Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?

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Machen Day 2015

From “History and Faith“:

Suppose the critical sifting of the Gospel tradition has been accomplished, suppose the resulting picture of Jesus is comprehensible-even then the work is only half done. How did this human Jesus come to be regarded as a superhuman Jesus by his intimate friends, and how, upon the foundation of this strange belief was there reared the edifice of the Christian Church?

In the early part of the first century, in one of the petty principalities subject to Rome, there lived an interesting man. Until the age of thirty years he led an obscure life in a Galilean family, then began a course of religious and ethical teaching accompanied by a remarkable ministry of healing. At first his preaching was crowned with a measure of success, but soon the crowds deserted him, and after three or four years, he fell victim in Jerusalem to the jealousy of his countrymen and the cowardice of the Roman governor. His few faithful disciples were utterly disheartened; his shameful death was the end of all their high ambitions. After a few days, however, an astonishing thing happened. It is the most astonishing thing in all history. Those same disheartened men suddenly displayed a surprising activity. They began preaching, with remarkable success, in Jerusalem, the very scene of their disgrace. In a few years, the religion that they preached burst the bands of Judaism, and planted itself in the great centers of the Graeco-Roman world. At first despised, then persecuted, it overcame all obstacles; in less than three hundred years it became the dominant religion of the Empire; and it has exerted an incalculable influence upon the modern world.

Jesus himself, the Founder, had not succeeded in winning any considerable number of permanent adherents; during his lifetime, the genuine disciples were comparatively few. It is after his death that the origin of Christianity as an influential movement is to be placed. Now it seems exceedingly unnatural that Jesus’ disciples could thus accomplish what he had failed to accomplish. They were evidently far inferior to him in spiritual discernment and in courage; they had not displayed the slightest trace of originality; they had been abjectly dependent upon the Master; they had not even succeeded in understanding him. Furthermore, what little understanding, what little courage they may have had was dissipated by his death. “Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.” How could such men succeed where their Master had failed? How could they institute the mightiest religious movement in the history of the world?

Of course, you can amuse yourself by suggesting impossible hypotheses. You might suggest, for instance, that after the death of Jesus his disciples sat quietly down and reflected on his teaching. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” “Love your enemies.” These are pretty good principles; they are of permanent value. Are they not as good now, the disciples might have said, as they were when Jesus was alive? “Our Father which art in heaven.” Is not that a good way of addressing God? May not God be our Father even though Jesus is now dead?

The disciples might conceivably have come to such conclusions. But certainly nothing could be more unlikely. These men had not even understood the teachings of Jesus when he was alive, not even under the immediate impact of that tremendous personality. How much less would they understand after he had died, and died in a way that indicated hopeless failure! What hope could such men have, at such a time, of influencing the world? Furthermore, the hypothesis has not one jot of evidence in its favor. Christianity never was the continuation of the work of a dead teacher.

It is evident, therefore, that in the short interval between the death of Jesus and the first Christian preaching, something had happened. Something must have happened to explain the transformation of those weak, discouraged men into the spiritual conquerors of the world. Whatever that happening was, it is the greatest event in history. An event is measured by its consequences-and that event has transformed the world.

It wasn’t the Bishop of Rome.

2K Threatens Defenders of Christendom the Way Christianity Threatened the Roman Empire

Doing a little reading on the motives for Roman authorities to persecute the early church, I was struck by parallels to contemporary criticisms of 2k from the likes of neo-Calvinists, theonomists, or those who pine for Christendom or Christian America. According to Robert Wilken:

Traditional Roman religion emphasized the utilitas (usefulness) of religious belief for the well-being of the commonwealth, the res publica. Hence, it has been easy, especially for a civilization nurtured on the “personal” religion of Christianity, to assume that the Romans did not actually believe in the gods, but rather deemed belief in the gods merely advantageous to the life of society and to the state. . . .

In the cities of the Roman Empire, religion was inextricably intertwined with social and political life. Piety toward the gods was thought to insure the well-being of the city, to promote a spirit of kinship and mutual responsibility, to bind together the citizenry. “In all probability,” wrote Cicero, “disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” In the most profound sense, then, impiety toward the gods disrupted society, and when piety disappears, said Cicero, “life soon becomes a welter of disorder and confusion.”

By the standards of the individual and personal religion familiar to most Westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the social and public character of Roman religion. But “separation of the concept of piety into a familiar and a cultic half is clearly a product of modern sensibilities; in antiquity piety formed a unity.” For the Romans, religion sustained the life of the state. The new Christian superstition undermined it.

Isn’t that what 2kers regularly hear from their critics, that 2k relegates Christianity to the private and personal sphere when Christianity really should be part of the social order, a mechanism for protecting the well-being of society? But that is precisely what Christianity’s critics saw in Christianity. Which suggests that anti-2kers are using pagan categories for evaluating 2k, not ones that the first Christians new.

Wilken concludes:

By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a large and influential social and religious force within Roman society, no longer a tiny, unknown foreign sect. Yet from the perspective of Roman officials Christians remained a people apart. They contributed little to the public life of society, and by their devotion to their own deity, Jesus of Nazareth, they undermined the religious foundations of the cities in which they lived.

Again, that sounds a lot like what 2kers hear from their critics. We don’t speak up in the public square. Our faith is irrelevant. Our understanding of Christianity undermines the cause of Christ in the United States (and elsewhere).

If I were a critic of 2k, I’m not sure I’d want to be on the side of an argument that Roman emperors and officials used to persecute and execute Christians.