Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention

Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention
by Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones

“The Southern Baptist Convention has a big, dark, historical stain on it: racism. Evident by the SBC’s affirmation of slavery, its failure to repudiate this sin until 1995, and the numerous segregated Southern Baptist churches, this stain continues to hinder Southern Baptist churches from embracing the one new man in Christ outlined in Ephesians 2:11-12 and from participating in the new song of those saints from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation referenced in Revelation 5:9.

The gospel of Jesus Christ requires and demands all Southern Baptists to do their parts to erase this stain from the SBC–or at least to make the stain less apparent. This act requires a relentless commitment to Christian unity. An Christian unity requires us as a denomination to make the necessary sacrifices and to take the necessary steps to experience this unity in every aspect of Southern Baptist life sooner rather than later.

This book, edited by and written primarily by African-American voices in the SBC, is one small effort to help erase the stain of racism from the SBC in pursuit of unity in our beloved denomination ….

The editors inclusion of white Southern Baptists alongside a majority of African-American contributors symbolizes the kind of partnership we as African-American editors believe must take place within the SBC if the stain of racism is to be removed once and for all. The historical stain of racism in the SBC exists in part because of the participation of many white Southern Baptists in the marginalization, oppression, and exploitation of black and brown people.

As editors, we do not believe racism necessarily will be removed if more black and brown Southern Baptists are in leadership over the white majority in the SBC. Neither do we believe racial discrimination is a sin committed only by the white majority. Black and brown people discriminate too! We mean the ethnic status quo in the SBC, which has historically privileged the white majority over black and brown people, can no longer remain the status quo if the stain of racism is to be removed from the SBC.”

Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives

Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones
B&H Academic, 2017.

 

 

 

 

The Wittenberg Door of American Evangelical Missions

In the summer of 1806, several dedicated young men attending the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began to gather regularly to pray and read reports of the burgeoning work of Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and the new Baptist Missionary Society in England.

On one occasion, while meeting in a field adjacent to the college campus, the students, trapped by a thunderstorm, took shelter in a haystack. Haystacks in 1806 were not the manicured and tightly bound variety that are arranged neatly as viewed from the 21st century roadside.

Rather, these were the versions piled as high as a human could assemble with only a pitchfork and a sundown deadline. Thus, like a quickly assembled snow fort, the young men of Williams dove into and carved out a hay-lined shelter to continue their meeting. What they found, though, was far more rewarding than had they discovered a missing needle.

The “Haystack Prayer Meeting” resulted in the dedication of these young men to personal participation in the global missions task, and the ensuing years led to the entry of a formal American participation with the sending of Adoniram and Ann Judson along with several others to the East.

Herein, we can see a dotted line from 1806 to the present, for the Haystack Prayer event is, in many ways, the Wittenberg Door of American evangelicalism’s awakening to the need and universal call for all believers to support, organize, and send many for global gospel proclamation.

Famously, the Judsons would change from Congregationalists to Baptists en route to Burma, and through them and the aid of Luther Rice, the Baptist Board for Foreign Missions was formed. Now mobilized toward sending and supporting world evangelism, Baptists in America saw and had a need to form a national denomination, and did so in 1814, in what would become known as the Triennial Convention.

This is no small point for our denominationally averse age to miss: the reason why Baptist churches sought to cooperate at a national level, with all of its necessary machinery, politics, stresses and strains, was for the purpose of uniting to send the gospel to those who have never heard (Rom 15:21).

Three decades later, due to the tragedy of many Baptists in the South defending the practice of slavery, this national denomination divided in two, and the Southern Baptist Convention began and, eventually, also the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). But, even through tragedy, the connection to the Haystack remained.

Likewise, many other evangelical denominations can trace their entree into global mission advocacy back to that meeting in the fields behind Williams College, and that is what makes that location and that moment in 1806 so meaningful. For, in that sense, it is right to connect the sending today of any American evangelical missionary to those college students praying during a thunderstorm 211 years ago.

Recognizing the significance of that 1806 prayer meeting, later missions supporters dedicated in 1867 The Haystack Prayer Monument on the grounds of Williams College, where it still resides in the College’s Mission Park. [1]

And this week, the Midwestern New England Study Tour convened in Williamstown to see the monument and to reflect on the 1806 event and to consider the idea of the Haystack Prayer Meeting as the Wittenberg Door for Amercian Great Commission engagement.

This year we are rightly remembering the 500th anniversary of the actual Reformation events the door in Wittenberg helped to launch, events that would encourage the later formation of Williams College and many Protestant churches in New England.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Reformation’s gospel recovery, it is good and right also to consider the impact of a group of praying students, heirs of Wittenberg themselves, on the modern missions movement of global gospel proclamation.

Here we stand (and pray) with them.

Photo: Dr. Owen Strachan, Midwestern Seminary, speaks to Midwestern students at Williams College, May 22, 2017.

[1] The monument reads, “The Field is the World. The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” The selection of the phrase, “The Field is the World,” is an intriguing one, but not unique given the time and missionary context. Taken from Matthew 13:38 and the Lord Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, the correlation of the harvest field to the world appears first as merely background information, a description of the stage on which the parable would take place. However, as many would rightly note, the acknowledgement that the boundaries for the proclamation of the gospel are global is good and significant news for all dwellers in time and space distant from the land of Israel in the era of the New Testament. An example of how a missionary minded preacher interpreted and applied Matthew 13 in the mid-nineteenth century is Gardiner Spring (1785-1873), and his sermon “The Extent of the Missionary Enterprise” (1840).

 

A Diversity of Baptist Revival Theologies

Theologies of the American Revivalists
by Robert W. Caldwell III

“From the 1780s to the 1850s Baptists emerged as one of the largest denominational groupings within American evangelicalism. Like the Methodists, their growth was due in part to their zealous participation in evangelism and revivals. Unlike the Methodists, however, Baptists did not espouse a unified revival theology.

The reason for this is simple: their identity as Baptists did not arise primarily from their soteriology but rather from their ecclesiology.

In other words, ecclesiological issues–the church as a covenanting body of rightly baptized believers (according to believer’s baptism), the autonomy of the local congregation, and religious liberty–defined them more fundamentally than matters related to their revival theology.

Because of this, we find the full spectrum of revival theologies reflected in early American Baptists. Some were Arminian, some embraced Edwardsean revival theology, while others were traditional Calvinists of varying degrees. Thus this section will not explore the revival theology of early American Baptists for the plain reason that only one did not exist.

Instead we will sample selections from among multiple revival theologies advocated by different Baptist leaders of the period. In many ways, Baptists mirrored the diversity found among early American evangelicalism at large.

In what follows, we will sample, chronologically, the spectrum of revival theologies among early American Baptists. This topic is complex and largely unexamined.

