Don’t You Stir A Step: The First Californian Believer’s Baptism

This week, I am traveling to California for some meetings related to my work at Midwestern Seminary. As I was born in the Golden State, I always enjoy returning there.

In particular, I’ve been interested in the history of Christianity in California, and especially the development of my own Baptist tradition—for such history is not that old.

As I was traveling today, I recalled this short overview I wrote a few years ago that gives a brief account of the start of the Baptists in California and a reflection on how this history can give us hope for the present and future.

In November 1848, Osgood Church Wheeler, serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jersey City, New Jersey attending the regular Minister’s Meeting at the First Baptist Church of New York. While there a messenger from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society pulled him aside and asked him to meet with the Secretary who promptly stated, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.” Wheeler immediately declined having only served in Jersey City for less than a year and despite repeated requests in the coming weeks, maintained his belief that he was not to go.

The Society continued their requests making daily contact for sixteen days. The president of the Society, and current pastor of FBC New York, S. H. Cone, spoke at length to Wheeler attempting to convince him of the greatness of the work and the need for Wheeler to see this as an assignment of personal duty. But then Cone turned and said, “But do you know where you are going my brother? I would rather go as a missionary to China or Cochin-China, than San Francisco. Don’t you stir a step, my brother, unless you are prepared to go to the darkest spot on earth.”

Wheeler recounted, “on the morning of the sixteenth day, after a night of prayer, without sleep, and at the close of an unusually earnest and agonizing season at family devotions, a burden as distinct as that which rolled from the shoulders of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, at the foot of the cross, was removed from my shoulders, and my wife and I arose simultaneously, and without the interchange of a word, both broke out in the song:

To God I am reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child,
I will no longer fear.

An hour later, Wheeler sent word to the Secretary and despite doubts of ability and schedule, found he and his wife on a steamer departing for San Francisco on December 1, 1848.

After enduring great hardship and trials both in the westward journey and in the early months in California, Wheeler managed to establish a place of ministry and worked steadily among the many people who had taken the same path to the west in search of gold. One such individual was Col. Thomas H. Kellam, of Virginia, who arrived in March 1849. As the Religious Herald reported, Kellam, like the prodigal had traveled “in pursuit of the shining dust of the earth,” but in the course of his journey “found the gold tried in the fire, the pearl of great price.” Kellam, in a letter home wrote, “It is my privilege to communicate the intelligence that will be pleasing to you and to all my friends who love the Savior. I now thank my Heavenly Father I am able to inform you I have found peace in Jesus, and have all confidence in Him, that he is able to save me.”

Wheeler recounted that Kellam’s first task upon arrival in San Francisco was to find the missionary and request baptism and membership with the church—as he was well acquainted with the Baptists and desired to identify with them. Wheeler brought him before the church and after hearing his experience, the church voted to bring him as a candidate for baptism.

Wheeler presented the events of Kellam’s baptism:

“On the following Sabbath morning—it was the 21st of October, 1849, one of those lovely mornings that characterize San Francisco climate in autumn; clear, still, warm and cheerful to the fullest extent, we assembled at our humble sanctuary, on the north side of Washington street, one door east of Stockton.

“We had such a congregation as perhaps never assembled at any other time or place. The other churches in the city suspended their morning service. Their pastors with their officers and the body of their congregations were present and joined in the procession […]

“We formed with due deference to the rank and standing of our guests, and marched down Stockton street to Union, to Powell, to North Beach, where the water was shallow with sandy bottom. There was no wind that morning, and the water was clear and calm as a pond in the country.

“The whole train, from the church to the beach (about three quarters of a mile), marched with decorum and precision you would expect to see in a platoon of the regular army or nave on dress parade. At the water each department of the long and numerous procession took its assigned position in silence, and gave to all the exercises the most undivided attention.

“Rev. S.H. Willey, of the Presbyterian mission at Monterrey, who had been a fellow passenger with me from New York to that place, was on my left and, at my request, read portions of Scripture and announced they hymn. He was deeply moved, having never before witnessed the ordinance of baptism in the Bible mode, though born, reared and educated in New England and New York. Rev. Mr. Hunt of the Congregational Church was on my right and offered the baptismal prayer […]

When all was ready, the candidate, a noble specimen of man, 6 feet 2 inches tall and finely proportioned, took my hand, and we walked about 100 yards before reaching a depth of water sufficient for the ordinance. While we were thus going ‘down into the water,’ according to previous arrangement, the hymn was announced and the first two stanzas sung by the whole concourse; the last two were ‘coming up out of the water,’ (after the baptism in the scriptural form).

“And such singing I never elsewhere heard. It seemed as though every professional and every layman, every soldier and every marine, every officer and every subordinate, every citizen and every foreigner of the vast throng was suddenly and specially inspired by the holy grandeur and the spiritual significance of the divine ordinance which we were administering, to sing for that once, if never again on this side of heaven, with the fullness of both his spirit and his voice.

“And as we neared the shore and the song rang out the mighty paean of the last stanza, it seemed to evoke responsive strains from before the ‘great white throne,’ which, as they rolled over the battlements of the New Jerusalem, came down to mingle with and sanctify our best efforts to ‘Magnify the Lord’ in songs and praise to the Great Jehovah.

“The hymn was that inimitable effusion, written by Dr. Adoniram Judson, to be sung at the first baptism in the Burman Empire, at the beautiful pond on the bank of the Irrawaddi, at Rangoon, June 27, 1819, reading as follows:

“Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine
On these baptismal waters shine,
And teach our hearts, in highest strain
To praise the Lamb for sinners slain

“We love Thy name, we love Thy laws
And joyfully embrace Thy cause;
We love Thy cross, the shame, the pain
Oh, Lamb of God, for sinners slain.

“We plunge beneath Thy mystic flood,
Oh, plunge us in Thy cleansing blood;
We die to sin, and seek a grave
With Thee, beneath the yielding waves.

“And as we rise, with Thee to live,
O, let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The breath of life, the first of love.”

Thus, on October 21, 1849, in the bay of San Francisco, Thomas H. Kellam was the first to undergo believer’s baptism on that coast of the Pacific.

