The time I had to write the review overlapped with my teaching a masters level online course, “Survey of Historical Theology,” comprised of 25 students from all over the country. Thus, I took the opportunity to use the review both as a teaching exercise for the students and to enlist their help in editing it–and the review was better for it!
As a part of the class one week, I recorded this video to explain how I wrote the review to convey, in brief:
Why did I agree to write the review
How did I plan to read the book and other supporting sources
Who was my audience or for whom was I writing
What kind of review did I think I could write
What kind of help did I still need to finish the review
You can “join the class” and watch that video here or below:
John Calvin, “[W]e make God the ruler and governor of all things …. the plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end,” (Institutes 1.16.8).
Thomas Aquinas, “God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is good” (Summa Theologica, 1.19.9).
John Calvin, “when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work” (Institutes 1.17.11).
This year, I returned to this theme with “The Most Important Directive I Learned in College & Seminary.” In an age of confusion, this directive has proved (and still proves) to be one freeing and motivating sources of joy and life-giving purpose I have found in living the Christian life—and I hope it might prove to be for many of you as well.
Four years after having sent William Carey to India, the Baptist Missionary Society sent John Fountain to aid Carey and send a report of what he found. Here’s part of his report, dated November 1796:
[Carey] labours in the translation of the Scriptures, and has nearly finished the New Testament, being somewhere around the middle of Revelations. [sic] He keeps the grand end in view, which first induced him to leave his country, and those Christian friends he still dearly loves.
He keeps the grand end in view.
William Carey, a modern missionary pioneer who endured much hardship, persevered in faithfulness and worldwide influence until the age of 73. How did he manage faithfulness in the Christian life in challenging times? As Fountain observed, from his earliest days of missionary activity until the end of his life Carey kept the grand end in view.
So what is this grand end? While it is right to say that the entire Bible points to and reveals the grand end, I believe there is one verse that sums it up well.
In Galatians 3:8, the apostle Paul says, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’”
Here, Paul explains that God has always had the salvation of the nations in mind. From the beginning, he conveyed to Abraham his plan.
Indeed, to be gospel-centered is to recognize that the gospel was intended for Abraham in the Old Testament-past as a forward looking, faith requiring message, revealed with the miraculous advent, perfect law-abiding life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we are also to receive now as a backward-looking, faith requiring message, and we are to take that message to the nations of earth.
Until Christ returns, believers in Christ Jesus are are to keep this directive, this grand end—the good news of the gospel for the blessing of all nations—in view and not get distracted or displaced by present troubles.
Using the Apostle Paul’s inspired illumination of God’s plan via Galatians 3:8, I aimed to show:
What is the most important directive I learned in College & Seminary
What do we need to know to understand this directive?
What should we do with this directive?
The most important directive I learned during the years when I was in College & Seminary is that the gospel-centered Christian is, by default, a World Christian, and that changes the trajectory of everything I do in life.
The glorious promise of hope and joy here is that the believer who, like William Carey, keeps the grand end in view will therefore, like Abraham, see one day all the nations and peoples blessed (Gal 3:8) to the glory of God.
During his final years in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards received an invitation from Scotland to participate in a Concert of Prayer as a “means” of rejuvenating the revivals.
Edwards had already come to think of prayer as an appropriate conduit for advancing the awakenings and in response he published in 1748, sermons on Zechariah 8:20-22 entitled An Humble Attempt.
In the 1740s and 1750s, Edwards’s work encouraged many both in America and Scotland, “by united and extraordinary prayer, seek to God that he would come and manifest himself, and grant the tokens and fruits of his gracious presence.”
This optimistic treatise, while not evident in Edwards’s lifetime, helped to launch the modern missions movement. In 1784, William Carey and Andrew Fuller received An Humble Attempt and read it with eyes primed for the task of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. In this sense, Jonathan Edwards served as a “grandfather” of modern missions.
At Midwestern Seminary this Spring, Owen Strachan, Thomas Kidd and I will offer The Modern Era PhD Seminar. The seminar starts February 22 and will meet for a week-long sessions during April 19-23.
For the students already enrolled we recently made the syllabus available and we wanted also to make it available here as well so any other interested students can view it and see if they would like to enroll as well prior to the start of the seminar on February 22.
We’ve offered this seminar several times at Midwestern and typically attempt to cover the entire Modern Era (c. 1700-2000) in broad strokes with focused primary source readings from the major figures.
However, this time, given the expertise of Drs. Strachan and Kidd we are structuring this offering of the Modern Era Seminar to focus deeply on The First Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards!
We will still give time and discussion to the Modern Era movements more broadly at points, but we’ve decided to give this dedicated focus to allow PhD students the opportunity to read a substantial amount of primary sources and grow in their knowledge of the Modern Era as a result.
To put it another way, this fall we will follow Jonathan Edwards and gather together to read and discuss the Modern Era and marvel at the kindness of God in His answers to extraordinary prayer.