Our first stop will be to examine the Baptists who welcomed the popular revivalism of the period and fanned its flames with zeal. The so-called Separate Baptists, who evangelized the Carolinas and rural South, as well as the Freewill Baptists, who articulated a Baptist version of Wesleyan soteriology throughout New England, will be treated.

Second, we will turn our attention to the long-forgotten proponents of Edwardsean revival theology among Baptists, such as Jonathan Maxcy and the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, William B. Johnson.

Last, we will examine the more traditional Calvinist views of Jesse Mercer, editor of the influential Christian Index, a Georgia Baptist periodical.

The goal here is not so much to show the unique Baptist revival theology but to demonstrate the diversity of revival theologies harbored historically in the Baptist tradition in the early decades of the United States.”

Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney

Robert W. Caldwell III
IVP Academic, 2017.

The History of Theological Education: A Review

Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Theological Education. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 155. $39.99. Paperback.

Justo L. Gonzalez has provided a helpful review of the development of theological education while at the same time providing a prognosis for its future. Originating as lectures Gonzalez delivered on two occasions, the esteemed and prolific church historian refined his presentations into a short volume for any interested in this topic.

Rather than provide a mere historical overview, which Gonzalez does well, The History of Theological Education is organized around several premises. In addition to showing that theological education has always been a part of the church, Gonzalez explores how contemporary traditional theological education is in crisis, though wider non-traditional theological education is not. Exploring these themes over sixteen brief chapters, Gonzalez attempts to show how the study of the history of theological education can help provide guidance for the future.

The Early Church

In the early church, Gonzalez shows how there were Christian schools, like Justin Martyr’s in Rome and the Alexandrian catechetical school, but these were not formal environs for the training of pastors but rather the simple study to the Christian faith (5-6). This informal catechetical study was the only requirement for pastors, yet it was also required for every believer.  However, alumni from these schools would go on to form more formal projects in the second and third centuries following the conversion of Constantine. From this point until the Middle Ages, universal training declined and the training of individual teachers increased along with the introduction of monastic schools (22). With the arrival of the Germans into Roman territory, one of the few educated class of leaders that remained were in the church. Yet, even their training was limited and thus by the sixth and seventh centuries, Cassiodorus wrote his Institutions to train clergy first in what would become known as the quadrivium (logic, arithmetic, geometry, and music) before studying Scripture (25). This was followed by the more significant Pastoral Rule of Gregory the Great, which focused predominately on the task of the clergy (27).

The Middle Ages

In the early Middle Ages, clergy were trained by the monastic schools as well as schools attached to cathedrals wherein bishops would prepare candidates for ordination. However, most clergy remained untrained and even though under Charlemagne there was a revived interest in education, “general chaos and ignorance seemed to reign until the end of the eleventh century” (35). That, and during this period, most who did study were directed toward the application of tasks for ministry in administration, which Gonzalez notes, is why they employed the term clerks or clerics, for they saw their work as “clerical” (35).

With the dawn of the twelfth century an “economic and intellectual awakening” overtook Western Europe and with it came growth to the cathedral schools (41). This growth paved the way first for scholasticism and then the birth of the university. Schools in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford were noted for their study of theology and, in particular, the practice of ‘lecture,’ wherein a professor “commented on a text” (44). From Peter Lombard’s Sentences to Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (which Gonzalez notes was in part “a handbook for those undertaking missionary work among Muslims” (52), a new form of theological education emerged.  Yet, as Gonzalez relates, most of the clergy still did not receive training due to cost and lack of basic education (53). By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, scholasticism saw a separation between faith and reason, and the academy and the church. This led to greater educational darkness even for parish clergy and, even more, a lack of desire or need seen for education to aid or help in the task of ministry (61). In reaction to this trend arose the humanists and Desiderius Erasmus with new proposals “for pastors and church leaders for whom it was impossible to separate study from devotion and the practice of charity” (68).

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation launched via the work of a university professor, Martin Luther, and theological education saw reformation and formalization. Philip Melanchthon led the creation of public schools and the revamping of the theological curriculum at the University of Wittenberg, which would influence many other universities and future theological educators (71-74).  In 1556, Andreas Hyperius proposed a three part curriculum still followed by many Protestant seminaries: (1) the study of the Bible, (2) doctrinal theology, and (3) practical studies (74). In Geneva, John Calvin shaped significantly the development of theological education among the Reformed with his writings and in the Academy of Geneva (75). In his 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Calvin established the church office of “doctor” to “teach the faithful the correct doctrine” and saw the need for this to take place in schools (76). Gonzalez notes that “the early leaders of the Radical Reformation were highly educated,” yet due to persecution this tradition would wait until much later to establish schools for theological education (77).

The Roman Catholic Church responded in the Council of Trent with a renewed emphasis on the education of priests (79). In 1563, the Council instructed each diocese to establish “seminaries,” a term first used seven years earlier by the Archbishop of Canterbury (80-81). These “seedbeds” Gonzalez explains were schools who were “to plant a large number of candidates, care for them in their growth process, and finally transplant them to the places where their ministry was to take place” (81). The next generation of Protestants engaged in the task of systematizing the doctrines of the Reformation for organization and teaching, which naturally led them to focus on theological education (89). While still opposed to Roman Catholicism, the Protestants would follow the same educational methods, especially in the establishment of seminaries (94).

Yet, as is often the fracturing nature of Protestantism, Gonzalez relates that “in protest against the intellectualism of Protestant orthodoxy” appeared the Pietists and their approach to smaller churches within the church, or schools of piety (95, 98). Also connected to the University of Halle, a school that would shape Zinzendorf and the Moravians, thus connecting theological education to Protestant missionary advance.

The Modern Era

In the Modern Era, theological education was shaped by Schleiermacher, one who rejected Pietism in favor of defining theological education in light of the Enlightenment (107). This leftward plunge into the scientific and historical critical method of studying both history and Bible brought many changes to theological education. Gonzalez recognizes a further divide between the academy and the church, liberalism and fundamentalism that resulted in change in many of the early American universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and their approaches to theological education (110).

In this section Gonzalez explains that the fundamentalists “tended to reject many of the discoveries and theories that seemed to contradict the teaching of scripture” and calls this a “canonization of ignorance,” explaining that these “theologians and religious leaders insisted on their traditional positions, ignoring the challenges of modernity” (110). Focusing on the Presbyterians, he lists as examples Charles Hodge and J. Gresham Machen. Gonzalez then expounds further explaining that this canonization of ignorance often results in “biblical imperialism” where in “the pastor, on no other grounds than being a supposed specialist on divine matters, attempts to tell scientists how to follow their disciplines …. [w]hich isolates them from those who do not accept the pastor’s imperialism but do see the pastor’s ignorance” (112).