Since that day, testimonies arising from scores of churches all over the Golden State represent the Kingdom fruit of the gospel sown over the last 170 years. And yet, like a small pebble thrown into a large lake, this legacy began when O. C. Wheeler responded to the call of, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.”

Today, I pray and wonder whether God might continue to expand his Kingdom through a similar call to many other willing missionaries like Wheeler. For cities like Toyko and Dhaka, or for nations like North Korea or Somalia, men and women are needed who won’t “stir a step” unless they are prepared to go to the spiritually darkest spots on earth.

If our Lord delays his return, perhaps in 170 years there will be another O. C. Wheeler seeing the first baptism from the unreached peoples coming to Christ in some of these cities and nations.

While to our minds and hearts that might seem like an insurmountable task, as I walk daily among some of the brightest gospel-minded college and seminary students this nation has seen in generations, I can joyfully say this is my eager expectation and hope (Phil 1:20).

Adapted from O. C. Wheeler, The Story of the Early Baptist History in California (California Baptist Historical Society, 1888)

The Picture of Hope in Suffering

The year 2016 marked the centennial anniversary of America’s National Park Service. In celebration of the anniversary, a particular issue of National Geographic contained some amazing photos of several parks—as only National Geographic can capture.

Now, I pride myself on having a Jed Bartlet-like appreciation for the national parks, so when I looked at these photos, I was captivated. They were unlike anything I had seen. In a single image, you could see both day and night, shadow and light, sun and moon. The photographer, for hours at time, took thousands of pictures, and with the aid of technology, “compressed the best parts into a single photograph.” The result is a massive and sweeping image comprised of thousands of smaller photos.[i]

Yet, the more I looked, the less certain I was that I liked it. For these photos are attempts at seeing what is not meant to be seen—a full day all at once. The scenery was beautiful, yet odd. It was unnatural. Frankly, it wasn’t real.

When we face trials for which we don’t know the outcome or don’t understand the purpose, and struggle with wanting to know all the answers at once, it is like we are wanting to see a full photo of the end and the beginning, in one frame.

But were we to see such, I think we would be disappointed. It likely wouldn’t make sense, for it is neither real nor what God intends. God, in his kindness and wisdom and mercy, uses trials and hidden things to draw us closer to himself, and even when we can’t understand the outcome or the purpose, joy is revealed in the process.

In his first letter to his exiled and suffering readers undergoing trials, the Apostle Peter reminds that these trials are only “for a little while” (1 Peter 1:6-9). This is not Peter’s attempt to minimize them or belittle the pain and challenges they produce, but to offer another bolster of hope that even the longest of trials will, in fact, end.

Trials and sufferings are a part of a post-Genesis 3 world. They were not what God intended when he created the world. Whether the result of sin, physical malady, or material loss, trials and sufferings do not escape the believer in Christ (Jn 16:33) and, indeed, can serve as painful instruments of the evil one.

As we behold and experience the trials that are a shared burden in this world, believers often understandably question why God allows such to happen. Even though God, in his faithfulness and wisdom, may never allow his children to have the full understanding of why he permits suffering, Peter’s words here give a great deal of insight and help.

Trials, of all kinds, test our faith in crucible-like ways—ways that will show the greatness and goodness of God and result in our greater praise to him. This is, in part, because he endures the trials with us. The living hope we have of Christ himself within us is even better than the appearance of an additional man alongside Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace (Dan 3:25).

Through Christ, in every trial we have a shield of faith “with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). When we are tempted, God is faithful and “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” but will provide a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13).

Often the way to rejoicing is the way of weakness through suffering, and a powerful New Testament portrait of this is the life of the Apostle Paul revealed in 2 Corinthians. As J. I. Packer explains in is marvelous book, Weakness is the Way, the testimony Paul gives shows “Pain and exhaustion, with ridicule and contempt, all to the nth degree; a tortured state that would drive any ordinary person to long for death, when it would all be over. But, says Paul, Christ’s messengers are sustained, energized, and empowered, despite these external weakening factors, by a process of daily renewal within.”[ii]

Paul begins 2 Corinthians declaring that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). From this reliance comes “good courage” (2 Cor 5:6) and the ultimate lesson that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Packer writes Weakness is the Way from personal experience. He has lived a life of “physical and cognitive weakness” due to a head injury as a child. Yet, Packer’s early learning to rely on divine strength has sustained him. Writing in his eighth decade, after recovering from hip replacement surgery, he shares of his growing “acquaintance with Satan’s skill in generating gloom and discouragement.” Yet, in these years, he reveals, “[m]y appreciation of 2 Corinthians has also grown as I have brooded on the fact that Paul had been there before me …. The whole letter is an awesome display of unquenchable love and unconquerable hope.”

Even if we could see a National Geographic photo of our lives that shows the end and purpose of our suffering, I don’t think we would understand or like what we saw. Instead, by looking at the true Picture, Christ Jesus, while undergoing trials, both Paul and Packer show us the better way of endurance and the source of hope.


This article is an adaption from Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism now available from B&H Books.

Mere Hope
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and LifeWay from B&H Books. 


[i] Patricia Edmonds, “Photography That Layers Time,” National Geographic 229:1 (Jan 2016): 144.

[ii] J. I. Packer, Weakness is the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 99-101.

Reading Slowly to See Heaven on Earth

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.

–C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Jonathan Edwards‘s fifteenth and final sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 is often overlooked, but is remarkable and evergreen. Compilers of his works note that “Heaven Is A World of Love” rivals “Sinners In A Hand of Angry God” as a second masterpiece in imagery, poetry, and rhetoric. [1]

I’ve been reading this masterpiece slowly since this summer. Part of this is because I do not read fast, but mostly because Edwards is often read best at slower rate.

I first learned I benefited from reading Edwards this way while in college when I was given this copy of his “The End for Which God Created the World,” and read it one summer, paragraph by paragraph, each morning before I went to work.

Reading Edwards this way, at first, is hard. It is like a novice visiting to the Smithsonian and completing a tour of each gallery in record time while the experts have barely left one room, or even one painting. When you slow-read Edwards, you have time to see the masterpiece take shape–the poetry and the brilliance that is there but seen only after a long gaze. This time spent forges a bond with the work that eventually brings a smile, or tears, but always joy.

