Creeds added to the Bible? Defining and Defending Baptist Confessionalism

This week I presented a paper for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society that gives a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism. What follows is an excerpt from that paper. The entire paper will function as the introduction in a new textbook that chronicles the formation of Baptist Confessions from Christian Focus, forthcoming in 2021.

Throughout history, Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and in response to those attacking their beliefs. Further, Baptists have used Confessions to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters, and to show connection to the broader Christian tradition.  

Yet, Baptists have not been a creedal people in that they have not sought to place their Confessions in a place of greater authority than Scripture. This tension has caused confusion and misunderstanding throughout history not only by those who have sought to interpret the Baptist tradition, but also by Baptists themselves. Famously, one group of Baptist churches proclaimed at their initial organization, “We have no creed but the Bible,” even while most of the churches represented held and used Confessions of Faith in their congregations.

Have Baptists understood Confessions of Faith as creeds added to the Bible? This paper will present a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism to alleviate historical confusion and contemporary misunderstanding as to the role, importance, and value of Confessions of Faith in the Baptist tradition.

Defining Baptist Confessionalism

Baptists have used Confessions to define what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters. Confessions, in this sense, are merely summary statements of their corporate understanding of the teaching of Scripture on a given doctrinal issue. Another way to say this is that Confessions are used to define the terms by which Baptist churches include or exclude those with whom they will work.

The preamble to the Baptist Faith & Message states that this Confession of Faith “endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us” and that “We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”

Defending Baptist Confessionalism

Baptists have used Confessions to defend what they believe both to friends and foes. Sometimes this has been done to show other believers in like-minded, but different, ecclesial traditions that there exists a significant amount of shared theological common ground where perhaps many assumed little existed. Other times, Confessions have helped a watching world to see that the claims of a false accuser simply have no rational basis of truth. Never assumed to be infallible documents, Baptists have felt the freedom to revise their Confessions as a specific context or theological crisis might require.

The vehicle that Baptists have used to defend the beliefs they “most surely” hold has been Confessions of Faith. As Baptists developed cooperating entities or pursued partnerships with one another among churches, the Confessions proved helpful in communicating to non-participants what was and was not believed and held by their groups. In addition, as Baptists developed institutions, schools, mission boards, they used confessions as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.”

To What End?

Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe. To put it another way, this paper defines and defends the historic practice of Baptists defining and defending. But to what end?  

Often lost in the history of Baptist use of Confessions is the ultimate reason for the Confessions. Beyond defining and defending, these local documents summarize the faith of Baptist churches in God himself and therein lies their power. Here Baptist historians and theologians can be helped by two Anglicans.

Dorothy Sayers, in her work Creed or Chaos? reminded that in the presentation and summary of doctrine, there is great drama. The drama, or value, is not in “beautiful phrases, nor conforming sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertation that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”[1] 

Alistair McGrath, describes the study of Creeds and Confessions as the windows through which we look to gain “access to a greater reality, rather than being the object of study itself.” He explains, “Christian doctrine offers us a subject worthy of study in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its imaginative gateway, and behold our world in a new way.”[2]  

In this sense, Confessions of Faith are lenses through which we can look to gain a fuller understanding of how other Christians in the Baptist tradition have summarized their knowledge of God that they found in the Bible. 

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1949; Sophia Institute Press, 1974), 25.

[2] Alistair McGrath, The Landscape of Faith (SPCK, 2018), 25.

Beauty for Trials from the Father of Lights – Fall 2020 Chapel Message

In 1853, a young Charles Spurgeon was invited to leave his church in the country and take up a preaching ministry at New Park Street Chapel, where he would stay until his death in 1892.

The story goes that the famous London congregation sent him a letter requesting him to come and when he read it, he passed it along to his deacons saying, “They must have another Mr. Spurgeon in mind.”

For Spurgeon was young and, like Alexander Hamilton, “didn’t have a dollar to his name.” All he had was a few years of preaching and his “top-notch brain.” 

Nevertheless, he went to London and for his first sermon there he preached on James 1:17, in a sermon called “The Father of Lights.” 

A version of the sermon is reprinted in his Autobiography, but the original manuscript will soon appear in the final version of The Lost Sermons published by The Spurgeon Library and B&H Academic in 2022.  Spurgeon reflects on the majestic aspects of the unchanging attributes of God—but listen to where Spurgeon decides to put his emphasis: 

“He is immutable. The sun changes, mountains crumble, the ocean shall be dried up, the stars shall wither from the vault of night; but God, and God alone, remains ever the same.

“Were I to enter into a full discourse on the subject of immutability, my time, if multiplied by a high number, would fail me. But reminding you that there is no hang in His power, justice, knowledge, oath, threatening, or decree, I will confine myself to the fact that His love to us knows no variation.

“How often it is called unchangeable, everlasting love. He loves me now as much as He did when first He enscribed my name in His eternal book of election. He has not repented of His choice. He has not blotted out one of His chosen; there are not erasures in that book; all whose names are written in it are safe for ever. Nor does God love me less now than when He gave that grand proof of love, His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for me.”

