The Phoenix, Mere Hope, and Criticism

Recently, my new book Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism was reviewed at ChristianBook.com under the title,

“Author’s use of pagan symbol of ‘the phoenix’ taints entire message of book.”

I’d like to provide a brief response to the review, but before I do, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, that anyone would read something I would write is no small thing. That someone would give further time and thought to something I wrote enough to write a review represents even more charity and graciousness, even if they did not like what I wrote.

Second, I am grateful for the review. In the academy where I serve, this type of sparing or critical interaction is the norm—the key is how you go about engaging and responding.[1] Much of what I try to teach my students is how to serve and live as a “careful scholar,” giving care to receive and consider all thoughtful critique. C. S. Lewis said, in his helpful essay “On Criticism,” that one of the ways an author can improve is by “reading the criticism of his own work,” but not blindly or without a foundation to weigh and consider fairly what has been said. [2]

Therefore, to receive any kind of review of Mere Hope is welcomed by me and I am eager to evaluate the substance of what is conveyed and appreciate the time taken by those sharing their thoughts. It is not a perfect book and there are a myriad of ways I could have written it better. Thus, I have something to learn from all those who take time to write a review of it.

To that end, here is a brief reply to the critique that the use of ‘the phoenix’ in Mere Hope taints the entire message of the book.

1. The Phoenix, as a symbol, though mythological, was not always employed as pagan.

Christians used it regularly throughout the first 1,500 years of church history. I explain this in chapter one:

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend—though he clearly thought the creature was real—he described the phoenix as a “an emblem of our resurrection.”[3] Clement was followed by a second century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial “power to slay himself and come to life again” and resurrects from the dead “on the third day.”[4]

These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification.  In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a “complete and unassailable symbol of our hope” in the resurrection.[5] In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though “remote and uncommon,” mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection.[6]

Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real “most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance.”[7] By the Middle Ages the regular use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature,[8] the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope.

2. As to the use of ancient pagan symbols, or other literature, to illustrate Christian truth, I believe these can be redeployed for good.

C. S. Lewis argues, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” that the use of story, or fantastical imagery, is useful “to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness” that keeps us from hearing the “news from a country we have never yet visited.” These symbols do not have, nor are meant to have, the authority of Scripture, Lewis says, but can be helpful to awaken us and put us on the path of searching Scripture.[9]

Further, Lewis also explains the aesthetic value of Christian theology in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when addressing the “confusion between imaginative enjoyment and intellectual assent.” As to the specific use of ancient pagan imagery, Lewis explains,

“We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story–the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. … It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.”[10]

Thus, the use of symbols like the phoenix or even allusions from the writings of Lewis, Tolkien, and yes, Rowling, themselves, are ways, in my view, of awakening the reader and pointing them to Truth and Reality.  Tolkien, in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” puts it this way:

“Probably every writer making a secondary world … hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. … The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, “Is it true?'”[11]

Finally, I am grateful for this particular review of Mere Hope. Though drawing different conclusions, the reviewer did see that I intended for the image of a phoenix to influence and shape the entire book. It is up to other readers to determine whether this “taints” or “illuminates,” but from the phoenix feather on the cover to the last sentence of the book, the employment of this image was intentional. Here’s why:

What I love about the image of a phoenix—and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well—is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. Just as Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” (John 10:17) only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life–through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.

Indeed, as I hope many will be awakened to see when they read Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism, Someone greater than the Phoenix is here (see Matthew 12:41).

—–

[1] I have often been helped and corrected by the late scholar Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.

[2] For a helpful commentary on Lewis’s thoughts see Louis Markos, “Genial Criticism,” in Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, IVP, 2010.

[3] ANF 1:12

[4] “The Phoenix,” in Physiologus cited in Joseph Nigg, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] ANF 3:554. Tertullian mistakenly translates Psalm 92:12 as “The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix” to support his view of the existence of this bird.

[6] NPNF 2 7:135-136.

[7] Micah Mattix, “Birds of Paradise,” in The Weekly Standard, March 20, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/birds-of-paradise/article/2007167

[8] See John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 5:272.

[9] As one contemporary example, read this moving account by Drew Bratcher of how his studying Moby Dick with Marilynne Robinson pointed him to Calvin and Edwards and then back to regular Bible Study.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Socratic Digest, vol. 3, 1945.

