Bio, Books, and Such: Collin Hansen

Aug 15, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

During the summer I’ll be posting micro interviews on Fridays. I’ve asked some of my friends in ministry–friends you probably already know–to answer questions about “bio, books, and such.” My hope is that you’ll enjoy getting a few more facts about these folks and getting a few good book recommendations.

Today’s interview is with Collin Hansen,  author and Editorial Director for The Gospel Coalition.

1. Where were you born? Madison, South Dakota

2. When did you become a Christian? Age 15 in 1997. I attended a retreat with a youth ministry and for the first time saw peers who loved Jesus and wanted to tell others about him.

3. Who is one well known pastor/author/leader who has shaped you as a Christian and teacher? Ranging from how I teach and evangelize to how I love God and fight sin, I have learned the most from Tim Keller. He’s a big reason why I serve with The Gospel Coalition.

4. Who is one lesser known pastor/friend/mentor who has shaped you? Two men were used by God during a crucial time of my life. I’m eternally grateful for Chris Sarver, the man who led my Cru ministry in college, and Ben Gildner, our preacher during that time and the man who officiated our wedding.

5. What’s one hymn you want sung at your funeral? No doubt it would be “My Song Is Love Unknown.” Just look at this closing stanza:

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
in Whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

6. What kind of nonfiction do you enjoy reading when you aren’t reading about theology, the Bible, or church history? I never get tired of reading history. And you could exhaust multiple lifetimes trying to keep up with publishing on the American Civil War. But I enjoy learning the stories of these citizen-soldiers making decisions under unfathomable pressure as they changed history in untold ways. I’m usually also reading a book about place-making in our transient age.

7. What are one or two of your favorite fiction authors or fiction books? No doubt Fyodor Dostoevsky would top that list for his penetrating insight into the human psyche and a world that denies God. But I also appreciate Marilynne Robinson’s touch for revealing the profound in the mundane.

8. What is one of your favorite non-Christian biographies? I’m cheating, because this is a biography about a Christian. But it’s not written by a Christian, and it doesn’t focus on his Christian faith. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken might be the best story I’ve read outside the Bible. By the time you finish the book, however, you’ll understand why the title is so misguided.

9. What is one of your favorite books on preaching? I don’t preach as often as I’d like, but the best book I know about forming the preacher himself is Zack Eswine’s Sensing Jesus.

10. What is one of your favorite books on evangelism? I haven’t yet read anything that surpasses J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.

11. What is one of your favorite books on apologetics? Oddly enough I learned more about apologetics by reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion than I have reading most books by Christians that assume good arguments will carry the day.

12. What is one of your favorite books on prayer? I need books that reveal my need for prayer as a means of grace more than I need books that teach me how to pray. So in that regard Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God exposes my older brother heart and need to humble my judgmental, critical self before my Savior.

13. What is one of your favorite books on marriage? We might have avoided a lot of pain and heartache if Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage had been available when my wife and I got married in 2003.

14. What music do you keep coming back to on your iPhone (or CD player, or tape deck, or gramophone)? My list of favorites playing in the background now includes “Canon in D Minor,” “Live and Die” by the Avett Brothers, “Adagio in G minor for Organ and Strings,” the arrangement of John Newton’s “I Asked the Lord” by Indelible Grace, “Alabama Pines” by Jason Isbell, and “May Your Power Rest on Me” from Sojourn.

16. Favorite food? When I left Chicago I abandoned my two favorite foods: deep-dish pepperoni from Lou Malnati’s and steak kabobs from Naf Naf Grill. Thankfully in Birmingham I can walk to Saw’s Juke Joint, and you’ll never surpass their flash-fried chicken wings or pork and greens over grits.

17. After the Bible, a hymnal, and a shipbuilding guide, what book would you want with you on a desert island? Louis Zamperini actually survived being stranded in the Pacific, so I might learn a thing or two from Unbroken.

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The Gospel According to Cats and Dogs

Aug 14, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Some people have a gospel according cats.