In a recent chapel message on this same text, it was my aim to present how this type of reflection and focus on God and His Christ is the answer for persevering in faithfulness. In James 1:12-18, James writes two paragraphs that serve to present two sides of the same issue—namely how does the believer remain steadfast in times of trial.

Titled, “Beauty for Trials: God Knows the Way Out,” I review James’ purpose and then assert that the greatest obstacle to our perseverance in trials is our sinful nature. To put it another way, we are the problem. However, while God never tempts us, he remains with us when we are tempted. He is the solution and trusting him, and all that is good, beautiful, and true about him, will lead us to persevere.

You can watch the video of that message here:

Martin Luther’s Umbrella, A Good Place for Reformation Studies

In 1536, Martin Luther published his Disputation Concerning Justification, a series of statements concerning Romans 3:28:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

From Luther’s Disputation, one passage he uses to describe the beauty of the believer’s standing before God lingers in my mind: a simple image of an umbrella.

In this one image, Luther conveys imputation, propitiation, and substitution. All fifty-dollar theological terms to be sure, but truly priceless biblical truths that give hope both those in Christ and those still outside of Christ.

Here is Luther:

Moreover, God forgives and is merciful to us because Christ, our advocate and priest, intercedes and sanctifies our beginning in righteousness. His righteousness, since it is without defect and serves us like an umbrella against the heat of God’s wrath, does not allow our beginning righteousness to be condemned. (LW 34:153).

What joy to know and have access to Martin Luther’s umbrella.

At Midwestern Seminary this fall, Matthew Barrett and I will offer again The Reformation PhD Seminar. The seminar starts August 31 and will meet for a week-long sessions during October 26-30.

For the students already enrolled we recently made the syllabus available and we wanted also to make it available here as well so any other interested students can view it and see if they would like to enroll as well prior to the start of the seminar on August 31.

We’ve offered this seminar several times at Midwestern and typically attempt to cover the entire Reformation Era in broad strokes with focused primary source readings from the major figures.

However, this time, the big take away is that we are structuring this offering of the Reformation Seminar to focus deeply on Martin Luther!

We will still give time and discussion to the Reformation movements more broadly at points, but we’ve decided to give dedicated focus to the life and thought of Luther himself to allow PhD students the opportunity to read as much Luther as possible and grow in their knowledge of the Reformation as a result.

To put it another way, this fall we will follow Martin Luther and gather together to read and discuss his works under the merciful shade provided by his glorious Umbrella.

If you are a PhD student or considering starting your PhD studies, we’d love to have you join us. You can learn more about the Midwestern PhD program here.

Study Baptist History with me this Summer

In light of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, we at Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College have now doubled the number of summer intensive courses available for our students and have sought to provide new online avenues for students to continue with their studies even during uncertain times.

As our President, Jason K. Allen, said well, “With these new offerings, students can still continue to access learning from our incredible faculty even in these most difficult times. We can think of no better way to be ‘for the church’ than by working to help students complete their degrees in new and innovative ways.”

To that end, I have joined with several of our faculty to offer a newly added class this summer. During June 1-4, 2020, I will teach a class that meets the requirements for “Baptist History” at the graduate level and “The Church” at the undergraduate level.

This is a special joy and providence for me as this is my favorite class to teach, and one I have taught regularly since 2005. However, due my need to teach other courses next year, I was not scheduled to teach it this coming fall–but now I get to offer it!

This course is our required historical theology course that gives me the opportunity to appeal to students that ecclesial tradition matters and that, in most cases, it is not what they think it is.

In fact, the history of the Baptist tradition is far more doctrinal, relevant to day to day church life, and helpful for the task of world evangelization than they’ve ever imagined. I have one course to convince them of this and I love that challenge.

Why is this the case?

For my expanded answer, you should enroll in the course!

But as a preview, you can read this short article I wrote, “For Other Churches, Baptists Assert a High View of a Low and Free Church.”

With that, here are a few final notes about this special Summer opportunity:

  • The class will meet during June 1-4, 2020.
  • The class will meet over live, interactive (synchronous) video for 2 or 3hr blocks of time, which will consist of my lectures and class discussion.
  • Students can enroll up until the day the class starts.
  • Students are encouraged to get the textbooks and start on the reading and writing assignments, but all assignments are not due until 3 weeks after the course meets.
  • Given that this is a Summer Intensive (or compressed/hybrid) course, there is no exam, but reading requirements, book review(s), a descriptive paper, and a final quiz (based on the in-class time).
  • If you’ve already taken this course for credit, we are offering this course also as a special elective HT 3140 Baptist Theology. The syllabus below has that information as well.

Are you interested in taking this class with me this Summer? You can learn more and enroll at today!

On the third day He rose again — A Sonnet for Easter

In the mornings this year I’ve been re-reading a fourth century masterpiece. 

While Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is remarkable, it was C. S. Lewis who termed it a ‘masterpiece’ in his famous introduction to a new English translation of Athanasius’s work. 

As I read through the chapters of De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, I started summarizing each of the fifty-seven sections in my own words and soon realized the helpfulness of this exercise. 