[11] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” OUP, 1947.

For further reading, see:

Jason G. Duesing, “Where are the Gentlemen Theologians?,” October 3, 2016.

Colin Duriez, “The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien,” Themelios 23:2.

Jim Hamilton, “J. K. Rowling Tells the Truth . . . In Her Fiction,” July 18, 2017.

C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Oxford, 1941.

Andrew Peterson, “Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me,” July 11, 2011.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C. S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters, Black Squirrel Books, 2018.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, Harper Collins, 2014.

Reader, If You Seek A Monument, Look Around

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice

— Epitaph of Christopher Wren, 1723, St. Paul’s Cathedral

Twelve years after the completion of the beautiful and historic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, it’s architect, Christopher Wren, died. Following the destruction of the Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren played a vital role in designing many of the rebuilt buildings. Much of London today is shaped by his vision and this is seen most prominently in St. Paul’s.

So much so, that when he died he was entombed in the bottom of St. Paul’s and his place marked with a modest plaque. His son, desiring to pay tribute to the lasting mark his father left on the city through his buildings, inscribed the words “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” which, translated, says “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around.”

The idea, clearly, is that Christopher Wren’s lasting legacy is not a statue of his likeness, but rather these iconic and culture transforming structures that serve as the backbone of London architecture.

Just a few miles north of St. Paul’s there is a cemetery that dates to the fourteenth century. It lacks the grandeur of Wren’s masterpiece and, indeed, the precise location of many of those buried there have been lost in history via German bombing in World War II.

Originally called “Bonehill,” this cemetery developed in the seventeenth century as a resting place for Nonconforming Dissenters from the Church of England. These Separatists, Independents, and Baptists, parted ways with the State Church bound by their consciences and, thus, were not privy to more formal spaces.

Interred without much expense or fanfare in this nondescript 11-acre tract, and often they also were buried “without a monument.”

Eventually, the graveyard took on the name Bunhill Fields and close to 6,000 from this early era found it as their final place of rest. The funeral of the Separatist, Samuel Eaton, was one of the first recorded in August 1639 as is said to have brought the attendance of over 200 Separatists and Baptists. He was joined by the godfather of the English Particular Baptists, Henry Jessey, also with a large funeral of devoted friends in 1663.

The English Baptists who served to shape much of the foundational 1644 London Confession and the 1689 Second London Confession, William Kiffin and Hanserd Knollys are buried there though the precise location of their graves has long been lost.

John Bunyan, lies at the center of the cemetery in a visible tomb for all pilgrims to see.

The pastors who preceded Charles Spurgeon, John Gill and John Rippon, both of whom served that congregation for over half a century each, are buried in Bunhill.

They hymn writer, Isaac Watts, rests there bidding all to survey the wondrous cross.

Just a few steps away lies John Owen, the Puritan theologian and one who unlocked the key to mortification of sin for so many.

Susanna Wesley was buried there, directly across the street from the house, chapel, and grave of her son, John.

These and many more untold and unknown to history are buried in Bunhill Fields.  None of them left a city of beautiful buildings like Christopher Wren, but their legacy is, in fact greater.  For they dedicated their lives to the building of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20).

Bunhill Fields has never attracted the crowds of St. Paul’s, but the kingdom influence of those buried in that field lives far beyond the crowds through the churches that carry forth the same Gospel they preached and shared.

So, reader, if you seek a monument for these, go to Bunhill Fields, and from there, to the ends of the earth, and look around.


This week I am with students and faculty on our United Kingdom Study Tour visiting and lecturing in places like St. Paul’s and Bunhill Fields as well as learning about ongoing ministry needs of local churches in the present day. This article is an adaptation from my lecture given at Bunhill. For more information on the history of this cemetery and who is buried there, see:

Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, Islington: Cultural Memory in London

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

T. G. Crippens, “The Tombs in Bunhill Fields,” Transactions of the Congregational Historicial Society 4 (1909-1910), 347-363

J. A. Jones, Bunhill Memorials (1849)

Alfred W. Light, Bunhill Fields (1913)

Richard Rawlinson, The inscriptions upon the tombs, grave-stones, &c. in the
dissenters burial place near Bunhill-Fields (1717)

 


 

For Other Churches, Baptists Assert a High View of a Low and Free Church

Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives … but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve. — Timothy George

Whereas Baptists have made unhelpful contributions to the Christian tradition throughout their history (see the Landmark movement as just one example), they have also made helpful contributions.

