Review: The Life of John Newton

Rating: ★★★★

Who:

This biography was written anonymously and published by the American Sunday School Union. It has been reprinted by Attic Books, an imprint of New Leaf.

Overview:

John Newton is best known as the author of the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”—but in his lifetime, he was known as a slave-trader who eventually became a champion for abolitionism. He spent much of his adulthood in the Atlantic slave trade before eventually becoming a priest. His epitaph, which he wrote, summarizes his biography:

John Newton, Clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the faith he
Had long labored to destroy.

The Life of John Newton (1831) is a short biography that simplifies his life story from primary sources for a young audience. In spite of its brevity, this book tells a great deal about Newton’s long and dramatic life.

Once an infidel and libertine

John Newton was drafted into the British Navy at the height of their activity, and he eventually went AWOL at one of their ports of call. He was discovered, disgraced, stripped of his rank, and kept below deck like a slave aboard the navy ship. His time below deck was so miserable that he appealed for an alternative—any alternative—and was eventually cast out on the African “Slave Coast.”

A servant of slaves in Africa

Remarkably, Newton, a young white Englishman, became a slave to black African woman. His owner was technically a man, but he usually answered to the mistress. Being nearly starved, Newton was forced to subsist on scraps and raw roots. This dragged on for over a year until he was able to beg his way onto a British ship.

Preserved, restored, pardoned

For most of his twenties and thirties, Newton established himself as a slave-trader, eventually commanding his own ship. Life as a sailor was horribly fraught with danger, and Newton had many brushes with death. On March 10, 1748, the ship on which Newton served was dreadfully damaged during a storm in the night. The sea broke over the deck. The ship filled with water and began to sink; but it was loaded with light cargo. It thus continued in a half-sunk position, with damaged sails, for four weeks, while the crew’s rations were reduced to one fish for twelve men, and the pumps were being worked day and night. Newton was greatly affected by this near-death experience and began to take religion in earnest.

During his next voyage, one of his daily duties was to row to shore for supplies. As he was preparing to put off, the captain came and said that he had “taken it in his head” that Newton should remain on ship. The boat sank that day, and the crew that went in his stead drowned. Other dramatic near-death experiences are also described in the book; later on, in Liverpool, he was late to inspect a ship, and it blew up while he was on the way.

Appointed to preach the faith

In 1758, he applied for ordination to the Archbishop of York, but he was rejected because of certain doctrinal differences. Later, in 1764, he was accepted and took the curacy of Olney, at the age of 39. At Olney, Newton became acquainted with William Cowper, the brilliant poet. His biographer writes that Newton’s house “was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted.” It is little wonder, then, that Cowper, who had been traumatized as a schoolboy and afflicted with depression, was a friend of Newton. Newton and Cowper wrote Olney Hymns (1779) together, which included many hymns now famous. They had plans to write more, but they were prevented by Cowper’s mental illness.

Newton wrote many works aside from hymns, but none of them are commonly read now. In 1764, the year he arrived at Olney, he published an autobiography (An Authentic Narrative), which went through several editions. After he became a priest, he also published a few volumes of sermons and other works. His Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788) established him as an abolitionist, repudiating the trade to which he had devoted his twenties and thirties. His letters were highly regarded by Charles Spurgeon.

In 1779, Newton took up a rectory in London, “in an opulent neighbourhood, with connexions daily increasing.” He continued to preach into his seventies, though losing both sight and hearing.

Meat:

John Newton is regarded as an early champion of evangelicalism, and indeed he was. But there is one aspect of his life that runs counter to some narratives of his life: his support of slavery after his conversion experience. Evangelical narratives tend to divide life into two phases: life before conversion, in which we are wicked, purposeless, and unhappy; and life after conversion, in which we are motivated, cheerful, and uncompromised. Why then did Newton continue to work as a slave trader after he became a committed follower of Christ?

This question is addressed several times throughout the book. In Newton’s own words, which are worth reading at length:

The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic to be as I have here described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not, at the time, start with horror at my own employment, as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly; for I am sure, had I thought of the slave-trade then, as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst not have displeased God, by acting against the light of my mind.

Indeed, a slave-ship, while upon the coast, is exposed to such innumerable and continual dangers, that I was often then, and still am, astonished that any one, much more so many, should leave the coast in safety. . . . I considered it as the line of life which God in his providence had allotted me, and as a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness, till he should be pleased to deliver me from it. (p. 79-80)

Though atrocious, everything the slave-traders did was upheld by law. It therefore took great courage of mind to consider that this formidable institution, which had continued from the dawn of man, was something to be opposed. Newton was a slave-trader in the 1740s. At that time, William Wilberforce was not even born. John Wesley did not write his Thoughts upon Slavery until 1774.