Reading this old book has served to accomplish for me what C. S. Lewis hoped it would. Lewis advised, then in 1944, that in an era of modern controversies and division within Christianity “the only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” 

In specific, Lewis had in mind books that put forth a “standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” Even though it is now 2020 and we are not facing the same controversies of 1944, Lewis’s commending the reading of On the Incarnation does, indeed, put our controversies in perspective.

My reflection led me to another thought: could I condense and conform my thoughts on Athanasius’s work into a poem to summarize what I had gained? As only a poetry-appreciator, not a poet, I set out to learn more about form and structure and settled on a simple sonnet.

The sonnet, I learned, allows for poems with musicality but also to be read in silence. The 14-line structure and rhyming patterns function “like a box” and since sonnets are often meant to focus on a person, I thought it a good form to follow for a poem on the incarnation of Christ.

The result of my reflections on this “old book” was, first, a sonnet for Advent, and now the following sonnet for Easter.** Thanks to C. S. Lewis, it has helped me to keep this remarkable year in proper perspective.

**Working from my summaries of Athanasius’s last five chapters, I sought to structure the three quatrains around each chapter, with the last focusing on the last three. I created a spreadsheet to aid in building each of the 14 lines in iambic pentameter and around a specific rhyming sequence and then edited to final form.

For further reading:

  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei, translated and edited by a religious of C.S.M.V. (Centenary Press, 1944).
  • C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).
  • Peter Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria: His Life & Impact (Christian Focus, 2019).
  • Rachel Richardson, “Learning the Sonnet,” Poetry Foundation, August 29, 2013.

Who’s On First: Liele or Carey? A Symphonious Approach to Assessing the First Modern Missionary

Last week I was in San Diego, California for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society where I presented a paper assessing the implications of identifying who was the first modern missionary. What follows is an excerpt from the first half of that paper. The entire paper will function as the first chapter in a new volume that chronicles the history of the International Mission Board from Kregel Academic, forthcoming in 2020.

Who’s On First?

When historians classify historical figures in terms of who was first to do something, even when the figures did not think of themselves by such classifications, sometimes the historical accounts can read like the famous Abbott and Costello skit, “Who’s on First?”[1]  This is very much the case with the ongoing scholarship surrounding who was the first modern missionary or who should be termed “the Father of Modern Missions.” Sometimes, when I read these, a skit like this comes to my mind:

Who was on the mission field first?

That’s what I am asking, who?


Exactly what?

What’s on second?

I thought Judson was second. 

No, what’s on second. I don’t know is on third.

Who’s on first?


Who is on first, Liele or Carey?[2]

Who’s on first. I don’t know Liele or Carey.

So you don’t know Liele, Carey, or who’s on third?

Who’s on first!


But, this skit aside, what is taking place among historians is important for it reveals that the entire story has not been told of who all helped propel Protestants to contribute to the growing task of global evangelism in the late 18th century. The purpose of this paper is to answer the question, “Who’s on First?” and does it matter? 

That is, this paper will acknowledge that George Liele was the first modern missionary and that it is right to consider William Carey the father of modern missions, but I hope to do more than that.[3] Yes, some dates and who did what on which day are vital for understanding the historical task, but George Liele’s contribution is far greater than just that he was first. I’m afraid in our efforts to reclaim him, we’ve also limited him. And then there is the matter of how he or Carey considered themselves. What would they make of all these titles? [4]

A Suggested Methodology

Among Baptist historians, there has been an ongoing methodological discussion about how best one is to interpret the Baptist tradition. Some have argued for a single source or “monogenesis” of great authority that anchors the Baptist tradition, which I argue in another essay, is largely an unhelpful contribution especially as it finds expression in ultra-successionist forms.[5]  Most have, instead, acknowledged that there is a multi-source or “polygenesis” influence that comprises the Baptist tradition.[6]  Baptists are a product of the Reformation, yes, but their organization formation comes in England later, for example.

In addition, another historian, William Brackney, has argued that a better way is to think of the various epochs of the Baptist movement is a “genetic approach that attempts to make a historical connection between the various streams of Baptist thought, while allowing for diversity in evolved thinking.”[7] This idea of searching for shared DNA, if you will, has merit, but I am afraid it sometimes loses theological precision.  Timothy George also used a genetics metaphor when describing his methodology, “Historical theology is the genetic study of Christian faith and doctrine …. [that] investigates the nuances and modalities, the developments and deviations, of the efforts of all Christians.”[8] I like the specificity here best as it attempts to find common doctrinal commitments and seeks to leave no person left behind.

What does this have to do with an assessment of the modern missions movement?  What I am suggesting with this essay is that historians are thinking in an unhelpful way about modern missions leaders when thinking merely in terms of chronology our progeny. However, this is not to say it is unhelpful to identify who might be the first to do something or from whom a tradition developed. I affirm those clarifying efforts.  Rather, I am saying that when assessing the modern missions movement, we need to do more than that if we are going to capture with faithfulness the movement itself.