This is why I have never quite understood the maxim that New England theologians were “so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good.” Quite the opposite, Edwards shows that extended meditation on heaven can provide much stability and sanity to those on earth for good living.

To give just a glimpse of what I’ve seen and savored in my reading so far, here is a brief summary of the start of “Heaven as a World of Love.” [2]

Edwards begins by focusing on the state of the church in heaven. He acknowledges that the church on earth is imperfect and in a child-like state. Once in heaven, by contrast, the church is perfected and in a state of adulthood.

In heaven, while other gifts end, such as faith and hope, love remains, and then and there, “the Holy Spirit shall more perfectly and abundantly be given to the church than it now is.” [3]  This fountain of love from the Holy Spirit is the object of his sermon in six sections.

Here is one of those:

“Heaven is the palace, or presence-chamber, of the Supreme Being who is both the cause and source of all holy love. God, indeed, with respect to his essence is everywhere. He fills heaven and earth. But yet he is said on some accounts more especially to be in some places rather than others.

“He was said of old to dwell in the land of Israel above all other lands, and in Jerusalem above all other cities in that land, and in the temple above all other houses in that city, and in the holy of holies above all other apartments in that temple, and on the mercy seat over the ark above all other places in the holy of holies. But heaven is his dwelling place above all other places in the universe.

“Those places in which he was said to dwell of old were all but types of this. Heaven is a part of the creation which God has built for this end, to be the place of his glorious presence. And it is his abode forever. Here he will dwell and gloriously manifest himself to eternity. And this renders heaven a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven fills heaven with love, as the sun placed in the midst of the hemisphere in a clear day fills the world with light.

“The Apostle tells us that God is love, 1 John 4:8. And therefore seeing he is an infinite Being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love. Seeing he is an all-sufficient Being, it follows that he is a full and overflowing and an inexhaustible fountain of love.

“Seeing he is an unchangeable and eternal Being, he is an unchangeable and eternal source of love. There even in heaven dwells that God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is or ever was proceeds.

“There dwells God the Father, and so the Son, who are united in infinitely dear and incomprehensible mutual love. There dwells God the Father, who is the Father of mercies, and so the Father of love, who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life [John 3:16].

“There dwells Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the Prince of peace and love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for it. There dwells the Mediator, by whom all God’s love is expressed to the saints, by whom the fruits of it have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all the church. There Christ dwells in both his natures, his human and divine, sitting with the Father in the same throne.

“There is the Holy Spirit, the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the church [cf. Romans 5:5].

“There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love.” [4]

While believers on earth are right to focus on serving in local churches to guard and proclaim the gospel and carry that good news to the ends of the earth, we are helped in that ongoing, though temporal, task by focusing on what will become of the church in heaven. Indeed, we are most effective in our work on earth when we keep heaven in view for there the church will be perfect and with God, for God is love (1 Jn 4:8).

C. S. Lewis remarked, “Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” When I feel ineffective, I am helped by a slow read of Edwards, and benefit from his redirecting my gaze toward the Bible and to God in heaven.

Most days, I don’t get farther than a paragraph or a “single painting” in the Edwards gallery. Yet, that gaze leads to a heavenly mindedness that gives much for earthly good.


For more on reading Edwards slowly on a daily basis see the new 365 day Edwards devotional by Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands (Tyndale Momentum, 2018).

[1] Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 61n7

[2] “Charity and Its Fruits: Sermon Fifteen, Heaven Is A World of Love,” Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 366-397.

[3] WJE 8:368

[4] WJE 8:369-370.



Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?

This week I am attending the annual meeting of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where I serve as a Research Fellow. We are led by the capable Andrew T. Walker who directs our work for the purpose of bringing together Southern Baptist thinkers from across a wide array of disciplines to think critically about issues facing Southern Baptists and, more broadly, evangelicals. This year we are meeting in Dallas, Texas to discuss issues related to the intersection between Baptist Identity and Public Witness.

Over two days, we are hearing nine fellows present papers on diverse topics related to this year’s theme. Each presentation is followed by a prepared response from another fellow who then moderates a time of discussion. I was asked to respond to a fine paper given by Matthew Y. Emerson on the topic, “Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?”

Here is a condensed version of my response:

A Response of “Yes! And …” not “No! But …”

Is there a Baptist contribution to political theology? Matthew Emerson identifies a tradition among Baptists of affirming “God’s ordination of government, religious liberty, and dissent,” as contributions to political theology. I agree with this description. I have overall appreciation for Emerson’s paper and even more, filled with admiration, for the task of developing a commentary on a Baptist political theology, given the space constraints, is not a small task, yet Emerson was up to it and has served us well.

If you are familiar with that great animation show of the 1980s, Voltron, then you will understand when I say that I see my response here more as my joining forces with Emerson as a fellow pilot of a “Baptist Tradition” robot lion of sorts, in a collaborative effort, rather than as a critic. To put it another way, this is a response of “Yes! And …,” rather than a response of “No! But …”

The answer to this session’s question is not whether Baptists contribute to political theology,[1] for they have and do throughout their history. The issue is what kind of contribution have they made? Baptists, much like in all areas of their relationship to the Christian tradition, have made helpful and unhelpful contributions.

Emerson has done well to shine light on the way the Early English Baptists[2] contributed in a helpful way, and, time permitting, he could have explored how Baptists from other eras and regions contributed in similar helpful ways.[3]

Yet, we could also explore the ways Baptists have made unhelpful contributions—the fringe-anarchist Anabaptists, the hyper-Calvinist Baptists, the pro-slavery Baptists, the down-grade Baptists, the Primitive Baptists, the Landmark Baptists, the liberal and post-liberal Baptists, the Social Gospel Baptists, the Fundamentalist Baptists, the Ecumenical Baptists, the anti-Evangelical Baptists, the Westboro Baptists, and, even, at times, Southern Baptists.  All of these, for the most part, would espouse a similar commitment to religious liberty and the relationship of a Christian to the government, but this shared affirmation did not impact the other ways they each contributed, or continue to contribute, unhelpfully to the public square, other churches, or their neighbors.[4]

In 1994, L. Russ Bush, academic dean of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society, gave a helpful reminder: “We are living and making the history of the future. What we teach and do today will be what future Christians consider to be their heritage.”