Contemporary Theological Education

In his final two chapters, Gonzalez uses his historical groundwork to speak to contemporary theological education administration calling for a transformation beyond curriculum to a return to theological education for every believer (119). He provides sevens directives aimed at reconnecting the academy to the local church that center on concepts like “community,” “relating,” “contemplation,” “responding to evolving circumstances,” “redefine the relationship to ordained ministry,” “train mentors,” and in light of these, “redefining faculty publication expectations” (127-129). He further assesses that “seminaries are not doing their job properly” as “the denominations that traditionally have been most insistent on the need for seminary education in order to practice the pastorate are also the denominations whose membership is most rapidly declining” (132).

While these assessments are ripe for debate, Gonzalez rightly notes one area for needed change is in understanding demographics as these denominations are seeing growth “among people belonging to ethnic minority backgrounds other than those traditionally associated with a particular denomination” (134). He states, “It will no longer be enough for a denomination to have an office or a department of racial-ethnic minority ministries. It will not be enough to recruit a few ethnic minority students and faculty. It will be necessary to reexamine the very structure, ethos, and form of government of a denomination, in order to see how these promote or impede its witness in the presently shifting circumstances” (135).

Critical Evaluation

Gonzalez’s work will no doubt be seen as the primary source to cite for the history of theological education, and while for the most part this is helpful, it is regrettable for his dim assessment of the twentieth century and the future. For one example of those following Gonzalez’s lead, Christian Scharen and Sharon Miller cite Gonzalez in their Auburn Studies report, “Bright Spots in Theological Education” (Sept 2016). In this influential periodical, they note that the future of theological education is either dim or bright based on whether schools follow Gonzalez’s call for total reorientation and redefinition.[1] In particular they use Gonzalez’s work to see a dim future for schools “committed to the Master of Divinity as the gold standard for leadership preparation in declining mainstream churches” (Sharen and Miller, 5).

Gonzalez’s work further lacks an assessment of how a doctrinal or confessional core shaped and sustained many Protestant seminaries, and led to guiding the future of many denominations and missionary expanse. In his sections on the modern era, there is barely a mention of Andover seminary, the first non-university divinity school started by the Congregationalists (not the Baptists as Gonzalez states) that trained many leaders after the Great Awakenings and contributed to the start of formal participation by American Protestants in foreign missions (132). Further, there is no treatment of the founding and reclamation of Southern Seminary, it’s founder James P. Boyce and his formative “Three Changes” address. The growth and expansion of the modern Evangelical movement, the founding of Fuller Seminary, the influence of Dallas Seminary and many others, do not appear in this volume. Further, there is no discussion of the pivotal role of accreditation and the historical development of the Association of Theological Schools.

With these oversights, Gonzalez’s concluding reflections and prescriptions ring hollow and uniformed. With that said, this is a volume worth reading, but reading critically, as the earlier historical chapters are quite helpful for assembling a basic understanding of the history of theological education.

This review originally appeared in the Midwestern Journal of Theology (Spring 2017): 112-117.

[1] Christian Sharen and Sharon Miller, “Bright Spots in Theological Education,” Auburn Studies No. 22 (September 2016).

The Imperfect Disciple

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together
by Jared C. Wilson

“I think of the story (more than likely apocryphal) wherein G. K. Chesterton responded to an article in the London Times titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Apparently, Chesterton did not agree with their conclusions, because he allegedly wrote a letter to the paper in response:

Dear Sir:

Regarding your article “What’s Wrong with the World?”

I am.

Yours truly,

G. K. Chesterton

This is all very clever, see, but my man Gilbert Keith got it entirely wrong. He should have written the London Times to say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the world. That imbecile, Jared Wilson.” I am confident that if he knew me, he would not have so casually suggested himself as the source of all the world’s ills ….

It’s just that whenever I actually think about how I’m doing, it doesn’t seem as though I’m doing very well at all. In fact, most of the good that I’ve accomplished in my life and most of the good things that have happened in my life have come nowhere close to fixing what is really going on inside of me.

This is why I resonate with the apostle Paul when he’s driving down that Romans Road and decides to turn left on red into Romans chapter 7. I know some scholars argue that Romans 7 is not a description of the Christian life but rather is Paul describing his life before his conversion. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe, like Chesterton writing that letter to the London Times, they just aren’t aware of my existence. Because it sure seems like Paul’s got my number ….

Here’s a plainer way to put it: I do things that I know are bad and I avoid doing things that I know are good. This makes me imminently unqualified to write one of those awesome, take-the-next-hill, “be the change you want to see in the word” books on discipleship churned out ever-presently by the evangelical leadership-industrial complex.

But on the other hand, it makes me uniquely and distinctly qualified for the hope Paul offers in response to the crushing predicament bemoaned by Romans 7.

It turns out–and you need to read this closely, so I hereby advise you to actually pull this book closer to your face and get the following words right in front of your milky little corneas … well, not that close; you look like a weirdo.

Hold it up. Read it close. Drink it deep.

It turns out, actually, that–get this–.Jesus is looking specifically for people who can’t get their act together.

I know, right? I swear I am not making this up!

Paul’s sense of hopeless exasperation reaches a crescendo in verse 24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He feels caught, trapped, like the corpse of his old life is still hanging on to his ankle and he can’t move on. He’s tried pulling himself up by his bootstraps but he got them tangled around his neck and now he’s choking to death.

This is exactly the kind of self-despair Jesus is listening for.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul says in verse 25, and you can almost hear him panting like a guy just pulled out of the water from drowning.

Every day, I wake up into Romans 7. Every dadgum day. My alarm goes off and I sit up in bed, my uncoffeed consciousness groggily gearing up for sins–both of omission and of commission. I’m engaged in the flesh before I even get my feet on the carpet.

And yet, right there beside me, laid out like the day’s outfit for school, are new mercies. Romans 8 lies right there, spooning Romans 7 in a full-size bed, no wiggle room.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. (Rom. 8:1-3) ….

It is the good news for all of us who can’t get our act together. We are exactly the kind of people God is using. We are exactly the kind of people God loves.”

The Imperfect Disciple

Jared C. Wilson
Baker Books, 2017.

 

 

 

 

The End of Religious Liberty?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25 ESV)

The visit to Macedonia had gone well. Paul and company had arrived in Philippi days before and on the Sabbath had gone out to a place of prayer and met a gathering of women. Among them was Lydia who listened intently to the good news they shared about Jesus Christ and was converted.  Then, as they went along they were met by another woman, an enslaved fortune-teller, who followed and badgered them as she was possessed by an evil spirit.

After a few days, Paul commanded the spirit in the name of Jesus to come out of her and she was freed, though still not from her physical enslavement. Her owners had profited from her fortune-telling, and, with that at an end, they turned on Paul and Silas and brought them to the rulers, charging them with advocating “customs that are not lawful for us.” A crowd attacked as well, and so the rulers had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown in jail.