In the 1780s, the tide was turning against the slave trade. When Newton, now a prominent London minister, came out publicly against the slave trade with his pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), it had an immense influence on English opinion. Eventually, in 1807, the British slave trade was abolished, and in 1833 the abolition of slavery followed.

Bones:

Some readers are turned off by this biography’s age, but I found it to be simply written and easy to read. It was written for the American Sunday School Union, evidently for a young audience. The quotations from Newton himself, though, are clearly in the higher style characteristic of the eighteenth century, and are a bit of a slog.

Related: Olney Hymns, Thoughts upon Slavery, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.

Quotes:

“A minister, wherever he is, should be always in his study. He should look at every man, and at every thing, as capable of affording him some instruction.” (p. 131)

“That one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves, should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world—that he should there not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it—is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never sufficiently estimate.” (p. 110)

“I have heard Mr. Newton say, when he has heard particular inquiry made about the last expressions of an eminent believer, ‘Tell me not how the man died, but how he lived.'” (p. 125)

“I hope I am upon the whole a scriptural preacher: for I find I am considered as an Arminian among the high Calvinists, and as a Calvinist among the strenuous Arminians.” (p. 134)

Review: How To Help Annexation

Rating: ★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Wartime, propaganda, World War I.

Overview:

This little pamphlet is ephemeral inasmuch as it addressed a moment that has now passed—the gradual de-escalation of World War I, as Germany’s allies agreed to armistices one by one, and the discussion was open as to what the consequences should be for Germany’s territories. This was a key moment in world history, and Chesterton was concerned that imperialist policies should be at all points discouraged.

Chesterton states frankly here that he stands by two principles: first, that he is for democracy, and second, that he is against imperialism.

As in his previous wartime works (The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England), Chesterton was writing as a patriot with an eye for justice in English and European policies. He argues, not without irony, that 1918 could be a repeat of 1871, as German aggression might be cowed only temporarily. In particular, he wanted Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France.

There is only one way to arrest annexation; only one way in which such a stampede of sophistry and spoliation can be stopped. The opportunity for it is now, and will never return; the test case is lit with a limelight of concentrated publicity that will never hold the attention to such a test case hereafter. Rightly or wrongly, Alsace-Lorraine has become this test case, which the whole world is watching. Let it revert to France, and the whole world will know that the rush of annexations has been reversed; that civilisation has determined to return to its boundaries. Let it remain to Germany or under the shadow of Germany, in whatever form, upon whatever pretext, and the whole world will know that such annexations are always ultimately justified and can be safely imitated. (p. 12)

Chesterton’s opinions on this must not have been as rare as he thought, since Alsace-Lorraine ultimately was returned to Germany. (Germany had annexed it in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War.) On another point, Chesterton was somewhat prophetic—deep-rooted German race theories and perennial imperialism led to the outbreak of World War II, just three years after Chesterton’s death.

Related: The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England, Lord Kitchener.


In case you’re wondering what this review is doing here, this review is part of an effort to review all of Chesterton’s works in 2020 as an effort to get a full-orbed understanding of his life and thought. Our reviews usually cover sermons, theology, creative essays, biographies, and classic Christian living books.

Review: Beyond the Gloesmur

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Kathleen E. Deisher is the author and illustrator of Beyond the Gloesmur, a coming-of-age fantasy novel, as well as two children’s books. She has also been active in campus ministry in Texas and Oklahoma for several decades.

Overview:

Beyond the Gloesmur (2002, new edition 2019) records the first journey of Princess Jondalyn into the lands on the other side of the Gloesmur, a translucent veil separating our world from theirs. Jondalyn is visited in the night by Aeroan, a flying horse who asks her to come with him on a quest at the bidding of his Master. Though reluctant at first, Jondalyn accepts Aeroan’s challenge. When she arrives on the other side, she is guided by Talimar, a “mere stable boy,” who nonetheless is more royal in his attitude than Jondalyn herself.

Some readers will appreciate that the language of this book is more overtly Christian than some other fantasy novels by Christian authors. The characters learn real lessons about humility and patience as they travel the lands beyond the Gloesmur. The parallels with our own experiences are not always left to mere metaphors; rather, the protagonists make real sacrifices and have growing pains very similar to our own.

The style of the book is generally very appropriate for young readers, and the story is easy to follow. Some of the language is more formal than everyday speech, as we expect in a fantasy.

If you are a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia or A Wrinkle in Time, you will surely enjoy Beyond the Gloesmur.

There is some depth to the world beyond the Gloesmur that leaves room for a sequel, which unfortunately has not yet been published. Here’s to hoping that Book Two of The Gloesmur Scrolls is well on its way.

Review: William Cobbett

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Biography.