In contrast to the discord of the nineteenth century, Baptists have also served other churches in helpful ways by a healthy articulation of the place of the local church in the lives of Christians, while at the same time, sought to defend the freedom of other churches and religions to disagree with them.

These two contributions, a healthy ecclesiology and religious liberty, have a larger end in mind than the petty attempts to show how the Baptist tradition is “the most thorough” among all Protestants. In short, Baptists have had much to contribute to the church catholic when they have sought to build local churches and defend the freedom of religion with the Gospel and for the Gospel.

In essence, I am summarizing what evangelical Baptists have discussed often in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, namely Baptist Distinctives and Baptist identity, and thus am not aiming to say anything new, but rather to reassert and affirm the path whereby future Baptists can continue to make a helpful contribution to the Christian tradition.

Baptist historians and theologians regularly engage in an ongoing discussion of what exactly comprises a list of Baptist distinctives. In the seminary classes I teach, after weeks of building a case for the value of the Baptist tradition, despite its many flaws and errors in history, I conclude each term by summarizing what identifies the Baptist tradition as marked by:

(1) a People of the Book who preach the Gospel and have found it helpful to summarize what the Bible says about the Christian life and practice in the church and the world in confessions of faith.

(2) The practice of believer’s baptism by immersion as the entrance to a

(3) believer’s church that is

(4) free and separate from the state and thus advocates for the religious freedom for all in society while

(5) seeking to share the Gospel with all in society and to the ends of the earth in an intentional and organized Great Commission focus of evangelism and missions.  All of this is done through

(6) biblical cooperation among churches.[1]

For simplicity, I often condense all six of these distinctives into the two categories of church health and religious liberty, both advocated by Baptists for and from the Gospel in service of other churches.

Or to put it another way, as one my PhD students said recently, playing their part in the larger Christian tradition, Baptists assert a high view of a low and free church.[2]

—–

In February, I had the privilege of delivering the second faculty address at Midwestern Seminary on the topic, “The Thorough Reformers? Baptists, the Consensus Quinquesaecularis, and the Future.” The above is a portion of that address, the entirety of which will comprise the chapter I submitted this week for inclusion in the forthcoming volume, Baptists and the Christian Tradition, edited by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps for B&H Academic.

To hear the entire address you can listen to the audio here:

[1] These are concomitant with other interpretations of Baptist theology in history as unique Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition. As the Center for Baptist Renewal’s manifesto of Evangelical Baptist Catholicity states,”We affirm the distinctive contributions of the Baptist tradition as a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These distinctives include the necessity of personal conversion, a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, congregational governance, and religious liberty.” The CBR explains “Other Baptist groups and theologians have utilized the notion of “Baptist Catholicity” or “Bapto-Catholicity” (see, for example, the manifesto for Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity (1997)), but we are seeking to stake a claim for a particularly evangelical expression of this impulse.”

[2] Gratitude to the creative and thoughtful S. Mark Fugitt.

How Beautiful Are The Adverbs When They Preach Good News

The students in my classes know that I don’t like adverbs.

Or, I should say, the over reliance on adverbs. In academic writing, they are a quick shortcut to the expression of thoughts but do not often* bring clarity, and hinder progress in the writing discipline. However, adverbs, when employed as a part of an intentional writing strategy, can serve to accentuate or add needed color. They can add beauty.

When it comes to theological development, for example, they have been beautifully used in history. Here is one example.

Since the mysteries of Christ were revealed (Col 1:26) and throughout the first centuries of early Christianity, Christians discussed what it meant that Jesus Christ was “made like” humanity (Heb 2:17).

These discussions often turned into debates, as a handful of thinkers (and instigators) came with novel ideas and questions that challenged what the church held to be true. These challenges led many to seek to formulate an answer to the questions, How can Jesus be both God and man? and Why did God become man?

