Rich Mullins and the Gospel Preached to Abraham

September 19, 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the untimely death of one of the 20th century’s finest poets, Rich Mullins. As a college student, and new believer in Christ, the words to his songs helped personalize my faith and provide a guide for how to express my gratitude to God in worship, both corporate and private.

One example of how this poet helped me was where, in his song “Sometimes by Step,” he said,

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
[1]

I can remember thinking about those 15 words for an extended time and asking, “Is there a connection from Abraham to me?” And, even more, had God known about me long before I knew about Him and my need of Him? Following that, then, what about those throughout the earth who have not yet heard of Him?

As I would come to discover, these questions have glorious answers for, as in just one verse, the Bible declares,

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8 ESV)

Here, Paul explains that God has always had our salvation and the salvation of the nations in mind. From the beginning, he conveyed to Abraham his plan. In what is often called the centerpiece of the first five books of the Bible, God says to Abraham,

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV)

At the age of 75, Abraham obeyed God, and he and his wife left their country. After a period of travel and time, God met with Abraham, took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV)

After Abraham believed, God made a covenant with him promising that he would be “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:3). Now, Paul tells us in Galatians 3:8 that in this event—Abraham looking to the stars—the gospel was preached to Abraham. Yet, we are still right to wrestle with this as we might think, “How is this possible, as the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned?”

What, then, was the gospel preached to Abraham? In short, the gospel preached to Abraham was God’s promise to him that through Abraham and his offspring, all the nations would be blessed. Or, simply that Gentiles, non-Israelites, will be justified by faith.

In Romans 4, Paul explains that “the purpose was to make him the father of all who believe” and that “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:11, 23-25).

The gospel has always had the doctrine of justification at its center. Reconciliation of sinful humanity to a holy God, and the removal of his just condemnation, is the core of gospel truth. Yet, to be gospel-centered is to recognize that the gospel was intended for Abraham in the Old Testament-past all the way to you and me in post-New Testament future.

Again, Paul explains that the gospel was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son” (Romans 1:2-3). Or, as Rich Mullins put it in that way that helped me,

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me

Yet, Mullins’s words should drive us to see the larger point of Galatians 3:8 as well. Not only are we connected to Abraham by faith, we should remember that, as with Abraham, the gospel has always contained an intrinsic element of blessing the nations.[3]

Rich Mullins came to perform at our campus in Rudder Auditorium at Texas A&M University in 1996. and I am glad I saw him then, for he would die just a year later. More that that, though, I am grateful that his words remain and still prove helpful for pointing us to the Bible and then to God in worship. As we think about Mullins’ legacy and influence, may his words propel many to the nations, so those who have not heard the good news about Jesus Christ can join in praising God and worshiping him in thought and song too (Ps 67).

—–

 

This article is an adaptation of a portion of my chapter, “Pastor as Missionary,” that was my assignment in the new book edited by Jason K. Allen, Portraits of a Pastor (Moody Press, 2017). My hope in my chapter is to make one thing clear: The pastor as missionary is the pastor centered on the gospel. The pastor as missionary is not another garment or tool or lens he wears or uses, but rather is the natural, healthy outworking of what it means to have a gospel-centered focus. To explain further what I mean by this, in the chapter I seek to answer these three questions:

  1. What does a pastor need to know about missions?
  2. Why should the pastor be a missionary?
  3. How can the pastor most faithfully be a missionary?

Here is more information about this new book:

Portraits of a Pastor: The 9 Essential Roles of a Church Leader

Jason K. Allen, General Editor
Moody Press, 2017.

 

 

Foreword – Thom S. Rainer
Introduction – Jason K. Allen
Pastor as Shepherd – Jared C. Wilson
Pastor as Husband and Father – Daniel L. Akin
Pastor as Preacher – Jason K. Allen
Pastor as Theologian – Owen D. Strachan
Pastor as Church Historian – Christian T. George
Pastor as Evangelist – John Mark Yeats
Pastor as Missionary – Jason G. Duesing
Pastor as Leader – Ronnie W. Floyd
Pastor as Man of God – Donald S. Whitney
Conclusion – Jason K. Allen

Thanks to Moody Press, you can read a complimentary copy of Jared C. Wilson’s chapter, “Pastor as Shepherd,” here.

[1] Rich Mullins and Beaker, “Sometimes By Step” (Edward Grant, Inc., 1991).

[3] Because of this, we can say that Muslims and Jews are not the true successors to Abraham. Salvation only comes through the One, namely Jesus, in whom this faith is placed and through whom we are justified. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!, 3rd ed. (Baker, 2010), 191-192, explains, “What we may conclude from the wording of Genesis 12:3 and its use in the New Testament is that God’s purpose for the world is that the blessing of Abraham, namely, the salvation achieved through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, would reach to all ethnic groups of the world. This would happen as people in each group put their faith in Christ and thus become ‘sons of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7) and heirs of the promise (Gal 3:29). This even of individual salvation as persons trust Christ will happen among ‘all the nations.’”