Paul and Silas had merely engaged the Roman culture with the gospel, helping those who would listen and healing those oppressed by spiritual warfare. Since this work overturned an idol of financial profit, they were isolated, misrepresented, and made to suffer unjustly. Now they were wounded and in prison surrounded by prisoners. And at this time when they should be sleeping or weeping, they sang.

Why did they sing?

The verse informs that they were singing to God and we can infer that the hymns were songs about God and his work. They sang to remind themselves of present and future truths revealed by God to indicate their trust in God regardless of their circumstances. Their hope was in God, not in their might or their friends. They knew that regardless of how this scrape went, their ultimate future was secure and safe in God. Paul and Silas were able to sing in the face of injustice and the loss of their freedoms because they knew that God was faithful (1 Pet 4:19) and that in the end God would make things right (Rom 12:19).

Given the current state of religious liberty in this country, and even more around the world, one might be tempted to despair and question whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of religious liberty. Indeed, the future is hard to predict and the rise of restrictive trends is not encouraging. Yet, lest we lose hope, I hope, much like Paul and Silas singing, briefly to remind of both religious liberty’s true end and religious liberty’s end goal.

Religious Liberty’s True End

When we talk of religious liberty in the United States, we acknowledge its present fragility with words like “threatened” and with calls to “defend” it.[1] Should believers find their liberties removed or suppressed in the days ahead, we should recognize that we will not really reach the end of religious liberty until Jesus’ return. On that day, the time of religious freedom will end. Everyone will bow and acknowledge the one true religion and one true God. Until then, in the most important sense, every day is a day of grace and a day of liberty.

Thus, even if the future practice of religious liberty in this country is virtually unrecognizable to the generations of men and women who died to preserve the first freedom, there exists still grace for a time through a certain future truth. This eternal perspective should provide hope, but it should also serve as a sobering call to action for the grace God shows by granting any form of religious liberty on earth is finite.

Near the end of his life, when Paul was in prison again, he wrote a letter to the Philippian believers. The church that formed after his time in jail with Silas would become his first church in Europe. The church in Philippi was one with whom he would maintain contact and likely would have visited again as they would serve as key supporters of his work (4:15). He wrote to encourage them to pursue unity and joy even in suffering and, to that end, at the center of his letter (Phil 2:5-11) he gave them a hymn. It is as if he knew they would need encouragement in singing.

The hymn in Philippians 2 tells of the humbling, sacrifice, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. In the verses describing the exaltation, Paul references a statement from Isaiah and shows why, in the last day, religious liberty will come to an end. He writes, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Here, Paul is communicating truths that are both already and not yet manifest.

God has already exalted Christ Jesus and given him the name “Lord.” He has already handed all things over to him (Matt 11:27), put all things are under his feet (Eph 1:22), and given him all authority (Mat 28:18). Yet Paul reveals that a future day is coming when the name of the Jesus will go forth and all creatures will bow and confess him as Lord. At this time, which Paul in 1 Cor 15:24 calls “the end,” Jesus will finally destroy death and see the complete fulfillment of Psalm 8:6, when all things are put in subjection under his feet (1 Cor 15:23-28).

Paul’s use of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2 ties his hymn to the larger and weightier biblical story. This reference to God the Father saying “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” is part of a larger passage (Is 45:18-25) that, as Bible scholar Moises Silva explains, “constitutes one of the most powerful OT affirmations of the uniqueness of God of Israel in the context of his redeeming work.”[2] There, Isaiah is crusading against idolatry by vigorously defending of the sole uniqueness of the God of Israel. By ascribing this text to Jesus, Paul is making a profound trinitarian statement that shows that the divinity of God the Son is not a challenge to the monotheistic God of the Bible.[3]

Yet Philippians 2:10-11 is not the only time Paul refers to Isaiah 45:23. In Romans 14:10-11, Paul points to the last day and says, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”

As New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner notes, here Paul is ascribing to God the Father the day of widespread allegiance, but this only furthers Paul’s point in Philippians 2 of exalting Christ. Schreiner explains, “The fact that Paul can apply the same OT text to God in Romans and to Christ in Philippians reveals the high stature of Christ.”[4] Yet clearly this exaltation and subjection are both already true and not yet complete. As John Calvin reminds us, “the kingdom of Christ is on such a footing, that it is every day growing and making improvement, while at the same time perfection is not yet attained, nor will it be until the final day of reckoning.”[5]

Thus, we live in the times in between, and we bear the burden and joy of knowing that the end of religious liberty is coming. What else then is there for us to learn from this future end that can help us to know how to live between the times?

First, these passages depicting the future day of judgment give readers both a word of warning and a promise of hope. The warning comes in the realization that there is a clock winding down, and one day the triune God will no longer exercise patience with those who do not worship him alone. At that time all will bow and confess that God is supreme, true, and Lord. The bowing especially conveys this acknowledgment as the Bible regularly identifies this posture with concession that the one to whom one bows is superior. Hence Elijah is told to track the faithful by those who have not “bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). When one bows and confesses, he is submitting, conceding, and openly declaring what is true about the One who is superior and exalted.[6]

Further, this day of acknowledgement is universal but not universalism. No one will escape participation, whether they are repentant or not. John Piper explains, “Believers and unbelievers will acknowledge in that day that Jesus has triumphed over every enemy—believers, to their everlasting joy, and unbelievers, to their everlasting shame.”[7] This day will serve as a reversal of sorts of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3. Then, the King demanded and coerced that all “fall down and worship,” lest they face judgment by fire (3:5).

Nebuchadnezzar sought a universalism of worship solely for himself. However, three Jews rightly refused, acknowledging that there was One more worthy of their devotion. Whereas Nebuchadnezzar demanded and attempted to coerce a universalistic worship, the true God does not coerce[8] or universally redeem, but he still will receive, in the end, universal concession and acknowledgment from all creatures. Jesus Christ will reign in triumph over even those who do not worship him but acknowledge their defeat by bowing and confessing.[9]

Yet these passages also provide an ongoing word of hope.  One of the lowest points in Charles Spurgeon’s ministry came just as he was preparing to preach to over 10,000 people gathered at the new concert hall in Royal Surrey Gardens. After he concluded his prayer, someone in the crowd yelled “Fire!” and that the balcony was collapsing, when nothing of the sort was happening. Panic set in and the crowds pushed to exit, while those assembled outside attempted to enter.