The result was a confessional statement adopted in modern-day Istanbul, called the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451). This wonderful statement says, in part,

“[W]e all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; … one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.“[i]

Those four powerful and clear “without” statements at the end sometimes are translated as four adverbs:

inconfusedly
unchangeably
indivisibly
inseparably

In refutation of error and all other hopeless religions of man, Christians declare simply and beautifully, as George Guthrie says, that “Jesus really did become human.”[ii]

When read aloud these adverbs underscore the indestructible truth of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in such a way that really should be sung.

Why, then, did God become man?

In John 3:16, Jesus says that God loved the world in such a way as to make provision for their sin in the face of judgment.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Just prior to this, in John 3:14-15, Jesus alludes to the time Moses was instructed by God to craft a bronze serpent-like staff to hold up at a time when the people were dying due to their sin.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

All who would look to the staff would live (Nu 21:4-9). In the same way, Jesus said, all who look to him, when he is lifted up, will have eternal life (Jn 3:15).

God’s love for the world and desire to provide salvation is why God became man.

In the fourth century, a remarkable North African theologian named Athanasius wrote a short treatise as an “elementary sketch” of faith in Christ wherein he said,

“For we were the purpose of [Jesus Christ’s] embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”[iii]

Put adverbially, Jesus Christ, in two natures, God and man, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).

How beautiful are the adverbs when they preach good news.


This article is an adaption from my forthcoming Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism available June 1, 2018 from B&H Books.

Mere Hope
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018

Available for pre-order at Amazon and LifeWay from B&H Books. 

 

[i] “The Chalcedonian Creed,” in Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 56.

[ii] George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 116.

[iii] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.

How to Become a Better Writer

As I explain on the first day of my classes, one of the side effects of a journey with me as professor is that, whether one hopes for it or not, I use my courses to help improve writing skills.

In the ministry assignments to which most of the students in my classes will go, the ability to communicate clearly their thoughts will prove crucial for their own efforts of building trust, strengthening relationships, resolving conflicts, organizing and casting visionary leadership, and, most importantly, communicating the gospel message well (Col 4:4).

For those who find themselves set apart for the ministry of the Word in preaching, the ability to convey their message in written word only helps insure they will do better when speaking.

For these reasons and more, Dr. John Mark Yeats and I were delighted to be asked by the Student Life Office at Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College to convene a lunch event with students to discuss “How to Become a Better Writer.”

You can watch the video recording of that event below. Here are some of the topics we covered and questions answered:

  • Why is writing important for those seeking to serve in ministry?
  • What is your writing story? Did you always have a desire to write?
  • How do you go about writing? How has that changed over the years?
  • What authors do you like to read that write well or have shaped your writing?
  • What advice do you have for students to improve their writing?
  • Why can’t I use first person in academic writing?
  • Should students pursue publication?

For a related resource, see Dr. Jason K. Allen’s recent Preaching and Preachers conversation with Matt Smethurst on “The Pastor and Writing.”

 

 

 

Who are the ‘Nations’?

In the culture of American sports one often hears of a team’s fan base described as a “nation.” Hence, there are websites and apparel designed for the “Yankees Nation” and the “Aggie Nation.” The use of the word nation in this respect communicates something larger than just those fans that attend games or live within certain proximity to their team’s home stadiums.

These nations consist of any people who share a common bond of fanatic interest in a team regardless of geographical boundaries. While perhaps greatest in number at the epicenter of a team’s origins, members of the “nation” can exist globally and can join other members in enthusiastic support.

When considering a biblical view of the nations, an American sports understanding of the term actually proves helpful. Within the Bible the word nation is, of course, used to describe political entities defined by geographic boundaries with kings or rulers.

These nations were first created by God in response to the construction of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Previously having one language, the people were dispersed throughout the earth with distinct languages.

Into the nation of Israel, God sent his son, Jesus Christ, as Messiah to “suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Lk 24:47).

After his resurrection and before his ascension, the Messiah commanded his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and this message of salvation first went forth from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8).

It is the commission of Christian churches (Mt 16:18) to continue the task of taking the message of God’s plan of salvation (Rom 10:14-15) to those nations who have not heard (Rom 15:21).

Jesus Christ is the hope of all nations (Rom 15:12) and from the nations he will gather his people (Jn 10:16).