And others have a gospel according to dogs.

The gospel according to cats has God saying, “Please me. Stroke me. Fear me. Don’t get too close to me. Love me. Serve me and I may pay attention to you on occasion.” It portrays God as someone who is fickle, preening, and demanding.

The gospel according to dogs has God saying, “I love everything about you. You never upset me. You never do anything wrong.  Don’t ever change. I don’t care what you do or who you are. You are my master and I love  you. I am so happy to be with you–no matter what!” It portrays God as someone desperate for affection, without standards and without any real concern for our behavior or well-being.

The gospel according to cats offers no grace. The gospels according to dogs expects no obedience. Take your pick: a Christianity without mercy or a Christianity without repentance. Neither are truly Christian.

Don’t trade the bad news of finicky love for the false gospel of unconditional affirmation. There is more to grace than “it’s okay” and more to the law than “shape up.”

Run to Christ. Be forgiven. Die to self. Get happy. Follow Christ. Live forever.

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When Christians Suffer from Depression

Aug 13, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Even the most gifted, most intelligent, most capable Christians can suffer from depression. Here’s how the Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton, Ashbel Green (1762-1848) described his bouts of melancholy in his autobiography:

Having again mentioned my melancholy, I will saw a few words as to the manner in which it affected both my body and my mind. I was, during the various seasons of this afflictive complaint, entirely free from any imagination that my body had become glass, or of enormous bulk, or a fear to move lest I should fall in pieces. No conceit of this sort ever affected me at all. My complaint may have been attended, and I think it was, by some apprehensions that were delusive, as thinking that slight bodily affections might prove mortal; but after some experience I learned to disregard all these. No, my melancholy consisted in a settled gloom of mind, accompanied with spiritual difficulties of the most distressing character. (The Life of Ashbel Green, 301-302)

In his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Green goes into more detail about the “peculiar character of my spiritual difficulties and temptations.”

But there are some temptations and of the most terrific kind, sometimes called “fiery darts of the devil,” which seem to proceed immediately from this fearful enemy. A flood of blasphemous, strange, horrible, dismaying and overwhelming thoughts, or, as I would rather call them imaginations, are sometimes poured in on the soul.Sometimes such thoughts, in a more separate and unconnected manner, rise up in the mind, or are suddenly and unaccountably darted into: and having once entered they are renewed from day to day, till the sufferer is harassed and tormented almost beyond endurance; and perhaps is distressed with the apprehension of having committed the unpardonable sin, and is even tempted to self-destruction. (468)

Green goes on to say that people of melancholy or nervous temperament are most likely to suffer from these afflictions, but even people of the best spirits and most eminent piety are not immune to these temptations.

So what can be done? Green offers four pieces of advice borne out of personal experience, biblical insight, and common sense (469-470).

1. Keep in mind that the temptation itself is not sin. The Lord Jesus was afflicted with fierce temptations, and yet he did not sin. Do not confuse the fiery darts of the Evil One with your own moral failure.

2. Remember that we cannot reason away melancholy and unbidden thoughts. “All recalling them, or thinking them over–to which there is often a strange propensity–is to renew their impression and increase their strength.”

3. Keep lifting up your heart to “the once tempted and now glorified Redeemer.” Don’t run from Christ in your depression. Run to him for strength, for grace, and for protection. A broken heart and contrite spirit he will not deny.

4. Avoid idleness and solitude as much as possible. Don’t retreat. Stick with others. Listen to their sane counsel when your world feels like madness.

From my pastoral experience, this sounds like very wise counsel from a good and godly man who had experienced many dark nights of the soul. If nothing else, let if be an encouragement to you and those you care about that one as impressive and accomplished as Ashbel Green endured such deep depression. Even more encouraging: we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness.


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One of the Great Ironies of Reformed Theological History

Aug 12, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

220px-Benedict_PictetToday marks my first day back at church with all my normal responsibilities. For the past 12 weeks I’ve had the tremendous privilege of devoting my hours and my energies to research and writing. After three months and 30,000 words, it’s time to set aside the doctoral dissertation for awhile. I’ll keep reading and keep refining over the months ahead, but the heavy lifting will have to wait until next summer. I loved my summer of study, and I am excited to get back to pastoring and preaching.

