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 ChristianBook.com 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, http://www.weeklystandard.com/birds-of-paradise/article/2007167

[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)

 


 

For Other Churches, Baptists Assert a High View of a Low and Free Church

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. — Timothy George

Whereas Baptists have made unhelpful contributions to the Christian tradition throughout their history (see the Landmark movement as just one example), they have also made helpful contributions.

In contrast to the discord of the nineteenth century, Baptists have also served other churches in helpful ways by a healthy articulation of the place of the local church in the lives of Christians, while at the same time, sought to defend the freedom of other churches and religions to disagree with them.

These two contributions, a healthy ecclesiology and religious liberty, have a larger end in mind than the petty attempts to show how the Baptist tradition is “the most thorough” among all Protestants. In short, Baptists have had much to contribute to the church catholic when they have sought to build local churches and defend the freedom of religion with the Gospel and for the Gospel.

In essence, I am summarizing what evangelical Baptists have discussed often in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, namely Baptist Distinctives and Baptist identity, and thus am not aiming to say anything new, but rather to reassert and affirm the path whereby future Baptists can continue to make a helpful contribution to the Christian tradition.

Baptist historians and theologians regularly engage in an ongoing discussion of what exactly comprises a list of Baptist distinctives. In the seminary classes I teach, after weeks of building a case for the value of the Baptist tradition, despite its many flaws and errors in history, I conclude each term by summarizing what identifies the Baptist tradition as marked by:

(1) a People of the Book who preach the Gospel and have found it helpful to summarize what the Bible says about the Christian life and practice in the church and the world in confessions of faith.

(2) The practice of believer’s baptism by immersion as the entrance to a

(3) believer’s church that is

(4) free and separate from the state and thus advocates for the religious freedom for all in society while

(5) seeking to share the Gospel with all in society and to the ends of the earth in an intentional and organized Great Commission focus of evangelism and missions.  All of this is done through

(6) biblical cooperation among churches.[1]

For simplicity, I often condense all six of these distinctives into the two categories of church health and religious liberty, both advocated by Baptists for and from the Gospel in service of other churches.

Or to put it another way, as one my PhD students said recently, playing their part in the larger Christian tradition, Baptists assert a high view of a low and free church.[2]

—–

In February, I had the privilege of delivering the second faculty address at Midwestern Seminary on the topic, “The Thorough Reformers? Baptists, the Consensus Quinquesaecularis, and the Future.” The above is a portion of that address, the entirety of which will comprise the chapter I submitted this week for inclusion in the forthcoming volume, Baptists and the Christian Tradition, edited by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps for B&H Academic.

To hear the entire address you can listen to the audio here:

[1] These are concomitant with other interpretations of Baptist theology in history as unique Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition. As the Center for Baptist Renewal’s manifesto of Evangelical Baptist Catholicity states,”We affirm the distinctive contributions of the Baptist tradition as a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These distinctives include the necessity of personal conversion, a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, congregational governance, and religious liberty.” The CBR explains “Other Baptist groups and theologians have utilized the notion of “Baptist Catholicity” or “Bapto-Catholicity” (see, for example, the manifesto for Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity (1997)), but we are seeking to stake a claim for a particularly evangelical expression of this impulse.”

[2] Gratitude to the creative and thoughtful S. Mark Fugitt.

How Beautiful Are The Adverbs When They Preach Good News

The students in my classes know that I don’t like adverbs.

Or, I should say, the over reliance on adverbs. In academic writing, they are a quick shortcut to the expression of thoughts but do not often* bring clarity, and hinder progress in the writing discipline. However, adverbs, when employed as a part of an intentional writing strategy, can serve to accentuate or add needed color. They can add beauty.

When it comes to theological development, for example, they have been beautifully used in history. Here is one example.

Since the mysteries of Christ were revealed (Col 1:26) and throughout the first centuries of early Christianity, Christians discussed what it meant that Jesus Christ was “made like” humanity (Heb 2:17).

These discussions often turned into debates, as a handful of thinkers (and instigators) came with novel ideas and questions that challenged what the church held to be true. These challenges led many to seek to formulate an answer to the questions, How can Jesus be both God and man? and Why did God become man?

The result was a confessional statement adopted in modern-day Istanbul, called the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451). This wonderful statement says, in part,

“[W]e all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; … one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.“[i]

Those four powerful and clear “without” statements at the end sometimes are translated as four adverbs:

inconfusedly
unchangeably
indivisibly
inseparably

In refutation of error and all other hopeless religions of man, Christians declare simply and beautifully, as George Guthrie says, that “Jesus really did become human.”[ii]

When read aloud these adverbs underscore the indestructible truth of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in such a way that really should be sung.

Why, then, did God become man?

In John 3:16, Jesus says that God loved the world in such a way as to make provision for their sin in the face of judgment.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Just prior to this, in John 3:14-15, Jesus alludes to the time Moses was instructed by God to craft a bronze serpent-like staff to hold up at a time when the people were dying due to their sin.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

All who would look to the staff would live (Nu 21:4-9). In the same way, Jesus said, all who look to him, when he is lifted up, will have eternal life (Jn 3:15).

God’s love for the world and desire to provide salvation is why God became man.

In the fourth century, a remarkable North African theologian named Athanasius wrote a short treatise as an “elementary sketch” of faith in Christ wherein he said,

“For we were the purpose of [Jesus Christ’s] embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”[iii]

Put adverbially, Jesus Christ, in two natures, God and man, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).

How beautiful are the adverbs when they preach good news.


This article is an adaption from my forthcoming Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism available June 1, 2018 from B&H Books.

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

Available for pre-order at Amazon and LifeWay from B&H Books. 

 

[i] “The Chalcedonian Creed,” in Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 56.

[ii] George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 116.

[iii] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.

How to Become a Better Writer

As I explain on the first day of my classes, one of the side effects of a journey with me as professor is that, whether one hopes for it or not, I use my courses to help improve writing skills.

In the ministry assignments to which most of the students in my classes will go, the ability to communicate clearly their thoughts will prove crucial for their own efforts of building trust, strengthening relationships, resolving conflicts, organizing and casting visionary leadership, and, most importantly, communicating the gospel message well (Col 4:4).

For those who find themselves set apart for the ministry of the Word in preaching, the ability to convey their message in written word only helps insure they will do better when speaking.

For these reasons and more, Dr. John Mark Yeats and I were delighted to be asked by the Student Life Office at Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College to convene a lunch event with students to discuss “How to Become a Better Writer.”

You can watch the video recording of that event below. Here are some of the topics we covered and questions answered:

  • Why is writing important for those seeking to serve in ministry?
  • What is your writing story? Did you always have a desire to write?
  • How do you go about writing? How has that changed over the years?
  • What authors do you like to read that write well or have shaped your writing?
  • What advice do you have for students to improve their writing?
  • Why can’t I use first person in academic writing?
  • Should students pursue publication?

For a related resource, see Dr. Jason K. Allen’s recent Preaching and Preachers conversation with Matt Smethurst on “The Pastor and Writing.”