Thus instead of monogenesis, polygenesis, or a genetic approach, I’d like to present what I call a symphonious approach for assessing the modern missions movement. This era in history is, after all, a movement, and much like the musical use of that term, we see much more similar themes: there are many diverse and complementary components that make up a symphony.  For the symphony to achieve its desired sound, all must play their part. Symphonies usually are comprised of four movements that each tell part of the story at different speeds and intensity.  

For example, when considering the Protestant Reformation, historians and theologians do not speak often in terms of who was the first Reformer or who is the Father of the Reformation.  Rather, those events and people in church history comprised a symphonic movement. Like its musical counterpart it had a prelude in Wyclif and Hus, struck its opening notes with Luther, and saw its development and full deployment in Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer. Complementing these major sections were a host of other Reformers, social and cultural events, and advancements in technology and translation, that, in their contexts and specific convictions, added to the color and depth of the symphony that was the Reformation.

Likewise, I argue, it is with the modern missions movement. The Reformers themselves played some parts of the initial piece, but the Moravians and others open the overture in its beginning. George Liele, then, represents the first section with a unique and influential contribution that many have overlooked, yet he mobilized and impacted many. Carey, shaped by all who went before gives a full, well-organized presentation, the DNA of such serves a refrain for later movements that include Americans, Adoniram and Ann Judson, and many other missions societies, organizations, and work. 

What is more, there are other figures who contribute to this symphony who have yet to be acknowledged. Timothy George notes the underappreciated John Sutcliff.[9] There are many women who advanced the cause of global missions during 1800-2000 who have not yet received full study. In addition, there is need to research the churches who sacrificed, those sent by the churches to check on the missionaries and send reports, and the printers and distributors of letters and pamphlets from the field—and much more. Thus, as far as titles and assessing the right chronology of the movement, I am arguing that it is more helpful to think of the modern missions movement like other movements in church history and to minimize the emphasis on titles in favor of assessing all the component parts and their unique contributions that serve to make up the movement as a whole.

The Shortstop

When historians and theologians analyze the modern missions movement in the ways they quantify other movements in the history of Christianity, seeing these leaders and each playing unique parts in one grand symphony appears to allow their voices and legacies to have appropriate appreciation and ongoing influence. This is in distinction to attempts to summarize one missionary or the other as “the first” or “the father” while minimizing their much larger contribution.

David Bebbington posits that, “The most important development in which Baptists participated during their four centuries of existence was the foreign missionary movement.”[10]  My argument has been that a symphonious approach to assessing that movement allows current researchers to see the full value and beauty of what the movement’s leaders were able to do in their lifetimes, not to mention all the supporting figures and trends that helped to strengthen the movement that have yet to be studied and shared.

As Stratford Caldecott reminds, “For every great change, every rebirth or renaissance in human culture, has been triggered by the retrieval of something valuable out of the past, making new, creative developments possible.”[11] I hope this assessment serves to help foster new and creative assessments of the modern missions movement for the sake of those who do not yet have a missions history.

Candidly, here at the end, many historians might respond to my clarifications and say, “Enough already, I don’t care who is on first or how is the best way to put it all together, just as long as the missions movement and its overlooked figures are studied and shared.” With that bottom-line sentiment, I would agree, but then, also would point out that, “I don’t care,” well, he is the shortstop.

[1] “‘Who’s on First?’ by Abbott and Costello,” The Baseball Almanac,

[2] The name George Liele can be found spelled also as Leile or Lisle.

[3] For the purposes of this paper, I define missionary as “one who crosses cultures to share the gospel.”  See Jason G. Duesing, “The Pastor as Missionary,” in Jason K. Allen, ed. Portraits of a Pastor (Moody, 2017).

[4] The full version of this essay includes a historical overview of the start of Protestant missions as well as biographical introductions to the main figures under consideration in this presentation.

[5] Jason G. Duesing, “Baptist Contributions to the Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition, Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps, eds. (B&H Academic, 2020).

[6] See James M. Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” MQR 49:2 (Apr 1975): 83-121, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), 7.

[7] William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Mercer, 2004), 2-3.

[8] Timothy George, “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church,” in Review & Expositor 4 (Fall 1987), 691.

[9] Timothy George, “Let it Go: Lessons from the Life of William Carey,” in Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things, Allen Yeh and Chris Chun, eds., (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 8

[10] David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries (Baylor, 2010) , 215.

[11] Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Brazos, 2009), 12.

Packer’s Dusty Puritan Discovery Still Guides and Helps

During J. I. Packer’s second year of undergraduate studies at Oxford, he was invited to serve as the junior librarian at the Christian Union student organization. Having been converted only a year earlier, Packer was new to the Union but, as he would soon discover, so were a recent donation of books. An octogenarian clergyman had recently concluded that he could no longer make use of his library and thus gave them to the Union who, upon receipt, proceeded to pile them in the basement of their meeting space in North Gate Hall for an unknown future.[1] Thereafter, as is now famously told and retold, Packer discovered, as a nineteen year-old, the works of the Puritan John Owen—and the evangelical world has not been the same since.