Most (all?) of my writing from this summer does not make for good blog material. But I figure you, O faithful blog reader, are especially curious (or at least especially patient). So I thought I would post one or two excerpts.

The paragraphs below give some historical background on Benedict Pictet–one of the most significant Reformed theologians you’ve never heard of and the author of the systematic theology used in the Scottish Kirk during most of the eighteenth century. One of my main theses is that Witherspoon’s theology was rooted in–and rarely deviated from–the theological tradition he inherited from the High/Late Reformed Orthodoxy of Pictet and Turretin. This particular section provides an overview of Pictet’s life and his role in one noted theological controversy.

I’ve kept in most of the footnotes, but shortened some of the longer, more esoteric ones. Enjoy! If that’s the right word.



Benedict Pictet was born May 30, 1655 to one of Geneva’s leading families. He studied theology under his uncle, Francis Turretin, and then completed his education in Paris and Leiden, where he studied under the conservative German Calvinist, Frederich Spanheim (the younger). After a short time in England, Pictet returned to Geneva where, in 1686, he was made an assistant to Turretin and Philippe Mestrezat in the theology department. Pictet acquitted himself well, succeeding his uncle to the chair of theology and eventually being sought after as Spanheim’s successor in Leiden. As a professor and pastor in Geneva, Pictet was widely regarded not only for his erudition but for his skillful preaching, his humanitarian work, his hymnwriting, and his elegant French revision of the Psalms. His two most important theological works were Christian Morals (1692) and Christian Theology (1696). Pictet died June 10, 1724, crying out in his final moments, “O, death, where is thy sting.”[1]

Outside of Theologia Christiana, Pictet is best remembered for his staunch opposition to removing the Helvetic Formula Consensus as a confessional standard in Switzerland. For most of the seventeenth century Reformed theology was embroiled in controversies surrounding the Academy at Saumur in France, as the leading men of Saumur—Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), Louis Cappel (1585-1658), and Josue de la Place (1596-1665)—resisted the Reformed orthodoxy of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). As early as 1637, Amyraut was brought before the French Reformed Church to account for his views on the universal extent of the atonement and hypothetical redemption.[2] When it became clear over the next decades that Amyraut would not be removed from his post or pastorate at Saumur—and in fact that the influence of Amyraldianism was spreading—the leading lights in Switzerland started planning for a more definitive response. In 1669, Francis Turretin (1623-1687) initiated the idea with Johann Henry Heidegger (1633-1698) of a Swiss Consensus that would address the errors of Saumur: namely, Cappel’s undermining of the inspiration of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, de la Place’s rejection of the immediate imputation of Adam’s sin, and Amyraut’s insistence that God intended Christ’s death to be for all (upon the condition that they believe). A draft of the Consensus was composed by Heidegger in Zurich, with Turretin of Geneva and Lucas Gernler (1625-1675) of Basel assisting. The Formula Consensus Helvetica was approved by the Swiss Evangelical Diet in 1675 and endorsed by the Genevan Company of Pastors in 1678 and by the Council in 1679.[3]

A generation later Geneva was ready to be done with the Consensus. In one of the ironic twists of theological history, the push to remove the Consensus was led by Turretin’s son, Jean-Alphone Turretin (1671-1737), whose main opponent defending the Consensus was his older cousin (Francis’s nephew), Benedict Pictet. Francis Turretin married later in life and his son Jean-Alphonse was not born until his father was forty-nine. Pictet and Francis Turretin had a close relationship: Turretin taught Pictet theology; Pictet succeeded Turretin as professor of theology at the Academy; Pictet was called to Turretin’s bedside in his dying days, and on November 3, 1687 it was Pictet (not the 16 year-old Jean-Alphonse) who delivered a hagiographical funeral oration in Turretin’s honor.[4] Toward the close of the oration Pictet prayed that the death of his beloved uncle would not “portend anything for our church” and that God would keep Geneva “safe and tranquil, an invincible theater of your power and virtue.”[5]

