Archive for ‘History’



I just finished Thomas E. Bergler’s book The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

He gives a historical sketch of how American Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Black Church engaged with the emerging youth culture in the 20th century.

Some quotes from the Introduction that help define and describe what Bergler means by ‘juvenilization’:

It’s Sunday morning.  Let’s visit a typical middle-class American church.  As we walk into the main worship area, notice that people are dressed less formally than they will be when they go to work on Monday morning….

During worship, the congregation sings top-forty-style songs addressed to God and heavily peppered with the words ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘love.’  In the sermon, the pastor may talk about ‘falling in love with Jesus’….

Even in Protestant denominations long noted for their suspicion of idolatry, you can count on seeing some visual, dramatic, or even entertaining element in the worship service. (1)

Christian products…. camps or conferences…. specialized Christian organization[s] outside [the congregation]…. specialized ministries (2).

Lecturing and rote memorization are out.  Informal discussions are in (3).

[A] perceived need to adapt to constant cultural change….

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were rare.  What happened?  Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity.  Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages….

…more suspicious of authorities and traditions (4).

…adolescent versions of Christianity (5).

Older cultural conceptions of adulthood encouraged responsibility, self-denial, and service of others.  In the first half of the twentieth century, most people clearly entered adulthood in their teens or early twenties by virtue of getting married, getting a job, and having children.  More recently, the passage to adulthood has been delayed and rendered more subjective for most middle-class Americans (6).

Encouraging people to settle into some of the worst traits of adolescence is good for business (7).

Adolescent Christians…. sometimes fall prey to misdirected zeal in their excitement over a new cause, and they may not have the staying power of an adult.

Adolescent Christians spend their energy denouncing evils and staging symbolic protests rather than engaging in the less glamorous work that can lead to long-term change (10).

They find it hard to make strong commitments to particular beliefs, people, or religious institutions.  Indeed, they may see institutions and commitments as impediments to personal spiritual growth (11).

They have a hard time keeping religious commitments when their emotions are not cooperating.  They are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity.  They may be tempted to believe that God’s main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain (12).

Adolescent Christians expect their faith to be fun and entertaining.  They want the church to make use of the latest music, technology, and cultural trends.  Some revel in a completely parallel Christian youth subculture, complete with its own music, celebrities, and clothing (14).


Bergler isn’t entirely negative about juvenilization.  He sees it as a matter of fact that is most likely here to stay and must be engaged with.  In fact, Evangelicalism’s ability to juvenilize has helped to keep it vital well into the 21st century.

But here are some quotes from the final chapter of the book that outline the negatives of juvenilization on the church and the need for it to be ‘tamed’:

Although juvenilization has renewed American Christianity, it has also undermined Christian maturity.  First, the faith has become overly identified with emotional comfort.  And it is only a short step from a personalized, emotionally comforting faith to a self-centered one.  Second, far too many Christians are inarticulate, indifferent, or confused about their theological beliefs.  They view theology as an optional extra to faith, and assume that religious beliefs are a matter of personal preference.  Many would be uncomfortable with the idea of believing something just because the Bible, the church, or some other religious authority teaches it.  And they are particularly resistant to church teachings that impose behavioral restrictions.  If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.

A fascinating look at an issue that everyone in ministry (not just youth pastors) must come to grips with.

May “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:13–16).


NPR on the Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 499th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, sparking what is known now as the Protestant Reformation.  Recently, I listened to a piece on NPR trying to explain the Reformation and reporting on recent ecumenical efforts to see Protestants and Catholics come back together.

Pope Francis now praises Martin Luther as an “intelligent man” who rightly protested many abuses at the time.  He maintains that we have much in common and should work together on social issues like caring for the poor, immigration, and persecution of Christians.

However, NPR reported, there are three remaining areas of doctrinal division:

(1) The question of the universal church and papal primacy

(2) The priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church

(3) The nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion

Why do we continue to miss the point?  Is it simply ignorance?  Or is there a willful denial?  Until people recognize that the main issue in Luther’s theology… in fact the biggest question in all of life is – How can I be right before a holy God? – then they cannot understand the Reformation and there cannot be unity between true Protestants and Catholics.


Justification by Faith Before the Reformation

I heard a great talk today on Sola Fide by Pastor Phill Howell.  He shared several examples from the early Christian writings that indicate this doctrine doesn’t originate in the 16th century.  Take a look for yourself:

1 Clement 32:3-4

All therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through his will. And so we, having been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have done in holiness of heart; but through faith by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” 


The Epistle to Diognetus 9:2­–5

When our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!


Odes of Solomon 29:5-6

He justified me by His grace.