Overview:

William Cobbett (1925) is one of eight full-length biographies written by Chesterton. This biography is not particularly theological, but it is reviewed here as an important specimen of Chesterton’s thought. None of Chesterton’s biographies are orderly accounts of a person’s life, work, and death; he is mainly concerned with Cobbett’s thought-life and influence on society.

The subject, William Cobbett (1763-1835), was a pamphleteer and Member of Parliament who fought for political reforms on behalf of the English poor and especially farmers. Among Chesterton’s other biographical works, Cobbett is the odd man out, being neither a religious figure, nor a great literary man; but Cobbett’s economic and political philosophy was Chesterton’s bread and butter. (Chesterton was a champion of “distributism,” an idea further described below.) In short, Cobbett despised financial corruption and plutocracy and encouraged an agrarian lifestyle, and was greatly alarmed by the many changes of the Industrial Revolution in England. He sought to encourage parliamentary reform in his writings, but he faced a great deal of opposition, including eventual flogging and imprisonment.

Cobbett was an opponent of various forms of corruption:

  • Abuse of enlisted soldiers (in the pamphlet The Soldier’s Friend, 1792);
  • “Rotten boroughs,” parliamentary boroughs that were essentially bought by the rich, similar to gerrymandering in American politics (finally abolished in 1867);
  • Disenfranchisement of rural farmers (Rural Rides 1822 to 1826).

Of these, Chesterton makes the most of the third, masterfully showing how industrialization was driving farmers out of hamlets and into towns, as evidenced in architecture: in the author’s eyes, churches in English villages are often very old and spacious beyond the needs of the parish; but country seats betrayed much younger architecture, showing that they were the product of a different time. Economic inequality was growing worse, not better.

William Cobbett also vehemently opposed national debt, stock markets, and even paper money (Paper Against Gold, 1817). On hearing of the first, we might think he was a libertarian; after the second, we might think he was a radical; after the third, we know Cobbett for what he is: a man out of time. Cobbett believed convoluted modern financial practices were distractions from true wealth, and would lead to eventual decline.

Meat:

While Chesterton expresses some tenets of distributism in most of his written works, they are clearly expounded in historical context in this biography. The ideas of distributism, while not framed in Christian terms in William Cobbett, are presented here in relation to Chesterton’s Christianity, with the hope that this will help believers to see their political thought in light of Scripture.

Distributism cuts across both socialism and capitalism, providing a “third way.” Socialism is typically criticized (at least, in the U. S.) because it may indirectly discourage productivity, but the Bible encourages believers to be productive members of society:

“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before.” (1 Thess. 4:11, NLT)

Capitalism is often criticized for tending towards monopoly. The words of Isaiah clearly condemn monopoly:

“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” (Isa. 5:8, ESV)

The prophet Isaiah makes much of social justice and equality as an expression of God’s holiness. John Goldingay, in one of his many modern studies on Isaiah, points out that neglect of the poor is a main motivator for God’s judgment in Isaiah 1 to 5. A hundred years earlier, Joseph Parker, in his People’s Bible, commented on Isaiah 5:8:

“Men had little freeholds of their own: it was a life marked by small proprietorships; almost every man had some little patch of vineyard. The disposition, however, was to do away with small proprietories, and for the greater men to grasp all the land . . . The little freeholders of Palestine, were in many cases forced into a position of slavery, and made to toil as slaves on the lands which they once honestly owned and hopefully cultivated.”

These words concerning Israel, written in 1891, are a remarkable parallel to the problem described in Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1826) and in Chesterton’s biography (1925). In debating economic policies as they relate to the poor, believers should not consider capitalism and socialism as the only two options. There is a needed corrective in Chesterton’s encouragement towards a simple life.

Bones:

Chesterton portrays Cobbett as a unique and tortured soul, a genius rational beyond the reckoning of his time. In this Chesterton takes some artistic liberty, probably seeing much of himself in his subject. He is right though, that Cobbett was not well understood. William Cobbett was, like Chesterton, a native of Surrey, and we may forgive the author for idolizing someone with such a profound influence on his own political thought.

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg Australia (html)

Review: Manalive (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Novel, detective fiction.

Overview:

Manalive (1912), like Chesterton’s other early novels, revolves around an antihero. Innocent Smith appears to all the supporting characters to be a lunatic, but some show sympathy for his bombastic and unconventional ways. Early in the book, he becomes embroiled in controversy over his ethically confusing behavior. (Note the obvious irony of his name.) A large part of the book is framed by courtroom dialogue, in which the defense and prosecution produce numerous testimonies and anecdotes about Smith’s strange behavior in relation to his friends, family, and home.

Because a number of crimes are integral to the plot of the book, Manalive could be construed loosely as a detective novel.

Meat:

Manalive is one of Chesterton’s better novels, and expresses his philosophy of life in a way not expressed elsewhere. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, it is episodic and has a strong unified theme, often expressed with poetic description and clever dialogue. The theme of the novel relates to finding contentment where you are; but it is much more appropriate to offer a sample of the author’s words:

“Going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already.”