 

 

 

Why I Stopped Worrying About In Class Media Use

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

⁃C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In the 1980s, one of my television heroes was the debonair Alex P. Keaton. My admiration for APK centered not just for his quick wit and conservative politics, but mostly because he had a watch that was also a calculator. I don’t recall at what age I first acquired the same watch, but when I did I remember some anxiety about whether my teachers would allow me to wear it to school or in class–lest they think I was covertly doing pre-calculus on my wrist.

How to handle media use in the classroom has been a topic of discussion among educators at all levels for the better part of the last two decades, or more. And, when our culture entered an era of annual technological upgrades and the condensing of multiple devices into fewer things to carry, the collective academic fretting only increased.

When I first started teaching and was not much older than the students, I resisted the trend of allowing more and more devices and sought to control and limit all use of non-class-related technology by professorial fiat. However, some time ago, I changed my thinking and chose instead to embrace this brave new world and try my best to redeem it for constructive (or at least entertaining) purposes.

Usually a few times a year, in academic journals or other outlets, the discussion resumes with various studies drawing conclusions related to the effects of media use in the classroom. In 2013, the Journal of Media Educationreported the findings of the survey, “Digital Distractions in the Classroom: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes.” The conclusion: almost 92% of the 777 student respondents indicate that they have or do use a digital device during class for non-classroom related activities.

Since then, there have been thoughtful arguments for how to address these diversions, some that even go so far as making a case for banning laptops from the classroom. Depending the grade level and maturity of the students taught and the institutional mission and setting, I think there is some merit to these ideas, but in the end, I still think it comes down to the professor leading the class and what he or she does with the time and students before them.

The students I teach are adults in a seminary setting. Over the years, I have found it far more enjoyable and productive to treat them like adults and then expect them to act in like manner. Plus, given the fact that I have a propensity to serve as a cause, though unintentional, for campus-wide chatter (i.e. ask about the time I fainted in class and started quoting Ronald Reagan jokes), I find it easier to go along and enjoy whatever social media attention may come rather than build the reputation of “The Gloomy Professor.”

What I have found is that appropriate balance has settled to serve as the norm. Yes, there are always some students who sit in the back of a large class that are hard to reach and seek distraction whether paper or digital. But, overall, my current approach has led to more student engagement and even outside of class interaction. In some cases it has led to the recruitment of students who are considering my school as their virtual observation of in class banter or actual content has helped them see what life is really like on campus. Overall, I would say in my classes we have more fun and less actual distraction than one would think possible in the current technological climate.

Here is how I address the matter in my statement from my syllabus on “In Class Media Use”:

Computing devices are permitted during the lecture hour for the purpose of taking notes. Use of these devices to access the Internet, make telephone or video calls, text messaging, updating social network statuses, etc. is discouraged unless something really funny, historic, life changing, or unusual happens in class. If there is an emergency requiring the use of a cell phone, the student may take the call and leave the class, but out of respect for fellow classmates, not return until the break.

In short, as long as a living, breathing student with a mind ready to learn is present, laptops are welcome. Alex P. Keaton and his calculator watch, of course, are welcome too.

 

Why a National Denomination?

In my Baptist History classes, I am often asked whether denominations really are necessary.

Students, averse to what they perceive as staid institutionalism or red-tape bureaucracy, want to categorize denominations as a generational matter and thus look for something new for the present. These motives are not entirely uninformed or born from ignorance as there are plenty of generational traditions that every new generation discards. We’ve done it and so did our parents and grandparents.

However, in this case it is always a delight to inform students of the primary reason Baptists in this country ever saw the need to form a national denomination.

For at least a century, Baptist churches had cooperated locally and even regionally, but it took a truly unifying purpose to organize at the national level.

Baptists in the nineteenth century were burdened by something they called their “one sacred effort,” that is churches of all sizes cooperating together for the purpose of global missions.

And, I quickly argue, that is the number one reason why we should have, support, build and be proud of a national denomination today.

This question especially comes to mind at this time of year when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention prepare to gather for their annual meeting. But, it is also relevant because this time of year marks  that start of the first Baptist denomination in America, the Triennial Convention, over 200 years ago.

Formed in May 1814, the Triennial Convention would serve as the forerunner to the Southern Baptist Convention that would originate, sadly, in 1845 over a disagreement among Baptists in the North and South over the tragic and evil practice of slavery–the ramifications of which the SBC is still feeling, but thankfully working though.