For I believed in the Lord’s Messiah, and considered that He is the Lord.


Origen (See Thomas Oden’s “The Justification Reader, pg. 45)

Faith is the foundation of our justification, so that righteousness isn’t based on works of the law as seen in the thief on the cross.



He insists that justification can’t be given through works since God demands perfect obedience. Hence, the only way to be justified is through grace. (Schreiner, “Faith Alone”, pg. 32)


Ambrosiaster (Ambrose)

By faith alone one is freely forgiven of all sins and the believer is no longer burdened by the Law for meriting good works. Our works, however, are demonstrative of our faith and will determine whether we are ultimately justified. (Schreiner, “Faith Alone”, pg. 33)


Karl Barth and Carl Henry

Carl F.H. Henry recalls in his autobiography the time he engaged Karl Barth during a news conference:

Identifying myself as ‘Carl Henry, editor of Christianity Today,’ I continued: ‘The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.’  I pointed to the press table and noted the presence of leading religion editors or reporters representing United Press, Religious News Services, Washington Post, Washington Star and other media.  If these journalists had their present duties in the time of Jesus, I asked, was the resurrection of such a nature that covering some aspect of it would have fallen into their area of responsibility?  ‘Was it news,’ I asked, ‘in the sense that the man in the street understands news?’

Barth became angry.  Pointing at me, and recalling my identification, he asked: ‘Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?’  The audience – largely nonevangelical professors and clergy – roared with delight.  When countered unexpectedly in this way, one often reaches for a Scripture verse.  So I replied, assuredly out of biblical context, ‘Yesterday, today and forever.’

Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Waco: Word, 1986), 211.


Queen Elizabeth vs. King Jesus

In A.W. Pink’s book The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross (Baker, 1984 [1958]) he references another book on Christ’s last words by Dr. Anderson-Berry in which he “makes use of an illustration from history which by its striking antithesis shows up the meaning and glory of the Finished Work of Christ.”

Elizabeth, Queen of England, the idol of society and the leader of European fashion, when on her death-bed turned to her lady in waiting, and said: “O my God!  It is over.  I have come to the end of it – the end, the end.  To have only one life, and to have done with it!  To have lived, and loved, and triumphed; and now to know it is over!  One may defy everything else but this.”  And as the listener sat watching, in a few moment more the face whose slightest smile had brought her courtiers to their feet, turned into a mask of lifeless clay, and returned the anxious gaze of her servant with nothing more than a vacant stare.  Such was the end of one whose meteoric course had been the envy of half the world.  It could not be said that she had “finished” anything, for with her all was “vanity and vexation of spirit.”  How different with the end of the Saviour! – “I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.”

(p. 110)


Historical Evidence and Exegesis

On the question of infant baptism, R.C. Sproul writes [Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1992), 228]:

…it would naturally be assumed in the early church that infants were to be given the sign of the covenant.

History bears witness to this assumption.  The first direct mention of infant baptism is around the middle of the second century A.D.  What is noteworthy about this reference is that it assumes infant baptism to be the universal practice of the church.  If infant baptism were not the practice of the first-century church, how and why did this departure from orthodoxy happen so fast and so pervasively?  Not only was the spread rapid and universal, the extant literature from that time does not reflect any controversy concerning the issue.

But Everett Ferguson claims [Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 856]:

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century.

Who to believe?


Everybody Has A Liturgy

James K.A. Smith has shown that there are even such things as secular liturgies (see Desiring the Kingdom).

But it’s also true that every church has a liturgy, even the ones that think they’re non-liturgical.

In Chapter 7 of Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel Mike Cosper gives an insightful historical overview of different church tradition’s approach to gathered, corporate worship.  His treatment of the negative impact of Revivalism (think Charles Finney) on public worship was helpful:

Rather than worship being a formational process in the lives and hearts of believers over years of gathering and learning, it became an ecstatic experience driven by emotive preaching and decorated with music.  The goal was a catalytic, life-changing moment.

He cites Kent Hughes who outlined the changes:

The structure of corporate worship became: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the sermon, and (3) the invitation….  Singing and musical selections were made in regard to their effect rather than their content.  Gospel songs (celebrating experience) often supplanted hymns to God.  Scripture reading was reduced so as not to prolong the ‘preliminaries.’  Prayers were shortened or even deleted for the same reason.  As to the sermon, the careful interaction with the biblical text so treasured by the Puritans was in many instances replaced with a freewheeling extemporaneous discourse.

More recently according to Cosper,

Many have embraced what’s sometimes called the Temple Model (or the Wimber model, given its usual attribution to John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches).  This model likens the journey of worship to a pilgrim’s journey to the temple in Jerusalem.  As one worship leader [Vicky Beeching] describes it, ‘We see the “Temple journey” of worship from every day life, walking towards Jerusalem, into the Temple courts and finally into the deepest place of God’s presence.’