Contentment is thus framed as a paradox: we long to be where we are. This also leads to some wonderful insight into marriage in this novel, much of the plot revolving around Innocent Smith’s (un?)faithfulness to his wife. Ultimately, we can see in Smith much of the author’s jovial love of paradox, his concept of love, as well as his sense of local patriotism—a main theme in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Bones:

I found the courtroom setting to be an uninteresting distraction. Once I understood the purpose of the novel, I realized that the testimonies were all tied together by a common thread; until then, I thought the book was dull and slow. Perhaps the frame was not tightly bound enough, because I kept getting confused about who was speaking, since the courtroom testimonies were given as very long letters or monologues.

Quotes:

“God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything.

Read (free): Gutenberg (html, epub, txt), Archive (pdf), Kindle (mobi), Librivox (audio)

Review: As I Was Saying

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Essays, articles.

Overview:

As I Was Saying (1936) is the last among Chesterton’s many compilations of articles and essays, the first of which (The Defendant) had appeared in 1901. In his later life, he was releasing one book of articles annually in addition to several other works: Generally Speaking (1928), Come to Think of It (1930), All Is Grist (1931), All I Survey (1933), Avowals and Denials (1934), The Well and the Shallows (1935), and, lastly, As I Was Saying (1936).

All of Chesterton’s compilations are a joy to read. Ironically, these later essays are not as easy to come by as his earlier works. Perhaps they were not as popular. The themes include several authors of his time (George Meredith, William Morris), and various political, literary, and religious themes. They have the same infinite pith of his earlier works. He also deals with many themes that will sound quite modern to native Chestertonians (“About Traffic,” “About the Telephone”, “About the Films”).

Meat:

There are five essays in this book that are worthy of anything Chesterton ever wrote: “About Beliefs,” “About Meredith,” “About Relativity,” “About Darwinism,” and “About Sacrifice.”

“About Beliefs” is a short article dealing with the Resurrection of Christ. “About Sacrifice” likewise is sublime in its theme:

The idea of giving up a thing not because it is bad, but because it is good.

“About Relativity” and “About Darwinism” both deal with phases of modern thought that have been lost in time:

Whatever else was evolved, evolution was not evolved. . . . [The idea] came with far too much of a rush; it became, as the phrase goes, all the rage, with some of its exponents rather unmistakably raging.

Bones:

Probably a downside to these later essays for many readers is that they have become increasingly political. It is perhaps natural for a man to become more firm in his beliefs over time.

In As I Was Saying, Chesterton is also frequently concerned about changes taking place in Germany (“About Loving Germans”):

In short, it is thought an insult to call Germans sausages; but it is a compliment to call them sausage-machines.

Being by this time a thorough Catholic and an opponent of a materialistic worldview, Chesterton shows no sympathy for the Nazi movement, and precious little for German culture itself, as I have written elsewhere.

Review: A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland

Rating: ★★★★

Author:

Henry S. Burrage was an American clergyman who wrote several books about the Civil War, as well as the history of baptism.

Overview:

A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland (1882) is concise, but researched; informative, but compelling. If you are studying the Reformation as a whole, D’Aubigne is much larger in scope, but this little book by Burrage tops my list of recommendations on Reformation history. He covers in passing:

  • The entry of missionaries into Switzerland (7th c.)
  • Stirrings toward reform (15th c.)
  • Zwingli’s move against indulgences and his sympathizers
  • Luther’s rejection of offered brotherhood
  • Split between Zwingli and the radical reformers (chiefly Grebel and Hubmaier)
  • The move to persecute, execute, or banish those who rejected infant baptism

Theologically, many issues rise to the surface:

  • Infant baptism vs. believers’ baptism
  • State church vs. free church
  • Open communion vs. church discipline
  • Treatment of “heretics”
  • Use of images
  • Abolition of “mass” as an offering
  • Nonresistance theology

The key question to be answered was:

Having separated from the Church of Rome, they naturally asked, what should take its place? (loc. 672)

Here, rather than writing of what I liked about the book, I will set apart some space for historical facts gleaned from this little book.

Key Moments in the History of Baptism:

1. Stirrings Against Corruption

In August 1518, an indulgence seller named Bernard Samson came to Switzerland. Zwingli, quoting Matthew 11:28, called it “the most presumptuous folly” to lay such a burden on Christian people. (loc. 314) Others had preceded him, such as Reuchlin, who instructed Melanchthon, and Wittenbach, who attacked indulgences. (loc. 190-198) Wittenbach believed a new era of Christian learning would dawn.

