 chapters, preceded by a preface and followed by an appendix, chronology, reading list, and index. These chapters are:

  1. Who are the Protestants?
  2. Where do Protestants Come From?
  3. Protestants in Colonial American, 1607-1789.
  4. Protestants in Charge, 1790-1865.
  5. Times of Trial and Renewal, 1866-1918.
  6. Protestants in Modern America.

Noll was (1979-2006)  professor of history at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, a school famous for its one-time student, Billy Graham.  He is now the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame University [1].

One of the histories which I was not familiar with was the story of Methodist Francis Asbury.  Noll writes:

“In 1771 Wesley asked for volunteers to go to America, and Asbury responded eagerly [at age 13].  Before he died, Asbury traveled nearly 3000,000 miles, mostly on horseback, into all the former thirteen colonies and the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky” .

Asbury himself wrote about his daily schedule as:

“My present mode of conduct is…to read about 100 pages a day; to preach in the open air every other day; and to lecture in prayer meeting every evening.”

Noll notes:

“When he arrived in America there were 4 Methodist ministers looking after about 300 laypeople.  By the time of his death in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 members of Methodist congregations.”

How many pastors today can make a claim like that? (52-53)

Noll is in a clear position to opine about what it means to be protestant today.  He writes:

“In some sense Protestantism in America began with Puritans battling with the English state church over questions of innovation, experimental spirituality, and adaptation of worship to the people.” (116)

Does that sound familiar?  Noll sees the strengths of Protestantism as:

“[There are] twin, but often competing strengths of Protestantism.  There strengths are a connection with the historic Christian faith and a drive to express that faith in an up-to-date, contemporary manner.” (116-117)

Do you feel the tension in this statement? Sounds like the theme for a new book![2]


Mark Noll’s The Work We Have to Do is a good summer read.  Clearly, he is writing for an introductory college course in church history, but his accessible style makes it a book that just about anyone can enjoy.


[1] http://history.nd.edu/faculty/directory/mark-a-noll/

[2] Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

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Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2

Bradley_Longfield_02252015Bradley J. Longfield.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up during the period 1950s-1970s when the influence of the church in society was at a recent high point and watching a lifelong decline in that influence, Longfield’s observations about the church before the Civil War appear remarkable. Longfield (71) writes:

“The combined budgets of the voluntary associations in the early nineteenth century rivaled the federal government’s expenditures on internal improvements over the same years. This was an age, Nathan Hatch has claimed, when people expected almost everything from religion (and churches) and almost nothing from politics (and the state).”

Many of these voluntary societies were in the northern church which perhaps anticipated changes brought about later by the Civil War.

The Slavery Question

Many of the arguments within the Presbyterian church in the nineteenth century were over slavery. The North and South differed in the 1820s in the rate of urbanization and growth of foreign immigrants (97). Because northern slave-holding was largely a thing of the past, the abolition movement grew in northern churches where slavery was not an economic issue as in the South.  Southern efforts to reform slavery (100-102) from within were eclipsed when the North abolished Southern slavery following the Civil War. While many people will laugh off these reform efforts, owning one’s issues is an important Christian distinctive.  In fact, economic historians with no pony in this race have long questioned whether the conflict between North and South over slavery was even necessary because of changes already underway in the cotton industry where most slaves were employed [1].

How did success in abolishing slavery affect the Presbyterian attitude about political action?  Two effects on Presbyterians may have had lasting influence:

  • Political success in abolishing slavery bolstered the idea that political reform is more important within the church than personal transformation through faith.
  • Placing the focus on reforming other people’s social problems (north reforming south) took pressure off reforming their own social problems (north reforming north) [2].

This preference for political change rather than personal transformation within the church, taken to its logical conclusion, may explain why Presbyterians (unlike members of other reformed denominations, such as the Reformed Church in America) identify more with polity (governance of the church by elders) and less with confessional faith in the 20th century [3].

Fundamentals of the Faith

An important step in the direction of “policy ascendance” (202) was taken already in 1925 when a special commission of the General Assembly declared the 5 fundamentals of the faith nonbinding (158).  The 5 fundamentals adopted in 1910 were:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (142).

During the period from 1910 until 1925 candidates for ministry were require to adhere to these 5 fundamentals as an  ordination requirement.  The “Auburn Affirmation”, also drafted in 1925, questioned each of these fundamentals saying that they were not the only “theories” consistent with scripture and confessions (153).  The scopes trial in July 1925 turned polite disagreement into public ridicule (156).  From that point forward, pastors need not affirm the Apostle’s Creed in order to be ordained.  Adhering to the 5 fundamentals today marks one as a “fundamentalist” which has in recent years become a pejorative term.


In Presbyterians and American Culture Longfield openly discusses many issues that remain provocative even today.  Longfield’s contribution consists of offering fair and open conversation about the history of the church and how we arrived where we are.  This makes next steps easier.