Therefore, since this is a Voltron-like response of joining forces for good, I want to focus on how Baptists of today can make helpful contributions to political theology, for what we teach and do today will be what future Baptists consider to be their heritage.

How can Baptists make helpful contributions to political theology while continuing to advocate for religious liberty and the like? I add to Emerson’s work with three brief suggestions framed in terms of relationship.

[1] The relationship of ecclesiology to political theology or “When Baptists act like Baptists”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like the best of their forebears in terms of their understanding and cultivation of a biblical ecclesiology. Yes, as Emerson notes, the Baptist development of ecclesiology often was born out of a desire to dissent from the state, and that remains one contribution of Baptists. But there is more in terms of what a healthy ecclesiology can bring to bear on the public square.

What I do not mean is that ecclesiology is the ultimate doctrine. As nineteenth century Baptist theologian, J. L. Dagg said, “Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart.”[5] Rather, a care for ecclesiology allows a tradition to care for the gospel and to provide a habitat for fellowship.

First, Jonathan Leeman helpfully describes the relationship between church and state as “set on a landscape where politics and religion are wholly coterminous, like two circle lenses placed perfectly on top of one another. The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods. And the church is a political institution inhabited by citizens of heaven who bear a distinctively political message: Jesus is king …. [T]he church’s most powerful political activity is being the church and proclaiming its unique message.”[6] For when Paul writes to Timothy to instruct him in “how one ought to behave in the household of God,” Paul describes the local church as the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Second, Matthew Lee Anderson notes that another way ecclesiology can shape political theology is by connecting the shared experience of believers who are also citizens. He explains, “the church’s life together is the soil from which political theology springs, for the questions posed by living together make us attentive to the many ways in which our communal experience shaped our knowledge of God.” Therefore, “[a] greater emphasis on communal life would go a long way toward closing the unfortunate gap between politics and theology.”[7]

[2] The relationship of other doctrines to political theology or “When Baptists act like Roman Catholics and Presbyterians”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like Roman Catholics and Presbyterians in terms of a renewed priority of the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of man.

Often Baptists have been content to accept a separationism of doctrines in their history. While orthodox in terms of their doctrines of God and man throughout their confessions of faith, at times they have sought to reinterpret them when it came toward the application of those doctrines on matters of social concern—particularly on slavery in the nineteenth century and civil rights and the pro-life movement for much of the twentieth century.  Yet, as the Evangelical (and Baptist) theologian Carl F. H. Henry noted, “Christians are less than faithful to Christ’s lordship over all political concerns if they imply that no moral choices flow from Christ’s lordship in matters of political decision.”[8]

Baptists can learn from Roman Catholics given their longstanding commitment to religious liberty, the dignity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life, as well as the Presbyterian articulation of common grace and providence—all of which is rooted in a developed doctrine of God and doctrine of man.[9]  While perhaps Baptists would formulate some of these doctrines differently or arrive at different conclusions, Baptists could contribute more to political theology with a more developed theology proper and anthropology.

[3] The relationship of the Kingdom to political theology or “When Baptists act like Jesus”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like Jesus and focus most on the coming Kingdom.[10]

Jesus modeled petition to God the Father by praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). As Baptists live in the already/not yet of the Kingdom, they can provide helpful contributions to public theology when they pray and live this way.[11]

One day soon, “every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10) and there will be no more public square. The Kingdom of God will reign on earth as it has in heaven. All of this will take place “to the glory of God the Father.” Until then, each day is a day of grace and a day of salvation where God, in his patience, tolerates a world that worships things created by humans and other futile systems and philosophies. Yet, whoever bows in their heart now (Rom 10:9-10) that Jesus is Lord will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).[12]

When Baptists keep this reality front and center, they can contribute to political theology in a way that is eternally (not just temporally) effective. Carl Henry modeled well this balance, “We are not enjoined to try to turn [the] state into a Christian government. But by its evangelistic task in society the church seeks to stimulate human beings voluntarily to recover the whole moral content of divine revelation and to inform humanity’s conscience according to God’s transcendent absolutes …. As churches proclaim a gospel calling for personal decision they can legitimately also, as a part of their evangelistic objective, attempt to win the nation for Christ.”[13]

The history of the future of Baptist contributions

Is there a Baptist contribution to political theology? Yes, though in the past there have been both helpful and unhelpful contributions. What matters most is what kind of contributions are Baptists today making and to what end?

As Timothy George said, “Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives … but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve.”[14]


[1] In terms of a definition of political theology, Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theory (Cambridge, 1996), 4, states “The modern use of the term ‘political theology’ is generally held to being with the Politische Theologie of Carl Schmitt (1922) …. It should not be restricted to programmes which, like the majority of contemporary essays, conceive theologico-political discourse as critical, even subversive, of other political discourses. Civil religion, too, counts as part of the genre, as well as those attempts, of which this is one, to combine critical and constructive elements …. The term is, however, overextended when it is embraced by an approach to theology which has no interest in political questions as such, but merely professes an ecclesial antifoundationalism, the political content reduced to the banal reminder that theology must relate to some community of discourse.”

Malcolm Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” in First Freedom (B&H Academic, 2016), 50n2, expands to say that “The very term political theology seems like an oxymoron to the modern mind. The Enlightenment advocated separating politics from theology, and American scholars for the most part adopted that program as part and parcel of separating church and state. The religious contributions in history to the public square were thereby suppressed. Religion, for atheistic humanist and evangelical Christian alike, became a private matter, and any religio-political discourse brought dire proclamations regarding the betrayal of the Baptist tradition. For instance, with the rise of evangelical involvement in American politics, Billy Moyers decried a conspiracy that would lead to both ‘theocracy’ (the rule of the state by the church) and ‘civil religion’ (the rule of the church by the state).”

[2] For an evaluation of some of the confessions Emerson uses, the Baptist Center for Theology & Ministry has helpful comparative documents for both the key General Baptist and Particular Baptist confessions of faith.