At the time of this discovery, Packer would later relate his life “was all over the place” emotionally and thus “God used [Owen] to save my sanity.” More than just sorting out Packer, his literal “recovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom and abroad.

From this discovery, Packer would later help recover a more faithful understanding of Puritanism. He summarizes “the Puritanism of history” well in A Grief Sanctified (2002), “It was, rather, a holistic renewal movement within English-speaking Protestantism, which aimed to bring all life—personal, ecclesiastical, political, social, commercial; family life, business life, professional life—under the didactic authority and the purging and regenerating power of God in the gospel to the fullest extent possible.” [2]

Even more, Packer would spend a lifetime underscoring how the Puritans of the past can help Evangelicals of the present. As one example, Packer explains how reading the Puritans can correct the hyper-individualism and anti-thinking perspective that pervades Evangelicalism. In A Quest for Godliness (1990), Packer offers that the Puritans have these seven points of wisdom for present day Evangelicals:

  1. The stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial.
  2. The insistence on the primacy of the mind, and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood.
  3. The demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgment that the Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give thrills but to create in us Christlike character.
  4. The recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness.
  5. The singling out of worship as life’s primary activity.
  6. The stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set by Psalm 139:23-24.
  7. The realisation that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace. [3]

One could argue, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, his tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared—not to mention the republishing of the Works of John Owen themselves as well as many other volumes in the Puritan canon readily available today. [4]

Even more, Packer’s discovery in Oxford proved vital for helping Evangelicals strengthen their theological foundation, and still is helping. May a new generation continue to follow Packer to make new discoveries like his of their own.

At Midwestern Seminary, we currently have several PhD students reading and writing on the Puritans and Puritan influence. From John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jeremiah Burroughs, to the Puritan influence on the English Baptists, Jonathan Edwards and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and then also, of course, the influence of the Puritans on Charles Spurgeon, explored uniquely through his Puritan collection in The Spurgeon Library.

In brief, if you are interested in the Puritans and their legacy, continue the discovery work of J. I. Packer by coming to study them with us at Midwestern.

[1] The location where this took place is North Gate Hall, St Michael’s St, Oxford OX1 2DU, UK

[2] J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified (Crossway, 2002), 19.

[3] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway, 1990, 2010), 31.

[4] Leland Ryken, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), 265-267. This key event in Packer’s life is also told in Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker, 1998).

The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In 1943, C. S. Lewis gave three lectures in Durham later published in one volume as The Abolition of Man. [1] The first of these lectures he titled “Men Without Chests,” aimed as a critique of a recent volume that argued for the subjective nature of meaning in a book for school children. [2] The authors of that book, Lewis summarized, likely were attempting to “fortify the minds of young people against emotion.” [3]

However, Lewis countered, the challenge of the day for young people is not restraining or starving them of emotion, but rather awakening it and directing it toward what is just and true. The authors of the children’s book, Lewis concludes, are trying to build the intellect, but carve out the heart. In the end, what they create are men with minds but no heart. Men with intellect, but without chests, and yet we “expect of them virtue and enterprise.” Herein Lewis posits his corrective, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” [4]

For the theological educator, the task is no different. In the twenty-first century there are jungles of competing worldviews, arguments, and approaches to theological education. In as much as the theological educator attempts only to cut these down as an intellectual exercise apart from understanding how theological instruction is a matter of the heart, he is only cutting that which will grow back. The question to ask, rather, is how should the theological educator irrigate the dry hearts of his students and stir their affections to that which is just and true?

In a recent article published in Permanent Things, I give a long-form presentation on the two ways I think theological educators can answer this question: that is by serving as shepherds and sherpas. What follows is the second half of that essay.

The Theological Educator as Sherpa

In Kathmandu, Kami Rita owns the record for scaling Mt. Everest at 22 times.[5] Rita is a climbing Sherpa employed by elite mountain climbers to aid them in their ascent of the world’s most treacherous peaks. Growing up in a village near the base of Mt. Everest, Rita and his siblings learned early the trade of guiding and surviving the feats that many often start but do not complete. The task of the theological educator in caring for and leading students to survive the feat of their educational goals mirrors the task of a climbing Sherpa in several ways.

The Invisible Sherpa Who Serves and Points

The theological educator cares best for his students when he adopts the lowly posture of a Sherpa. With this identity in mind, the educator can serve without conceding any ounce of experience or rank. The Sherpa, as the result of his years of experience, is the best one fit to serve. Just as the Sherpa comes alongside his clients and helps organize, direct, assemble, and lead, the theological educator does the same for students. The Sherpa is not a drill instructor or dictator leading by bravado or instilling fear in his clients, rather he educates and serves (Mark 10:45).

One of the prime ways the theological educator, in and out of the classroom, has the opportunity to serve students as a Sherpa is by taking time with them and by making time for them. Often this is as simple as modeling patience and understanding with any question asked in class or in public. When students see that even the most mundane of questions are taken with seriousness and without smirk in public, they are more willing to ask their vital questions in private. The theological educator serves students well when the student feels and knows they have an audience and a sincere ear in their professor and are not a burden or waste of time.