“In Zurich . . . Zwingli was continually growing in popular favor. . . . Only gradually, however, did Zwingli break with the Church of Rome.” (loc. 390-395)

2. The Reformation Organizes—”Magisterial” & “Radical”

The First Zurich Discussion was held January 29, 1523, in which Zwingli defended himself against rumors of heresy. Only one man defended invocation of the saints, and when the others appealed to sola scriptura, he had little to say. “Zwingli had won an easy and decisive victory.” (loc. 549)

The Second Zurich Discussion was held October 26-28, 1523, after an outbreak against Christian images. Hubmaier, Grebel, and Stumpf appealed against the use of images and the offering of the Mass, but Zwingli took a more moderate course of reform:

“Especially was it an occasion of dissatisfaction with them that the churches in and around Zurich, which had broken away from the grasp of Rome, should thus be made dependent upon the State. ‘It stands ill with the gospel in Zurich,’ wrote Grebel to Vadian, ‘and Zwingli no longer acts a shepherd’s part.’ From this time the reform party was hopelessly divided.”

Stumpf was significant in re-evaluating the meaning of “church.” He said it should be believers only, and he was dismissed by the Zurich Council. (loc. 665)

3. The Magisterial Reformation Works Against the Radical Reformation

Grebel, Reublin, and others were teaching believers’ baptism by March 1524 and in August 1524 a fine was ordered for those who didn’t baptize their children. Hubmaier, after being pressured to resign his pastorate, wrote to the Council:

Divine truth is immortal, and although for a while it may be arrested, scourged, crowned, crucified, and buried, it will, nevertheless, on the third day rise victorious, and rule and triumph forever and ever. (loc. 734)

On January 16, 1525, Grebel wrote, “Christianity will not prosper unless baptism and the Lord’s Supper are brought back to their original purity.” A call was issued to discuss infant baptism on January 17, 1525. On January 18, banishment was ordered for those with unbaptized children. Several leaders, Hetzer and Reublin, left.

Here follows a description of an early Anabaptist conventicle:

After a season of prayer, the Scriptures were read, Grebel and Mantz translating from the original Hebrew and Greek for the benefit of those who were unacquainted with the ancient tongues. The meaning of the sacred Word was then unfolded, under the guidance, as it was believed, of the Holy Spirit. (loc. 895)

Around this time, several preached conversion in the streets of Zurich, using apocalyptic language and shouting “woe to Zurich!”

On March 7, 1526, drowning was ordered for re-baptizers (“Anabaptists”). When Falk and Rieman were arrested in May 1526, “they confessed that they had been baptized, and that, atlhough they knew the penalty was death, they had baptized others, and would do so again.” (loc. 1545)

The above edict was confirmed November 17, 1526, and Mantz was drowned on January 5, 1527.

It was soon found that persecution increased rather than diminished the membership of the Anabaptists Churches. (loc. 1642)

4. Leaders in the Radical Reformation & Their Practices

A key figure in believers’ baptism was Conrad Grebel. Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock on January 21, 1525—the first adult baptism of the Reformation. Conrad Grebel also baptized Wolfgang Ullmann in the Rhine—the first adult baptism by immersion of the Protestant Reformation. (He died of the Plague in 1526.)

Grebel also taught non-resistance theology.

“In lonely cottages in the valleys and along the mountain slopes, the people were quietly summoned together. The Bible was read, its divine lessons unfolded, and sinners were urged to flee from the wrath to come. It was a new gospel to thousands . . .” (loc. 987)

Another leading figure Balthasar Hubmaier. Hubmaier was a “Schwertler” (sword-bearing) Anabaptist, as opposed to the total non-resistance theology of others. He chose to write in vernacular German; “the death of the Lord should be preached after any land’s tongue.” Hubmaier was burned at the stake publicly on March 10, 1528, and his wife was also executed. He had endured considerable torture during his imprisonment.

Hubmaier practiced child dedication. (loc. 1023) There is also some mention that children “belong to the Kingdom.”

“For I am wholly of a different view from those who bind the Kingdom of God to the ceremonies and elements of the world.” (Denk, loc. 1712)

Bones:

It almost goes without saying that the writer of this book had a great disdain for the Magisterial Reformation represented by Zwingli, and does not present them in a positive light! In fact, Zwingli defended several Reformation principles—sola scriptura, the Lord’s Supper, etc.—that all Protestants today would consider indispensable.

Read for Free: The Internet Archive (pdf).

Review: Thackeray

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Lewis Melville was an English author known mainly for his biographical works on Victorian authors.

