Jesus Made in America

September 19, 2009

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ. By Stephen J. Nichols. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 237 pp., $24.95, paperback.

As popular as the genre of history has become in the world of books, it is still a most difficult task of making history interesting reading. Many historical books are dry, academic, and rarely worth reading beyond professional historians. Stephen Nichols (Research Professor of Christianity and Culture, Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA) has developed the uncanny ability of making history interesting and especially helpful to Christians and pastors for the life of the church. His volumes on Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Christology, and others are written clearly and interestingly. In fact, they are written so well it is often hard to put them down! And Jesus Made in America is another hit. Cultural history is often even drier than regular history but Nichols makes the study of how Americans have viewed the person of Jesus Christ from the time of the Puritans until now completely fascinating.

This is not to say that Nichols is not heavy in parts. In particular the first few chapters are intense as they seek to understand the person of Jesus Christ in early American history. The topic of Christology in the Puritans is vast. Many Puritan pastors and theologians spent great amounts of time on Christ. It is fascinating to see how the “Word” rooted Christ of the Puritans becomes the commercial Jesus of today. The move from the Puritans to the Founding Fathers is also fascinating. Many today might disagree with Nichols views on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers (he would argue many of the Founding Fathers were deists, not just Jefferson) but his case is compelling and it forces those who assume the Founding Fathers were Christians to at least look at both sides of the evidence. This reviewer found his arguments quite compelling.

The next chapter looking at the Victorian makeover of Jesus to the feminized Christ from the masculine frontier Jesus was fascinating to this reviewer. It opened up an era of the Church not clearly understood especially as it related to understandings of Jesus. Surveying magazines of the time the church often looked to the feminine Jesus. Next, Nichols looks at the change to the feminized Jesus to the social liberal Jesus of the Fundamentalist-Modernist period. Nichols excels here especially in contrasting Fosdick from Machen (Nichols previously has written on Machen) and it seems unfortunately Machen was not able to bring Jesus back to the Word-centered Jesus of the Puritans but forced Jesus into this social-gospel mode.

Nichols looks at the further movement to the Jesus people and how modern society views Jesus as evidenced in contemporary Christian music, movies, and the commercial culture. It would seem that Nichols is right when he has says that today we can include all of our Christology on a bumper sticker. “The history of American evangelical Jesus reveals that such complexities as the two natures of Christ has often been brushed aside, either on purpose or out of expediency. Too often his deity has been eclipsed by his humanity, and occasionally the reverse is true. Too often American evangelicals have settled for a Christology that can be reduced to a bumper sticker” (p. 18). Modern society’s commercialized Jesus has clearly distorted the real Jesus of the Scriptures.

Finally, Nichols look at how both the right and left on the political spectrum have viewed Jesus and used Him as their champion for respective causes. Nichols ably demonstrates how Jesus does not fully fit into either a Republican or Democratic mold.

In Jesus Made in America, Nichols provides a fascinating look at how America has changed in its view of the person of Jesus Christ. From a time of Christology rooted in the Scriptures under the Puritans to a Jesus on the celluloid screen most clearly emphasizing His humanity over His divinity, as the feministic cigarette saying goes, “you’ve come a long way baby.” The question is, is it the right way, or the wrong way? Nichols concludes, that as we as the church continue to move into the 21st century we must reaffirm the person of Jesus Christ as rooted in the Scriptures and as understood by the church throughout history, especially as represented in the various ancient creeds. It is interesting that we have moved from a time when our Christology was communicated in a lengthy creed and now is communicated on a bumper sticker or on a bracelet. Can we truly boil the great and sovereign Lord of the universe down to this limited amount of space? Nichols rightly shows us that we lose much when we do so.

The value of this book is that it shows us the damage that we have done to the person of Christ over the years in America and how hard the church has to work to reconnect Jesus Christ to the Scriptures. As pastors and church leaders especially, I would recommend all to engage with these observations and again bring back a Christology of the Word as it makes much of the divine-human Jesus Christ and little of ourselves. Perhaps we are not at the point of preaching for two years on the person and work of Christ as the Puritans might, but perhaps if we begin to make much of Christ in our preaching and teaching we can begin to rescue the church from the theological/biblical reductionism it which it has found itself. I am so thankful for people like Nichols who can show us where we have come from, where we are at, and where we are going so we can better be more faithful as pastors to our Lord Jesus Christ living in a culture that wants to squeeze the God of the universe onto a bracelet. Let us make much of Christ!

Puritan Reformed Journal

March 6, 2009

A new journal has just been released from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary called, Puritan Reformed Journal. An excerpt “From the Editors.”