Seven people were trampled to death and many more injured. Spurgeon was devastated by the loss of precious human life, to the extent that he considered leaving the ministry. When he returned to the pulpit weeks later, he preached “The Exaltation of Christ” from Philippians 2:9-11. It was a way to encourage his congregation and his own soul. He said, “This text afforded sweet consolation to every heir of heaven,”[10] and continued,

In the midst of calamities, whether they be the wreck of nations, the crash of empires, the heaving of revolutions, or the scourge of war, the great question which [a Christian] asks himself, and asks of others too, is this—Is Christ’s kingdom safe? …. He finds it sufficient consolation, in the midst of all the breaking in pieces which he endures, to think that Christ’s throne stand fast and firm, and that though the earth hath rocked beneath his feet, yet Christ standeth on a rock which never can be moved …. Oh! my soul anticipates that blessed day, when this whole earth shall bend its knee before its God willingly! I do believe there is a happy era coming, when there shall not be one knee unbent before my Lord and Master ….  But even now, while waiting for that era, my soul rejoices in the fact, that every knee does virtually bow, though not willingly, yet really.[11]

Thus, as those living in an era of religious liberty between the time of Christ’s ascension and his certain return, the knowledge of what awaits us on the last day should serve as a warning to all outside of Christ that the freedom to worship other gods without the judgment of the one true God will come to end. For those in Christ, the knowledge of the last day should provide hope that, no matter what trials come or earthly freedoms are diminished, God will make all things new. He will put all things under his feet and declare himself finally triumphant.

Second, these passages remind all that, until that day of judgment comes, each day is a day of grace, and thus it is not too late to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Russell Moore puts it this way: “Christian eschatology maintains that the ‘day of salvation’ is now (2 Cor 6:2), during this lifetime’s temporary suspension of doom. After this the grace of God is not extended—only his justice, and that with severity.”[12]

Indeed, God kindly tolerates a world that worships things created by men and other futile systems or philosophies in order that many may come to repentance (Rom 2:4). He is patient, “not wishing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9),  and reminds that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2), since no one knows the day or the hour when he will return (Mk 13:32). Thus, whoever confesses with their tongue and bows in their heart now (Rom 10:9-10) that Jesus is Lord will not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). As Spurgeon preached,

And now, lastly, beloved, if it be true, as it is, that Christ is so exalted that he is to have a name above every name, and every knee is to bow to him, will we not bow our knees this morning before his Majesty? You must, whether you will or no, one day bow your knee …. O that now those that are on earth might willingly bend their knees lest in hell it should be fulfilled, ‘Things under the earth shall bow the knee before him.’[13]

Whatever happens to the state of religious liberty in the United States and other nations, there will be a final end to religious liberty for all with the return of Christ. At that time, there will be no more hope for the lost. Thus, we pursue religious freedom in the present for the sake of others to be saved before the end.

Religious Liberty’s End Goal

When thinking of the end of religious liberty, therefore, we should consider not only the warning and hope that comes with the knowledge that one day freedom to worship any god will end, but also the purpose of religious freedom in the here and now. That is, what is the end goal of religious liberty?

In Philippians 2:11, Paul says that the universal submission of humanity to the Lordship of Christ at the end of time takes place “to the glory of God the Father.” Bible scholar James Hamilton explains, “Every knee will bow to him (2:10), every tongue confess him Lord, and this is to the glory of the Father (2:11). The life that Paul calls the Philippians to live is based on the glory of God in salvation through judgment accomplished in Christ’s death on the cross.”[14]

The reigning King who made the heavens and the earth should receive honor and glory forever and ever (1 Tim 1:17).

The one who put forward his Son as a propitiation so that God the Father might be just and justifier of all those who fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:21-26) belongs glory and dominion forever and ever (1 Pet 4:11).

The one who gave his Spirit as a Helper to teach, convict (John 14:26; 16:8), and send his children as witnesses to the nations (Acts 1:8) to him be glory in the church, throughout all generations forever and ever (Eph 3:21).

The glory of God in salvation through judgment is the end goal of religious liberty on earth.

With that glorious end in mind, we can return to where this conclusion began: with Paul and Silas singing in the Philippian jail.

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31 ESV)

In the middle of their singing an earthquake interrupted. Paul and Silas were now released from their chains and confines due to the upheaval. Yet instead of running for safety, they remained for the safety of their captor. Knowing that the jailer would receive the death penalty should they escape, they assured him they had not left and, shaken and afraid, the jailer came to see for himself. Their steadfastness in their punishment even when given the opportunity for freedom, prompted the jailer to ask how he might escape his own spiritual captivity: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Paul and Silas were misrepresented, imprisoned unjustly, and robbed of their freedoms, but they did not despair. Instead, entrusting themselves to their faithful Creator, they looked and sang to God knowing their captivity was temporary, even if it should lead to death. Why did they sing? They sang to God about God to find strength in God.

But their singing also had another purpose—to help those listening learn of the coming judgment of God. Following the earthquake, more important than their freedom was the life of another. So they stayed because the jailer’s eternal destiny was at risk. After the upheaval, they stayed so at least one who heard the good news could repent and believe.

Hope.

Warning.

Good news that Jesus is Lord shared while there still is time even at the risk of one’s security, safety, and rights—all for the glory of God.

Until the end, this is the true end and end goal of religious liberty.

———————

This article is adapted from my conclusion recently published in

Jason G. Duesing, Thomas White, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, eds.
B&H Academic, 2016
275 pages

 

 

[1] Howard M. Friedman, distinguished university professor and professor of law emeritus at the University of Toledo, is the author of “Religion Clause,” cited frequently as one of the 100 top legal blogs in the nation. In December 2015, he assembled his “Top Ten Religious Liberty and Church-State Developments” for the year and they included a wide spectrum of issues ranging U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, prisoners’ rights issues, Title VII, license plates as government speech, and other topics such as the Affordable Care Act, RFRA laws, anti-Muslim sentiments and terminology, and transgender rights. See http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2015/12/top-ten-religious-liberty-and-church.html

[2] Moises Silva, “Philippians,” in G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007), 837.

[3] Ibid., 838. Silva states, “Although not an explicit or precise quotation, this use of Isaiah is especially significant because of its profound implications for Paul’s conception of Christ …. [I]t patently expresses his own conviction that the worship of Jesus Christ does not compromise Israel’s monotheistic faith. On the contrary, Jesus Christ the righteous Savior bears the name of the one Lord, Yahweh, ‘to the glory of God the Father.’” See also, Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Baker Academic, 2008), 326-327, “The text in Isaiah engages in a polemic against idolatry, insisting emphatically that the God of Israel is the only true God …. If we gather together the themes assembled, we see something astonishing. Paul confessed along with Isaiah that there is only one God. Yet, he applies to Jesus what Isaiah attributes to Yahweh—every knee bending and every tongue confessing. Clearly, Paul teaches that Jesus shares in the same divine nature as Yahweh himself, but Paul does this without denying monotheism or the distinctions between the Father and the Son.”

[4] Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 330. See also [4] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” in Beale and Carson, Commentary, 685.

[5] John Calvin, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians” in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 21 (Baker, 2003), 62. See also, Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2013), 243, “The exaltation of Jesus has already taken place and God has graciously given him his own all-surpassing name of the Lord (vs. 9); yet the bowing of every knee does not occur, at least on earth, until the final day.”

