With the recent release of Seven Summits in Church History, designed to give a brief introduction to major figures in the history of Christianity for churches and all readers, I have asked several friends, pastors, and scholars to answer:
Who are your “Seven Summits”? Or, what figures in church history would you enjoy sharing a meal with?
On Fridays over the last few weeks, I have shared their responses and would love your thoughts and invite you to join the conversation in the comments.
Today, it is my delight to share who Owen Strachan think are seven summits in church history worth knowing:
Owen Strachan’s Seven Summits:
- Jonathan Edwards. I want to talk with Jonathan Edwards about many things: what it was like to be a missionary in the Massachusetts wild near the end of his life; how he developed his aesthetics, which is to say his ontology, which is to say his understanding of virtue, which is to say his doctrine of God; why he worked so hard to craft his sermons, which—I want to tell him—are some of the most stirring collections of words in sentence form known to the English language; and much more.
I love Edwards because he takes all our categories and scrambles them. He is intoxicatingly brilliant but loves the simple practices of ministry; he is gentlemanly but rolls up his shirt-sleeves in his writing in order to deconstruct the Enlightenment (in its nascent stirrings), constructing a preposterously high-horsepower take on the reason why all things exist; he seems to live in the world where higher things dwell (he is attuned to sennsucht years before C. S. Lewis discovers it) but loves his wife and tenderly cares for his children.
Edwards was a man with feet of clay like me, a sinner, and his flaws are plain in historical perspective. But in a world that mocks God and belittles pastors, Edwards reveres God and shows us a model of the pastor-theologian. His conception of God is matched by his conception of the pastoral office. I would love to thank him for this, and for his impact on my life, for showing me just how big God is, and just how good His bigness is for me.
- C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—I do not mean by including both men that they are evangelicals, because I do not think the Catholic Tolkien would have claimed the label, but I do love how each of these men wrote beautiful works fired by what you could call a “Christian imagination.” Lewis, as mentioned above, understood that beauty was not a glancing thing in the world, but was in truth the reason the world was made. I regularly find myself struck by something beautiful that I cannot fully grasp, and that I would have difficulty explaining to someone else, but that nonetheless takes hold of me. Lewis gives me a vocabulary for this feeling.
Tolkien was deeply informed by mythology and fables, his mind continually roaming over plains drenched with the blood of heroes and demons. There is no one I am aware of who more understands the desire of men to live a life dedicated to thumos, glory-seeking, as the ancient Greeks had it.
I want to talk with Tolkien and also Lewis about this concept and how they help me understand it through a Christian lens. The call their work issues forth, it seems to me, is in part a call to manhood. This means a call to self-sacrifice, to nobility, to virtue, to the love of a woman, to the care of children and home, and to a life that may not be great in effect but is stubbornly grand in scope, in intention. Seek my kingdom, Jesus said; so, from their own vantage point, did these men.
- Francis Asbury—I want to talk with Asbury about his continual effort to proclaim the gospel to small groups in far-flung towns and hamlets. I am deeply impressed by he and his fellow Methodist circuit-riders, for I see in them a living demonstration of the theology of the cross. Nowadays, we are tempted to multiply congregations for reasons of fame and success; these humble preachers multiplied congregations because the gospel took root and there simply were not enough preachers. I find that nothing short of heroic. I need more of that spiritual grit in my life, and I certainly need to do my small part to pass it on to my students. Asbury would have much to teach me in this regard.
- Carl F. H. Henry—I want to talk with Henry. Actually, that’s not really true: I want Henry to talk to me. For days. I want him to download his super-computer of a theological brain for me so I can access it. Henry is truly a figure who forgot more theology than the rest of us will ever learn. His model is catalyzing for me, because in an era when many conservative evangelicals had trimmed the wicks of their intellectual ambitions, Henry was getting ready for a bonfire. He was trying, in other words, to almost singlehandedly vindicate evangelical theology by demonstrating that it could be learned, reasonable, biblical, Christ-captivated, and high-level. I see this spirit in him, George Eldon Ladd, E. J. Carnell, and many others of the group I call the “Cambridge scholars” of the neo-evangelical period.
I want this same instinct to take root in our movement in our time. Christians aren’t doing something bad if we think and reason and write. We are being exactly like God. Our faith is not anti-intellectual; it’s the most intellect-friendly faith there is, for God is very wisdom and truth itself. Jesus is the Logos, pure epiphany, pure light, pure enlightenment. His salvation of our souls is simultaneously a restarting of our minds.