This message will be proclaimed by his children to the nations until the end of the world (Mt 24:14). At that time, the Messiah will return to the earth and all nations will see God’s glory (Is 52:10), and will submit to his rule and reign (Phil 2:10-11).

People from every nation will worship him (Rev 7:9).

The believer should recognize that regardless of ethnicity there is no ultimate distinction of Jew or Gentile in Christ (Gal 3:28). As the body of Christ is comprised of believers from many nations (Rev 5:9), one’s citizenship is permanently in heaven (Phil 3:20).

This should not discourage temporal patriotism or appropriate stewardship of civic service as earthly citizens of nations (Acts 22:28), but rather should serve as a warning against an ethnocentrism that hinders the missionary task or the practice of prejudice of any kind.

When one remembers that to God “the nations are like a drop in the bucket” (Is 40:15) and that he has the power both to make them great and destroy them (Job 12:23), allegiance to an earthly nation should not supersede allegiance to the Ruler of nations (Ps 22:28), or perhaps more clearly as joyful members of the “Ruler’s Nation.”

The above is an excerpt of my entry on this topic from the forthcoming CSB Worldview Study Bible from B&H Academic on May 15, 2018.

CSB Worldview Study Bible
David S. Dockery and Trevin K. Wax, General Editors
Holman Bible Publishers, 2018

Available for pre-order at Amazon and LifeWay.

 

The CSB Worldview Study Bible features extensive worldview study notes and articles by notable Christian scholars.  All resources are crafted to help Christians better understand the grand narrative of Scripture within the biblical framework from which we are called to view reality, offering insights to make sense of life and the world. Guided by general editors David S. Dockery and Trevin K. Wax, this Bible is an invaluable resource and study tool that will help you to discuss, defend, and clearly share with others the truth, hope, and practical compatibility of Christianity in everyday life.

 

300 Years Later, Let Us Often Look at Brainerd

David Brainerd was born three hundred years ago today. While he lived a life too short by human standards, he left a legacy that has continued now for three centuries. What propelled this largely, is the publication of his diary and journal by his friend, Jonathan Edwards.

As Iain Murray explains, prior to 1747, Edwards and Brainerd had met only once. At the height of the Great Awakening, in 1743, Edwards preached at Yale and sometime after, Brainerd was expelled from Yale for his support of the New Lights and his criticism of his professors. This led to his serving as a missionary among Native Americans in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey with the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge.

Ill-health led to his confinement at bed at the home of Edwards where Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, cared for him. Brainerd would die in 1747 just before his 29th birthday. He was buried in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Two years later Edwards would publish The Life of David Brainerd. The volume would gain a wide reading and remains one of Edwards’s most well-known works. As Murray notes, this was the first full missionary biography ever published and would do more than any other book to stir up concern for wider missionary involvement.

From Edwards’s assistant, Gideon Hawley, who carried only two books, the Bible and Brainerd’s Life, on horseback as he went out among the Native Americans, to martyr Jim Elliot, who was reading it shortly before his death in Ecuador in 1956, the life of David Brainerd left its mark on the advancement of global missions.

As Norman Pettit, editor of the definitive edition for The Works of Jonathan Edwards, chronicles, Brainerd’s life and diary influenced early Methodists John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke; missionaries Henry Martyn, Samuel Marsden, Robert Morrison, Samuel Mills; nineteenth century figures Robert McCheyne, David Livingstone, John Wilson, Andrew Murray, and Sheldon Jackson.

Historian Joseph A. Conforti notes that Edwards’s work grew to “lofty status in evangelical hagiography” seen best in the “fact that when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions established its first Indian post, among the Cherokees in 1817, the missionaries named it Brainerd.”

Perhaps, however, the greatest impact of The Life of David Brainerd for missionary advance came when it was read by Andrew Fuller and William Carey in London, and Adoniram Judson in Massachusetts.

As Fuller and Carey were put on the path of theological renovation through the reading of the Scripture and the works of Edwards, it was the Life of Brainerd that solidified their focus on those in other cultures without the Gospel.

When Carey and colleagues sought to draw a covenant for living together in India, they said, in part:

“Let ever have in remembrance the examples of those who have been most eminent in the work of God. Let us often look at Brainerd, in the woods of America, pouring out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy.”