… the papers in this inaugural issue of The Puritan Reformed Journal do seek to undertake theological reflection along the very lines laid down by the Puritans: submitting to the Word of God as the final and all-sufficient source of truth about God and His salvation, and seeking to understand the many-splendored contours of the biblical witness about the Triune God in Scripture and history. As the Puritans well knew, this entails various realms of theological reflection: biblical, historical, and pastoral theology, and that jewel in the crown, systematic theology. It is the editors’ hope that, in issues to come, all of these realms of theology will be represented and help the church of Christ to increase in the knowledge of her God.

The journal includes the following (among a number of book reviews):

“God-Centered Theology in the Ministry of the Word” by Joel R. Beeke

“Bright Shadows: Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” by David Murray

“Atoning Blood: The Command against Eating Blood” by Jonny Serafini

“Ezra as a Model of Continuing Reformation” by Gerald Bilkes

“Regeneration and Faith According to Two British Reformed Confessions” by Michael A. G. Haykin

“The Christology of Adolphe Monod” by Antoine Theron

“The Principle and Practice of Preaching in the Heidlerberg Catechism” by Daniel Hyde

“Andrew Willet and the Synopsis Papismi” by Randall J. Pederson

“John Murray and the Godly Life” by John J. Murray

“God-Centered Adult Education” by Joel R. Beeke

“Ministerial Pride” by Richard Baxter

“Pastoral Counseling in the Twenty-first Century for Illness, Disease, and Death” by Christopher Bogosh

The journal is published twice a year and is available for $20 in the US, $30 in Canada, and $35 in foreign countries. The first issue can be purchased online here. To subscribe contact:

Ann Dykema, 2965 Leonard Street, N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49525 – (616) 977-0599 (x. 135) – ann [dot] dykeman [at] puritanseminary [dot] org.

I highly suggest you obtain a subscription to this journal as it is meaty and practical as you grow in your theology and in your ministry.

On Husbands and Wives in Preparation for my Wedding

July 15, 2008

“Husbands and wives should be as two sweet friends, bred under one constellation, tempered by an influence from heaven whereof neither can give any reason, save mercy and providence first made them so, and then made their match; saying, see God hath determined us out of this vast world each for other.”

Daniel Rogers (1573-1652)

Great Themes in Puritan Preaching

November 22, 2007

Preaching today is anemic at best and thoroughly unbiblical at worst! There is a solution! Learn from the past about what makes great preaching! Mariano Di Gangi has helped us by looking at the Puritans on preaching. Di Gangi, author of the new book Great Themes in Puritan Preaching from Joshua Press, is well known in Evangelicalism today having served in a number of well-known churches and taught in a number of schools. He received his M.Div. from Westminster and a D.D. from Gordon Conwell. He was written a previous book on the Puritans titled, A Golden Treasury or Puritan Devotion (P&R, 1999). With recommendations by Derek W. H. Thomas, John MacArthur, Jerry Bridges, and Joel R. Beeke and a forward by Michael A. G. Haykin, this book is surely to become a big hit! On a side note, Joshua Press will be distributing 6000 copies of this book to the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference attendees!

The table of contents reads as follows:

The infallible Word
No upstart sect
The Messiah revealed
Pastoral ministry
Guilt and grace
The second birth
Radical repentance
Justified and sanctified
Spiritual conflict
Bread and wine
Renewal and reform
Family values
Most blessed assurance
Advent to judgment

Below is the introduction of the book reproduced in whole to whet your appetite and encourage you to go out and buy this book (reprinted by permission of Joshua Press)! It is available from Sola Scriptura Ministries International. It is available in paper back or hard cover. Check out the website for Joshua Press for their other titles.


Puritans have been caricatured by their critics as advocates of “the narrowest and most inquisitive clerical intoleranc, a gloomy Calvinism in doctrine, Sabbatarianism in practice, and a degrading mental slavery to the mere letter of the Bible.” “Where once one might be accustomed to see an altar, leading his thoughts straightway to Jesus and to ‘the Lamb in the midst of the elders as it had been slain,’ he sees a cushioned pulpit… The noble liturgies of the early church have given way to the extempore effusions of an individual. The place of worship seems to have become a preaching house… Catholicity appears to have yielded to a bald French Calvinism, capable of imagining nothing but a sermon.” The Puritans were suspected of having “one eager all-absorbing passion–to Calvinize the Church of England and assimilate its polity and ritual–in all respects–to those of Scotland and Geneva.”