Henry, I think, saw this. In fact, I’ve learned this perspective in part from him (when I worked at the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I got to see his “preaching Bible”; no book was more marked up than the Gospel of John). I would love to talk with him, but most importantly to learn from him. Here was a world-class theologian who, like Edwards, loved evangelism. He would stay out late at night to witness to poor souls in Pasadena, then show up the next morning to critique higher-criticism. That is my kind of dude.
- Winston Churchill—I need to clarify this choice. As best I can discern, Churchill was not a born-again Christian. It grieves me to think this is true, but it may be true. However, Churchill was a man of the fiercest courage. I do not think I would learn much doctrine from him in conversation, but I do think I could learn a tremendous deal about manhood and leadership from him. His life was unstoppingly full of controversy, attack, setbacks, challenges, trials, fires, headaches, and the ever-present possibility of death, and yet Churchill—in the language we use to describe bull-headed point guards–never stopped coming. He never stopped fighting for good and standing against evil.
When no one else would denounce the clear specter of evil emanating from Germany and Russia, Churchill did. When no one else dared to think that England could withstand the furious power of the Luftwaffe, Churchill did. When no one else showed the martial courage to rally the English people, Churchill did. His was, like ours, an age of high stakes and grave challenges. It was the kind of age that drives many to quiet their convictions and try to ride out the storm. Churchill saw that such a policy would not entail victory, or even survival, but rather guaranteed defeat. Only conviction would do. Only conviction, blended with a zest for life, a genial temperament, and a dash of savoir-faire, would rally the day.
Again, Churchill was his own man, and not one who had a great deal of time for deep spiritual searching. But his unparalleled example of principled courage seems to me to be a necessary part of a rich and textured Christian witness in the public square. He was not a man who thrived in peacetime; he was a man bred for death and glory, as Tolkien called it. I see serious flaws in Churchill, but I also see the image of God in him. How I wish I could talk with him, learn from him, and be like him.
- Spurgeon and the Anonymous General Baptist—Here we see that I have cheated and added an eighth person to the mix. I will accept all due penalties and just recriminations. Here’s why I have done so.
I do not wish to talk with Spurgeon the high-flown orator. I love that Spurgeon, to be clear. But I want to talk to the “Downgrade” Spurgeon. I want to witness him not at his peak, but at his ebb. I want to see him when he is going through fire, and yet persevering in and through Christ. It is this Spurgeon who exemplifies what most of us will experience, at least in some form. It is this Spurgeon who stands in history as a man of great doctrinal precision, and of a stunning willingness to put all his popularity, all his fame, all his reputation, all his fortune, all his name, on the line for the truth of God. It is so easy when one soars as high as Spurgeon to rub down the edges of biblical fidelity, and to sand away the particulars of the faith. But there is no whiff of the celebrity-cultivator in Spurgeon. He put it all on the line for the sake of the truth, and though he paid dearly for his stand in natural terms, he is honored—and will be honored in much greater measure very soon—for his witness.
In similar terms, I want to talk with the anonymous General Baptist who, in the Salters Hall debate of 1719, was the only Baptist in that assembly willing to put his name beside a Trinity-affirming statement. Everyone there sided with the pro-Caffyn group, arguing for “love” over Trinitarian orthodoxy. Everyone there except for one man. He cared about the Godhead. He cared about the honor of God. He cared about the glory of God. He was willing to be counted for Christ. He was willing to endure shame for the truth of God.
I don’t even know his name, but I believe I will in the age to come. I know Spurgeon’s name, and it is great. But the witness of church history is this: alongside the heroes whose books we read, there will be many who wrote nothing but their name beside a confession of faith. Some of them couldn’t write even a sentence, being denied education by virtue of their slave status; some of them could barely pick up a pen, their arms broken and bloody from persecution. But their names are known to God. And most importantly, their names are written in the lamb’s book of life.
Not long from now, none of them will be anonymous to us.
Owen Strachan is the Director of the Center for Public Theology and associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to serving as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, he is the author of The Grand Design, The Colson Way, and The Pastor as Public Theologian.
Who are your Seven Summits?
Join the conversation in the comments below and learn who are my Seven Summits and more about the book here.
Other posts in the Seven Summits series:
- 7 Summits with Ed Stetzer and David Prince
- 7 Summits with Trevin Wax and Bruce Ashford
- 7 Summits with Ronnie Floyd and J. T. English
- 7 Summits with Malcolm Yarnell and Jim Hamilton
- 7 Summits with Nathan Finn and Jared Wilson
- 7 Summits with Paige Patterson and Jason Allen
- 7 Summits with Danny Akin and Russell Moore
- Introduction to the Seven Summits in Church History