Series:

Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
  4. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
  5. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  6. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these six writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

William Makepeace Thackeray was an English novelist of the mid-nineteenth century, portrayed in Chesterton’s time as a cynic, and in our time as a satirist. Both authors in this little book, however, contend that Thackeray is neither. While Melville writes that Thackeray’s fictional characters are often “scoundrels,” Chesterton turns this around by portraying Thackeray as an “idealist.” Chesterton argues that allowing us to sympathize with the “scoundrels” was Thackeray’s genius:

We may, without any affected paradox, but rather with serious respect, sum up Thackeray’s view of life by saying that amid all the heroes and geniuses he saw only one thing worth being—a fool. (ch. 1)

In his account of the many characters of Thackeray’s stories, Melville writes:

His characters are always human. There are no immaculate heroes, no perfect heroines, no utterly unredeemed scoundrels of either sex to be met with in the pages of his books. (ch. 2)

Thackeray evidently did not see himself as a satirist. Rather, he imagined his characters were real people, and he wrote matter-of-factly that he began his novels entirely on this basis. He did not write fiction with any particular climax in mind, and wrote that he did not “control” his characters: “I am in their hands, and they take me where they please.” Again, in his letters he speaks of characters as his “friends,” and writes, “I wonder what will happen to Pendennis.” Far from a bleak lover of tragedy, Chesterton sees in Thackeray the same childlike whimsy that made his own writings so lovable.

Aside from his unique process, another intriguing device used by Thaceray was that of introducing crossover characters in unrelated stories; this device was also adopted, for example, by George MacDonald in some of his novels, and has become very popular in contemporary fiction.

As far as his personal life, Thackeray began as a noble, but spent most of his inheritance in Europe before he really created a livelihood. In an odd parallel to Chesterton’s early career, Thackeray excelled at art and made a study of it, but could not make a living doing so, and eventually made a name for himself as a writer instead. In the 1830s, he was fixed as a contributor for several magazines of the time, such as Fraser’s Magazine, and later as editor of Cornhill. Like other novels of the time (including Dickens), most of Thackeray’s fictional stories were published as serials and only later compiled into books. They progressed toward realism over time, the most famous being Pendennis (1850), Vanity Fair (1853), and The Newcomes (1855).

Meat:

Though his treatment of this author seems—as usual—paradoxical, Chesterton does a good job of defending Thackeray as an idealist. This culminates in these wonderful commemorative verses by Anthony Trollope:

He was a cynic; you might read it writ
In that broad brow, crowned with its silver hair;
In those blue eyes, with childlike candour lit,
In that sweet smile his lips were wont to wear;

A cynic? Yes—if ’tis the cynic’s part
To track the serpent’s trail, with saddened eye,
To mark how good and ill divide the heart,
How lives in chequered shade and sunshine lie.

Subverting the static portrayal of good and evil characters is something that has become quite a vogue in post-modern fiction and cinema; it is no longer fashionable, sometimes, to even know who the hero and the villain are. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn famously wrote:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

For Thackeray’s part, I would hope that his audience would at least have agreed on what evil is as a starting point. From there, we can work out the meaning and destiny of each character.

Bones:

Most definitely, the most humorless part of this book is the record of the houses that Thackeray lived in. Surely, an American reader gets no joy from this, and even an English tourist, I believe, would only look over it with the mildest interest unless he happened to be within a mile of one of them.

Review: Job (People’s Bible, Book 12)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Joseph Parker was a famed Congregationalist preacher of late nineteenth-century London. His People’s Bible is a monumental series of over 1000 sermons from the perspective of biblical (or narrative) theology.

Overview:

Joseph Parker’s preaching style is especially suited to Old Testament wisdom, and had already published a volume on Job (Job’s Comforters: Scientific Sympathy, 1874) more than a decade before his magnum opus, The People’s Bible, was begun.

As usual, almost every sermon in this volume includes generalizations about the book as a whole, relating it to New Testament truth. However, unlike many books written about Job (e.g., Morgan’s The Answers of Jesus to Job), he doesn’t skip over the dialogues of Job’s friends. Parker goes chapter by chapter, following the dialogue in narrative chunks, but usually not verse by verse.

Meat:

Job’s friends are a topic that Parker pays special attention to, as he did in his previous book on Job. In the course of his sermons, he points out two key errors that can be made about Job’s comforters:

  1. We may cite them as Scripture, without differentiating them from Job himself, or paying due notice to the narrative.
  2. We may pay them no notice because of the divine verdict rendered against their words (in Job 42:7).

Parker steers away from both, treating Job’s friends (and Elihu) as serious debaters and theologians, with mostly correct—but incomplete—view of God’s providence.

History is not a succession of accidents, but the outworking of a sublime philosophy, the end of which is the coronation of righteousness, the enthronement of purity and nobleness. Such comforters are sent to us as from the very presence of God.

Paul Anleitner’s Deep Talks podcast on Job treats Job’s friends in much the same way; they are correct in observing that, in general, the righteous prosper and the wicked perish (Prov. 11:10, 29:2, etc.); this, however, is simply not the whole picture.