[3] See Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” 49-79, as one example wherein he presents a major and minor tradition among American Baptists: (1) the ‘Virginia tradition’ “emphasizes individual freedom and the separation of church and state,” and (2) the ‘South Carolina tradition’ “emphasizes divine providence, human constitutionalism, and social order in a way that universal religious liberty might be moderated.”

[4] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP, 2016), 14, explains that churches “err in one of two directions. Either they falsely claim to be spiritual, not political, and so fail to take the stands that they should …. Or they convince themselves that political advocacy in the public square is their most important work and distract themselves from their primary mission: being the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” in The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society (Multnomah, 1984), 126, “Political commitments can become readily captive to principles or preferences alien to the church when evangelical movements align themselves uncritically with one specific political party and promote the election or defeat of candidates only on the basis of a highly selective agenda of legislation instead of working through all parties to promote a cluster of logically related commitments.”

Baptists often give our strongest energies, and even more our hope, in advancing whatever perspective of political theology we think best only to wind up like C. S. Lewis’s “ignorant child who wants to go making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea,” in “The Weight of Glory,” Theology, 43 (Nov 1941), published in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses  (HarperOne, 2001), 25.

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

[6] Leeman, Political Church, 14, continues, “The church wields the keys of the kingdom in order to speak for heaven on earth by affirming the what and the who of the gospel. And the church’s life is held together by justification by faith alone, the most powerful political force in the world today for flattening hierarchies and uniting one-time enemies.” See also his explanation of the local church as an “embassy on the international map,” 374-385.

[7] Matthew Lee Anderson, “Can there be an Evangelical Political Theology?,” Comment Magazine (Fall 2012). There is much more to explore here, and I commend Leeman’s Political Church as a good place to start.

[8] Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” 126-127.

[9] Anderson, “Can there be an Evangelical Political Theology?”  notes that the Reformed tradition has contributed “much of the best evangelical political theology” due to its long tradition of moral theology, “emphasis on common grace, and the doctrine of creation.” He notes the work of Richard Mouw, Count Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jonathan Chaplin, and Francis Schaeffer as examples. See also The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, November 20, 2009, and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, “In Defense of Religious Freedom (2012),” in Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty, ed. Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino (Brazos, 2015), 137.  See also “Respect For the Human Person,” Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[10] Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” 79, “The solipsism that accompanies undue emphasis on freedom and the tyranny that accompanies undue emphasis on social order stand over American Christian political theology as warnings against any hope in purely human constitutions. Rather, we expectantly hope for the eschatological perfection that will only come with the gracious return of our King Jesus.”

[11] For a further expansion of this idea see O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, 3, “A theologian who begins with the political discourse of the Kingdom of God will prove bona fides by demonstrating how it illumines the topics that responsible theology attends to: repentance and forgiveness, the Incarnation, the sharing of the life of Godhead in the Spirit, justification and adoption, creation and the renewal of the world, the life of the Church and its ministry of word and sacrament.”

[12] Portions of this paragraph are adaptions from Jason G. Duesing, “The End of Religious Liberty,” in First Freedom, 255-256.

[13] Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” 123-124.

[14] Timothy George, “Why I am an Evangelical and a Baptist,” in Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Why We Belong (Crossway, 2013), 109.

Take Heart, Even Edwards Needed to Finish His Theological Education

At Midwestern Seminary & Spurgeon College, where I serve, we regularly underscore our conviction that the call to ministry is a call to prepare.

Just this week we hosted a group of prospective students for our Preview Day event held in conjunction with our annual For the Church Conference.  During a lunch session, my colleagues and I were asked what advice would you give to someone considering further studies?

My answer: Start as soon as you can.

Here is what I mean:

Formal academic training is not a requirement for ministry or necessarily even a barometer to guarantee a certain level of genuine godliness or qualified fitness. However, to have 3-4 years to learn from professors and work out one’s understanding of foundational beliefs is not only a helpful blessing for many toward a long-term ministry of faithfulness, it is also often a form of what I call “structured discipleship” that many of us need before we are in a position of regularly leading others.

This is especially true at the undergraduate level and frequently is true at the graduate level.

Before or during their theological education, students usually reach a point of wanting to focus solely on serving and to finish their degree later. This hurried spirit is often noble and motivated by God-given zeal but usually is short sighted.

With some regularity I meet people seasoned in ministry who tell me how much they regret not staying for more training or who had every intention of finishing their degree but have never found the time. The same can be said for those who always desired to pursue a terminal degree but have concluded, due to good and godly circumstances, that is no longer a feasible dream.

However, due to the developments and improvements of online studies over the last decade, as well as creative partnerships with a network of local churches, there is now no real reason why someone who wants to start or finish their theological education, can not do so as soon as possible. For those who dream one day of starting doctoral studies, the reality is that due to innovative modular seminar formats, that day is here.

To be sure, though an enjoyable and memorable time, seeing a degree through to the end is not easy. The rigors of theological education combined with a growing family, a job and local church service can stretch and strain even the most resilient among us. But as hard as it may seem, there is good and joy that comes through the stretching … and the finishing.

Here is one example and encouragement from a key theologian.

While reading through materials related to Jonathan Edwards for my brief book Seven Summits in Church History, I came across this portion in Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards that serves as a great reminder to all those currently in a preparation season for ministry. Murray relates:

“The choice, then, before Edwards in 1723 was between taking up a pastorate and the spiritual work which he had so greatly enjoyed in New York, or responding to the need at Yale with the prospect of wider studies which a Yale tutorship would provide. The fact that he went as far as formally to accept the call to Bolton, only to withdraw from it, is proof enough that the decision was not an easy one.

“As we shall see, the three years now before him were not among those which he regarded as his happiest, yet the additional discipline involved was to contribute largely to his future usefulness.

“The comment of Samuel Miller on Edwards’ decision to return to Yale is worthy of repetition:

Many a young man since, as well as before his time, of narrow views and crude knowledge, has rushed into the pastoral office with scarcely any of that furniture which enables the shepherd of souls ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’; but Jonathan Edwards, with a mind of superior grasp and penetration, and with attainments already greater than common, did not think three full years of diligent professional study enough to prepare him for this arduous charge, until, after his collegiate graduation, he had devoted six years to close and appropriate study.“[1]

As I tell students, if God has given you the opportunity and ability to give time to formal study and theological preparation, he has given you access to “that furniture which enables the shepherd of souls ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’” —something the majority of ministers in the world will never have.

