A Fisherman In Ireland: The Enduring Relevance of Patrick

For evangelicals, the enduring relevance of Patrick of Ireland (ca. 390-460) lies in a sacrificial heart motivated by the Great Commission and burdened for the lost.

Christianity likely arrived in Britain from European missionaries during the third century though it did not emerge as an established tradition until the late fourth century while still under the rule of the Roman Empire. Or, as Malcolm Lambert has said, “Christianity came late to the province.”[1]

Surviving Germanic attack in the fifth century, Christians in Britain contributed to the broader theological development with the controversialists, Pelagius and Faustus,[2] as well as the expansion of their faith to neighboring Ireland. And there we find the role of Patrick (the would-be saint), son of a deacon, who was first kidnapped and taken as a slave to Ireland when a teen.

During his enslavement, Patrick sought God and was converted. Six years later he found a path to return to Britain and while resettling there sensed the call of God to the ministry of the Gospel. Specifically, he grew convicted that he should return to Ireland.

In his Confession Patrick shares that he went in response to the call of God to ‘come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel … so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others.’ Here is more:

I did not proceed to Ireland of my own accord until I was almost giving up, but through this I was corrected by the Lord, and he prepared me so that today I should be what was once far from me, in order that I should have the care of—or rather, I should be concerned for—the salvation of others, when at that time, still, I was only concerned for myself. […]

I will tell briefly how most holy God frequently delivered me, from slavery, and from the twelve trials with which my soul was threatened, from man traps as well, and from things I am not able to put into words. I would not cause offence to readers, but I have God as witness who knew all things even before they happened, that, though I was a poor, ignorant waif, still he gave me abundant warnings through divine prophecy.

Whence came to me this wisdom which was not my own, I who neither knew the number of days nor had knowledge of God? Whence came the so great and so healthful gift of knowing or rather loving God, though I should lose homeland and family?

I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.”’ And again: ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth.’

And I wish to wait then for his promise which is never unfulfilled, just as it is promised in the Gospel: ‘Many shall come from east and west and shall sit at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’ Just as we believe that believers will come from all the world, So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently, just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ and, again, through the prophets: ‘“Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters,” says the Lord,’ et cetera. So it behoved us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God[.]

Patrick would give his life as a gospel minister in Ireland for over 30 years. This selfless motivation is as timeless as the Apostle Paul’s desire to become all things to all people that he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), and as relevant for the 21st-century family from Bolivar called to live among the people of Bhutan.

—–

[1] Malcolm Lambert, Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 4.

[2] Michael A. G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 136-37. See also, Haykin, Patrick of Ireland (Christian Focus, 2001).

 

Questions for those with Questions: Shepherding College Students Called to Ministry

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. (Mark 8:27-30 ESV)

When I was both a college student and a new Christian, I had many questions about life and the prospects of ministry service. My college pastor was kind enough to help and guide me not by merely answering all my questions, but by asking me more questions in return.

Much like the Lord Jesus did with his disciples on the way to the villages, I have found that for those thinking about a call to vocational gospel ministry, one of the best helps we can provide is to shepherd them not only by listening and answering, but also by asking them more questions to ensure they are thinking through some things that haven’t yet occurred to them.

As I have talked with students over the years, here are three questions I have found helpful to ask them and then also to help them find answers. There are many more questions than these to ask and answer, but these are a good place to start.

1. Why are you thinking of pursuing vocational gospel ministry in these days?

“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

“The end of all things is at hand” – 1 Peter 4:7

I never saw the connection between the joy found in fellowship and having hope at the end of the world—I never saw the right connection between ecclesiology and eschatology—but there it was even in The Lord of the Rings.

The hero and his faithful companion, comprising the remnant of a Fellowship that set out on a journey to destroy evil and see the return of their King, lay exhausted and helpless surrounded by an erupting mountain of volcanic proportions with no cause for hope of rescue.

Yet in that moment they had the peace and security that only victorious soldiers must know when they, though dying, have saved countrymen or even countries. What was their source of hope? Knowledge that evil was ultimately defeated though the world self-destructed around them and hope in the truth for which they persevered.  That and remaining fellowship led them to express gladness and joy there ‘at the end of all things.’

Tolkien’s story is a helpful window through which to see there is great hope and joy for those of us laboring as Christians in the fellowships that are local churches in a self-destructing world—and thankfully that is a mere glimpse of the shining light of truth of these themes found in the Bible.

In 1 Peter 4:7 the Apostle Peter explains that “the end of all things is at hand” and by that he means that he and his readers were living in the last days before the return of Jesus. Since that time until our very own, humanity has been living at the verge of the end of the world, but that is not a cause for despair or hand-wringing. Peter’s point was focused rather on how one is to live at the end of all things and he spends the next few verses underscoring this for believers.

Peter explains that while a Christian should have his eyes fixed and his hope set on the soon and certain return of Jesus, he should be using his spiritual gifts, whether they be serving or speaking, all for the glory of God (1 Pet 4:7-11).