[6] O’Brien, NIGTC, 243, 250, states, “one ought to understand the bowing of the knee as an act of submission to one whose power they cannot resist.”

[7] John Piper, “And All the Earth Shall Own Him Lord,” October 24, 1982. Available from http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/and-all-the-earth-shall-own-him-lord

[8] As the helpful ECT statement puts it, “The New Testament … never depicts Jesus the Lord as coercing faith. Quite the contrary: Jesus reasoned with his listeners, instructed them parables, called them to repent, and invited them to believe the good news of God’s kingdom,” in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “In Defense of Religious Freedom (2012),” in George and Guarino, ECT at Twenty, 139-140.

[9] In the history of Christianity, some have sought to read Phil 2:10-11 as implying universal redemption. Steven R. Harmon in his Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought (University Press of America, 2003), presents early patristic interpretations of Philippians 2:10 (and other passages) that draw those conclusions. Harmon, himself does not offer his own assessment other relegating the matter to “a mystery of divine and human freedom,” 133n7. However, as I have attempted to show here, the text and context of Philippians 2, Romans 14, and Isaiah 45 clearly do not conclude or portray universalism. See, O’Brien, NIGTC, 239, and Richard R Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, NAC, (Holman Reference, 1991), 108, and Russell D. Moore, “Personal and Cosmic Eschatology,” 702, “Jesus does indeed triumph over all things, making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20), but this peace does not mean the redemption of each individual. Instead, Jesus triumphs over his enemies—as they are all consigned to damnation beneath the feet of his sovereign kingship.  Yes, every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord eschatologically—even Satan himself (Phil 2:9-11). This does not mean that every tongue calls out to him for salvation. Instead there is universal recognition that Jesus has triumphed over every rival to his throne. The redeemed will love this truth; the impenitent will lament it.”

[10] Charles Spurgeon, “The Exaltation of Christ,” November 2, 1856 in The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 2 (1856). Available from http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0101.php

[11] Ibid.

[12] Russell D. Moore, “Personal and Cosmic Eschatology,” in Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2014), 702.

[13] Spurgeon, “The Exaltation of Christ.”

[14] James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Crossway, 2010), 486.

 

 

Messy Beautiful Friendship

Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships
by Christine Hoover

“We want friends, all of us do, and not just any friends. We want relationships in which we know and are known at the deepest level. We want friendships that point us to grace and truth.

Curiously, however, we seem to be standing beside one another, holding identical longings yet resolutely believing we’re alone in them. But the truth is we aren’t actually wandering along and aimless in a desert; we’re practically tripping over each other as we grasp at our ideal dreams for friendship.

I’ve wondered at this. If we’re alike in our desires, what keeps us from turning to our left and to our right to cultivate friendship with those around us?

Well, it’s not that simple, you might say, as you point to your failed attempts, your open wounds, the boxes you’ve just unpacked in a new community, your insecurities and assumptions, or your overextended schedule.

Oh yes, I know all the reasons why it’s not so simple because I’ve given them myself, and I know all too well how quick we are to make those reasons into excuses and those excuses into thick walls. My wall has historically been built upon the excuse that I’m a pastor’s wife and women treat me differently because of it. I’ve rehearsed this excuse in my mind–while simultaneously taking the do-nothing, hope-for-the-best approach to friendship.

I have come to believe that our own excuses are one of our biggest obstacles to friendship, but I think there is one greater: we don’t have an understanding of what true friendship is or how God designed it. In the void, we’ve taken up a cultural definition that makes friendship unattainably idyllic and about self: Who is doing what for me? Ho do other people make me feel? Who is reaching out to me or including me? Who is honoring me?

Without a biblical understanding of friendship, we tend toward believing we’re unique and that everyone else must mold themselves around our personalities, our needs, and our schedules. As a result, we continually aspire to ideal friendship that is easy, comfortable, fun–and initiated by others. Perhaps this explains why we perpetually thirst in a desert.

As Christians, we must look to the Bible to inform our friendships. In this book you hold in your hands, we will look together to God, in his Word, for our definition and practice of friendship.

Spoiler alert: we’ll find that friendship is a by-product of being more concerned with others than ourselves.”

Messy Beautiful Friendship

Christine Hoover
Baker Books, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Welcoming Bach Among the Theologians

The great Yale professor of church history, Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), known for his massive The Christian TraditionA History of the Development of Doctrine and his editorship of the English translation of the works of Martin Luther, also wrote a small volume studying the relationship between the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and biblical doctrine.

Bach Among the Theologians appeared first in 1946 and represents Pelikan’s devoted foray into the world of Bach scholarship. His work truly is a labor of love for both Bach and Bach’s Lutheran heritage.

Patrick Kavanaugh, is his memorable Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, explains Bach’s connection to Luther:

Bach spent his entire life in Germany, working primarily as a church musician. For the two centuries prior, this region had been permeated by the legacy of Martin Luther, with his radical emphasis on a living, personal, BIble-based Christianity. Luther himself had been a musician, declaring music to be second only to the Gospel itself. Bach was to be the reformer’s greatest musical disciple.

In Pelikan’s Bach Among the Theologians, he explains that Bach operated under the conviction that “the highest activity of the human spirit was the praise of God, but that such praise involved the total activity of the spirit.” In other words, as one of Bach’s biographers summarizes,

Music is an act of worship with Bach …. for him the tones do not perish, but ascend to God like praise too deep for utterance.

In a simple way, such consecration is seen in Bach’s own hand. As he started each composition, he would mark “J. J.” at the top of each page as an abbreviation for Jesu Juva or “Help me, Jesus.” Once he completed the work, Bach routinely concluded with the initials “S. D. G.” representing Soli Deo Gloria or “To God alone, the glory.”

Indeed, as Kevin Vanhoozer explains in his recent Biblical Authority After Babel, the Reformation idea of “Five Solas” actually only formalized until after these compositions by Bach:

While books today commonly treat the five solas together, it was not until the twentieth century that they were mentioned collectively …. To be precise, sola fide, sola gratia, and sola scriptura can be found in the sixteenth century Reformers’ writnigs, but solus Christus and soli Deo gloria appeared somewhat later–the latter on a regular basis in the compositions of J. S. Bach (26).

While Vanhoozer rightly explains that “the absence of the actual phrase does not imply the lack of the concept, and I would argue that all five solas reflect core Reformation theological convictions,” Bach’s influence on how we think of the Reformation and the theology of the Reformation should not go unnoticed, especially in this 500th Anniversary Year.

Likewise, nor should Bach’s practice of dedication and consecration.

As the seminary where I serve soon arrives at the end of term, it occurred to me again that Bach’s approach to musical composition serves as a worthy model for the academic enterprise of theological education.