Like Jonathan Edwards, the question is one of stewardship in sacrificing now so as to be able to enjoy and see maximal fruitfulness for the Kingdom in the years to come.

If Edwards felt he needed to finish formal theological education, do you? The call to ministry is a call to prepare, and there is no better time to start than now.

[1] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1987), 56.


“Born Again”–First A Verb Before An Adjective

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1:3)

In the various expressions of contemporary evangelicalism it is often easy to forget that the phrase “born again” is a biblical phrase, employed a verb, not an adjective.

The Apostle Peter uses it in 1 Peter 1:3 and his phrasing brings to mind the meeting Jesus had with a Pharisee by the cover of night (John 3). In John’s Gospel, we learn that a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus came to Jesus to affirm that Jesus knew that he—as a religious leader—he understood Jesus was a teacher sent by God.

Jesus responded with a statement that only could evoke a question from Nicodemus, rather than more statements. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Not yet seeing with kingdom eyes, Nicodemus asked two practical and earthly questions about this idea of a second birth: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

Jesus responded to explain how one can experience birth twice, but that proved enigmatic for the Pharisee, who only could reply, “How can these things be?” (Jn 3:1-9).

Yet, Peter and his readers know the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through him we, too, can experience a new birth.[i]

The idea that God has “caused us to be born again” is summarized by the helpful theological term “regeneration.” While most commonly used to refer to the biblical doctrine related to how one is redeemed and given new life, regeneration is also a biblical word used in Titus 3:5, “[God] saved us … by the washing of regeneration.”[ii]

The confessional statement of my convention of local churches defines regeneration like this:

“Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”[iii]

Two summary statements are in order to allow us to understand and appreciate exactly for what Peter is praising God with this phrase in 1 Peter 1:3.

1. God is the initiator and author of regeneration.

John 1:13 states that children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Ephesians 2:5 reminds us that we were dead in sin, but God made us alive. For the Holy Spirit gives life (Jn 6:63; 2 Cor 3:6) and regenerates (Titus 3:5). Our birth, whether first or second, is not something we control.

2. There is mystery in how God regenerates due to our finite and fallen nature.

Throughout the Bible and in our own experience we see that people trust Christ for salvation when (1) the gospel is preached, (2) the gospel is heard, and (3) faith is expressed.

In several instances, people are commanded to believe:

  • Jesus says “do this, and you will live” (Lk 10:28) and indicates that “whoever believes” will have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
  • Paul explains that if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart, “you will be saved” (Rom 10:9), and implores men to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
  • Finally, Hebrews 7:25 explains that Jesus saves those who “draw near to God through him.”

At the same time, the Bible conveys that God is at work in all of those instances. We see that God opens hearts (Ac 16:14), uses preaching (1 Pt 1:12; Rom 10), and makes one alive (Col 2:13).

In all, therefore, there is great mystery, which is why another one of Jesus’s statements to Nicodemus is fitting and helpful. He states that everyone born again by the Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wishes … but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8).

In sum, as we marvel at the goodness of God to “cause us to be born again” it is best to understand regeneration and faith working both simultaneously and instantaneously.

“Born Again” is first a verb before it is an adjective. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[i] Peter uses the phrase “born again” in 1:23 as well. For a wonderful exploration of the gospel along the lines of this definition, see Jared C. Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 21 and following.

[ii] For a helpful introduction see Matthew Barrett, What is Regeneration? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013).

[iii] “Article IV. Salvation,” The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000.

This article is an adaption from Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism now available from B&H Books.

Mere Hope
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and LifeWay from B&H Books. 






Is this a dream? No, it’s worse … and better – Fall 2018 Chapel Message

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended)
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear.

–Puck’s Epilogue, A Midsummer’s Night Dream

It was only a dream.

This is how Shakespeare decided to reconcile the chaos he created in the wonderfully entertaining tale of a different kind of star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

In his play, devious fairies deceive and manipulate a cast of would-be spouses causing confusion and mayhem—and the tumult is what makes this a comedy. Just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. With so much upheaval, the reader wonders how, of if ever, restoration of order will occur.

In the end, order does come, but not through careful exposition or reconciliation, but rather through Shakespeare pressing a literary reset button—it was all just a dream.

In our day, we watch as our culture disintegrates with the latest “breaking news” update, the questioning of all societal norms, and just general confusion and hysteria. We grieve with the revelations of the latest failings of our leaders, both political and within the churches—in other traditions, and yes, even our own.

Things are happening at such a rate that we do not recognize the world any more. We don’t feel safe. We don’t know what kind of world or churches or even what kind of Southern Baptist Convention our children or grandchildren will inherit.

What is more, we know that this tumult doesn’t come with any Shakepearean reset button. We may hope and wish that it is all just a dream. But hoping in dreams is always misplaced.

For before tumult, cultural disintegration, presidential drama, the sins of church leaders, denominational generational change, God is and was the same (Heb 13:8). He does not change (Jam 1:17). God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Ps 46:1).

Is this a dream? No, it’s actually worse … and better. Psalm 73 shows us why.

There we are given a autobiographical journey in to the mind of the Psalmist as he persevered through a time of despair and temptation—and time when he, no doubt, wished all he experienced was a dream.

In chapel this week at Midwestern Seminary & Spurgeon College, I preached from Psalm 73 to explore:

  • The Psalmist’s Purpose, vs 1
  • The Psalmist’s Temptation, vs 2-15
  • The Psalmist’s Rescue, vs 16-28

We live in dark and uncertain days, where Mr. Shakespeare’s literary reset button does not exist. It’s not a dream.

Yes, the world is wrong-side up and our hearts naturally along with it. Without the intersection and intervention of God’s new mercies, both redemptive and restraining, we are desperately sick (Jer 17:9) and prone to wander.

But, as we lament these things—and we should grieve and lament the sin in our lives and in the world–lest we fall to the temptation that God is smaller than the evils in the world, we should also call this to mind:

God has not changed and his mercies are still new every morning even as we await our Blessed Hope, the Lord Jesus, who gave himself to redeem us (Titus 2:13-14). We have a God that is bigger than the world and all that is in it. Believer’s in Christ uniquely and always have this message to share.