This end, then, is the source of hope that those considering vocational ministry should consider and pursue. In these days and until the end, whether one eats, drinks, preaches, trains, waters, reaps, types, writes, shares or disciples, he should be doing these things, through the fellowship of local churches, as the biblically prescribed means for carrying out the Great Commission to the Glory of God.

2. Do you first need formal theological training?

In 1939, C. S. Lewis delivered an address entitled, “Learning in War-Time” to encourage those to persevere in their studies at the advent of World War II. Reading through his comments, I am struck by the relevance his words have for those called to ministry but are currently considering whether they need to prepare by gaining formal theological education.

The men and women thinking of seminary, too, will pursue studies during an ongoing war—a spiritual war—and often the call of the front lines of full time ministry service in contrast to the present semesterly demands strains one to question if more school really is the right next step. For these questions C. S. Lewis can help.

At the end of his message, Lewis gave what he called “mental exercises” that served as helpful defenses for the student in his day to resist the enemy of excitement that war-time brought to those still in educational preparation. He said,

“[T]he tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.”

Just as for some in Lewis’ day who had eventually to abandon or postpone their studies in order to serve their country in war, there are some today who do, in fact, need to slow down their theological studies for a key ministry opportunity. However, this is not the norm and in my experience observing students rarely is this the wise course, and even rarer still does the student who suspends their studies altogether ever complete their degree. The excitement about future ministry will always be there. Better to prepare now so that when in ministry the excitement fades, one has learned well how to persevere.

3. What should you look for in a seminary?

After walking through the more formative questions above, thinking practically about where to study is vital. Instead of telling a student where he or she should study, first I offer four more questions to ask those who are asking about seminaries:

What do they believe?

The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention are confessional institutions bound by the mandate of the churches that each and every faculty member agree with, teach, and support the Convention’s confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.  Churches in the Baptist Tradition have used confessions throughout their history not to replace or supersede the Bible in terms of authority, but rather as documents that summarize the minimum of what those churches believe the Bible teaches in order to partner together for the sake of gospel ministry and for the shared advancement of the Great Commission. In short, confessions of faith are tools to “define” and “defend” what Baptist churches believe and serve as life-giving, Bible-centered guardrails for the training and instruction of these seminaries. Rather than offer an anchorless or aimless education in the name of academic freedom, confessionally bound schools actually provide more freedom to think through timeless questions and the questions of the day, while at the same time providing answers to those questions.

With whom will you study?

J.I. Packer begins Knowing God with an illustration of two ways people express interest in the study of theology by  “by picturing persons sitting on the high front balcony of a Spanish house watching travelers go by on the road below. The ‘balconeers’ can overhear the travelers’ talk and chat with them; they may comment critically on the way the travelers walk; or they may discuss questions about the road, how it can exist at all or lead anywhere, what might be seen from different points along it, and so forth; but they are onlookers, and their problems are theoretical only. The travelers, by contrast, face problems which, though they have their theoretical angle, are essentially practical—problems of the ‘which-way-to-go’ and ‘how-to-make-it’ type, problems which call not merely for comprehension but for decision and action too.”  Packer then says, “Now this is a book for travelers.”

When one is considering a seminary, he or she should look for a school that has heart for training travelers. In much of what is classified as theological education in this country, the six Southern Baptist seminaries and several evangelical sister institutions stand apart in this regard, for many other schools are content to sit in ivory towers and spectate. The task of theology for these schools is to observe, comment, criticize, but not actually implement or trust. Further, and equally important, is finding a school where the faculty are also non-spectators. These are not mere theorists, but also practitioners—professors who are engaged in applying theology and the study of the Bible to life and ministry just as much as they are teaching and writing theology.

What degree programs do they offer and encourage?

When it comes to the theological degree with long standing proven effectiveness, the Master of Divinity continues to represent the mainstay for equipping those with a solid theological foundation for a lifetime of ministry. Other masters degrees are helpful for more specialized avenues of service, but the MDiv still is the best degree available for those called to vocational gospel ministry.

Likewise, I remain convinced that seminaries serve churches best when students can aim to complete a rigorous professional masters degree that focuses on the high quality biblical and theological core of what a student needs to prepare for pastoral ministry in three years. Since avenues for further specialized study beyond this foundational degree exist in the form of MDiv concentrations, the ThM degree, and doctoral degrees, a three year MDiv is ideally designed as the healthiest MDiv to prepare men and women to serve the churches.

For more on the history of the MDiv degree and my thinking regarding how long it should take to complete, please see this article.

What will it cost?

While finances should not serve as the first and driving factor for one’s decision for choosing a seminary, it should be a contributing factor. Incurring student loan debt for seminary puts the future graduate in a challenging place in terms of vocational options and hinders their ability to serve in places of greatest need.

The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention are unique in that, due to almost a century of sacrificial gifts by churches of all sizes to a centralized Cooperative Program, these schools are able to offer a significant scholarship to students from Southern Baptist churches. This same Cooperative Program continues to fund many of these students who go on to serve on the mission fields of every continent on the globe. This partnership with the churches from the start of their seminary training is a remarkable relationship that has strengthened the seminaries, the students, and the churches now for several generations.

Questioning Those With Questions

I remain convinced that one of the best things we can do when talking to college students exploring a call to vocational gospel ministry is not merely to answer their questions, but rather first to shepherd them by asking them questions.

Are you praying and thinking through a call to vocational ministry? Are you walking with someone who is?

I’d love to speak with you, listen, and then ask some questions.

 

Jason G. Duesing serves as the Provost at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be reached via direct message on Twitter or Facebook, or via email at the addresses found here.

—-

For further reading and wise counsel on this topic, be sure to read and then share a copy of Jason K. Allen’s Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know for Sure and What to Do About It (Moody Publishers, 2016).

 

Spurgeon in An Age of Upgrade and Downgrade

— Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born into an age of upgrade and downgrade.

So begins the first installment of Christian T. George’s newly released The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. 1 from B&H Academic. As George explains, with scholarly care, Spurgeon was a man of his time during the upgrades of long nineteenth, or what church historian K. S. Latourette called, “the great century.” Yet, he was also a man “behind his time,” often standing convictionally alone in an era of theological downgrade.

Spurgeon’s journey as a public prophet began as a sixteen-year-old preacher and for the next three years, he would hone his craft and record his sermons in nine notebooks. Most of those familiar with Spurgeon usually start with his arrival at London’s New Park Street Chapel, and not with this earlier teenage preacher, and understandably so for, until now, the Spurgeon sermonic corpus consisted of 63 volumes starting in 1855.

Enter Christian George who, while completing a PhD from the University of St. Andrews in the last decade, encountered Spurgeon’s early notebooks in the archives of Spurgeon’s College in London. As he explains, these “sermons were never actually ‘lost’ to history. But they were lost to publishing history. Until now the only attempt at publication was undertaken by Spurgeon himself in 1857, an attempt he abandoned” due to the pace of his work. Thus, for the last 160 years, the notebooks have remained hidden, accessed only by a few scholars.

With the arrival of The Lost Sermons, Vol 1. comes the inauguration of a new era of Spurgeon scholarship–a journey that will travel toward the publication of twelve volumes total. As George explains:

The volumes will follow in regular installments over the next several years. By then end of the expedition, a total of 400 sermons filling 1,127 pages, and also additional material, will be offered for scholarship. A prequel to The New Park Street Pulpit, The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon constitutes the first critical edition of any of his works and adds approximately 10 percent more material to the total sum of his sermons.

Genuine projects of historical ressourcement of this size and significance are rare, and even the most significant often remain unread or underappreciated. What makes The Lost Sermons project so special is the fact that these sermons have the Gospel and the pursuit of godliness at their core, and they arrive in a day, much like Spurgeon’s own, of upgrade and downgrade.

Moreover, much of the value for future readers and beneficiaries of this treasury is only as great as what the particular historian, into whose hands Providence has given the sources, allows readers to see and know. In short, the piety of the editor matters as much as that which he edits.

These reasons are just a sample of why I am doubly proud and grateful that God has seen fit, in our day, to allow Christian George to serve, as what his father once rightly called, “the Lord’s remembrancer”–a steward of precious historical items who wields them, as George himself says, to “guide readers not just to Spurgeon but through Spurgeon to Jesus Christ.”

Indeed, may The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon once again point many to the Christ who came to seek and to save the lost (Lk 19:10).

The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. 1

Christian T. George, editor.
B&H Academic, 2017.

 

 

A Theology of Screwtape for the Rising Generation

Earlier this week while visiting with a Midwestern Seminary student, I mentioned and commended this often overlooked book by my colleague Jared C. Wilson. I wrote the review that follows first for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2013, before I ever met Jared or much less found myself working alongside him in Kansas City. Since then, my admiration for him as a writer, but even more as a brother, has only grown. In short, read Otherworld and everything else by Jared C. Wilson. You won’t regret it, even if some of it you have to read with every light on in the room.

Otherworld begins with a broken home, a depressed preacher and a hurting policeman. From the start, Jared Wilson crafts a compelling story that draws the reader to identify with and care for his characters. However, all of that changes once a farmer finds his cow lying dead and concludes that only aliens could be responsible. It was at this point that I knew the world was seeing a whole new side to the writings of Jared C. Wilson.

Familiar only with the non-fiction works and online presence of Wilson, I expected his first work of published fiction to tell a clever, well-written, theological allegory of sorts. In terms of clever writing and transmission of theological truth, Otherworld definitely delivers, but therein resides something more like a Frank Peretti narrative infused with the theology of Screwtape and fashioned for the rising generation. A 21st century Pilgrim’s Progress it is not—and that’s just fine.

Not since the 1990s when I read the Christian fiction of James Byron Huggins has this type of thriller so captivated my attention. Even though not well read in the genre, I can affirm that Wilson’s venture does not, as he says, lead with a theological point with the story “as a veneer thinly painted on.” Rather, Wilson excels as a storyteller and his story is thoroughly informed by his Christianity. The reader is not left wondering what is the truth about Jesus Christ, but neither does he feel like he is reading a repackaged or cheap reinvention of whatever is selling in the comparable fiction genre of the world. Otherworld, in this sense, is groundbreaking.

The title is taken from a phrase in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where Peter asks the Professor whether there really could “be other worlds—all over the place?” As one who grew up in Houston, this book took on special significance for the greater Houston area functions as character all its own in Otherworld. From the weather patterns, to the maze like structure of un-zoned streets and bedroom communities, Wilson does well to paint his canvas with this often overlooked city of great diversity and darkness mixed with the light of scores of noble people like those he presents as protagonists.

In terms of the sheer writing that leads and entertains, yet also reveals Wilson’s deep grasp on the human condition, I give just a few examples. Early in the book, Wilson describes the main character’s wrestling with the vacancy left by his separated wife:

“Now he floated, like an astronaut off the line, minutes from suffocation, his source and safety miles away.”

And later, as Wilson allows the reader to follow the process of his character’s awakening to his own sin and selfishness,

“He’d made an idol of his wife, and she’d withered under the weight. We always neglect the gods we presume to possess.”

The driving forces that the main characters engage in Otherworld are demonic. To depict the size and breadth of evil, Wilson spends a good deal of time developing, very convincingly, the reality and power of these principalities. The characters in Wilson’s world are not dealing with caricatures where “it’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark,” but rather wrestling with a prowling adversary and his accusers. While God is not centrally or overtly seen, and at times it seems the emphasis is too much on the depths of darkness, God is present and is not weak or silent.

Truthfully, some readers might not be comfortable with the level at which Wilson describes the demonic otherworld, following the wise admonition to be “innocent as to what is evil” (Rom 16:19). However, Wilson does not sensationalize or celebrate the dominions of darkness. As one of Wilson’s own characters relates, some

“give our Enemy far too much credit. Even more unfortunate, they believe him more powerful than he actually is. They endorse the literal equivalent of the American comedy routine catchphrase, ‘The Devil made me do it.’ This approach is not without humor but is theologically suspect (at best). We are to emulate Christ’s ministry, not Flip Wilson’s.”

In the end, the reader does well to remember that Otherworld is, and is meant to be, a work of fiction, though it reflects and comments on the reality of our world. As Wilson’s character instructs,

“There are two dangers in our understanding of the Enemy and his minions. One is that we become obsessed with them; the other is that we take them too lightly. The Devil is real, and though the physical proof of the demonic manifestations is rare in the West, to disbelieve in them is to grant the Devil his greatest goal—the disbelief in the Devil himself.”

As much as Otherworld presents a thrilling mystery of the demonic played out in real lives, it regularly raises and ultimately answers a central question: Should one fear death? Here Wilson is at his pastoral best, not providing pat answers or kitschy characters that copy and paste into the narrative a “Four Spiritual Laws” tract, but rather he walks with his characters and shows how some very flawed, yet genuine, believers stand and respond to temptation and evil with shaky but ultimately persevering faith in the truth. Wilson answers questions regarding the fear of dying by subtlety and surely pointing the way to a real and triumphant God revealed in his word.

I am not one who regularly reads or watches anything remotely close to a thriller like Otherworld. This book scared me the way an unknown roller coaster scares the first time you ride it. You know you are going to make it back in one piece, but you also know you might need some time to catch your breath and get your legs under you when you do. As much as I may regret admitting it, I had to avoid reading Otherworld late at night and always with plenty of lights on in the room.

But more than the thrills, this book awakened me again to the Ephesians 6 realities of “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” and drove me to pray. I prayed for my family, for lost relatives and for peoples in dark and oppressed nations. For there are “other worlds” and an evil one seeking to steal and kill and destroy. Thanks be to God, however, “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Cor 2:14) and who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” in Christ (Col 2:15).

In an interview about Otherworld, Wilson says that he has another unpublished novel that he thinks is the best thing he has ever written. Given what we have seen in his non-fiction works as well as in this book, that is saying something.

Otherworld

Jared C. Wilson
David C. Cook, 2013

 

 

 

 

The Most Important Doctrine I Learned In Seminary

“People thought Tolkien was joking when he later said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to bring into being a world that might contain [his] Elvish greeting …. The remark is witty – but also deadly serious.”

– Phillip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship, 26.

J. R. R. Tolkien loved words. More than that, he loved the study of words and delighted in philology or “the zone where history, linguistics, and literature meet.”[1] Therefore, when he had invented several languages he found he needed a world to house them. The result–the entirety of the fictional environs we know as Middle Earth and its inhabitants found their genesis in their creator’s love of words.

Words are something our Creator loves as well. He spoke the world into existence with words, sent his Son as the Word, and the Spirit breathed perfectly all the words we have in the Bible as Scripture. Thus, the Christian life is a life clothed and shaped by words even as some of those words require hard work to gain their full meaning.

When I went to seminary (in the latter part of the 20th century) I had only been a Christian for 4 years. I knew what it meant to be saved but was still working out what all that meant. For example, I had come to learn and love the hymn:

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

But it was not yet clear to me how exactly did Jesus wash me white as snow? I knew that Jesus died for my sins, but I don’t think I could have told you what happened when he did or how he did it. That is when I discovered I had a philology problem–a problem with words.

As I often tell students, when I arrived at seminary I was like a crumpled up piece of paper—all I needed to know for life and godliness was there on the page—I just needed some instruction and further discipleship to help iron out my many theological wrinkles.

Thus, through a combination of class instruction, mentorship from my pastor, and the discovery of a few important books,[2] I came to study the doctrine of the atonement. As I studied, I discovered that at the core of the atonement is a red-hot blazing term the Bible calls propitiation, a word I did not know, but one I came to treasure. As the ESV Study Bible simply and helpfully defines it, propitiation is “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor.”

As I studied, I discovered that while the word propitiation is used only four times in the New Testament,[3] its impact is tsunamic—the wave like implications and effects of this aspect of the doctrine of the atonement reach every corner of the Bible. As J. I. Packer says,

“Not only does the truth of propitiation lead us to the heart of the NT gospel, it also leads us to a vantage point from which we can see the heart of many other things as well.”[4]

From this new vantage point grew further understanding and—don’t miss the connection between study and practice—a deeper burden for the lost both at home and especially among those in the world who have never heard the gospel.

For an understanding that on the cross, Jesus took the wrath of God I deserved (Rom 5:9) and averted it for me (Rom 3:25) so I could have his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21) led to an understanding that he also has averted it for every human being on the planet (1 John 2:2), and that righteousness is available for all who repent and believe (Phil 3:9).

In short, the theological freight packed into that one word—propitiation–would become the most important doctrine I would learn in seminary. The result of my philology problem, it became for me and remains a doctrine to know and a doctrine to share.

Yesterday, I preached an expanded version of this message looking at Hebrews 2:17 in our chapel service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Links to audio or video will be posted here when available.

[1] Zaleski & Zaleski, The Fellowship, 24.

[2] In particular J. I. Packer, Knowing God and Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.

[3] Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.

[4] J. I. Packer, “The Heart of the Gospel,” in Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2008), 42.

One-hundred and twenty-fifth birthday: J. R. R. Tolkien, born January 3, 1892

‘Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today!’

‘Hurray! Hurray! Many Happy Returns!’ they shouted, and they hammered joyously on the tables. Bilbo was doing splendidly. This was the sort of stuff they liked: short and obvious.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1

The one C. S. Lewis called a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap,” J. R. R Tolkien (1892-1973), was born one-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, and in keeping with Tolkien’s reckoning, I suppose that would make him twelfty-five. [1]

Now world renowned for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stories, Tolkien continues to inspire all those who venture into Middle Earth, and then venture there and back again.

C. S. Lewis says it well in his 1937 review of The Hobbit:

“To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone …. The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” [2]

And Clyde Kilby, founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, helpfully observed in his 1969 reflection:

“My own experience working with Professor Tolkien for a summer convinced me that though the story as his insists must not be read as allegory, nevertheless it has strong Christian overtones.

Thomas de Quincey pointed out that all true literature becomes ‘a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth’ where only the dullest reader will not find meaning unlimited, and it is this sort of idea that gives credence to Guy Davenport’s remark concerning Lord of the Rings: ‘For a generation that can’t make head or tail of St. Paul, Mr. Tolkien has got Isaiah and St. Paul back before readers’ eyes.’

In a word, then, we’re justified in feeling, as sensitive readers of this story always do, a deep religious, even Christian undertone. But it should be added that it is a story to be enjoyed, not a sermon to be preached.” [3]

For those who have found Tolkien as an inspiration for their own writing, it is encouraging to note that The Hobbit was not published until Tolkien was 45 years old, and The Lord of the Rings when he was 62 and 63. So whatever your age is on your 2017 birthday, let Tolkien continue to inspire for writing and reading great works is a lifelong and noble pursuit.

For more on Tolkien’s life, listen to the audio recording of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Tolkien.

[1] C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me (Mariner, 2002), 293. Also cited in Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Tyndale, 2013), 128.

[2] “C. S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit,1937” in the Paris Review Daily, November 19, 2013.

[3] “Kilby on J. R. R. Tolkien,” His, 1969, reprinted in Clyde S. Kilby, A Well of Wonder, eds., Loren Wilkinson and Keith Call (Mount Tabor Books, 2016), 151-153.

 

In 2017, Study the Doctrine of the Church with Us

Today at For the Church, I seek to answer the question ‘Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” My essay begins this way:

In the nineteenth century, leading Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg wrote this with regard to the relationship of ecclesiology to other doctrines:

Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigation which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him whom we supremely love and adore.[1]

As evangelical Protestants, we are rightly often first in line to affirm that the doctrine of the church is less important than a heart twice-born. Our Reformation heritage hands us five solas and to think of an additional sola ecclesia is like adding a sixth Istar to the Third Age of Middle Earth, i.e. unthinkable. As such, evangelicals are not as often quick to affirm that wrestling with and arriving at sure ecclesiological convictions, as Dagg suggests, is a worthwhile exercise.

Why should we, then, study the doctrine of the church? To answer that, we need to clarify ecclesiology’s rightful place among and functional posture toward other doctrines.

You can read the rest of the article here.

At Midwestern Seminary, we offer the Ecclesiology PhD Seminar on a regular basis. This is a core seminar for the theology, missiology, ministry and historical theology emphases in the MBTS PhD program.

This Spring, I am pleased to announce that noted theologian and specialist in ecclesiology, Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell, III of Southwestern Seminary, is joining me in co-teaching this seminar that starts officially on Jan 12 and meets on campus March 13-17.

We will have the students read 11 ecclesiology texts, many from different traditions and prepare reading outlines for discussion, write and present a major research paper, and complete a 12 page statement of their own biblical ecclesiology. Here is the syllabus for Ecclesiology (DR 37337).

Current PhD students can still enroll until January 12, or join us as a late registrant until January 26.

If you’d like to learn more about the Midwestern PhD program so you can join us for the study of ecclesiology in a future seminar, please visit the Doctoral Studies page. We’d love to hear from you.

Also, we have a new residential component of the PhD program starting in Fall 2017. Learn more about ‘The Residency’ here.

———-

[1] J. L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), 12.

See “Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” at FTC.co

Tom Oden’s (1931-2016) Recovery of Classic Christianity

As I was driving home last night, I was disheartened to hear of the passing of Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016). He was a theologian I met and heard in person only once eleven years ago, but like many of his generation, I was trained and influenced more by those he influenced. As he lived in nearby Oklahoma City, I had hopes of meeting him again through a mutual friend, but that will now have to wait for a more glorious day. I am grateful for his life and contribution to evangelical theology, both in word and deed. He was a Gentlemen Theologian.

In recent years, I read his outstanding autobiography, and found it to shed great insight for me on the development of theology in the twentieth century, among both Protestant liberalism and Evangelicalism. For, as the title of the volume suggests, right around the age of 40, Oden experienced a change of heart. This theological transformation he underwent resulted in a new trajectory away from the theological left of his academic training and toward something older and more solid, what he would call classic Christianity. This new path led him to find a warm welcome among evangelicals, as he would say,

“I found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than the liberals, who were so frequently speaking about inclusion with a narrower view of inclusiveness largely defined by gender and ethnicity. Evangelical and Catholic inclusiveness transcended those divisions and went deeper into transcultural classic Christianity” [175].

The result has been four-decades of significant literary output that includes the massive and pioneering Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

While there is much to glean and learn from the life and thought of Tom Oden, particularly, I am grateful for the revived interest in early Christianity and Patristic theology he helped to champion. In A Change of Heart he tells the story of how this came to pass:

A Collegial Challenge

In the 1970s, while at Drew University, Oden tells of a confrontation he had with a friend and  Jewish colleague, who informed Oden, at that time a 39 year old Christian theology professor, that he was “densly ignorant of Christianity.” Oden relates,

“Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition” [136].

The Plunge

Following this Oden “plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers,” and what he found there changed his life and soul. Through reading Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Macrina, John of Damascus, and John Chrysostom he said the “maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually.” Commenting further,

“I was being guided by the Spirit toward and integral sense of Scripture based on the consensus of the early Christian interpreters of sacred Scripture. Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated

Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away: the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism.

As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence.

It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved” [137-139].

Nothing New

Oden was relieved by what he discovered and the theological and life-altering change he experienced. He shared that he was “elated to realize that there was nothing new in what I was learning; I was only relearning what had been relearned many times before the apostolic witness.” In reflecting on his life to this midpoint, he assessed,

“My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace.

My life has passed through the core phases of the history of modern social change, politics, technology, philosophy and religion. Some may find that my story mirrors their own experience. Putting that mirror in another’s hands is my motivation to write it accurately just as it occurred. Those societal changes have affected everyone in our times, but at the same time the perennial story of salvation awaits anyone ready to hear it.

I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year old stable memory” [140].

A Prefigured Epitaph

In 1971 Oden dreamt that he was walking the the New Haven cemetery and came across his own tombstone that read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” For him, this prefigured epitaph was a welcomed relief and a sign of his change of heart. He explained,

“The striking image signaled to me that I no longer had to produce something new in theology in order to find a reliable foothold in theological discourse …. Since the first time I ever thought of becoming a theologian, I was earnestly taught that my most crucial task was to ‘think creatively’ in order to ‘make some new contribution to theology’ ….

But this dream prompted me to begin to try to follow the strict rule of Irenaeus that Christian truth must avoid any temptation to ‘invent new doctrine’ … What the ancient church teachers least wished for Christian teachers is that they would become focused on self-expression or become an assertion of purely private inspiration, as if those might claim to be some decisive improvement on apostolic teaching” [144].

Tom Oden referred to this awakening as his “midlife breakthrough. I was forty,” he said. “My next forty years would be entirely different.” And,

“As with Augustine, it was through a journey of the mind that I had a change of heart. I had to learn than my life was more than my mind, and that my journey had to be experienced without knowing where it was taking me. In the 1970s I learned that it was God the Spirit, prompting, wooing, revealing and guiding the journey” [178].

As many take the occasion in the coming days to reflect on Oden’s life and theological work, particularly his contribution to the theology of the early church, I am one who remains thankful for Oden’s change of heart and his recovery of classic Christianity.


A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

Thomas C. Oden
IVP, 2014

 

 

Our Final Words: Thoughts on the Last Days of Steve Jobs and Henry Jessey

By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

–Genesis 3:19

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

–Hebrews 9:27-28

For all who live, death is certain. Yet, our level of certainty about what happens after death is shaped by how we live and in what we put our trust.

As regular consumer (and sometimes writer) of biographies, I have found that much can be learned from and about a person’s thoughts on eternity not only from reading about what they said and did in life, but also by examining their final days–and even their final words.

Consider two examples:

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Five years ago in October, the unarguably brilliant genius and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs of Apple fame, passed away. The stuff of legends, the story of Jobs’s life and career has been and can be told by many—and if not by many then there are still many more who were impacted by the things he made. The just 10 year old iPhone alone exists now in global ubiquity and was one of many innovations that contributed to Jobs’s estimated net worth of $10 billion at the time of his death.

To my knowledge, and from what can be read, Jobs did not claim to follow Christ. He was a devotee to Zen Buddhism and allowed that belief system to influence and direct him. Further, in his early career he cited his experimentation with psychedelic drugs as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.

On October 30, 2011, the sister of the late Steve Jobs published in the New York Times the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial service earlier that month. In it she gives her recollections and assessments of her iconic, brilliant, and world-changing brother. She speaks of his work ethic, his humility, his love for his children and wife, and his overall happiness. She describes his admirable battle with cancer, fought while the world watched.

But she concludes with the following:

“What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died. Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us ….

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze …. Then, after awhile it was clear that he would no longer wake to us. His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful ….

He made it through the night …. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude …. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d look at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

What Steve Jobs saw at the conclusion of his life or what he meant by his “Oh Wow,” I do not know. Nor do I know what he claimed to believed about Jesus Christ in those final hours. But if his belief claims had not changed—as great of a person that he was to society and his family—he sadly was not prepared for eternity (Acts 4:12).

Henry Jessey (1601-1663)

In the 1600s, there lived in London an obscure pastor unknown today and forgotten. By human standards he did not change the world. Although he was brilliant, he never became a billionaire nor had world-wide much less city-wide influence.

Henry Jessey was the pastor of an independent (non-Church of England) church during the years of great political upheaval in England. Out of his church would come the early English Baptists from who many Baptists and Evangelicals can trace our heritage and history today.

Jessey had an affinity for the biblical languages and was even commissioned by Parliament to help produce a new translation of the Bible to replace the King James authorized version. Regrettably, this project was never completed due to political turmoil in London, but it does reveal Jessey’s lifelong devotion to the Bible.

Of Jessey’s Bible affection, one biographer said, “The Hebrew & Greek Testaments he constantly carried about him, frequently calling the One his Sword & Dagger, & the Other his Shield & Buckler …. For by his thorow study of the Scriptures he … became so familiar with its language & phraseology that it was to him like his Mother Tongue, both in Preaching & Conversation: this way of speaking he thought most Savory & best becoming those that professed Christianity.” Another biographer recounted, “Who ever begun to rehearse a place [from the Bible] he could go on verbatim with the preceding and following context: who ever enquired after a Scripture, he could presently name the book, chapter and verse so that he was not undeservedly called by one (a living Concordance).”

In 1663, Jessey grew fatally ill. On the night of his death, he like Steve Jobs, had loved ones gathered and here is the account of Jessey’s final words:

“As for the last night he lived, first part thereof he spent in blessing the Lord, and singing praises to his Name, and fell asleep about 11 a.clock, and waked again between 2 and 3 …. But this good mans memory, which was beyond comparison, for the quotation of the Text, began now to faile him, at which he seemed to be troubled, earnestly calling them to help him therein, which was done, and much please him;

Thus he lay some time calling for more Julip, more Julip, meaning more Scriptures, for he drank in much comfort and consolation from the promises which the Lord had given him, a steadfast Faith and hope to trust his soul, and eternal state upon, for he continued unto the last gasp his praising of God.”

Henry Jessey concluded his life by calling for more Bible and his last words were spent praising God.

When compared to the successful and happy Steve Jobs who voiced only uncertain expressions at his end, how was this unknown pastor able to rest in something more certain?

Jessey’s ability to rest in peace with God at the end of his life derived from the surrendering of his life to God many years earlier. When preparing his last Will and Testament, Jessey included the following preface that explains:

“I Henry Jessey of London, a servant of Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Gospel, do declare, that form the Lord’s most gracious manifestation of his most free love in his Son to me the chiefest of all saved sinners, I have committed my soul to him, as to a faithful Creator and Redeemer being assured by the witness of his good Spirit, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and washed me from all my sins in his precious blood, and that he will save me everlastingly.”

For all those who live, death is certain, and our certainty of what happens after death is determined by how we live and in what we trust. Facing eternity uncertain of God, trusting in someone or something other than God, or even opposing his existence in word, deed, or indifference is something the Bible says we should fear (Matt 12:36-37). However, by learning from other lives (Matt. 11:29), when we come to our end our final words do not have to convey a fear of death or uncertainty of what is to come after death.

Jesus Christ came to earth to destroy death by sacrificing himself so that all who oppose or are uncertain about God could find peace with God (Rom 5:1). Jesus did this loving act to help the helpless no longer to fear death (Heb 2:14-18), but rather to find deliverance from fear and uncertainty at death and, instead, eagerly wait for him.

For more of the life and thought of Henry Jessey, see this newly released volume from BorderStone Press.

On Appreciation for the ERLC

Every year at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Resolutions Committee presents at least one annual resolution expressing appreciation to the host city for their hospitality and service while the Convention has met in their midst. These “On Appreciation” resolutions are brief but do provide the opportunity for the Convention to give thanks where thanks is due (1 Thess 5:18).

As the national presidential election comes to a conclusion, I am reflecting on the journey undertaken by our nation and, particularly, by evangelicals in terms of public debate and discourse over the last eighteen months. While I join many in expressing gratefulness simply that the election has come to an end, I am especially thankful for the Kingdom-focused and service-oriented work of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, herein express my own statement “On Appreciation” for them.

While not surprised or even alarmed by the often strident confluence of church and culture, Christianity and secularism, and the multiplied opinions of how they should relate, the brothers and sisters of this Convention Commission have the assignment of living at these crossroads and helping all of us to “understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.”

Given the tone of the rhetoric and actions in this year’s national election, the task of the ERLC is unenviable and even impossible, yet still remains vital. Since 1907, with the first appointment of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Committee on Civic Righteousness,” the churches of our Convention have been helped by dedicated leaders and public advocates especially with regard to promoting the Kingdom of God first in the defense of religious liberty.

A. J. Barton, the first chairman of what we now know as the ERLC, said in his 1929 address to the annual meeting of the SBC,

“The Kingdom of God is promoted primarily by preaching the gospel of salvation and bringing the individual to know and trust and love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Here Baptists have always placed the major emphasis. Here they will place the major emphasis to the end of the age.

But the Kingdom of God has to do with the whole life of the individual and with the whole social order. Life is not divided into water-tight compartments; life is a whole. The individual cannot be one sort of person in religion, and another in politics. The Kingdom of God would win men to personal experience of grace and would permeate all the affairs of men until ‘the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and his Christ.’ The experience of grace does not remove the individual from this world but leaves him in the world to help save and transform the world.

“It follows that the saved individual has no less duties as a citizen and no less concern for the protection of the weak and defenseless and the establishment of righteousness in all the affairs of men than does the unsaved; indeed, he has greater, for obligation is increased by increased light.

“It follows, therefore, that a Baptist body composed of individuals with no ecclesiastical or political powers or functions is entirely within its rights to express the collective judgment of its members concerning matters involving the public morals and the public good. It follows also that Baptists, whether pastors, presidents of seminaries, editors or non-official members, are entirely within their rights when they become antagonists of evil and the protagonists of good, whether in the realm of private morals or public morals. This is all this Convention and its constituency have ever done; all that we will ever do, but, please God and God helping us, we can and will do no less.”

While no leadership team of the Convention’s public policy arm, past or present, can carry out this task with perfection or to the full approval of every member of the churches they serve–nor should they be held to that unassailable expectation–it is always right to express thanks to them and for them for their service, courage, and efforts. Particularly, that is true during this election year, for I believe the ERLC has embodied well the spirit of both A. J. Barton’s statement as well as their stated ministry assignment.

As a co-laborer in a sister entity owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, I have committed to honor fellow entities in their “day-to-day operations,” and while it is an ongoing joy to do that for all entities of the SBC, on this day it is a particular joy to express thanks to the staff of the ERLC for their unenviable, yet vital labors.

Therefore, to Russell Moore, Phillip Bethancourt, Daniel Patterson, Sam Dahl, Daniel Darling, Barrett Duke, Elizabeth Bristow, Doug Carlson, Joe Carter, Marie Delph, Elizabeth Graham, Matthew Herriman, Matthew Hawkins, Steven Harris, Samuel James, Stacy Keck, Gary Lancaster, Kevin Miller, Trillia Newbell, Bobby Reed, Tom Strode, Lindsay Swartz, Jason Thacker, Jill Waggoner, Andrew Walker, Rachel Wiles, Travis Wussow, and many more, I say—

In the spirit of the words of the Apostle Paul’s own statement “On Appreciation,” for the church of the Thessalonians:

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:2).