The surprising reason it falls during Lent, and why it has been important for fighting heresy and abortion.
Over at Christianity Today I’ve just published an article on a subject that has long puzzled me: Why don’t pro-life evangelical Protestants talk much about the Annunciation? And if we believe that life starts at conception, then why are we more likely to associate the Incarnation with Christ’s birth (Christmas) than with the Annunciation (conception)?
Some familiar names for Christian History readers—N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, and others—were kind enough to reply, and I’m grateful for their insights. In fact, I received more response than I had expected, and as a result wasn’t able to include some of the more interesting church history aspects of the discussion.
Among them: Why March 25? The answer at first seems obvious: It’s nine months before Christmas. So many writeups on Annunciation assume (as I had) that once the church placed Christmas on December 25, it was a simple matter of counting backwards to mark Annunciation and Jesus’ conception.
But Muhlenberg College historian William J. Tighe argues that such a history gets things backwards. Before trying to determine either the dates of Jesus’ birth or conception, they tried to determine the date of his death. Tighe’s brief overview, which was published in Touchstone, is worth reading, as is his sequel of sorts in Touchstone’s current issue. But for our purposes here, what you need to know is that Greek Christians in the East said Jesus died April 6 and Latin Christians in the West said March 25.
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed. … Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.
Thus is it no accident or irritation that the Annunciation often falls during Lent—or even Holy Week. Originally, that was part of the point. As Augustine wrote, "He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered." (Biblical Archaeology Review’s article on this point is also worth reading.)
As the centuries went on, Annunciation became more associated with Mary than with the Incarnate Christ. By 656, the tenth council of Toledo,for example, called it "the festival of the Mother of God." But discussion of the unborn Jesus continued.
Pentecostal Scholarship Goes Global
In the mid-nineties, when I was almost finished with my studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my adviser, Dr. Garth Rosell, took me aside for a “career chat.” He hazarded a prediction: “In the coming years, young Pentecostal and charismatic students will do well in graduate studies and make an impact in the academy.” I was one of those young charismatics (though a late bloomer—already a decade older than many of my classmates). And I wondered whether Dr. Rosell was right. I hoped so. Though I still had all sorts of questions about the value of graduate study for the church, I had plunged into this academic world (and its ubiquitous dark reality of student debt) with both feet. It was becoming my world, and I hoped I could make my way in it.
I was that oddball creature: a "charismatic bookworm." For ten years after my conversion in 1985, I was formed as a Christian in the fires of Pentecostal experience. But despite the hand-raising, tongues-singing exuberance of that experience, I was no natural-born extrovert (I probably could have used this book). It took me quite some time to struggle out of my bookish shell and experience the “joy of the Lord” so evident at the interdenominational Rock Church in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.
Even in the midst of the intensive religious experience and activism so characteristic of that movement, I struggled with a welter of questions: What was the salvific meaning, if any, of these experiences I was having? Their biblical background? Who had discovered them first in the church, and how did they become what they were in the charismatic culture of the 1980s? What about the many other quirks and habits of this charismatic culture? How could I negotiate the myriad claims made by visiting and TV evangelists? How did such claims and experiences relate to Scripture? To the historical foundations of the church worldwide?
Those sorts of questions brought me to a decision.
Randall Balmer recounts The Making of Evangelicalism.
Randall Balmer’s academic credentials find few equals among scholars of evangelical history. The Columbia University professor earned his PhD at Princeton and wrote the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, now published in paperback by Baylor University Press. The Texas publisher has enlisted Balmer once more, this time to write a slimmer volume, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. What the book lacks in comprehensiveness it makes up for with contemporary punch. And Balmer lands several punches against evangelicals both living and dead.
Balmer enlivens his narrative by focusing on four turning points in evangelical history: “the transition from Calvinist to Arminian theology in the embrace of revivalism, the shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism in the late 19th century, the retreat into a subculture, and the rise of the Religious Right.” The primary aim of his book is evidently political, as he teases out the public policy implications of all but the first turning point. In one persistent theme, Balmer credits disestablishment for America’s comparative religious vitality while denouncing the Religious Right for trying to “eviscerate the First Amendment.” Then he closes his introduction by describing how President Barack Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 “dealt a mortal blow to the Religious Right.” Younger evangelicals, Balmer writes in the conclusion, have fled from the Religious Right, because they care for the environment and care little for traditional views on sexual identity. But Balmer has treated political issues more extensively in his book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. So with limited space for this review, I will focus on another element of Balmer’s brief history.
All sides of a recent textbook battle are right, and wrong, about religion in American history.