Is this all dream? No, it’s far worse … and better.

To hear the entire message you can watch this recording:

Why Every Christian Should Read Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis loved old books. In a short piece he wrote to introduce Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to a modern audience, he admonished that Christians who only read new books are joining “at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight” and “will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” He counseled reading old books to put “the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

What exactly was he after in the old books? Steadiness. Surety. A clear foundation from which to build and critique that which appears novel. Lewis concluded, “The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as [Richard] Baxter called it).” While there are many fine reasons to commend the writing of C. S. Lewis for the modern Christian, perhaps Lewis’s admonishment now applies to his own work—for many would see a book published in 1952 as quite old.

Lewis wrote that phrase “mere Christianity” in 1944, eight years before the publication of his book by the same name. He wrote the book because, in part, during those war years, Lewis was invited to leave the comforts of his books at Oxford University to travel to London and endure potential German barrage to deliver radio addresses on the topic, “What Christians Believe.” Lewis was asked not because of his scholarly credentials, though he had them, but because he was an Anglican layman who converted to Christianity as an adult from atheism. The producers thought he would speak to the common listener.

Clyde Kilby, American preserver of Lewis’s legacy, also saw Lewis as an ally for the ordinary Christian, but not just because of Lewis’s ability to write with clarity. Lewis, Kilby said, is an ally to Christians because he is a Christian. His arguments and assertions of biblical truth do not belong to the world. Lewis “belongs to us.”

However, defining “us” is not easy these days. Tribal factions, debate over how Christians are to relate and try to transform the structures of society, and to what end, have left many defining evangelical Christianity more by what one doesn’t want it to be than the sturdy core to which Lewis calls. A return, then, to a nice, hot bowl of Mere Christianity might just be what the doctor ordered for what ails us.

Lewis did not write to define denominational boundaries. Rather, to a nation wondering whether it would survive a war, he “thought the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

To accomplish this, he explained the various expressions of Christianity as doors opening to rooms off a central hallway. His aim was to bring his readers out into the hall to identify the core of Christianity they all share under one roof.

But this is not to say that Mere Christianity did not point readers to the value of the confines of local churches and traditions. For it “is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

Indeed, the reading of Mere Christianity reveals there is more to the mereness than one might at first think. In four sections, Lewis talked at length about the virtues of Christianity, the value of marriage, the relationship of Christianity to psychology, and an overview of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Further, the way Lewis wrote commends the book to be read and re-read. Not only did he present orthodox Christianity in simple terms, he also encased his presentation in memorable and lasting analogies.

For the former, Lewis famously posited his argument that Jesus Christ “was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.” For the latter, he used sheet music and piano keys to explain the existence of a moral law, on the one hand, and, on the other, compared God to a dentist who cures a single toothache of sin, yes, but also treats the root of the malady in full.

Mere Christianity is not a perfect book. J. R. R. Tolkien, who loved Lewis, did not agree fully with Lewis’s talk about marriage and divorce—and many have found other points of difference. However, the central claims remain worth reading, and many are still reading and re-reading Mere Christianity. Christians should read this book simply because it has been used to shape the lives of thousands.

To wit, as Lewis’s chapter on “The Great Sin” was instrumental to my own early Christian formation as a college student, I recently used social media to ask friends for their Mere Christianity thoughts and experiences. Everyone from my own daughter, to Lewis experts far and wide, to friends in the United Kingdom replied with helpful affirmations of the ongoing value and commendable virtues of Mere Christianity, many of which informed this article.

While Lewis would admonish Christians today to read old books to find the secure foundation of mere Christianity, he would also want them to read old books to propel them forward. In his chapter on hope he said, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next.”

To put the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective, every Christian should read this old book, at the very least, to grow in the knowledge and enjoyment of the timeless One to whom it directs their thoughts.

This article originally appeared at LifeWay Books.

The Phoenix, Mere Hope, and Criticism

Recently, my new book Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism was reviewed at under the title,

“Author’s use of pagan symbol of ‘the phoenix’ taints entire message of book.”

I’d like to provide a brief response to the review, but before I do, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, that anyone would read something I would write is no small thing. That someone would give further time and thought to something I wrote enough to write a review represents even more charity and graciousness, even if they did not like what I wrote.

Second, I am grateful for the review. In the academy where I serve, this type of sparing or critical interaction is the norm—the key is how you go about engaging and responding.[1] Much of what I try to teach my students is how to serve and live as a “careful scholar,” giving care to receive and consider all thoughtful critique. C. S. Lewis said, in his helpful essay “On Criticism,” that one of the ways an author can improve is by “reading the criticism of his own work,” but not blindly or without a foundation to weigh and consider fairly what has been said. [2]

Therefore, to receive any kind of review of Mere Hope is welcomed by me and I am eager to evaluate the substance of what is conveyed and appreciate the time taken by those sharing their thoughts. It is not a perfect book and there are a myriad of ways I could have written it better. Thus, I have something to learn from all those who take time to write a review of it.

To that end, here is a brief reply to the critique that the use of ‘the phoenix’ in Mere Hope taints the entire message of the book.

1. The Phoenix, as a symbol, though mythological, was not always employed as pagan.

Christians used it regularly throughout the first 1,500 years of church history. I explain this in chapter one:

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend—though he clearly thought the creature was real—he described the phoenix as a “an emblem of our resurrection.”[3] Clement was followed by a second century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial “power to slay himself and come to life again” and resurrects from the dead “on the third day.”[4]

These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification.  In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a “complete and unassailable symbol of our hope” in the resurrection.[5] In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though “remote and uncommon,” mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection.[6]

Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real “most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance.”[7] By the Middle Ages the regular use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature,[8] the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope.

2. As to the use of ancient pagan symbols, or other literature, to illustrate Christian truth, I believe these can be redeployed for good.