As faculty and students convene together to study and renew their minds (Romans 12:2) they should also grow in their love and worship of God with all their hearts (Matthew 22:37).

Bach rightly saw the eternal nature of all his work, and those preparing (and those teaching the ones preparing) for a future ministry should see their current academic pursuits not as a temporal means-to-an-end but rather as something that will not perish and will be examined (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

Each year as we embark on a new term of study, Bach gives us all a fitting starting point. On our knees, confessing that apart from God alone, we can do nothing (John 15:5), we state simply Jesu Juva.

Then as the minutes, days, months, year(s), or degree program(s) conclude, we can pause to say Soli Deo Gloria with “praise too deep for utterance” for the faithful nearness of God’s sanctifying work and presence in minds and our hearts.

In this year of Reformation reflection and renewal, and as the academic term ends and a new one begins, let’s welcome Bach among the theologians.

———–

By way of personal testimony, the music of J. S. Bach served as my constant companion throughout my seminary studies and remains today as one of my favorite accompanists while working late into the night or early in the morning. I recommend his Mass in B Minor as well as his Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Particularly this version performed by Mstislav Rostropovich.

In addition, for a limited time the performance at the 2015 Proms of the Cello Suites by Yo-Yo Ma is available for listening via the wonderful BBC Radio 3 program, Through The Night.

This article has been updated and revised from an earlier reflection published in Baptist Press in September 2013.

Defending Substitution According to the Scriptures

“Scholars have proposed a number of possible explanations for why Paul says Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day each take place ‘according to the Scriptures’ …. One of the most important ingredients for 1 Corinthians 15:3, however, is Isaiah 53.

As we shall see, Paul knows the passage, referring to it elsewhere. The suffering servant, as the only human instance of vicarious death ‘according to the Scriptures,’ is the closest model for Christ’s death. There are similarities in the structure of the formula as well as in the language of ‘death’ and ‘sins.’ […]

First chapter 53 must be read within the wider framework of the surrounding chapters in Isaiah. The people of Israel are hard-hearted and in a state of disobedience; they refuse to repent and be gathered to God [….]

Second, despite this, God undertakes to redeem them. he gives them words of comfort in chapter 40, he promises in chapter 44 (vs. 21) that he has not forgotten Israel, and he even insists that in the absence of repentance on Israel’s part, he will accomplish it himself (chap. 46).

Third, we see how this will happen. As these chapters (the 40s and 50s in Isaiah) go on, it becomes clearer that God is raising up a servant who is distinct within the nation: the servant is not just a way of talking about Israel as a whole but is an individual who is going to be instrumental in saving the people. This character is the one who suffers in chapter 53. He is cruelly forsaken by the nation as a whole, and yet the Israelites later come to realize that he had accomplished their salvation [….]

There is considerable debate in scholarly circles about whether there is a ‘center’ to Paul’s thought. Among those who think there is one, there is debate about what that center is …. We may not have a ‘center’ here in 1 Corinthians 15, but we do clearly have a statement that the gospel, consisting of Christ’s substitutionary death and his resurrection is primary in Paul’s proclamation.

This is what Paul means by saying that he passed it on to the Corinthians ‘first’ or ‘as of first importance’ in verse 3. It may be difficult to discover which concept occupied the center of a dead person’s brain, but Paul himself tells us that the gospel as summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 does have primacy in his preaching.

–Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker, 2015).

Dr. Gathercole’s Defending Substitution has received wide acclaim since its initial publication. Helpful reviews can be found at 9Marks, Reformation21, TGC, and in Themelios.

Also, Dr. Gathercole will be giving the Sizemore Lectures this week at Midwestern. You can learn more or find a link to the live stream here.

‘Out of His Grave, Fresh as the Dawning Light’ – On the 350th Anniversary of ‘Paradise Lost’

In April 1667, John Milton first published the greatest work of epic poetry in English. 350 years ago this month, Paradise Lost arrived to an initial quiet reception, but soon it would gain worldwide acclaim and influence.

That this anniversary occurs at Eastertime this year is also significant for while Milton’s poem tells the story of the Fall of Man, it ends with a portrait of the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.

What is Paradise Lost?

In the midst of Second World War, C. S. Lewis published A Preface to Paradise Lost, which contained a collection of lectures he had given on the poem.[1]  Dedicated to his friend, Charles Williams, Lewis noted that it was Williams’s The Poetical Works of Milton, published two years earlier, that had served to recover “a true critical tradition” of Paradise Lost “after more than a hundred years of laborious misunderstanding” (v).

Writing with typical clarity, Lewis began, “The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be …. The need is especially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers. He is writing epic poetry which is a species of narrative poetry, and neither the species nor the genus is very well understood at present” (1).

Indeed, if not very well understood in Lewis’s day, his explanatory aim is even more needed in our own where we find the term informally employed to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary as if we are all surfers who have just rode the wave of our lives. “That was an epic–meal, evening out, basketball pass, cup of coffee,” and the like. Using the term this way is fine, for there is a part of us all that would love to surf, but an understanding of the formal use of epic is needed as well. 

Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem. Further, many consider it the last epic poem in Western Civilization, the caboose on a long train that starts with Homer. Leland Ryken, in his helpful introduction to Milton’s Work, gives the following as some of the key features of epic poetry:

  1. Long, flowing sentences that are best understood and enjoyed when read aloud
  2. Inversion of normal word order
  3. Exalted vocabulary
  4. Epithets
  5. Epic similes (extended comparisons between something in the poem and something from nature, history, mythology, or human experience)
  6. Allusions
  7. Pleonasm or periphrasis (taking more words than necessary to say something)

C. S. Lewis, too, spends time discussing the history of the epic poem for, he argues, that one must understand the Form of the poem to understand what it is the Poet intends:

Every poem can be considered in two ways—as to what the poet has to say and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exist to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers. Another way of stating this duality would be to say that every poem has two parents—its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world …. The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work (2-3).

Understanding that Paradise Lost is an epic poem, and the greatest of that Form in English, who, then is the Poet?

Who was John Milton?

Arguably the second only to Shakespeare in terms of the pantheon of English masters of verse, Milton (1608-1674) lived during a turbulent time in English history. Often his life is reviewed in three periods: (1) his youth and time of study at Cambridge where he would write his minor poems, (2) the two decades marked by the English Civil War and time where there was no King, 1640-1660, when Milton would engage in the cause of Puritanism and works of prose, (3) his final years, though now blind, where Milton would write Paradise Lost and his other major poems.[2]

Milton attended Cambridge in the 1620s, a time when many young men were converted to Christianity after hearing the preaching of Richard Sibbes and others, and then joining the Puritan movement within the Church of England.  Milton was slow to join up, and not until the 1640s did he engage the movement with zeal.