But it was not to be. Despite the protestations of Pictet and Benedict Calandrini (1639-1720), in 1706 the Council in Geneva removed the requirement for ordinands to sign the Formula. Even a mediating measure requiring ministerial candidates to agree not to teach anything against the Formula could not be approved. On September 6, 1706, the Council adopted a new ordination service which abrogated the Formula, only requiring ministers to subscribe to the Old and New Testaments and not to teach against the confessions and catechism of the church.[6] Unlike the younger Turretin and the majority of the Company of Pastors, Pictet did not believe the Formula was a hindrance to unity with the Dutch, or even that it hampered the projected reunion with the Lutherans.[7] He maintained instead that if Geneva lost the Formula, they would lose Dort and the confession of faith, and that eventually Arminianism would be established, or something worse. “I fear the spirits of this century are extremely given to novelties,” he said in defense of the Formula.[8]

Pictet’s fear proved to be prescient. In 1725, a year after Pictet’s death, the subscription formula of 1706 was set aside in favor of a still looser policy which required ministers only to subscribe to the Bible and to Calvin’s Catechism as a faithful summary of Scripture. There were no requirements to subscribe to—not even a requirement not to teach against—the Helvetic Formula Consensus, the Second Helvetic Confession, or the Canons of Dort.[9] It is no wonder that Robert Wodrow, writing from Scotland in 1730, passed along with great dismay the news that “Turretin, the son, had quite overturned everything in Geneva,” further lamenting that “subscription to Confessions wer [sic] no more required in that city.”[10] Calvin’s Geneva was effectively confessionless. Reformed Orthodoxy was in decline.


[1] Biographical information taken from Martin I. Klauber, “Family Loyalty and Theological Transition in Post-Reformation Geneva: The Case of Benedict Pictet (1655-1724)” Fides et Historia 24:1 (Winter/Spring 1992), 54-67, Klauber; James I. Good, History of the Swiss Reformed Church Since the Reformation (Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board, 1913), 176-178. The only full biography of Pictet is Eugne de Budé, Vie de Bénédict Pictet, theologien genevois (1655-1724) (Lausanne: Georges Bridel, 1874). Special thanks to David Eastman, Assistant Professor of Religion at Ohio Wesleyan University, for translating portions of the Budé volume into English for use in this project.

[2] For an evenhanded overview of Amyraut’s views on predestination and the atonement see “Controversy on Universal Grace: A Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definitive Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 165-199.

[3] Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation 4 vols., Compiled with Introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 4:516-530. See also Martin I. Klauber, “The Helvetic Formula Consensus (1675): An Introduction and Translation,” Trinity Journal 11 (1990): 103-123; The Creeds of Christendom 3 vols., 6th edition, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 477-489. Klauber’s translation of the Formula is used in Reformed Confessions, along with the original introductory preface translated by Richard Bishop.

[4] For this history see Klauber, “Family Loyalty,” 57-60; see also, by Klauber, Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy in the Academy of Geneva (London: Associated University Presses, 1994), 143-164.

[5] “Funeral Oration of Benedict Pictet Concerning the Life and Death of Francis Turretin” translated by David Lillegard in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 3 vols., trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:676.

[6] Klauber, Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism, 146-148, Good, History of the Swiss Reformed Church, 177-178.

[7] Budé, Vie de Bénédict Pictet, 43.

[8] Ibid., 41. Cf. Klauber, “Reformed Orthodoxy in Transition: Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) and Enlightened Orthodoxy in Post-Reformation Geneva” in W. Fred Graham (ed.), Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, Sixteenth Century Essays an Studies 22 (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1994), 98.

[9] Good, History of the Swiss Reformed Church, 178. See also James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Twilight of Scholasticism: Francis Turretin at the Dawn of the Enlightenment” in Protestant Scholasticism, eds. Trueman and Clark, 244-255.