The early Baptists officially called their denomination “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America, for Foreign Missions” clearly not yet arriving at the penchant future denominations have for simple and repeatable acronyms. In fact, as this new Convention set out to meet once every three years, the more natural “Triennial Convention” rose as the agreed nomenclature instead of GMCBDUSAFM.

So, why did Baptists first form a national denomination? Here is the actual wording from the Triennial Convention’s first Constitution:

We the delegates from Missionary Societies, and other religious Bodies of the Baptist denomination, in various parts of the United States, met in Convention, in the City of Philadelphia, for the purpose of carrying into effect the benevolent Intentions of our Constituents, by organizing a plan for eliciting, combining, and directing the Energies of the whole Denomination in one sacred effort, for sending the glad tidings of Salvation to the Heathen, and to nations destitute of pure Gospel-light.

Simply put, this shared idea of marshaling the energies of churches “in one sacred effort” to take the Gospel of Christ to “nations destitute of pure Gospel-light” served as the primary motive for early American Baptists to organize and gather on a national level.

As Southern Baptists prepare to meet, some are sure to ask again, “Why a national denomination?” May this cooperative example of early Baptists in America remind that the Great Commission remains a good, right, and needed reason around which churches should still gather to do more together for the glory of God than we could ever do apart.

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).

 

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 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.

 

 

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.

‘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).

The Bell Grew Louder: Reading Narnia and Thinking of Andrew Fuller

One of the peculiar things about the human mind is how it can process multiple things at the same time. Some say multitasking is a myth, as one can really only accomplish one task at any given moment. However, I found that when reading books to my children, I can really multitask. As I scroll aloud through paragraphs, my mind will often solve all kinds of problems and make connections to things far from the content of the words entering through my eyes and out of my mouth. Am I the only one?

This happened on an occasion while reading aloud C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. The more I read the more I thought not of some distant Narnian land, but rather of eighteenth century England and the life and work of Andrew Fuller.

At a point in the story, two children enter a world seemingly suspended in time. Ornately robed people of royalty sit lifeless in a grand hall “like the most wonderful waxworks you ever saw.” In an adjacent room. the children are drawn to a small golden bell with hammer placed to entice any child to strike. After some debate, the children ring the bell, and that world and the future of Narnia is transformed:

“As soon as the bell was struck it gave out a note, a sweet note such as you might have expected, and not very loud. But instead of dying away again, it went on; and as it went on it grew louder. Before a minute had passed it was twice as loud as it had been to begin with. It was soon so loud that if the children had tried to speak (but they weren’t thinking of speaking now—they were just standing with their mouths open) they would not have heard one another. Very soon it was so loud that they could not have heard one another even by shouting. And still it grew: all on one note, a continuous sweet sound, though the sweetness had something horrible about it, till all the air in that great room was throbbing with it and they could feel the stone floor trembling under their feet. Then at last it began to be mixed with another sound, a vague, disastrous noise, which sounded first like the roar of a distant train, and then like the crash of a falling tree.”

While the story continues to reveal that the ringing bell awakens those frozen and many other adventures ensue in Narnia (and not all for good), my thoughts stayed with the bell and drifted to Fuller.

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) served as the pastor of the Baptist church in Kettering during the days of hyper-Calvinist ascendancy among the Particular Baptists. Since the granting of religious freedom following the 1689 Act of Toleration, the Particular Baptists began to decline as they drifted into a theological cryogenic state, immobilized by the embrace of logic over Bible as their guiding authority.

Due to the influence of Fuller’s reading the Bible and the works of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, Fuller became convinced that the conclusions of his crystallized Baptist brethren were in error. In 1785 he published his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation and like the ringing of the Narnian bell, this volume would have the effect of “the crash of a falling tree.” For in it, he claimed, “I believe, it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it.”

Timothy George describes Fuller’s work as, “his defense of the indiscriminate preaching of the gospel” and that “this little book fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians. Fuller was pilloried by Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists alike.” Here is just a sample of the resounding words in Fuller’s work:

“If I find two doctrines affirmed or implied in the Scriptures, which, to my feeble understanding, may seem to clash, I ought not to embrace the one and to reject the other because of their supposed inconsistency … Hence it that we hear of Calvinistic and Arminian texts; as though these leaders had agreed to divide the Scriptures between them. The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in the Scriptures, they are both true, and both consistent, and that is owing to the darkness of our understandings that they do not appear so to us.”

Together with William Carey, the return to a biblical conviction of global gospel proclamation led the two pastors to start the Baptist Missionary Society and launch the modern missions movement. They rung a bell in their day whose sound continues to grow louder.

May many more follow until the sound of the name of Christ is heard as far as the waters cover the silver seas.