[1] Economic pressure was already on the cotton industry to mechanize production which happened not very many years later.  Philips reports, for example, a table showing the price of field hands rising rapidly and the price of cotton falling in the ante-bellum period.  Ulrich B. Phillips.  1972. “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt”  page 227-239 of Gerald D. Nash [Editor] Issues in American Economic History. Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath and Company.  The negative consequences of the war included unprecedented casualties, the acceleration of development of weapons of mass destruction, centralization of power in Washington, regional hegemony of the North over the South, and economic concentration in monopolizing firms.  These consequences shaped many of the problems that followed in the Twentieth Century.

[2] Economists often comment that the American abolition movement, which unlike that in Great Britain did not compensate slaveholders or provide former slaves with transition assistance, actually led to many of the social problems that were experienced after the Civil War.  Among those problems were discrimination, poverty, and a century of southern economic depression relative to other regions.

[3] The Reformed Church in America has used essentially the same polity documents over the past 100 years while the PCUSA amends their polity statement (the Book of Order) all the time.

Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2

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Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 1

Bradley Longfield, Presbyterians and American CultureBradley J. Longfield.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first history class in college did not start out well.  Not only did my bright, young professor from Yale not like my papers. He also threatened to fail me if I signed up for the next class in the sequence. My constant questions in class clearly annoyed him. But I took his threat as a challenge and basically sat on his desk until he explained to me why my papers were not up to snuff, so to speak. The problem? I viewed history as chronology (A happened, then B happened, then C happened…) while he saw historical observations providing support for hypothesis testing (A and B happened causing C).  We employed different historical methods in our thinking [1].


In his book, Presbyterians and American Culture, Bradley Longfield surveys the history of churches in America from the early 1700s through the present decade.  By Presbyterians, Longfield means the denominations that today make up the Presbyterian Church (USA).  By culture, Longfield follows Clifford Geertz seeing culture as “an historically transmitted patterning of meaning embodied in symbols” including “values, attitudes, perspectives, beliefs, and ideas”. This survey is motivated by a perceived identity crisis among Presbyterians brought about at least in part by how they have attempted to influence culture (xi-xiii).

Who is Bradley Longfield?

Longfield is dean and a professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (PCUSA) in Dubuque, Iowa.  He writes in 7 chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by an Epilogue.  The 7 chapters (vii) are:

  1. Growing Together, Falling Apart: The Birth of American Presbyterianism (1-24);
  2. New Church, New Nation (25-52);
  3. A Christian America: Awakenings and Reform (53-90);
  4. Divided Church, Divided Nation (91-116);
  5. Crusading American, Crusading Church (117-148);
  6. War at Home, War Abroad (149-174); and
  7. Contested Boundaries: The Disestablishment of American Presbyterianism (175-200).

The appendix includes a helpful chart showing the relationships and dates of many Presbyterian denominations. Included is the most recent one—the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)—which was organized in 2012.  There is also a subject matter index.


One challenge with surveys arises in drawing inferences about general trends and causality. Are the observations presented symptomatic of the times or simply the things that are most easily described?  This question cannot be easily answered, but it points to the usefulness of the survey method. It also identifies interesting hypotheses worthy of further inquiry.

Confessional Hypothesis

One such hypothesis concerns the role of confessions in the Presbyterian response to culture. For example, throughout most of the period covered by this study the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640—just before period studied (3), was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians (15), was the focus of proposed revisions (126), and remains in the Book of Confessions still in use today. Yet, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century (142) and later serving merely as another confessional document, one of many, by the 1970s (196).  Freed of its confessional moorings by the end of the century, the current Presbyterian identity crisis might easily be explained as a consequence of “confessional wanderlust”.

Native American Outreach

Longfield’s survey technique clearly goes beyond describing events easily documented.  Of special interest are several sections that he devotes to Presbyterian outreach efforts in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to native Americans.  David Brainard’s evangelism to the Crossweeksung Indians in New Jersey in 1746 focused on instruction in the Westminister Shorter Catechism, preaching, and children’s education (29).  Presbyterian efforts to evangelize the Cherokee Indians included unsuccessful efforts to encourage their leaders to pass laws restricting polygamy, abortion, and divorce. They also encouraged Sabbath observance and patrilineal inheritance (82).   Later in 1831 missionaries in Georgia suffered arrest. The mood of the nation during the Jackson presidency was to relocate the Cherokees to western lands, not to convert and educate them (85).


Longfield’s Presbyterians and American Culture is useful for seminary students and pastors curious about historical controversies of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  In part 2 of this review (on Wednesday March 11), I will look in more depth at a couple of these controversies.

[1] Once I understood my error, my next paper proved more acceptable and I ended up with an A in his class.

Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 1

Also see:

Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1 

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