Undoubtedly, there may have been Dissenters whose extremist excesses produced intolerance rather than renewal in the turbulent decades that followed the Reformation. The fact remains, however, that “Puritanism aimed at a radical purification and reconstruction of church and state on the sole basis of the Word of God, without regard to the traditions of men… Radical in its antagonism to the medieval church, it was a revolution and it ran into the excesses of a revolution.

The Puritans were people of austere morals, reformed in doctrine, and nonconformists in practice when confronted with the imposition of ceremonies and customs not commanded in the Scriptures. Puritan preachers did not major in minors. They would not trivialize the tremendous truths that had the power to change lives. Building on the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Christology of Chalcedon, they strongly opposed Pelagianism, Arminianism, and the Socinianism that eventually spawned Unitarianism. They also differed from the Antinomians who depreciated the authority o God’s moral law. Now would they compromise with the Semi-Pelagians who diluted the gospel of sovereign grace with doses of human merit.

Puritan theology expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-1648) and the Savoy Declaration (1658), was also in harmony with the Scot’s Confession (1563), the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the Reformation era. The Puritan movement was distinguished by a serious study of the Scriptures and the practical application of biblical doctrines. Accurate exegesis prepared the way for lively exposition and relevant conclusions. Puritan preachers “emphasized the importance of words in the text of Scripture… This wise and insightful use of words gave Puritan preaching an exactness and attractiveness that many other English pulpiteers lacked.”

The Puritans were noted not only for viewing the text in its context, and so avoiding a pretext, but also for comparing and contrasting biblical passages in such a way that Scripture was used to interpret Scripture. They knew how to distinguish between history and allegory and looked for Christ in texts that were typological. Above all, they believed that God’s eternal Word was timely and trustworthy. It spoke to the ethical, social, and doctrinal issues faced by God’s people in every generation. When the inspired Scripture is illumined by the Holy Spirit, it has an undoubted perspicuity.

It has been noted that “two emphases followed by the Puritans explain at least a part of their effectiveness… First, they educated the mind… They recognized that heat in the pulpit without light from the Scripture would not change people. Second, they appealed to an individuals relationship to God at each present moment. As they explained the Scriptures, they expected the Holy Spirit to honour their work by leading the hearers to judge themselves, and by producing response to the preaching.”

Puritanism developed as part of the Protestant Reformation in England. According to one writer, “Nonconformity was conceived during the days of King Edward, born in the reign of Queen Mary, nursed and weaned in the reign of Elizabeth, grew up a youth under King James, and shot up under Charles I to conquer the hierarchy–its adversary.”

Many of the Puritan pastors and leaders were prepared for the gospel ministry by their studies at Oxford or Cambridge. They preached the incarnate Word from the written Word with prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit and a clear sense of purpose: that God would be glorified as people repented and believed the gospel, and then obeyed Christ in the fellowship of his church and in their daily work in the world. In all this, they were continuing the ministry of the Reformers and the Lord’s apostles before them.

At that first Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, when the Holy Spirit came with power upon those praying disciples, Peter did not dwell on his experience of glossolalia but proclaimed the Lord Jesus–his humiliation and his exaltation. Peter summoned people to repentance and offered them the forgiveness of sins through the work of Christ, as well as the gift of the Spirit. Paul was also devoted to preaching Christ, particularly Christ crucified, the Saviour who paid the penalty of our sins and opened the way for us to have peace with God.

Preaching is not universally held in high esteem these days. It is often depreciated, especially by those who lack the discipline and passion to do it well. A pastor’s day can be so involved in matters of secondary and even tertiary importance that the priority of preaching the Word is crowded out. Administration, visitation, counselling, and community relations have their place, but they should never rob the communication of the Word from its place of primacy. When this happens, the consequences may be catastrophic. “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11, NIV).

Let all who are called to feed God’s flock renew their commitment to preach the Word in season and out of season, correcting, rebuking, and encouraging, with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim. 4:2).

The Puritans provide us with a model of faithful biblical preaching. There are those who compare the multiple headings and abounding subdivisions of a typical Puritan sermon to the bones Ezekiel beheld in the valley of his vision: they were many, all were dry, and definitely quite dead. Undoubtedly, some of their homilies would have benefited from sensitive editing. But such criticisms say more about the shortness of the average listener’s attention span today than they do about a Puritan pastor’s supposed prolixity.

True, they produced sermons replete with introductions, expositions, clarifications, objections, exhortations, dehortations, illustrations, applications, doctrines, duties, invitations, promises, warnings and consolations. Yet we can derive lasting benefit from focusing on the insights of these biblical preachers. In studying their sermons, writings, and lectures, we will be enriched as their homiletical heritage prompts us to persevere in the reading and teaching of the inspired Scriptures.