To learn more about Andrew Fuller, I gladly refer any to the good work done by my friends at The Andrew Fuller Center and the ongoing publication of The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller by De Gruyter. For a start of the best works on Fuller’s life and thought, see:

  1. Paul Brewster, Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian
  2. Chris Chun, The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in the Theology of Andrew Fuller
  3. Chad Mauldin, Fullerism as Opposed to Calvinism
  4. Peter Morden, The Life and Thought of Andrew Fuller
  5. John Piper, Andrew Fuller: Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission
  6. David Prince, Andrew Fuller Fridays
  7. Michael A. G. Haykin, The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller

This article is an updated version of one that first appeared in September 2013.

 

 

In a Year of Reformation Reflection, Augustine Still Speaks and Guides

In this year marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation we are right to celebrate and speak much of Martin Luther. However, one realizes quickly that any Reformation study of Luther really is a commentary on the early church father, Augustine. For Luther and John Calvin would quote Augustine more than any other early church theologian.

Therefore, to appreciate fully the Reformation, we should consider Augustine’s impact. As B. B. Warfield wryly noted, the Reformation “was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”[1]

Along these lines, I came across recently in The Times Literary Supplement, David Bentley Hart of Notre Dame asserting, with unashamed superlatives, that Augustine was,

unquestionably the single most influential figure in Western Christian thought after the apostolic age, as well as one of the most brilliant and original minds of the whole late antique world. He seemed to write as easily as he breathed … and after his elevation to the episcopacy of Hippo Regius, in what is now Algeria, with all of its attendant responsibilities, during times of immense imperial and ecclesial crisis, he continued to compose at an astonishing rate. In fact, he produced not only many works, but many of his greatest, and in some of the most exquisite, glistening and compelling Latin prose ever written.

Hart is reviewing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams’ new book On Augustine, and continues to say that,

Volume alone, however, does not explain the unparalleled influence that Augustine’s works exercised over the development of Western Christian thought; more important was their combination of intellectual power and rhetorical force …. In a sense, all Western Christianity is Augustinian Christianity …. It is because of its enormous and pervasive influence in the West, moreover, that the Augustinian legacy is certainly the most vigorously contested and denounced in Christian intellectual history. Adored, demonized, caricatured — Augustine is almost everything to some, and at least something to everyone, and always impossible to ignore.

Indeed, if the Reformers could not ignore Augustine then, how much more, in this Reformation anniversary year when modern pilgrims continue to debate their proper relationship to the culture and what it means to live “in the world” (Jn 17:11), can Augustine continue to prove helpful.

Considering this, I read with interest R. R. Reno’s latest editorial in First Things. Following the tumultuous political events of 2016, Reno spends time considering Augustine:

A reader contacted me recently. He chastised me for speaking too strongly about the current political situation and urged a re-reading of Augustine’s City of God. The gist of his criticisms suggested that he has a superficial understanding of St. Augustine that I have found to be common. It assumes that our elections, legislative battles, and legal wrangling concern only the city of man, and that Christians, insofar as they are loyal to the city of God, must distance themselves from politics. This is not correct. We are social animals, and our civic lives remain integral to who we are, no matter how far we advance in the Christian life. A person who retreats from public life because it is too inconvenient or unpleasant or fails to accord with his nice ideals acts as a citizen of the city of man, seeking his own good–peace of mind, ideological purity–at the expense of the common good. (This is not to say we ought never to forsake politics. We can come to the conclusion that our involvement corrupts our love for God and neighbor.)

During St. Augustine’s final years, North Africa was being conquered by Vandals, a Germanic tribe notorious for its destructive violence As the battle lines approached Hippo, where St. Augustine had long served as bishop, he traveled to the front lines where the Roman army was facing the barbarian invaders. He sought to convince the Roman generals that they should not abandon their positions in order to retire from the field and return to Italy to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer. For St. Augustine, the issue was not whether to be engaged in the affairs of public life, but how.

Not whether, but how, is the question for believers to answer in 2017.

For both impact on the Reformation and ongoing relevance for the present, Augustine truly towers over the intervening centuries in terms of his original thinking and longstanding influence.

Therefore, in this year of Reformation reflection and renewed interest in those events that brought a recovery of the good news of the gospel to an age of bad news and cultural corruption, we should also read and hear Augustine. May God see fit to send another Reformation-sized revival in our day and to strengthen and guide our Augustine-like influencers and courageous engagers of the culture for us to follow as well.

 

For more on the life of the key early church theologian, Augustine (354-430), see this book that gives a brief and introductory overview of his life and thought:

Seven Summits in Church History
Jason G. Duesing
Rainer Publishing, 2016
132 pages

You can purchase Seven Summits here.

 

 

[1] B. B. Warfield, “Augustine,” in Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (Baker Books, 1932, 2003), 130-131.