[10] Robert Wodrow, Analecta: Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences mostly Relating to Scotch Ministers and Christians, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Maitland Club, 1853), 4:149.

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Monday Morning Humor

Aug 11, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Whenever I need an inspiration for overcoming life’s obstacles I think of this guy.

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Bio, Books, and Such: K. Scott Oliphint

Aug 08, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

During the summer I’ll be posting micro interviews on Fridays. I’ve asked some of my friends in ministry–friends you probably already know–to answer questions about “bio, books, and such.” My hope is that you’ll enjoy getting a few more facts about these folks and getting a few good book recommendations.

Today’s interview is with K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

1. Where were you born? Texas

2. When did you become a Christian? When I was 18.

3. Who is one well known pastor/author/leader who has shaped you as a Christian and teacher? Cornelius Van Til

4. Who is one lesser known pastor/friend/mentor who has shaped you? Rev. David Brack

5. What’s one hymn you want sung at your funeral? For All the Saints

6. What kind of nonfiction do you enjoy reading when you aren’t reading about theology, the Bible, or church history? Biographies

7. Other than Calvin’s Institutes, what systematic theology have you found most helpful? Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics

8. What are one or two of your favorite fiction authors or fiction books? Don’t read fiction

9. What is one of your favorite non-Christian biographies? John Adams

10. What is one of your favorite books on preaching? E. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture

11. What is one of your favorite books on evangelism? Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

12. What is one of your favorite books on apologetics? Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith

13. What is one of your favorite books on prayer? Pray With Your Eyes Open

14. What is one of your favorite books on parenting? Shepherding a Child’s Heart

15. What music do you keep coming back to on your iPhone (or CD player, or tape deck, or gramophone)? Classic Country

16. Favorite food? BBQ or TexMex

17. After the Bible, a hymnal, and a shipbuilding guide, what book would you want with you on a desert island? Owen’s Works, Vol. 1

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One Truth That Changes Worship

Aug 07, 2014 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

This truth changed my life a dozen or so years ago. I have quoted it so often that I am not sure where I got it from (maybe someone can help with its origin in the comments). I am convinced that it is not original to me, for it is far too good. The truth is this: Worship is not so much about what we receive, nor about what we give, rather, it is about being. Do we give in worship? Of course, we give our praise and thanksgiving to God. We give our offerings for the use of His Church. Do we receive in worship? Of course, we receive mercy and grace. We receive encouragement and peace. But worship is not primarily caught-up with giving or receiving. It is primarily about being, meeting with God. Or more rightly put, God meeting with us.

When we gather with God’s people on Sunday morning for holy worship, it is holy worship because He is meeting with us. The great promise of the Scriptures, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” (Ex. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 30:22; 2 Cor. 6:16) is being realized in a special and glorious way when we gather for worship. As Israel worshipped the living God at the Tabernacle and the Temple when He descended upon them in a cloud, so we enjoy Him in the company of His saints by the indwelling Spirit and the truth of His Word (John 4)—all looking forward to that day when this promise of Him being our God and we being His people is fully consummated in the new heavens and new earth when He makes His home in the midst of us forever (Rev. 21:3). Heaven is one continual meeting and dwelling with God. Our corporate worship is but a type of that glorious heavenly meeting that awaits us. It is but an appetizer to the full banquet of God dwelling in the midst of His people forever.

This one idea can change how we approach worship. It rightly moves our petty concerns to the side. It takes our focus off self and directs it to the Lord. It makes worship more about truth than the latest gimmick. It moves us from wanting to leave with something more and rather focused upon what we have already received and shall enjoy someday. Worship becomes less about being an information download and more about engaging my whole person with the whole Christ of the Scriptures. It becomes less about my preferences and more about Him; becomes less about what moves me, stirs me, encourages me, and fills my cup and more about just purely delighting in Him.

