Many ethnic groups today place great value on traditions that link them to a glorious past. This is not unique to our age by any means. Throughout history, people have devised myths tracing their particular group to noble or even divine origins. Even the Romans, great as their empire was, craved an origin story that would justify their belief in their own greatness. That origin story was provided by the poet Virgil, a contemporary of Caesar Augustus and the author of the Aeneid. The epic, modeled on the earlier works of Homer, tells the story of Aeneas, a warrior who fled the fall of Troy and, with his companions, traveled by circuitous means to Italy, won a bloody war, and laid the foundation for what was to become the city of Rome. The poem is full of allusions to the destined greatness of the empire founded by Augustus and glorifies the Roman virtues of duty to family and the gods, even at the expense of personal feelings and desires.
Virgil was famous in his own day, but after his death his fame grew even greater. His writings were required works in schools and universities throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Myths grew up around Virgil himself. Even many of the Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages considered him to be a prophet; a passage from one of his works, the Eclogue, was thought to predict the coming of Christ. But the warlike virtues portrayed in the Aeneid were simply not compatible with the simple words of Jesus requiring His followers to love their neighbors, and even their enemies, and the arbitrary and contradictory actions of the gods in the epic eventually caused people to question the value of such deities. The selfish gods of the Aeneid were ultimately displaced by the Son of God who sacrificed himself rather than demanding sacrifices from His followers for His own self-gratification. This most recent addition to the literature website thus shows us, not only the character qualities that shaped the Roman Empire of the New Testament era and beyond, but also clearly contrasts those qualities with the faith that led the early Christians to suffer martyrdom and in the process defeat the glorification of power that was the essence of Rome.
The Church is God’s chosen instrument for the propagation of the Gospel and the growth of His Kingdom in the world. It is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and the Temple that He is constructing for His own habitation. Thus it is very important that Christians understand what the Bible teaches about this vital community. The seventh out of eight courses in the adult series of courses on Bible Doctrine is now available. It deals with various aspects of the Church – its definition and origin, Church organization, including its officers, the functions and marks of the Church, spiritual gifts, and the sacraments. The study is an important one because far too many professing Christians today consider church involvement to be optional, too many churches pattern their operation after the values and fads of the world, and few take seriously the Bible’s mandates concerning how the Church should function in order to please the Lord and carry out His work in the world.
Thomas Hardy was raised in a Christian environment, but turned away from the faith in adulthood, eventually arriving at the point where he believed that life had no meaning. He incorporated that journey from faith to nihilism in the last of his novels, Jude the Obscure, which is the next entry on my literature website. The story involves a young man from a poor family who longs to become a scholar, and perhaps even a clergyman. He is thwarted at every step, both by a class-conscious society and the relationships in which he becomes involved, first with a pig farmer’s daughter who seduces him and tricks him into marriage, and then with his freethinking cousin who draws him into her godless philosophy because of his love for her. His relationships bring him nothing but misery and he dies, penniless and alone, at the age of thirty. Hardy compares Jude’s suffering to that of Job, but his worldview allows no room for a redemptive ending. The book is also a critique of the educational system, the class system, the Christian religion, and especially the institution of marriage. The novel was given such a poor reception by critics, one of whom tagged it “Jude the Obscene” despite the fact that it contains no overt sex or profanity, that Hardy gave up penning novels and spent the last thirty-three years of his life writing poetry. One might wonder what a person might expect to gain from reading such a depressing book. Aside from the obvious writing talents of the author, which a believer can appreciate as the result of God’s common grace, Christians can see clearly on display the consequences of the rejection of God and the pursuit of humanist freethinking – a life without hope and suffering with no redemption. Job’s life ended with the enjoyment of God’s blessing, while Jude’s ended in despair.
The sixth course in the adult series on the central doctrines of the Chrstian faith is now available. The course on the Doctrine of Salvation follows the ordo salutis from eternity past to eternity future, with each lesson focusing on key biblical terms that describe the gracious work of God through Christ in the lives of those who belong to Him. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” From the marvelous truth that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” through effectual calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption, the gifts of faith and repentance by means of which we respond to the heart-changing work of the Holy Spirit, through sanctification, perseverance, and ultimate glorification, we see that salvation is the work of God from beginning to end. The plan that the members of the Trinity arranged before time began is so certain of final fulfillment that Paul can even speak of ultimate glorification in the past tense. As Jesus told His disciples, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he considered it to be the culminating work of his long career. He put into it everything he knew and had learned about writing and about mankind and his struggles. The book primarily focuses on the struggle of good against evil, both among people and within each individual. The narrator, who is Steinbeck himself, says at one point, “Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.” In developing this theme, the author, who took the title from Genesis 4:16, repeatedly makes use of the story of Cain and Abel, as two pairs of brothers engage in conflict with one another and struggle with their relationships with their parents. Steinbeck’s solution to the inner battle between good and evil is not a biblical one, however. Early in the novel he states what will become the major theme of the story – “This I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” The novel provides many opportunities for the Christian to think about and interact with the false optimism about unaided human nature that characterizes much humanistic thought. Today we see the consequences of man’s attempt to purge himself of evil apart from God – divisiveness, violence, and moral chaos in society and depression and despair among those who have no reason for hope.