In my classes, I make a point early in the term to let students know that their questions and interests are not only a high priority for me, but also something I enjoy and value. As many are aware I have a full schedule of meetings and faculty concerns, sometimes they shy away from approaching me. I work to preclude this conclusion by telling them that time with students for me is like an intravenous reviving of my calling and outlook in the midst of several other tasks and meetings. I try to convey that I need them to approach me and ask me questions as a help for balance in my life.

Related to this, the theological educator can serve and assist his students well by working hard to ensure he is communicating often and with clarity to them. Just as clear communication from the Sherpa to those he is assisting is vital for a successful ascent, the theological educator must not assume he is connecting with his students. To put it another way, while relying upon “It says it in the syllabus” might be enough to deflect claims of professorial malpractice, it is not enough if the professor desires to serve and lead students toward growth and development. The theological educator as Sherpa assists students best when he strives to communicate in multiple ways, many venues, and with repetition to ensure that even that one student, who seems to care the least, comes to appreciate the course and subject matter.

In addition to serving, the Sherpa also accomplishes his task with excellence when he does so in a decreasing fashion (John 3:30). When a climbing Sherpa leads his client up the path to take his final few steps to the summit, the climber, in one sense, should be celebrating to the degree that he forgets the Sherpa is even there. He has mastered the mountain, followed the instructions, implemented his training, and accomplished something rare and significant. In the end, yes, the Sherpa assisted him up the mountain, but the climber did the climbing. Perhaps this is most evident in the moment when the climber poses for a photo at the summit. The Sherpa often is the one, as his job, to take the photo, not to be in the photo. For the Sherpa has done this many times before and will soon again lead others to this very point on another trip. For now, it is the climber’s moment and accomplishment.

Such it is for the theological educator who cares for students as a Sherpa. The educator’s posture is that of one who is gladly decreasing in presence and influence with time. As Jim Hunt counsels, the theological educator should think of himself like instructional gravity. “If you think of the qualities of gravity, then you have a fairly good image of what you should do in your position. You help hold things in place so that they do not escape the institutional orbit and you are invisible.” [6] The theological educator serves, assists, prepares, and instructs the students—i.e. holds them together, but it is the students who do the work and who fulfill the requirements for graduating with their degree.

The theological educator, in this sense, should, at some point in the student’s life and career, be forgotten, even while what was taught and given to the student remains. The theological educator’s legacy is not that he is remembered, but that the students have adopted what was taught and are changed by it for the service of others. At graduation, the theological educator should be the one taking the photo for he has done this before and will soon again lead others to that point after another semester.

Yet, though striving for invisibility, the theological educator also cares well as a Sherpa by his pointing. The climbing Sherpa cannot do his job with success if he does not point his client up and down the mountain. Sometimes this pointing involves directing the climber away from danger or leading them to pause with patience while a storm clears. Sometimes this pointing is designed to motivate the climber to persevere or renew his perspective so as not to drift from the task in action or thought. Sometimes the Sherpa points at himself so the climber can see how to climb or what he should do next.

The theological educator who seeks to care for students as a Sherpa should also take care to point in these ways. However, the danger for the instructor is that he can spend too much time pointing at himself. This can be inadvertent, but without care, the theological educator can easily view himself as Auteur and the students as a fan club. Instead, like the Sherpa, the theological educator should point outward most and for a purpose. The theological educator, in this sense, is like a poet, about who C. S. Lewis reminds, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” [7]

The Value of an Experienced Sherpa

The theological educator is able to carry out the task of caring for students as a Sherpa only through the knowledge and wisdom that comes from experience. The climbing Sherpa spends a lifetime learning his trade from others more experienced. He ventures on climbs several times a year throughout his life and, only thereby, does he build up stamina and experience. This discipline, and investment in his craft is what allows him to come to see the most challenging things as routine. The climbing Sherpa is an expert in his field, and this status is something he has earned over time.

Such it should be with the theological educator. Rare should it be that a brilliance alone equals readiness. For even the sharpest of climbing Sherpas are not ready to bear the weight and responsibility of leading a climb without tested and proven experience. The theological educator should welcome mentorship in teaching, writing, serving, and caring for students. His posture should be that of deference to those who have been “climbing” for years. The theological educator is an expert in his field only when he has mastered the content and also spent time teaching, writing, and putting that content into practice.

Further, the climbing Sherpa is seen as a professional only when he matures to the point of no longer seeking the praise of his clients or is enamored by the allure or fame or status. The theological educator as Sherpa, likewise, should not live for the approval of students even while he seeks to serve and assist them. The students need to be led and guided by a professional, not simply a friend who decided to join them for a “climb.” The theological educator as a professional is not impressed by knowledge alone or the fame of another scholar. Rather, over time, he has gained the virtue of discernment that comes only after seeing many other professors and scholars come and go.

