Book Review

"The Least of These: Selected Readings in Christian History" by Eric R. Severson

Rick Ritchie
Eric R. Severson
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

Eric R. Severson has collected for his readers 29 different authors' treatments of the sheep and goats parable from Matthew 25. These range from Saint Irenaeus in the second century to George Whitefield in the eighteenth. Each selection is followed by "reading questions" and bibliography. Sometimes the sheep and goats passage is central and sometimes not. Where it was not, I still found the passage worthwhile reading on other grounds. (Julian of Norwich, for example, gave what some call a mystical vision, but which I call a deep meditation on Scripture.) The texts are from the public domain, and many of them can be found in the online Christian Classics Ethereal Library ( As Severson notes, "These passages are raw; they appear, for the most part, in the context of ministerial concern and pastoral anxieties" (viii). Severson's collection makes for fresher reading than I imagine a reader would find diving unaided into the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Besides, book form is easier on the eye for extended reading.

I will warn the buyer that the editing of this book-in the original texts, not in Severson's contributions-is atrocious. While I find that I can look past such errors easily, I know that many cannot. My favorite typo in the book is in Whitefield's sermon, where he has Festus say to St. Paul, "Paul, much earning doth make thee mad!" (248).

My initial interest in the book was in seeing how the varying understandings of the sheep and goats passage would relate to the distinction between law and gospel. Severson himself asked such questions, but with a clear Nazarene leaning; for instance: "Does Benedict strike a balance between grace and works?" In the question of salvation, given Romans 4:5, there is no balance; it's one hundred to zero. Now I did not expect to find the sermons from the early church to be exemplary in their treatment of law and gospel; but would it be the case that the early church would uniformly use the passage to teach salvation by works, while the Protestants would find a way to teach salvation by grace? There were some surprises. Irenaeus, Clement, and Justin Martyr open the collection with some very profitable reading, which while not "Gospel sermons" in a Lutheran sense are faithful expositions of Scripture.

Of Luther's sermon, Severson says, "Like no other sermon in this volume, Luther shows how relevant Matthew 25:31-46 is to his contemporary context" (199). If it seems odd that a Nazarene reviewer found Luther congenial, the oddness ceases once you read the sermon. In his treatises, especially "Two Kinds of Righteousness" (1519) and "The Freedom of a Christian" (1520), Luther expressed deep insights into the distinction between law and gospel, a distinction he notes at the start of the sermon. Luther says, "While most lessons almost exclusively teach and inculcate faith, this one treats only of works" (200). He then goes on to preach pure law. If a passage like this urges works rather than faith, then how is a pastor to preach the gospel from it? Later Lutherans decided that since the Bible is a progressive revelation that has its culmination in Christ as the Lamb of God, all sermons should culminate in the same way. Over time, some have found ways to do this that are more organic than artificial by appealing to the broader context of the book of the Bible being preached.

George Whitefield's sermon is artificial in its construction, mining Scripture for illustrations without expositing one text carefully, and not for the sake of clear gospel. Whitefield preaches on the exchange between St. Paul and Festus in Acts where Festus is almost persuaded to be a Christian. Almost persuaded, a momentary state for Festus, is changed to Almost Christian, a lifestyle for nominal Christians that has little parallel with Festus himself. The Almost Christian relies on external ordinances rather than a true change of heart. The sheep and goats passage is used to illustrate how omitting charity fits one for hell. Severson notes that Whitefield not only owned slaves, but made an illustration from slavery-one that condemned the slave and not his master!-to reinforce his point (viii). If failure of charity was damnable, then how could slavery be approved? I could wish that Whitefield had pictured Christ on the Last Day saying to the goats, "I was free and you enslaved me." I could also wish that Severson included a sermon by Robert Farrar Capon to show how a pastor might read a judgment parable while remembering what he learned from the grace parables preceding it. As Jesus taught us when he so often posed the question "Have ye not read?" good reading is a matter of taking a lot of Scripture into account at once.

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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Friday, February 29th 2008

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