Think about that as you gather with His people this upcoming Lord’s Day. Think about that as you meet with Him and He meets with you by His Word and Spirit. It is easy for corporate worship to become common place to us. We do it week in and week out. It occurs every seven days. But it is anything but common. It is extraordinary. It is amazing, in the true sense of that word. It is wonderfully glorious. It is a gift. The greatest gift we could receive: God Himself. He is meeting with us, communing with us, dwelling with us. And we are getting to delight in just being with Him.

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A Birdseye View of the Gospel in One Big Sentence

Aug 06, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

One of the clearest and most comprehensive statements of John Witherspoon’s theology can be found in his Essay on Justification (1756) where he sets out to defend justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ and ends up giving this big, broad, glorious summary of the gospel:

The doctrine asserted in the above and other passages of Scripture may be thus paraphrased:

that every intelligent creature is under an unchangeable and unalienable obligation, perfectly to obey the whole law of God:

that all men proceeding from Adam by ordinary generation, are the children of polluted parents, alienated in heart from God, transgressors of his holy law, inexcusable in this transgression, and therefore exposed to the dreadful consequence of his displeasure;

that it was not agreeable to the dictates of his wisdom, holiness and justice, to forgive their sins without an atonement or satisfaction:

and therefore he raised up for them a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who, as the second Adam, perfectly fulfilled the whole law, and offered himself up a sacrifice upon the cross in their stead:

that this his righteousness is imputed to them, as the sole foundation of their reception into his favor:

that the means of their being interested in this salvation, is a deep humiliation of mind, confession of guilty and wretchedness, denial of themselves, and acceptance of pardon and peace through Christ Jesus, which they neither have contributed to the procuring, nor can contribute to the continuance of, by their own merit;

but expect the renovation of their natures, to be inclined and enabled to keep the commandments of God as the work of the Spirit, and a part of the purchase of their Redeemer. (Works, 1:50-51)


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What’s Wrong with the “Wrong Side of History” Argument?

Aug 05, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

It has become one of the most common refrains. When Vladimir Putin acts like an international bully, geopolitical leaders are quickly dismissive of his thuggish behavior as being on the “wrong side of history.” Closer to home, when Christians and other religious conservatives maintain that marriage is between a man and a woman, you can count on a chorus of voices declaring confidently that these old bigoted views are on the “wrong side of history.” The phrase is meant to sting, and it often does. It conjures up pictures of segregationists clinging to their disgusting notions of racial supremacy. Or pictures of flat-earthers warning Columbus about sailing off the edge of the world. The phrase seeks to win an argument by not having one. It says, “Your ideas are so laughably backward, they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. In time everyone will be embarrassed who ever held to them.”

No doubt, the “wrong side of history” retort is rhetorically powerful. But it also happens to be intellectually bankrupt. What’s wrong with the phrase? At least three things.

First, the phrase assumes a progressive view of history that is empirically false and as a methodology has been thoroughly discredited. Today’s historians often warn against “Whig history,” a phrase coined by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 which has come to refer to historiography which assumes the past has been an inexorable march from darkness to light and from ignorance into enlightenment. Whig history has in common with Marxist views of history a confidence in the rationality of man and the inevitability of progress. But of course, history is never that neat and knowing the future is never that easy. The Whiggish approach, with its presumption of enlightenment and progress, is not the best way to understand the past and not by itself an adequate way to make sense of the present.

Second, the phrase “wrong side of history” forgets that progressives can be just as dimwitted as conservatives. To cite but one example, Thomas Sowell, in his book Intellectuals and Race, demonstrates that it was progressives in the early twentieth century–often applying Darwin’s biological theories to other disciplines–who championed eugenics and racial determinism. Many of the elite intellectuals of the day accepted “scientific” theories about innate mental differences among the races, and it was leaders on the left who argued for eliminating the “inferior stock” of mankind through restricted immigration, institutionalized, and mass sterilization. If there is a “wrong side of history” there are enough examples in history to tell us that anyone from any intellectual tradition could be on it.