The best of climbing Sherpas are marked by their wisdom that comes with creativity and longevity. Sherpas who climb year after year gain knowledge, but also experience. The experience of serving many different clients in a variety of conditions builds a storehouse of wisdom that cannot be taught or purchased. Further, many of the technological advancements that aid mountain climbers today are the direct result of Sherpas providing insight and ideas due to what they have seen and endured. For the experienced Sherpa has endured much, including sometimes, the tragedy of people falling.

The theological educator as Sherpa, too, is rewarded with wisdom that only comes with creativity and longevity. Years of serving and caring for students yields an opportunity for theological educators to grow and improve if they are willing to learn. The longer they serve, the theological educator can help shape the future of his field by sharing what he has learned and how he has adapted over the years to improve his craft. Innovation in instruction, educational delivery methods, and the use of technology, can all benefit from the influence of wisdom from seasoned theological educators. Further, the theological educator with earned wisdom can care for students the most, simply because of what they have seen and heeded. For longevity in serving brings wisdom to aid their students from falling (Jn 16:1).

Read the full article in the latest issue of Permanent Things.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 1944).

[2] Lewis referred to the volume anonymously as The Green Book, but the volume was Alec King and Martin Ketley, The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing (New York: Longmans, Green, 1939). See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2 (Harper Collins, 2004), 561n59.

[3] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 13.

[4] Ibid., 13-14.

[5] “Sherpa guide Kami Rita climbs Everest for record 22nd time” The Guardian, May 16, 2018.

[6] Jim Hunt, “10 Years as a Provost,” Inside Higher Education, August 24, 2009.

[7] C. S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Criticism,” in The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (Oxford University Press, 1939), 11.

The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead — Fall 2019 Chapel Message

In my house, my children have started calling me The Lorax as I like nature, the outdoors, trees, and often lead my children in their direction.

The Lorax, of course, is a famous Dr. Seuss character that speaks in defense of nature (in anapestic tetrameter no less), saying:

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues” [1].

But, the funny thing is, in our world, in so much as trees represent all that God has created, they do have “tongues” or at least they can speak and do speak for themselves. As one example, Psalm 19:1 explains that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

The English poet, John Keats, another Lorax-type, said in a poem reflecting on noise made daily by grasshoppers and crickets in summer and winter, said, “The poetry of earth is never dead” [2].

Indeed, God’s poem of creation speaks, but there is a limit to what creation can say. Yet, if what God created speaks to the world something about God, to what end does it speak, or why? And, most importantly, why does this revelation matter?

In a recent chapel message it was my aim to answer that question, for the answer is more important to living the Christian life than we might think. Using the Apostle Paul’s explanation in Romans 1:18-21, I examined the special value of General Revelation.

Basil of Caesarea (330-379), known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers or “Basil the Great,” said that God has given humanity two books to read. The Bible and “the whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God” [3].

As Christians have studied the Bible and developed theological terminology over the centuries, these two “books” have been classified as general and special revelation.

  • General Revelation is what God has revealed generally in creation about himself, his attributes, and his moral law.
  • Special Revelation is what God has revealed specifically in words about himself, his attributes, the gospel, the way of salvation, and much more in the Bible.

As I walked through Romans 1, the text makes clear that General Revelation has limits and Special Revelation is needed. From what God has revealed in creation, the peoples of the world can know that God exists, that he is holy and mighty, and that they’ve broken his moral law.

But without Special Revelation, they cannot know that he has provided a way for reconciliation, for forgiveness, for the transfer of his own righteousness to them through the substitutionary sacrifice of his own Son, Jesus, through his life, death, burial and resurrection.

Therefore, the special value of General Revelation is that it calls the believer simultaneously to praise God and proclaim God.

To put it another way, we as believers in Christ Jesus are like the Lorax. We are commissioned to go to the ends of the earth and “speak for the trees”—adding to the knowledge revealed to the world in creation by proclaiming the glory of God and the good news of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, until Jesus returns, the poetry of earth is never dead. Yet, the peoples of the earth won’t know Jesus without a preacher (Rom 10:14).

To hear the entire message you can watch this video:


[1] Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (Random House, 1971).

[2] John Keats, “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” (1884).

[3] Hexaemeron, 11.4. See also Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea (Baker, 2014), 37.

Thankfulness Always: Reflections on Five Years as Provost

August 1, 2019 marked my 5th anniversary of service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College. At our annual faculty workshop, President Jason K. Allen asked me to take a few minutes to offer reflections on my time of service, which I’ve reproduced here as a brief essay.

To begin my time of reflection on five years as Provost at Midwestern Seminary, I’d like to start with a brief meditation on thankfulness as I think, as one old liturgy states, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” I’ve organized my thoughts on thankfulness around three simple headings.

First, it is God’s will to be thankful, always.

As the Apostle Paul instructs, believers are to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18).

Today you may find yourself wrestling with contentedness, discerning God’s will, or your present circumstances. You may be limping into the start of the semester. Or, you may be overjoyed with the blessings of God and so enthused that you cannot wait until Monday.

Regardless of where you find yourself today, it is God’s will to be thankful always.

Second, there is a reason to be thankful, always.