C. S. Lewis argues, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” that the use of story, or fantastical imagery, is useful “to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness” that keeps us from hearing the “news from a country we have never yet visited.” These symbols do not have, nor are meant to have, the authority of Scripture, Lewis says, but can be helpful to awaken us and put us on the path of searching Scripture.[9]

Further, Lewis also explains the aesthetic value of Christian theology in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when addressing the “confusion between imaginative enjoyment and intellectual assent.” As to the specific use of ancient pagan imagery, Lewis explains,

“We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story–the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. … It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.”[10]

Thus, the use of symbols like the phoenix or even allusions from the writings of Lewis, Tolkien, and yes, Rowling, themselves, are ways, in my view, of awakening the reader and pointing them to Truth and Reality.  Tolkien, in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” puts it this way:

“Probably every writer making a secondary world … hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. … The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, “Is it true?'”[11]

Finally, I am grateful for this particular review of Mere Hope. Though drawing different conclusions, the reviewer did see that I intended for the image of a phoenix to influence and shape the entire book. It is up to other readers to determine whether this “taints” or “illuminates,” but from the phoenix feather on the cover to the last sentence of the book, the employment of this image was intentional. Here’s why:

What I love about the image of a phoenix—and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well—is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. Just as Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” (John 10:17) only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life–through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.

Indeed, as I hope many will be awakened to see when they read Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism, Someone greater than the Phoenix is here (see Matthew 12:41).


[1] I have often been helped and corrected by the late scholar Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.

[2] For a helpful commentary on Lewis’s thoughts see Louis Markos, “Genial Criticism,” in Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, IVP, 2010.

[3] ANF 1:12

[4] “The Phoenix,” in Physiologus cited in Joseph Nigg, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] ANF 3:554. Tertullian mistakenly translates Psalm 92:12 as “The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix” to support his view of the existence of this bird.

[6] NPNF 2 7:135-136.

[7] Micah Mattix, “Birds of Paradise,” in The Weekly Standard, March 20, 2017,

[8] See John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 5:272.

[9] As one contemporary example, read this moving account by Drew Bratcher of how his studying Moby Dick with Marilynne Robinson pointed him to Calvin and Edwards and then back to regular Bible Study.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Socratic Digest, vol. 3, 1945.

[11] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” OUP, 1947.

For further reading, see:

Jason G. Duesing, “Where are the Gentlemen Theologians?,” October 3, 2016.

Colin Duriez, “The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien,” Themelios 23:2.

Jim Hamilton, “J. K. Rowling Tells the Truth . . . In Her Fiction,” July 18, 2017.

C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Oxford, 1941.

Andrew Peterson, “Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me,” July 11, 2011.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C. S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters, Black Squirrel Books, 2018.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, Harper Collins, 2014.

Reader, If You Seek A Monument, Look Around

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice

— Epitaph of Christopher Wren, 1723, St. Paul’s Cathedral

Twelve years after the completion of the beautiful and historic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, it’s architect, Christopher Wren, died. Following the destruction of the Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren played a vital role in designing many of the rebuilt buildings. Much of London today is shaped by his vision and this is seen most prominently in St. Paul’s.

So much so, that when he died he was entombed in the bottom of St. Paul’s and his place marked with a modest plaque. His son, desiring to pay tribute to the lasting mark his father left on the city through his buildings, inscribed the words “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” which, translated, says “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around.”

The idea, clearly, is that Christopher Wren’s lasting legacy is not a statue of his likeness, but rather these iconic and culture transforming structures that serve as the backbone of London architecture.

Just a few miles north of St. Paul’s there is a cemetery that dates to the fourteenth century. It lacks the grandeur of Wren’s masterpiece and, indeed, the precise location of many of those buried there have been lost in history via German bombing in World War II.

Originally called “Bonehill,” this cemetery developed in the seventeenth century as a resting place for Nonconforming Dissenters from the Church of England. These Separatists, Independents, and Baptists, parted ways with the State Church bound by their consciences and, thus, were not privy to more formal spaces.

Interred without much expense or fanfare in this nondescript 11-acre tract, and often they also were buried “without a monument.”

Eventually, the graveyard took on the name Bunhill Fields and close to 6,000 from this early era found it as their final place of rest. The funeral of the Separatist, Samuel Eaton, was one of the first recorded in August 1639 as is said to have brought the attendance of over 200 Separatists and Baptists. He was joined by the godfather of the English Particular Baptists, Henry Jessey, also with a large funeral of devoted friends in 1663.

The English Baptists who served to shape much of the foundational 1644 London Confession and the 1689 Second London Confession, William Kiffin and Hanserd Knollys are buried there though the precise location of their graves has long been lost.

John Bunyan, lies at the center of the cemetery in a visible tomb for all pilgrims to see.

The pastors who preceded Charles Spurgeon, John Gill and John Rippon, both of whom served that congregation for over half a century each, are buried in Bunhill.

They hymn writer, Isaac Watts, rests there bidding all to survey the wondrous cross.

Just a few steps away lies John Owen, the Puritan theologian and one who unlocked the key to mortification of sin for so many.

Susanna Wesley was buried there, directly across the street from the house, chapel, and grave of her son, John.

These and many more untold and unknown to history are buried in Bunhill Fields.  None of them left a city of beautiful buildings like Christopher Wren, but their legacy is, in fact greater.  For they dedicated their lives to the building of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20).

Bunhill Fields has never attracted the crowds of St. Paul’s, but the kingdom influence of those buried in that field lives far beyond the crowds through the churches that carry forth the same Gospel they preached and shared.

So, reader, if you seek a monument for these, go to Bunhill Fields, and from there, to the ends of the earth, and look around.

This week I am with students and faculty on our United Kingdom Study Tour visiting and lecturing in places like St. Paul’s and Bunhill Fields as well as learning about ongoing ministry needs of local churches in the present day. This article is an adaptation from my lecture given at Bunhill. For more information on the history of this cemetery and who is buried there, see:

Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, Islington: Cultural Memory in London

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

T. G. Crippens, “The Tombs in Bunhill Fields,” Transactions of the Congregational Historicial Society 4 (1909-1910), 347-363

J. A. Jones, Bunhill Memorials (1849)

Alfred W. Light, Bunhill Fields (1913)

Richard Rawlinson, The inscriptions upon the tombs, grave-stones, &c. in the
dissenters burial place near Bunhill-Fields (1717)