Third, when applied to Christians, the “wrong side of history” argument usually perpetuates half-truth or outright falsehoods about Christian history. For example, the church did not object to Columbus’ voyage because it thought the earth was flat. That’s a myth that has been erroneously believed since Andrew Dickinson White, the founder and first president of Cornell University, authored his influential study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. The “sundry wise men of Spain” who challenged Columbus did not do so on account of their belief in the earth’s flatness, but because they thought Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth, which he had.[1] Every educated person in Columbus’ day knew the earth was round. Jeffrey Burton Russel argues that during the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”[2] Sphere by the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy which was written in the 13th century, and generations before Columbus’ voyage, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote “although there are mountains and valleys on the earth, for which it is not perfectly round, it approximates very nearly to roundness.”[3] Centuries earlier, the Venerable Bede (673-734) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (8th c.), Hildegard of Bingen (12th c.) and Thomas Aquinas (13th c.), all four of whom are canonized saints in the Catholic Church.

And while it’s true, shamefully true, that Christians in the South, some of them good Calvinists, defended chattel slavery, we need to put this sad fact in context. By the nineteenth century, slavery had existed for a long time, and it was usually not promoted along ethnic or racial lines. Africans had more slaves of their own than were sent to the New World. Muslim slave-trading began centuries before Europeans discovered the New World and continued longer, being legally abolished in Saudi Arabia only in 1962.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians have no complicity in the evils of slavery, but we must remember that it is chiefly owing to Christians and Christian nations that slavery was eradicated. The overthrow of slavery (after near universal slavery for almost of all of recorded human history) came about from two main factors: the rise of nation states (so it became too dangerous to go raid other peoples) and Christian opposition to its practice. For all its grave faults, European imperialism is largely responsible for ending slavery. Starting in the 19th century, the British stamped out slavery in their Empire, which at that time covered a fourth of the world. They destroyed slave trading ships, made slavery illegal, and blockaded islands and coasts until slavery was shut down. Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist writes, “It would be hard to think of any other crusade pursued so relentlessly for so long by any nation, as such mounting costs, without any economic or other tangible benefit to itself.”[4] And the crusade was championed by Christians, William Wilberforce chief among them.

Furthermore, it’s not as if nineteenth century Christians were the first ones to object to slavery. This is why the analogy with the church’s view of homosexuality falls wide of the mark. The church has always believed homosexual behavior to be sinful. The church–and not the whole church–can only be found to be supporting chattel slavery in a relatively brief historical window. Even if we look at slavery of any kind, it’s not as if Christians never spoke against the institution until the nineteenth century. As early as the seventh century, Saith Bathilde (wife of King Clovis III) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all the slaves in the kingdom. In 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that slavery was a sin, and a series of Popes upheld the position. During the 1430s the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. Pope Eugene IV issued a bull, giving everyone fifteen days from receipt of his bull, “to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands…these people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without exaction or reception of any money.”[5] The bull didn’t help much, but that is owing to the weakness of the church’s power at the time, not indifference to slavery. Pope Paul III made a similar pronouncement in 1537. Slavery was condemned in papal bulls in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839. In America, the first abolitionist tract was published in 1700 by Samuel Sewall, a devout Puritan. Meanwhile, Enlightenment bigwigs like Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu all supported slavery.

I am not trying to rewrite history here and make the record of the church into one long string of unbroken heroism. But since we get the impression from so many folks, Christians and non-Christians alike, that the church has been an unmitigated disaster on social issues since the beginning of time, we should take the time to get the rest of the story, in context and un-sensationalized. Christians as individuals have been wrong about ten thousand things. Christians collectively have probably been wrong about just as many things. But to suggest the whole church has always at all times and in all places been wrong about something is an audacious claim. As Christians we ought to fear being on the wrong side of the holy, catholic church more than fear being on the wrong side of Whig notions of progress and enlightenment.


[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 121.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005), 123.

[5] For the Glory of God, 330.

Portions of this blog post have been taken from my chapter “The Historical: One Holy Catholic Church” in Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Moody 2009).

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Monday Morning Humor

Aug 04, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

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