When the pioneer American missionary, Judson, was wrestling at Andover Seminary with whether to lead a life of service overseas, he thought of Brainerd and Carey. As one historian relates, “To get through Andover without reading Brainerd was virtually unthinkable.”  These two plowed the soil of Judson’s heart so that when he read a sermon months later reinforcing the need for missionaries, Judson responded and followed Brainerd and Carey to take the Gospel to those who had not heard.

On the 300th anniversary of David Brainerd’s birth, let us take a moment to look at Brainerd, and then look to where the life of Brainerd sent many.

MLK50: The hope of Martin Luther King Jr.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) — The apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy is believed to be his last. While personalized to Timothy and his work in Ephesus, clearly the teaching of the letter was intended for more readers.

At the time of his writing, Paul was in prison likely facing execution, and because of this, as Calvin notes, “all that we read here … ought to be viewed by us as written not with ink but with Paul’s own blood” for what he was suffering and sacrificing.

Timothy was losing heart, undergoing difficulty, troubled at Paul’s arrest, and in need of encouragement. The temptation toward enduring by Stoic hand-wringing must have been strong. Paul, however, was not losing any hope at all, for Paul was no Stoic or Cynic. Instead, he pleads with Timothy not to be ashamed and points him to Jesus Christ.

“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner,” Paul wrote, “but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:8-9).

If you were in prison and facing an uncertain future, what would your final written letter contain and to what source of hope would you point?

In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Civil Rights leader, was arrested in Birmingham, Ala.

From his jail cell, he wrote a letter especially to his fellow clergymen who preferred he not attempt to advance Civil Rights as fast as he was. Their passive indifference, their stoicism (and perhaps cynicism), if you will, challenged Dr. King, but like Paul, he did not lose hope.

In his letter he wrote:

“I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future…. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

Like Paul in jail, Martin Luther King Jr. was focused on a future hope, not mired in the present circumstances.

Indeed, just four months later, Dr. King was speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., proclaiming his dream that, in part, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

As 2 Timothy marked the last words of Paul written from prison, he used his final letter to strengthen and provide Gospel hope for others. Dr. King, too, knew the right focus of a future hope, and wrote and spoke to encourage others to such an effect that, in 1964, the nation would see the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Many have gathered for the MLK50 Conference, hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, to give Christians an opportunity “to reflect on the state of racial unity in the church and the culture.” This is needed and timely as it gives Christians, as they reflect, also like Paul, to plead and to point.

For as James Bevel put it in his funeral sermon for Dr. King:

“There’s a false rumor around that our leader’s dead. Our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Israel. Our leader is the man who went with Daniel into the lions’ den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. We will not stop because of that.”

For the hope of racial unity in the church and the culture, let’s reflect on the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. and not stop in our pursuit of the hope of all people (Romans 15:12), Jesus Christ.

———-

This story appeared in Baptist Press on April 4, 2018.

An Easter Eucatastrophe

In 1938, J. R. R. Tolkien published a landmark essay, perhaps his most foundational, “On Fairy-Stories.”[i]  In it, while seeking to defend the goodness of Happy Endings, he coined the term “eucatastrophe.”  A eucatastrophe is built from catastrophe—literally “to turn down”—and the prefix “eu,” meaning “good.” Thus, in a story with eucatastrophe, at the point of greatest tragedy, you have the workings also of the greatest good.

As Tolkien would later explain, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”[ii] The Gospel—the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the greatest story and, therefore, the greatest eucatastrophe.[iii] At Eastertime, therefore, it is fitting to think further about these ideas.

A LIFE WITHOUT SIN

Though sympathetic to our temptations and trials as our brother, as completely human, Jesus Christ maintained an important and vital distinction: he was without sin (Heb 4:15). While the testimony of all of Scripture confirms this, in Luke 23, an instance where the account of the trial and execution of Jesus is recorded, there are multiple statements affirming his innocence. If ever there were a place to record an infraction, a slight, an error, the record of the most pivotal trial in history would be the place to record such.

Yet, Herod says “nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Lk 23:15). One of the criminals, hanging next to Jesus on the cross, declared “this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:41), and, after Jesus died, a centurion, an eyewitness to the death, said “Certainly, this man was innocent!” (Lk 23:47). The man in authority, a fellow convict, and a guard, any of whom could have understandably slandered Jesus, had nothing to say but to declare his innocence. Jesus came as both God and man, and was made like humankind in every respect, all while living a perfect and innocent life. But to what end? Why?