The journey begins in the ‘outer gates,’ where the crowd assembles rambunctiously, with celebrative and energetic music.  As worship continues into the inner gates and into the temple, music becomes more intimate and the presence of God becomes more immanent.  The goal of worship is to enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is most profoundly known and experienced.  Once there, we sing only ballads and hymns, with tears streaming down our collective face.

Directly and indirectly, much of the church has embraced this model….  It’s… present in the way we talk about worship experiences, saying of worship leaders and teams, ‘They really led us to the throne room,’ or, ‘They ushered [us] into God’s presence.’

The problem with this model is twofold.  First, it’s developed backwards.  The theology of the Temple Model is a theological interpretation of an experience, and it is divorced from any kind of historical perspective on the gathered church.  Second, it ignores most of what the New Testament teaches us about worship, the presence of God, and the temple.  Instead of being led by Jesus through the inner curtain, we’re led there by a worship leader or a pastor – a pseudo-priest.

So it’s clear that every church is operating on some form of a liturgy.  The question is, Which one is theologically correct and will make the healthiest disciples over time?


It’s Sunday!

Make not your worldly affairs of more account than the word of God, but on the Lord’s Day leave everything and run eagerly to your church, for she is your glory. Otherwise what excuse have you, if you do not assemble on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and be nourished with the divine food?

Didascalia 2:59:2 (an ancient church document, composed most likely in the first part of the third century, for a community of Christian converts from paganism in the northern part of Syria)


Making the Ask

Justo Gonzalez tells the story this way:

Calvin arrived at Geneva in 1536 with the firm intention of stopping there for no more than a day, and then continuing his journey to Strasbourg. But someone told [William] Farel [the leader of the struggling Protestant movement there] that the author of the Institutes was in town, and the result was an unforgettable interview that Calvin himself later recorded. Farel, who ‘burned with a marvelous zeal for the advancement of the gospel,’ presented Calvin with several reasons why his presence was needed in Geneva. Calvin listened respectfully to the other man, some fifteen years older. But he refused to heed Farel’s plea, telling him that he had planned certain studies, and that these would not be possible in [Geneva]. When the latter had exhausted his arguments, and failed to convince the young theologian, he appealed to their common Lord, and challenged Calvin with a dire threat: ‘May God condemn your repose, and the calm you seek for study, if before such a great need you withdraw, and refuse your succor and help.’ Calvin continues his report: ‘these words shocked and broke me, and I desisted from the journey I had begun.’ Thus began his career as the reformer of Geneva.

From The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2005 [1985]), 65.

The question another pastor friend of mine here in Chicago put to me was: Can we do that??? I don’t know. Maybe the next time someone useful for the mission here comes to tell me he’s sailing away I might just try calling down a curse from heaven on him and see what happens.


Hold Fast the Confession

Yesterday I preached on Hebrews 4:14-16. One of the points was that we must “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (v. 14b). This charge doesn’t stem from an isolated snippet of Scripture. This is a repeated admonition (for example see 2Thess. 2:15, Titus 1:9, Jude 3). Theology is not supposed to be creative. Our task is simple: hold fast to the faith once for all handed down from Christ and his apostles. Don’t tinker or toy with it. As Millard Erickson put it, we may translate, but we must not transform. Furthermore, to hold firmly implies that there is substance to be grasped and it is not slippery.

Yet there is always a perennial pressure to lose your grip on the faith, to drift from the confession. Study of Church History will repeatedly bear this revisionist tendency out. W.A. Criswell in his rousing address to the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in 1985 put this pattern into poetic terms:

An institution can be like a great tree which in times past withstood the rain, and the wind, and the storm, and the lightning, but finally fell because the heart had rotted out. Insects, termites destroyed the great monarch of the woods. This is the unspeakably tragic thing that happens to many of our Christian institutions, and eventually threatens them all. They are delivered to secularism and infidelity, not because of a bitter frontal attack from without, but because of a slow, gradual permeation of the rot and curse of unbelief from within.

If you want to watch a powerful explanation of this, you can go here. If you do, keep in mind a few things:

(1) Not all Southern Baptists are Anglo Saxons (the current SBC president is Black).
(2) This was 1985 and not all Southern Baptists look or talk like this today.
(3) Criswell gave this address when he was in his mid 70s.
(4) To affirm the full authority of the Scriptures and decry the dangers of modern critical methods is not to be obscurantist.
(5) By God’s grace, there has been an unprecedented (!) turn around in the SBC since 1985…

…but the pressure is always before us…