The general doctrine is founded in truth; its fallacy lies is in its application to Job’s peculiar case.

I should add, Chesterton’s wonderful 1902 article on Robert Louis Stevenson rather turns this topic on its head.

Bones:

The shortcomings of this book are not different from the shortcomings of The People’s Bible as a whole; namely, Parker is a “big picture” preacher and doesn’t often answer detail-oriented questions about the text. This book should not be read at a study desk. Rather, his sermons need to be approached in armchair with a large cup of tea.

Quotes:

“Good behaviour founded upon a philosophy of fear is only vice in a fit of dejection.”

“No man could see himself and live.”

“May we not have argued about providences when we ought to have prayed respecting them?”

“If we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is able to lay a wounded hand upon God, and a wounded hand upon man, and to bring God and man together in righteous and eternal reconciliation.”

“How if it should turn out at last that our very punishment has been meted to us in mercy? What if at the end it should be found that adversity was a veiled evangel sent from heaven to bring us home?”

On meaningless suffering:

“We must often suffer, and not know the reason why: we must often rise from our knees to fight a battle, when we intended to enjoy a long repose: things must slip out of our hands unaccountably, and loss must befall our estate after we have well tended all that belongs to it, after we have securely locked every gate, and done the utmost that lies within the range of human sagacity and strength to protect our property. These are the trials that we must accept. If everything were plain and straightforward, everything would be proportionately easy and proportionately worthless.”

On immortality:

“God, who has made so much out of nothing, means to make more out of so much: the very creation means the redemption and salvation and coronation of the thing that was created in the divine image and likeness. Creation does not end in itself: it is a pledge, a token, a sign—yea, a sure symbol, equal in moral value to an oath, that God’s meaning is progress unto the measure of perfection. This is how we discover the grand doctrine of the immortality of the soul, even in the Old Testament—even in the Book of Genesis and in the Book of Job. What was it that lay so heavily upon Adam and upon Job? It was the limitation of their existence; it was the possible thought that they could see finalities, that they could touch the mean boundary of their heart’s throb and vital palpitation. When men can take up the whole theatre of being and opportunity and destiny, and say, This is the shape of it, and this is the weight, this is the measure, this is the beginning, and this is the end, then do they weary of life, and they come to despise it with bitterness; but when they cannot do these things, but, contrariwise, when they begin to see that there is a Beyond, something farther on, voices other than human, mystic appearances and revelations, then they say, This life as we see it is not all; it is an alphabet which has to be shaped into a literature, and a literature which has to end in music. The conscious immortality of the soul, as that soul was fashioned in the purpose of God, has kept the race from despair.”

fountain pen

Scribes of the Kingdom

An Apologia for Christian Scholarship

There are several classes of people in the New Testament setting that are difficult to translate or describe, and are liable to be painted with a broad brush:

As we take each of these in turn, a clear picture emerges: Jesus and the apostles endorsed the role of theologians and scholars as essential to the function of the church. The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees was most assuredly not that they took their Bible seriously and sought to learn all they could about it; rather, Jesus’ conflict with them was caused by their neglect of applying what they knew so well (Matthew 23:23). Their expertise brought upon them a great responsibility.

Who Are Pharisees and Sadducees?

Pharisees and Sadducees are two important schools of thought within the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees derived their authority from the law of Moses, and numbered in the thousands. According to Josephus, only the wealthy elite were persuaded to become Sadducees. Their main distinguishing doctrine was their denial of an afterlife.

Both of these groups frequently become straw men during sermons on the New Testament. However, it is clear from the Bible that not all of the scholars or religious elite of Jesus’ day were hypocrites. In the New Testament, the Sadducees are never depicted in a positive light.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were rivals with different views of the Torah. Interestingly, Jesus warns his disciples about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). Thus, he steered them away from joining both of these leading schools of thought, though several Pharisees did later join them.

Who Are Scribes and Lawyers?

Scribes and lawyers are, for all intents and purposes, the scholars and theologians of biblical times. But they are not translated this way because there are clear differences related to the tasks that they were involved in. In general, scholars of today are more specialized and less involved in clerical work.

In Greek, scribes are, etymologically, “lettered” or “literate” people. This makes more sense here in Asia, where handwriting is considered a marketable skill. In the Middle East, a “scribe” (خطّاط) acts mainly as a calligrapher, and neat handwriting is prized; in South Asia, scribes also may act like notaries, helping with official documents and clerical work, as they did in Bible times.

Lawyers as spoken of in the New Testament were not mainly concerned with secular law, but with God’s law found in the Torah. It is not entirely misleading to think of someone constructing an argument from piles of books or manuscripts, but the key difference here is that it was a religious role, not a secular role. For this reason, modern translations often use phrases like “expert” or “teacher” of the Law (that is, Mosaic law).

Woe to the Scholars!