In John 3:16, Jesus says that God loved the world in such a way as to make provision for their sin in the face of judgment. Just prior to this, in John 3:14-15, Jesus alludes to the time Moses was instructed by God to craft a bronze serpent-like staff to hold up at a time when the people were dying due to their sin. All who would look to the staff would live (Nu 21:4-9). In the same way, Jesus said, all who look to him, when he is lifted up, will have eternal life (Jn 3:15). God’s love for the world and desire to provide salvation is why God became man. Or to use better wording, “Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).

A DEATH FOR SINNERS

Reviewing briefly the end of Mark’s Gospel, we see that Jesus knew he was born to die for others. (Mk 10:45) And, yet, when that time was at hand, the God-man experienced the weight of his death both as God and man. Praying in Gethsemane, Jesus was “sorrowful” (Mk 14:34) and asked God the Father to remove “this cup” from him (Mk 14:36).

What was the cup? Throughout the Bible, “the cup” symbolizes one’s God-determined path in life. Psalm 16:5 says “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” The cup can serve as a picture of salvation (Ps 116:13) or a reminder of redemption through judgment, as in the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26:27; 1 Cor 10).

However, more commonly, the cup is a symbol purely of suffering and judgment (Ps 75:8). In several instances in the Old Testament, the cup is referred to as the cup of God’s wrath (Is 51:17, 22; Jer 25:12). In the New Testament, the cup foreshadows the specific judgment Jesus will endure (Mt 20:22; Jn 18:11), and the final judgment to come (Rev 14:10; 16:19).

Thus, when Jesus asks the Father to remove the cup, it is not merely a request to avoid physical execution on earth, but rather an understanding that the cup would contain the full wrath God had restrained since the fall of man. Yet, in submission to the Father, and for his glory, Jesus obeyed and finally preferred God’s will and plan, and took the cup.

On the cross, when Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34), he is quoting or reciting Psalm 22. Wayne Grudem explains, in light of this understanding, that Jesus is not wondering why he is dying, but asking God why he delays in helping him.[iv] This is a cry of anguish from the one made “to be sin” for our sake (2 Cor 5:21).

On the cross, Jesus suffered a physical and excruciating execution, but infinitely more severe, he drank the cup of God’s wrath and judgment for sin “to the dregs” (Is 51:17). In that moment, the perfect and innocent God-man mediated our eternal punishment by taking our place. As John Owen describes, “There was room enough in Christ’s breast to receive the points of all the swords that were sharpened by the law against us. And there was strength enough in Christ’s shoulders to bear the burden of that curse that was due us.”[v]

With his last words, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30), Jesus completed the totality of his propitiation so that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Then, with his victorious resurrection, Jesus made available his own earned righteousness to all who believe (Phil 3:9).

A RESURRECTION HOPE

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend—though he clearly thought the creature was real—he described the phoenix as a “an emblem of our resurrection.”[vi] Clement was followed by a second century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial “power to slay himself and come to life again” and resurrects from the dead “on the third day.”[vii]

These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification.  In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a “complete and unassailable symbol of our hope” in the resurrection.[viii] In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though “remote and uncommon,” mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection.[ix]

Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real “most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance.”[x] By the Middle Ages the regular use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature,[xi] the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope.

What I love about the image of a phoenix—and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well—is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. Just as Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17) Only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life, a eucatastrophe, for through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.

In 1 Peter 1:3-5, Peter aims to encourage his readers by underscoring that believers in Christ have been given a living hope. Regardless of their present circumstances, Christians have been regenerated and given a hope that is the very opposite of fear of the future.[xii] What does it mean that this hope is alive? Peter adds that the hope comes “through the resurrection.” That is, the hope that is given to believers through regeneration is grounded not merely in a series of propositions about what we can know and read as true—though it is grounded in such. More than merely what we can know, the hope that dwells within us is grounded in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. As A. T. Robertson shares, “Hope rose up with Christ from the dead.”[xiii] As sure as the grave is empty, our hope is alive—as alive as Jesus.