Perhaps the best-known maxim of the Greek philosopher Socrates is “Know Thyself.” From a biblical perspective, the knowledge of oneself is vital, not because man is the measure of all things and knowledge begins with him, but because we can never understand our need for the grace of God through Jesus Christ unless we have an accurate understanding of where we came from, who we are, and what we really need.
The fifth course in the adult Sunday School doctrinal series is on the Doctrine of Man. We start with the issue of creation itself, for man exists in the context of God’s world, over which He is sovereign. This includes a lesson on the nature and work of angels, because the univese in which we exist is not solely material, but is surrounded by a universe of spirit beings created by God and either doing His bidding or at war with Him. We then move on to man in particular, looking at his nature, how he fits into the larger framework of creation, and the ways in which he is unique in that framework. Finally, we look at the doctrine of sin, including man’s fall, the nature of sin, and the universality of sin – original sin and total depravity. Our knowledge of ourselves is essential if we are to appreciate our need for salvation and our inability to obtain it through our own effort, which will be the subject of the sixth doctrine course.
Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated with the good and evil in human nature. In perhaps his most famous work, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he portrayed good and evil in man using chemically-induced split personalities. Later, in The Master of Ballantrae, he used sibling rivalry to deal with similar issues. Unlike the earlier work, however, this novel pictured the brothers as opposites, yet at the same time showed both as mixtures of good and evil. In the process, he wove in an adventure tale based in Scottish history and incorporated gothic elements in one of the strangest endings in nineteenth-century literature. What some critics consider Stevenson’s most serious novel is the most recent addition to my literature website.
For many years, theologians used to speak of the Holy Spirit as the forgotten member of the Trinity. With the advent of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement in the last century, however, that is no longer the case. Much attention has been given to the Holy Spirit, especially the miraculous gifts described in Scripture. Matters of controversy aside, the Holy Spirit is vital, both in the life of the Christian and in the corporate Body of Christ. He regenerates and indwells the believer, bearing witness to Christ, illuminating the Scriptures, guiding, and uttering prayers that are beyond our ability to verbalize. He also superintends the Church, setting apart leaders, giving gifts, and empowering the work of evangelism. This fourth course in the adult Sunday School series on basic Christian doctrines deals with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. While addressing controversy when appropriate, it largely focuses on the teachings of Scripture concerning the Third Person of the Trinity and His role, not only among Christians, both individually and corporately, but also in the world at large, where He “convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment.”
The latest addition to my literature website is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It is the most serious of her novels, containing little of the comic flair found in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. The heroine of the story, Fanny Price, is quiet and withdrawn, largely separated from those around her by the lower social status of the family from which she comes and the strong moral principles she clings to despite contrary influences. In this way, she is similar to the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel also represents Austen’s most direct treatment of Christianity, the Established Church, and the clergy of her day. Fanny, and to some extent Edmund Bertram, stand out as genuine Christians in a society filled with those who profess Christianity because of their cultural environment but rarely practice it. Furthermore, Edmund both defends the true calling of a minister and lives it out despite the powerful arguments and temptations placed before him by the worldly Mary Crawford. We thus find in Mansfield Park the clearest picture of the brand of Christianity in which Jane Austen was raised by her father, an Anglican rector, and which she personally espoused. The story, though set in a society in many ways very different from ours, has great relevance when so many around us profess Christianity while denying it by the lives they live.
The third course in the Doctrine series is now available on the Sunday School webpage. It deals with the Doctrine of Christ and is divided into two major sections – the Person of Christ, which considers His Incarnation, humanity, and deity, and the Work of Christ, which addresses His fulfillment of the Old Testament theocratic offices of prophet, priest and king by looking at His perfect life, His atoning death, and His resurrection, ascension, heavenly session, and return. Who Christ is and what He has done is at the heart of the Gospel. Without these truths we have no salvation; as Paul said in I Corinthians 15:17-19 in reference to the resurrection, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”