Of the four categories listed above, all are are prone to negative descriptions. Among these, the Sadducees are perhaps the only one that is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the New Testament. They were in serious doctrinal error, and none of them in the Gospels or Acts ever offers any encouragement to the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus also pronounces woe on lawyers (Luke 11:46, 52), and scribes and Pharisees, whom he groups together (Matthew 23, Luke 11:42-44). In light of this, and Paul’s writings about the cross being “foolishness” to the wise of this world, intellectuals and scholars have become low-hanging fruit for Bible teachers who want to lead people into a more spiritual worldview.

In general, this kind of anti-intellectualism is not only unfounded, but unbiblical. In the New Testament, there are many scholars and teachers that seriously consider Jesus’ teachings or even follow him. There are several verses where Jesus explicitly speaks of scribes in a positive light, which are listed below. As for the lawyers, Paul requests a lawyer named Zenas to minister with Apollos (Titus 3:13).

Several Pharisees are either sympathetic to the Christian faith or believers themselves. Paul calls himself a Pharisee before and after conversion, suggesting that there was nothing offensive about their doctrine; rather, similar to the “Nazirites” of Scripture, it denoted a certain status in relation to the law (Phil. 3:5). In today’s terminology, some contemporary writers have characterized the Pharisees more like a conscientious revival movement—not a bumbling cult of nitpickers.

Jesus Sends Us Scribes

There are at least three passages in which Jesus makes explicitly positive evaluations of scribes:

  • In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe asks Jesus about the first commandment. (This is one of several passages in which scholars ask Jesus sincere questions, not intending to “trap” him as in other stories.) After their discussion, Jesus pronounces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
  • In concluding the parables of the kingdom, Jesus tells his disciples that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Scholars, therefore, have an important role in preserving and disseminating kingdom truths!
  • In Matthew 23, Jesus is pronouncing woe on the “scribes and Pharisees.” He tells them that he sends “prophets, wise men and scribes.” This is the most important verse in this study because it not only legitimizes scribes, but proclaims that Jesus himself sends them, working alongside prophets and other “wise men.”

Jesus and his disciples frequently interacted with scribes, lawyers and Pharisees in neutral settings. They attend his teachings and ask genuine questions:

  • In Matthew 17:10, Mark 9:11, Jesus’ disciples knew scribal teachings. In Mark 12:35, Jesus himself knew the teachings of the scribes.
  • In Luke 17:20, the Pharisees ask about the coming of the kingdom.
  • In John 9:40, Pharisees ask Jesus if they are blind, too.
  • In Mark 7:1, Pharisees and scribes come to see him—though he afterward rebukes them.
  • In Luke 7:37 and 39, Jesus sits in a Pharisee’s house. In Luke 11:37, Jesus accepts another invitation from a Pharisee.
  • In John 3, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) approaches Jesus in the night.

In other passages, scribes agree with Jesus:

  • In Luke 20:39, scribes agree with Jesus about the resurrection.
  • In Mark 12:28-34, the scribe (mentioned above) agrees that Jesus has spoken well about the greatest commandments.

In many New Testament Scriptures, scribes, lawyers and Pharisees have even become disciples of Jesus:

  • In Matthew 8:19, a scribe asks to be a disciple.
  • In Acts 15:5, some Pharisees had believed the gospel.
  • In Titus 3:13, Paul asks Titus to send “Zenas the lawyer” with Apollos; here he appears to be financially endorsing a scholar with a traveling ministry.
  • Paul himself was a Pharisee, and proclaims himself “a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee” well after becoming a follower of Jesus (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Phil. 3:5).

There are also New Testament passages where scholars, teachers, and Pharisees receive Jesus’ spiritual ministry:

  • In Mark 9:14, scribes came seeking healing.
  • In Luke 5:17, Pharisees and teachers came from every town, and “the power of the Lord was present.”

In a surprising number of passages, scribes and Pharisees defend Jesus and the apostles from the persecution of others:

  • In Luke 13:31, some Pharisees warned Jesus of persecution from Herod.
  • In John 7:50, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) publicly defends Jesus.
  • In Acts 19:35, a scribe calmed the mob in Ephesus.
  • In Acts 23:9, scribes of the Pharisees wanted to release Paul.
  • In Acts 5:34, Gamaliel (a Pharisee) advises the Sanhedrin to release the apostles.

Conclusion

The above passages resist caricatures of the Pharisees, who were a large and presumably diverse group. Rather, unlike the Sadducees, many Pharisees became followers of Jesus, or defended him against others of their sect.

More importantly, though, there is a clear and legitimate role for theologians in Jesus’ teaching. He does not exclude all intellectuals with a wave of his hand; rather, in Matthew 13:52 and 23:34, he maintains space for scholars and experts who maintain a high regard for God and his words.