Tolkien’s evocative word, eucatastrophe, is remarkable, in part because it encapsulates both the dogma and doxology of Easter. In a later letter to his son, Tolkien wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”[xiv] This joy is exactly what Matthew records the Marys feeling after hearing that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matt 28:8). This Easter, as we grasp the glories of this eucatastrophe, may we go and do the same.


This article is an adaption from my forthcoming Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism available June 1, 2018 from B&H Books.

Mere Hope
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018

Available for pre-order at Amazon and LifeWay from B&H Books. 

 

[i] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in C. S. Lewis, ed., Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Oxford: OUP, 1947; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 90-105.

[ii] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 83.

[iii] For a wonderful exploration of the gospel along the lines of this definition, see Jared C. Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 21 and following.

[iv] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 576.

[v] John Owen, Communion With God (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 66.

[vi] ANF 1:12

[vii] “The Phoenix,” in Physiologus cited in Joseph Nigg, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[viii] ANF 3:554. Tertullian mistakenly translates Psalm 92:12 as “The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix” to support his view of the existence of this bird.

[ix] NPNF 2 7:135-136.

[x] Micah Mattix, “Birds of Paradise,” in The Weekly Standard, March 20, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/birds-of-paradise/article/2007167

[xi] See John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 5:272.

[xii] Paige Patterson, The Pilgrim Priesthood (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 31.

[xiii] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), 6:81.

[xiv] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 100.

 

Baptists and the Christian Tradition? A Faculty Address

In 2017, Midwestern Seminary President, Jason K. Allen, inaugurated the Midwestern Seminary Faculty Address to allow members of the faculty to deliver a formal, academic presentation to his or her peers, offering an opportunity to build collegiality and recognize the research and study interests of each professor.

On February 14, I had the privilege of delivering the second faculty address on the topic, “The Thorough Reformers? Baptists, the Consensus Quinquesaecularis, and the Future.” This paper will comprise the core of my chapter in the forthcoming volume, Baptists and the Christian Tradition, edited by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps for B&H Academic.

What follows is the introduction to my address followed by the remaining outline. To hear the entire address you can below watch the full video recording or listen to the audio.

Introduction: The Thorough Reformers?

“Of all the persecuted sects, the Baptists stand forth as most prominent, simply and only because they aim at a more complete and thorough reform than any others ever attempted.”[1] John Quincy Adams, pastor of Baptist churches in New Jersey and New York, said this in a published series of lectures that reflected a widespread sentiment among Baptist churches in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Namely, that Baptists were the most consistent Protestants and thus all other corners of the Christian tradition should conform to their views.

The idea of Baptists as the “thorough Reformers” gained in popularity during these days of ascendant ante-bellum Landmarkism, but continued even after that Successionist tradition faded from prominence. So much so, that non-Landmarkers also used this idea of thoroughness as a defense of Baptist distinctives.

Yet, while at its root the idea of “thorough Reformers” conveys fidelity first to Bible-priority over tradition, and has proved helpful over the last 500 years to strengthen the Christian tradition in a number of areas, some of which we will explore, the idea also has proved unhelpful. Some of the “thorough Reformers” have been too thorough, communicating a tradition exclusivity—a kind of “truer Christian.”

In that thoroughness there is an irony as Baptists have long been the persecuted minority, a dissenting group fleeing the cathedrals and courtrooms of tradition exclusivity, whether in Europe, England, or the Colonies. Yet, when in the nineteenth century they finally arrived at a place of stability and influence, they found that they had fled back to the high fences of the “this way is more true” ideology they once subverted. In these expressions, Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition have caused more conflict than aid.

In this paper, I aim to review how Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition have been both helpful and unhelpful with a view toward identifying how present and next generation Baptists should make future contributions. To begin, I want to present a brief survey to review the history of the relationship of Baptists and the Christian tradition.

1. It’s Complicated: Baptists and the Christian Tradition
2. Seated Around the Fire, Building on a Consensus Quinquesaecularis
3. Resetting Landmarks: Unhelpful Baptist Contributions
4. A High View of a Low and Free Church: Helpful Baptist Contributions
Conclusion: The History of Future Baptist Contributions

[1] John Quincy Adams, Baptists, the Only Thorough Religious Reformers (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1876), 21.