I think five different people mentioned the same article to me earlier this month: “How Christian Were the Founders?” from The New York Times Magazine. Russell Shorto’s long and generally balanced piece examines how one institution, the Texas State Board of Education, exerts tremendous power over the interpretation of such contentious issues as creation/evolution and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. It is a story full of ironies, not unlike American history itself.
Texas is a big state, and it orders a lot of textbooks. Textbook publishers cannot afford to tailor their products to every potential audience, so they often aim at the large target under the Lone Star. As a result, 15 people in Texas help determine the curriculum for much of the country. Who knew that an elected body including high school teachers, administrators, real estate agents, lawyers, and a dentist has more direct influence over public schools in this country than do the presidents of Ivy League universities?
Reality as the opposite of what you would expect is one kind of irony. Irony as unintended consequences, and irony as the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, are also on display in Shorto’s piece. Both appear in his discussion of the fabled wall of separation between church and state.
The headscratching headlines about the restoration of the world's oldest monastery.
"Egypt: Ancient Monastery Called a Sign of Coexistence" read the New York Times headline on an Associated Press story. The Daily Star of Lebanon, on its headline for the same story was even more direct: "Ascetic saint becomes a symbol of tolerance."
To be clear, it's the renovation, unveiled last week, of Antony's 1700-year-old monastery that's the symbol of tolerance, not Antony himself.
“I believe today is important because it can answer all the questions of the people all over the world and it can show how the Muslims can stay here eight years restoring and making impressive work,” Zahi Hawass told the Associated Press and other journalists.
As for Antony, he wasn't quite the symbol of interfaith tolerance. Here's the opening of Mark Galli's profile in Christian History's issue 64, on Antony and the other desert fathers:
Crossing the dry Egyptian desert, a band of philosophers finally arrived at the "inner mountain," the monastic abode of a Christian named Antony. The skeptical scholars asked the illiterate old man to explain the inconsistencies of Christianity, and after they got started, they ridiculed some of its teachings—especially that God's Son would die on a cross.
Antony, who spoke only Coptic (not Greek, the international language of the day), answered through an interpreter. He began by asking, "Which is better—to confess a cross, or to attribute acts of adultery and pederasty to those whom you call gods?" After questioning further the reasonableness of paganism, he moved to the central issue.
"And you, by your syllogisms and sophisms," he continued, "do not convert people from Christianity to Hellenism, but we, by teaching faith in Christ, strip you of superstition. … By your beautiful language, you do not impede the teaching of Christ, but we, calling on the name of Christ crucified, chase away the demons you fear as gods."
Before there was Christian History, there was Christian History.
Thomas Prince Sr. may have worried that the Great Awakening was fading when he and his son started the first evangelical magazine in 1743. But he wanted to publish a journal that would document the revival that had been spreading through the American colonies. Future generations could turn to the Christian History magazine and remember God’s faithfulness. He also hoped the periodical would keep the awakened community from fracturing, encourage recent converts, and perhaps even prompt a few new ones. Whether or not the Boston pastor succeeded in all his aims, we are indebted this progenitor of evangelical publishing, who inspired generations of journalist/historians to support the church by documenting the gospel’s progress.
“Where there had been no specifically evangelical periodical publication in the first forty years of the [eighteenth] century,” Susan [Durden] O’Brien observes, “by the last forty years such literature had become a normal means of communication and propagation for several denominations.”
Dorothy Sayers rediscovered the gripping drama of Christian doctrine.
We live once again, as did early 20th-century mystery writer and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers, in a world that could care less about the doctrines of the Christian church. And once again, many of those who care least are self-identified Christians and faithful churchgoers.
Before we lose all grip on the intellectual content of our faith, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with Sayers. In a recent Glimpses bulletin insert, I sketched her twin passions for swashbuckling drama and intellectual order, and suggested how these suited her to the great task of modern apologetics—a task probably still as urgent for Christian as for non-Christian audiences:
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was a prolific scholar, novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. Those who know about her today have usually met her through her detective stories and their memorable hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. But there is much more to her story. In a time of spiritual confusion, she emerged, almost despite herself, as an unlikely voice of clarity and a compelling lay “preacher” of the gospel.
Sayers, a clergyman’s daughter, was born into a late-Victorian Oxford, England that had ceased to be a sleepy medieval town: automobile factories now encroached on its narrow streets and dreamlike spires. Worse, the Christian tradition that had birthed Oxford University was now in full retreat throughout Europe. Anyone truly “modern” believed that humans, like everything else, are just aggregations of atoms, and matters of morality and spirit thus mere illusions.
Even the Church of England was giving in, so that by the turn of the century, bishops who doubted Christ’s resurrection were called “courageous.” And though many ministers and laypeople still held on to Christian faith, it was increasingly a sentimentalized, moralistic version.