Milton’s The Reason for Church Government (1642), for example, advocates for a congregational form of church leadership and attacks the notion that episcopacy is grounded in the Old Testament priesthood, a common argument for that form of government then and now.[3] As Gordon Campbell notes, “In the course of the five years between mid-1637 and mid-1642 Milton had moved from being a constructively critical member of the national church to taking up the cause of ecclesiastical reform, and eventually becoming an impassioned opponent of ecclesiastical abuses: he had become an Independent.”[4]

How Should We Understand Paradise Lost?

As Leland Ryken notes, “This is a story of crime and punishment.”[5] Milton states that his aim is to “justify the ways of God to men” as he presents the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their removal from the Garden of Eden.  While written during times of English political tumult, Paradise Lost is not a cultural commentary or allegory, it is clearly a work of theology.

In the 350 years since the first publication. Milton’s work has received incredible scrutiny and both praise and criticism. Much has been made about the portrayal of Satan as a central figure as well as evaluations as to Milton’s orthodoxy.[6]  C. S. Lewis in his preface helpfully addresses this critical history as his aim, in part, is to “‘hinder hindrances’ to the appreciation of Paradise Lost (129). Lewis examines the theology of Milton’s poem in two chapters concluding that the so-called ‘heresies’ “reduce themselves to something very small and rather ambiguous” (91).

Elsewhere, Lewis explains that Milton’s version of the Fall is essentially Augustinian (66) and that the method that some employ of attempting to suspend any theological interpretation is misguided.

‘What is the Fall?’ The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience—doing what you have been told not to do: and it results from Pride—from being too big for your boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God. This is what St. Augustine thinks and what (to the best of my knowledge) the Church has always taught; this Milton states from the very first line of the first Book, this all his characters reiterate and vary from every possible point of view throughout the poem as if were the subject of a fugue (70-71).

“Milton’s thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist,” Lewis argues and that, given its basis in Christian theology, reading Paradise Lost as a Christian “is an advantage” (65).

Leland Ryken concurs. He explains, “I think that Christian readers should begin by reminding themselves that they live not only by a Christian world view but also by a Christian world picture. In addition to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, we live by the great images of the faith. Milton’s poem puts us in touch with the images of the Christian faith—images of Satan and hell, of God and heaven, of Paradise and original perfection, of temptation and fall, of sin and salvation.”

A Selection of Paradise Lost for Easter

In 2013, Justin Taylor shared Ryken’s suggested plan for reading Paradise Lost, which I have found helpful. For many of us not accustomed to tackling lengthy poetry, or not even sure we should, a plan like this is needed.[7] For starters, reading or re-reading passages aloud brings much clarity and ease to reading.

The passage that follows takes place near the end of the poem just before Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden.[8] In Milton’s rendering, God sends the angel Michael to escort the humans, but before he does he reveals to them what will happen in the future. Beginning with the Flood and then to Abraham, Michael discusses at length who is the Offspring of the woman who was promised after the Fall (Gen 3:15).

After describing the incarnation, what follows is Michael’s accounting of not only the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a beautiful piece to read during the Easter season, but also points toward Jesus’s commissioning of the church to take the gospel to all nations.

I first came across this a few years ago, and keep coming back to it at this time of year. Whenever I do, I appreciate it all the more. I hope is serves to encourage you this Easter as well as give some measure of appreciation for the genius of John Milton on the 350th anniversary of his epic.

Paradise Lost, Book XII

He shall endure by coming in the flesh [405]
To a reproachful life and cursed death,
Proclaiming life to all who shall believe
In his redemption, and that is obedience
Imputed becomes theirs by faith, his merits
To save them, not their own, though legal works. [410]
For this he shall live hated, be blasphemed,
Seized on by force, judged, and to death condemned
A shameful and accursed, nailed to the cross
By his own nation, slain for bringing life;
But to the cross he nails thy enemies, [415]
The law that is against thee, and the sins
Of all mankind, with him there crucified,
Never to hurt them more who rightly trust
In this his satisfaction; so he dies,
But soon revives; Death over him no power [420]
Shall long usurp; ere the third dawning light
Return, the stars of morn shall see him rise
Out of his grave, fresh as the dawning light,
Thy ransom paid, which man from Death redeems,
His death for man, as many as offered life [425]
Neglect not, and the benefit embrace
By faith not void of works. This godlike act
Annuls thy doom, the death though shouldst have died,
In sin for ever lost from life; this act
Shall bruise the head of Satan, crush his strength, [430]
Defeating Sin and Death, his two main arms,
And fix far deeper in his head their stings
Than temporal death shall bruise the Victor’s heel,
Or theirs who he redeems, a death like sleep,
An gentle wafting to immortal life. [435]
Nor after resurrection shall he stay
Longer on Earth than certain times to appear
To his disciples, men who in his life
Still followed him; to them shall leave in charge
To teach all nations what of him they learned [440]
And his salvation, them who shall believe
Baptizing in the profluent stream, the sign
Of washing them from guilt of sin to life
Pure, and in mind prepared, if so befall,
For death, like that which the Redeemer died. [445]
All nations they shall teach; for from that day
Not only to the sons of Abraham’s loins
Salvation shall be preached, but to the sons
Of Abraham’s faith wherever through the world;
So in his seed all the nations shall be blest. [450]
Then to the Heaven of Heavens he shall ascend
With victory, triumphing through the air
Over his foes and thine; there shall surprise
The Serpent, Prince of air, and drag in chains
Through all his realm, and there confound leave; [455]
Then enter glory, and resume
His seat at God’s right hand, exalted high
Above all names in Heaven, and thence shall come,
When this World’s dissolution shall be ripe,
With glory and power to judge both quick and dead, [460]
To judge the unfaithful dead, but to reward
His faithful, and receive them into bliss,
Whether in Heaven or Earth, for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days. [465]

——-

[1] C. S. Lewis, A Preface To Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1942).

[2] See Douglas Bush’s “Introduction,” in The Portable Milton, 1-28.

[3] See further my “A Wrinkle on Catholicism: The Anglican Understanding of Church Government,” in Merkle and Schreiner, eds. Shepherding God’s Flock (Kregel, 2014), 256.

[4] Gordan Campbell, “Milton, John (1608-1674), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

[5] Leland Ryken, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Crossway, 2013).

[6] Such continues even today. See Boyd Tonkin, “Why Milton Still Matters,” The Spectator (March 2017). See also, Ryken via Taylor, “An Interview,” (Dec 2008).

[7] For even C. S. Lewis noted upon reviewing used copies of long narrative poems where he found “a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book is virgin. It is easy to see what happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’—little ebullient patches of delight—such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and had thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop in themselves, he has had no conception” (1-2).

[8] This selection is taken from Paradise Lost, XII in Douglas Bush, ed., The Portable Milton (Penguin, 1949).