Book Review: Destroyer of the gods by Larry Hurtado (Guest)

This post was written by Derek Wojciech, a friend and brother in Christ. He now holds the distinction of being the first guest blogger on Dead Heroes Don’t Save. 

In his book Destroyer of the gods, retired Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology (University of Edinburgh in Scotland), Dr. Hurtado (blog) presents the case that the early church, specifically it’s Christian faith, was unique and newly distinct from any preceding or current faith practices. He attempts to dispose of some of the current thought in academia/religious studies that Christianity (religion in general) was simply a variation of the same basic tenets and themes of existing religious systems. In today’s postmodern environment, Christianity often simply takes its mostly anonymous place among the many world’s religions and belief systems.

Hurtado first highlights Christianity’s early dedication and zeal among its adherents (almost all Jewish) and it’s trans-local and numerical explosion. What were some of the forces behind this movement? He points out that in the Roman era, only two main faiths remain, Judaism and Christianity. Clearly if Christianity was simply an anonymous, unremarkable belief of the time then why wouldn’t it have disappeared like the others? What made it uniquely powerful?

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Hurtado first starts off with the (often) derogatory comments from personalities of the 1st century era. In fact, he begins with the most famous persecutor of the church, Paul (Saul) the Pharisee. Hurtado emphasizes the worship of Jesus as probably a prime motivator for Jewish sentiment against early Christianity. Writings from Pliny, Lucian, Celsus and other contemporaries are also analyzed showing the tremendous and unexpected growth of the Christian faith, along with arising conflict (persecution, economic upheaval) with the Roman way of life and government (traditional religious practices and celebration marginalized), ridicule, and wild accusations (Christian orgies, cannibalism etc.). Yet in spite of this attack on the newly faithful, Christianity thrived and spread like no other faith before it.

A major difference with Christianity (shared with Judaism) was abandonment of the pantheon of gods and common practices of Rome; rejecting their altars, idols, household/family gods, sacrifices, and priesthood. The Christian God was transcendent, involved, and loved the world/humanity. And Jesus was this God in the flesh. While sharing much of the Jewish view of God, Christianity burst on the scene with a completely new religious viewpoint of what and who God was. And these followers were completely different in makeup; crossing ethnic, economic, gender, and age lines. And they did so by choice. This was not a faith or belief held because of their homegrown identity or role in life.

Another defining component of the early faith is the emphasis on Scriptures. Not limited to the Old Testament, much of what we now know as the New Testaments writings were presented and used in worship, read aloud, memorized, distributed and ultimately collected into a single volume. These writings early on were recognized as authoritative and (eventually) canonical. In addition there was a tremendous proliferation of writings by early church leaders, bishops, apologists and supporters. There is no “analogy for this variety, vigor and volume” in Roman-era religious groups. Copies and circulation was unparalleled and even unique formats (codex vs universally used scroll) defined the early church’s “bookish” nature.

The social behaviors that Christianity promoted proved most unusual and distinctive. It was a clear 180-degree movement away from accepted Roman practices such as infant exposure (discarding unwanted babies), the gladiator games, and pagan worship. However, Christianity also emphasized personal behavior in order ‘to live and please God.” (1 Thess). Marriage and family, treatment of women, children and slaves, sexual behavior, social and religious practices only honoring the one and true God were distinctive callings upon the newly converted Christians.

Hurtado handily provides many distinctions of the early Christian church that make it unique, an oddity even, in the Roman-era. These were 1) the refusal to acknowledge the pantheon of gods and 2) the amazing trans-ethnic and trans-local growth of the faith even amidst strong opposition and persecution (that could result in death (martyrdom)). In forging a new, unique identity apart from one’s background, sex, class or status the early Christians held to newfound revelation of their God, codified in early accepted Scriptures, with a call to holiness in behavior and worship setting a new standard in the Roman-era.

In review, the author makes key arguments in the origin, formation, foundation and practice of the early Christian faith as being unique and distinct for there time. The entirety of these presents formidable opposition against the more liberal historians and religious studies professors who argue for a genesis of Christianity from a previous belief system or borrowing from a Roman-era practice (ie savior cult, Mithraism, Jewish offshoot etc). The scholarly evidence Hurtado provides is a strong defense.

I feel he minimizes somewhat the unique doctrine and theology of the Christian faith, which culminates in the person of Jesus Christ. In addition, the powerful evangelical aspect of the faith and the early church isn’t given it’s due in formulating a personal conviction in early Christians and the resulting impact which was the tremendous growth of the faith.

What is missing from the answer to the question as to ‘Why is Christianity Unique’ in this work is not the scholarly side, but the spiritual side. Hurtado does not address this, nor is his book meant to. However, the power of God and His Holy Spirit at work in the church body paints the most significant part of the picture. Christianity was unique because God became man and men then believed ‘the power of God unto salvation’ (God’s Word revealed in Christ). The traits of the early Church distinctive in the Roman-era are not special in and of themselves but are unique fruits of a people transformed by the power of a loving God and born into a new way of living.

Book Review: Free Will Revisited by Robert Picirilli

Opening my inbox, I saw an email that caused me to pause. The subject line was Arminian Theology and the author was Robert Picirilli. Expecting anything but an email from the noted theologian of that name, I clicked to read it. To my surprise it was from the Robert Picirilli. And he was asking me to review his book. I was more than happy to accept.

Robert Picirilli (link), the former Academic Dean of the Graduate School at Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College), has authored numerous books and commentaries, including one on Romans from an Arminian perspective (amazon). He has also written the book Grace, Faith, Free Will (amazon), one of the best and most accessible books (IMO) on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Picirilli was also a contributor to Grace for All, a book that was blogged through on this site (link).

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The topic of free will is challenging. It is one of the areas that is debated and discussed in philosophical, theological, and scientific circles. One of the difficulties is that the word itself has been defined and redefined by various participants in the debate. Given this rather short work on such a diverse and difficult topic it is important to understand what drove Picirilli to write and what he sought to accomplish in this book.

The aim can be discerned by the subtitle a Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. This book seeks to explore free will as understood by these esteemed theologians who each have written extensively on this subject.

I determined on a specific approach: namely, to deal with the subject as it was argued, specifically, by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I picked them because each of these theological masters wrote a volume against free will … [1]

In interacting with these authors, Picirilli wants the reader to not only understand each of their arguments against free will, but to offer a rebuttal to each of the major objections.

Is it possible that such beings have a will that is free to make choices between alternative courses of action? To answer this is the purpose of this work. [2]

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This book is about free will but it is not a general survey on this subject. This work is about the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, but it is not written to deal with all of the theological topics that are part of that debate. The intent of this work is to deal with the intersection of these two areas: specifically how free will is viewed within Calvinism and Arminianism.

An outline of the book

The book is written in four parts.

  • Part One: Defining the Issues
  • Part Two: The Case against Free Will
  • Part Three: The Major Issues
  • Part Four: In Conclusion

The first part provides a brief introduction to the ideas and terms involved in the discussion of free will. Key concepts include free will, determinism, compatiblism, certainty, and necessity. The second part of the book is the strength of the book. It outlines each of the major works on free will written by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

  • Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will
  • John Calvin’s The Bondage and Liberation of the Will
  • Johnathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will

In each chapter Picirilli presents 1) the historical context of the writing;  2) an outline of the work with a summary of each section; 3) the main ideas comprising the case against free will, and 4) offers a definition of free will that the theologian was arguing against. This last point is important. A key thesis in this book is that the versions of free will that Luther, Calvin, and Edwards wrote against was not the same as that offered by Arminius, Wesley and other Biblically sound theologians. This section offers minimal rebuttals, leaving that for later in the work.

It is important to note, as Picirilli does in the preface, that the arguments and interactions in this book are based primarily on how each theologian presented and argued against free will in the one work dedicated to that subject. Picirilli does not engage points about free will the authors may have made in their other works. For example, the chapter on Martin Luther deals with what is written in The Bondage of the Will, without examining what was written in On the Freedom of a Christian. 

The third part of the book is where Picirilli interacts with the arguments of the theologians, demonstrating where they are wrong. He does this by grouping similar points made by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards and dealing with them together. This is done in several chapters as follows:

  • Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Necessity
  • Free Will, Human Depravity, and the Grace of God
  • Free Will, and the Sovereignty and Providence of God
  • Free Will and the Logic of Cause and Effect

These chapters provide good, concise rebuttals to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. The main thrust of each counter-point would be familiar to those well-read on the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. The book concludes with a summary of the arguments against free will and a summary of Picirilli’s arguments for our ability to choose among possible alternatives. Continue reading

Reading History: John of Damascus answers Why the Cross?

As we continue our Easter related posts, we are going to look at John of Damascus’ reflections on the cross in his work Orthodox Faith. An eighth century theologian, John is best known for defending the veneration of icons and imagery when this issue was causing major divisions (link). Though intermixed with a defense of venerating the symbol of the cross (mostly removed from this post), John’s writing shows how central the cross is to orthodox Christianity.

The rest of this post contains excerpts from Book 4 chapter 11 (CCEL).


John_Damascus_(arabic_icon).gifEvery action, therefore, and performance of miracles by Christ are most great and divine and marvellous: but the most marvellous of all is His precious Cross. Continue reading