In late girlhood and adolescence, Sayers was bright enough to observe and dislike the stuffed-shirt piety of the modernizing Church of England. She remarked that, like sex, such mysteries of the faith as the sacraments and God himself seemed to be considered “exceedingly sacred and beautiful,” yet also “indelicate, and only to be mentioned in whispers.” As she would later say about this sort of overdone churchiness: “At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy.”
Nothing has ever been easy for this once-lush island nation.
Like most people, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to Haiti in the past few weeks than ever before. I know very little about the place. It comes up just twice in my U.S. history survey course, once in the lecture on New World colonization, and again in a lecture on slave uprisings. For my own knowledge as well as for this blog, I thought I’d try to sketch a religious history of Haiti—one that does not include a national pact with the devil.
The island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, bore the brunt of early Spanish colonization of the New World. Christopher Columbus explored its northern coast in 1492, and his favorable reports, along with Spain’s quest for riches and global dominance, soon brought many more soldiers, priests, and economic adventurers. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest whose father and uncles joined Columbus’s second expedition, witnessed the results of this conquest. He titled his wrenching narrative, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542). It begins:
The Indies were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola…
And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these [indigenous] people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world….
Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola, once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.
With the native population annihilated, mostly by disease, the Spanish conquerors looked to the African slave trade for a new labor supply. Religion in Hispaniola thus became a mixture of indigenous Caribbean and imported African practices, overlaid with Roman Catholicism. That mixture produced voodoo (or Vodou), which perhaps half of all Haitians practice, despite the fact that some 80 percent of Haitians formally identify as Roman Catholics, and most of the rest formally identify as Protestants.
According to the website of the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, an organization that aids the resettlement of refugees, the word “voodoo” means “spirit” in the Fon language of West Africa. The COR describes voodoo as “a religion based on family spirits [loas] who generally help and protect. Although lacking a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, voodoo is a religion with its own rituals, ceremonies, and altars that practitioners do not find to be at odds with Roman Catholicism. In fact, many Roman Catholic symbols and prayers have blended with voodoo rituals and traditions to make for a unique and typically Haitian religion. For example, pictures of Catholic saints are painted on the walls of temples to represent the voodoo spirits; at funerals, it is not uncommon that voodoo ceremonies and rituals be performed for family members first, followed by a more public traditional Roman Catholic ceremony presided over by a priest.”
Thomas Kidd tells the story of a Great Awakening.
Good history books are a gift that keeps on giving. Baylor University scholar Thomas Kidd published The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America in 2007. But this landmark contribution to a much-studied period will long shape our understanding of the dynamic revival that spawned the modern evangelical movement.
Regarding that thorny question of evangelical origins, Kidd does not go so far as his colleague David Bebbington, who has argued for a “sharp discontinuity” between the transatlantic revival and earlier Protestant expressions. Rather, Kidd describes the American evangelical tradition as a “new elaboration” of the Reformation." In fact, he identifies three “chief tributaries” that fed into the burgeoning movement: Continental Pietism, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and Anglo-American Puritanism. But the “new elaboration” concerns “dramatically increased emphases on seasons of revival, or outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and on converted sinners experiencing God’s love personally.” This elaboration led to no small controversy in the 1740s.
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
The Fountain of Youth. The Pot of Gold. The Holy Grail. Every professor can add to this list one more legendary object of desire—and indeed, this may be the most elusive and valuable of them all:
The Assignment That Works.
This is the piece of coursework that seems quite regularly, really almost magically, to elicit from students their best, most engaged and thoughtful writing.
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
About a year ago, faculty members teaching certain core courses were tasked with creating assignments for the newly designed “integrative portfolio.” This is a dossier that now accompanies each Bethel M.Div. student through their program, helping them to track their growth personally and professionally.
The assignment I developed to fit this need is the final paper in the church history survey course. I have assigned it three times, and each time it seems to have that grail-like quality of drawing from many students a high level of thoughtfulness and engagement with the historical sources.
In response to this prompt, my students have written papers such as the following:
• A comparison of Andrew Carnegie’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century “gospel of wealth” with the modern “prosperity gospel”
• A look at open theism in light of the Apostles’ Creed
• A critique of evangelical support for American militarism based in the thought of such church fathers as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen
• A paper on whether the Lord’s Supper should be given only to baptized believers, with the winsome title “Table manners: Washing our children before they eat.”
Students doing this assignment are coming up with so many great ways our history illumines our present that it’s become a pleasure to sit down and grade the resulting papers. And that’s something you won’t hear a professor say very often!
Here’s the assignment. Maybe you could try it out yourself: