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.

 

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.

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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.