Reviews > Books

Intellectual debts

Books | A closer look at the wisdom and ideas of three great theologians

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

The first book of systematic theology I ever read, in 1977, was Charles Hodge's three-volume work, so I am forever in his debt. W. Andrew Hoffecker's Charles Hodge (P&R, 2011) is only the second full-length biography of this leading 19th century theologian, and the first since 1880. From his teaching position at Princeton and his journal editorship, Hodge weighed in on decades of church issues. An Old School Presbyterian, he was uncomfortable with cross-denominational organizations in a way that prefigures today's parachurch debates.

Hoffecker poignantly relates Hodge's dismay as he and others came to grips with slavery. When Northern New Schoolers pressed for immediate abolition of slavery and his Southern Old School allies claimed that the Bible recommended slavery, Hodge proposed gradual emancipation with humane protections in the meantime-no breakup of families or ill treatment, and opportunities for slaves to acquire their own property by moonlighting.

I also owe a lot to Jonathan Edwards, so I have been happily dipping into the 750 pages of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott (Oxford, 2011). They contextualize his work and then take us through, in systematic Hodge-like fashion, overall theology, Christology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

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A third debt is to the British historian Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), little known now but important in the last century for developing a Christian understanding of how to write history. Kenneth McIntyre's Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics (ISI, 2011) elegantly shows how Butterfield fought both materialist conceptions but also those who give the appearance of knowing exactly how God providentially ordered history to bring about His purposes.

McIntyre also details conclusions Butterfield came to regarding international politics. Among them: "In a world of armed powers you must not expect your word or your will to carry the same weight if you are disarmed as if you are armed. ... It is wrong to wait until an aggressor has actually emerged in full power before you try to check him. ... It is wrong when fighting an enemy to forget entirely that at the next stage in the story you may need that enemy as an ally. ... It is wrong even to wipe out a state, to destroy a great power-since the power vacuum that you thereby create will conjure into existence another bogey worse than the first."

Anatomies of defeatism

By Marvin Olasky

Stephen Mansfield's new edition of The Faith of Barack Obama (Thomas Nelson, 2011) continues to treat generously a person who could profit by studying the thought of Herbert Butterfield. Mansfield provides useful background information and notes Obama's extreme position on abortion, but mistakenly sees the religious left as affirming "the social justice of the Old Testament prophets." We'll see whether Obama's happy circumstance during his campaign for a Senate seat in 2004-he said, "Alan Keyes was an ideal opponent; all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and start planning my swearing-in ceremony"-is repeated in 2012.

Theodore Dalrymple's The New Vichy Syndrome (Encounter, 2011) describes European intellectuals falling into miserabilism and surrendering to barbarism, but he could be describing Obama's perspective as well. Dalrymple argues that the two world wars sapped European self-confidence and left millions choosing to eat, drink, and be merry, without the willingness to sacrifice for children. And yet, it's been two-thirds of a century since Hitler's war ended, and that's enough time to recover-if much of Europe had not turned its back on Christ.

Bowing to Beijing, by Brett Decker and William C. Triplett (Regnery, 2011), shows how Obama is weakening the United States as China's regime is growing stronger by expanding its nuclear arsenal, stealing U.S. technology, and buying influence throughout the world, including at American campuses. Our growing national debt, of course, leaves us at Beijing's mercy. The authors don't deal with the only hopeful sign in this: that as Europe abandons Christ millions of Chinese are believing in Him.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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