Listen to the 17th century Puritan Thomas Watson from his extended work on Romans 8:28:

“See what cause the saints have to be frequent in the work of thanksgiving. In this Christians are defective; though they are much in supplication, yet little in gratulation. The apostle says, ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess 5:18). Why so? Because God makes everything work for our good.

“We thank the physician, though he gives us bitter medicine which makes us sick, because it is to make us well; we thank any man that does us a good turn; and shall we not be thankful to God, who makes everything work for good to us? God loves a thankful Christian.

“Job thanked God when He took all away: ‘The Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21). Many will thank God when He gives; Job thanks Him when He takes away, because he knew God would work good out of it.

“We read of saints with harps in their hands (Rev. 14:2), an emblem of praise. We meet many Christians who have tears in their eyes, and complaints in their mouths; but there are few with their harps in their hands, who praise God in affliction. To be thankful in affliction is a work peculiar to a saint.

“Every bird can sing in spring, but some birds will sing in the dead of winter. Everyone, almost, can be thankful in prosperity, but a true saint can be thankful in adversity. A good Christian will bless God, not only at sun-rise, but at sun-set.” [1]

Because God is good and he does not change, there is a reason to be thankful, to God, for God, always.

Third, thankfulness is key to walking in the Spirit and defeating the evil one, always.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Tolkien shares how the names of weapons the heroes used were so named because they described how they defeated evil. [2] Biblo Baggins names his sword “Sting” after defeating the spiders in Mirkwood. Thorin Oakenshield’s sword is named Orchrist, meaning Goblin-cleaver, and Gandalf’s sword is named Glamdring, meaning Foe-Hammer.

God has given us a similar weapon named Thankfulness that functions with the armor of God to extinguish the flames of the evil one and aids us in putting sin to death.

For example, Paul ends his beautiful teaching of what the believer should “put off” and “put on” in Colossians 3, with the phrase “and be thankful.” He then concludes in verse 17 with the summary admonition, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Therefore, when facing temptation, the believer should go on the offensive and “Set your minds on things that are above” and be thankful. When blessings come, the believer should “give thanks to God” rather than think highly of himself. Or, as is my task today, when thinking back on 5 years, we should start with thankfulness.

My Reflections of Thankfulness

Therefore, it is good and right to give thanks, always. And when thinking about serving five years as Provost, I have a few reflections. But this is more than mere nostalgia. It is a time of intentional thanksgiving and “setting our minds on things above” for offensive warfare against the one that would steal our joy or cloud our minds or distract our hearts. Giving thanks today is a way of taking captive thoughts at the start of the school year for good and God’s glory.

Thus, for five years, I have five general categories for which I am thankful. And as I work through these categories, I invite you to think through the last year or five years or 20 years and think of things for which you are thankful as well. For, in one major sense, I am merely a representative of all of us who have the privilege of serving here at this great school.

  1. People – I am thankful for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the people who make up those churches. I am thankful for our President, Jason K. Allen, from whom I have learned much in five years. I am thankful for our faculty, colleagues, students, and staff. On the horizontal plane of service here on earth, people are more important than anything. I like systems, I like improvements, I like winning, but none of those are made in the image of God. None of those are eternal beings. None of those can love and be loved. I am thankful most for the people I have encountered over the last five years.
  2. Progress – I am thankful for the revitalization, growth, advancement, and goal achievement we have seen here. Those who care to read of the history of institutions will enjoy reading about God’s work at this school in recent years. But more important than that is what the progress represents in terms of Kingdom advancement. I am thankful for the progress and enjoy celebrating wins with the people.
  3. Provision / Providence – I am thankful that through the challenges that have come, God has been faithful to work all things for good. God gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
  4. Protection – I am thankful that God has protected us from catastrophic errors, from foolishness, from sin, from conflict, from the unseen and unknown. Midwestern Seminary is a happy place. It is a human place, to be sure, but I am thankful for how God has protected us.
  5. Pointing – C. S. Lewis said, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.”[3] I am thankful that Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College are places that point for the church and for the kingdom. How refreshing and joyful it is to serve at a place that does not ask the world to “look at us” but rather is consistently saying, “look at that” and the more people follow our pointing the more they love the gospel, love the church, love the kingdom, love the nations and most of all, love God.

Thankfulness always is the way out.

In one of my favorite television shows, an older character tells a younger character, who has been struggling and stumbling, this story to encourage him and remind him he is not alone. He says:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole.

Our guy says, ‘Are you crazy? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'” [4]

Or to summarize in another way from 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

When in doubt or whatever your circumstances, pursue thankfulness, for thankfulness is always God’s will, there is always a reason to be thankful, and it is an effective weapon against the schemes of the evil one. Whether you’ve served here for 5 years, 1 year, 20 years, or one day, remember this:

You can always trust Him and give thanks to Him, for he’s been down here before and He knows the way out.


[1] Thomas Watson, All Things for Good [1653] (Banner of Truth, 2013), 62-63.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter VIII, “Flies and Spiders.”

[3] C. S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Literary Criticism” (1939).

[4] The West Wing, “Noel.”