In addition, here is a brief Welcome Video the seminar Dr. Strachan and I recorded to help give an overview of our planned course of study:
And, as The New York Times has reported, a group of Tolkien scholars and aficionados have banded together in a fellowship in an effort to purchase and restore the home Tolkien owned when he wrote The Hobbit.
“Project Northmoor” rightly recognizes that there is no formal literary center for Tolkien studies nor a home in Oxford dedicated for this purpose like there is at “The Kilns,” a former C. S. Lewis home owned and maintained by the C. S. Lewis Foundation. In fact, Tolkien’s papers are housed in the United States at Marquette University, and many of his letters and other items are preserved and studied at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.
While “Project Northmoor” is a noble effort to acquire perhaps the key Tolkien home in Oxford, Tolkien lived in several locations in Oxford spanning from 1911, when arrived as a college student at age 19, to his death in 1973 at the age of 81. What follows is a brief introduction to those locations.
Tolkien studied as an undergraduate at Exeter College from 1911 until World War I took him and many of his classmates away from Oxford. Before departing for war in France, Tolkien married Edith Bratt in 1916.
When Tolkien returned from the war, he gained employment at the Oxford English Dictionary and lived nearby on St. John’s St and then Alfred St until 1920. Incidentally, Alfred St was later renamed Pusey St and it is thought his flat was in the space now occupied by Regent’s Park College.
1 Alfred Street was the first recipient of a “letter from Father Christmas” on December 22, 1920, to John Tolkien, age 3. These letters started a tradition that would continue for the next twenty-three years arriving at the various Tolkien homes and to the Tolkien children: John, Michael, Christopher, and Pricilla.
Tolkien moved to the University of Leeds in 1920, but returned in 1925 to Oxford to teach at Pembroke College and to live at 22 Northmoor Road.
In 1926, Tolkien would make a new friend and start a new society. Meeting first at an English faculty meeting, Tolkien found that C. S. Lewis shared his interest in Norse literature. By 1929, their group expanded and met regularly and were known as the Inklings.
Tolkien moved to the house next door, 20 Northmoor, in 1930 and remained there until 1947. This the home “Project Northmoor” seeks to revitalize as a Tolkien literary center, and with good reason.
While Tolkien had been thinking of Middle Earth and the world that his stories would one day inhabit, it is clear that during his time at 20 Northmoor Road is when he began to write The Hobbit. As he did not have rooms at Pembroke, he officed at home in the front room. Sometime prior to or during the Summer of 1930, while grading papers, Tolkien had an idea, a first line that would bring to life the world of Middle Earth to house his created language:
“All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual tasked forced upon impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.” (To W. H. Auden, June 7, 1955, Letters, 215.)
The Hobbit would be published in 1937, when Tolkien was 45 years old, and he immediately started work on the sequel.
Also, during his years at 20 Northmoor Road, Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis continued to grow. on September 19, 1931, Tolkien and Lewis were walking and talking on the grounds of Magdalen College wherein Tolkien explained his belief in the truth of the Christian “myth.” This led to an extended conversation into the early hours of September 20 where Lewis would relate later to a friend that:
“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity …. My long night talk with … Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.” (To Arthur Greaves, October 1, 1931, C. S. Lewis Letters, Vol. 1, 974.)
In 1945, Tolkien began to teach at Merton College and the Tolkiens moved to two homes owned by the college. First on Manor Road from 1947-1950 and then on Holywell from 1950-1953. (The door to 99 Holywell has appeared in the Inspector Lewis television show).
During these years Tolkien completed the writing of The Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien was a noted perfectionist who had difficulty finishing a project, he needed constant encouragement. The chief encourager of the value and necessity of this project was C. S. Lewis. Writing after Lewis’s death, Tolkien said:
“But for the encouragement of C. S. L. I do not think I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings.” (To Clyde S. Kilby, December 18, 1965, Letters, 366.)
Following Edith’s death in 1971, Tolkien returned to Oxford and lived on Merton St. until his death in 1973.
The church home Tolkien regularly attended was St. Aloysius Catholic Church at 25 Woodstock Road and, of course, his frequent eating and fellowship home with the Inklings was The Eagle and Child pub at 49 St. Giles.
In his later years, he would spend a good deal of time sitting under a large tree in the University Botanic Garden off High St, but sadly, the tree was removed in 2014.
Hats off to the organizers and supporters of “Project Northmoor” as they seek to revitalize the study and presence of the life and work of J. R. R. Tolkien in Oxford. May they succeed in their aims to acquire one of Tolkien’s homes so many can travel there and back again.
This week I presented a paper for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society that gives a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism. What follows is an excerpt from that paper. The entire paper will function as the introduction in a new textbook that chronicles the formation of Baptist Confessions from Christian Focus, forthcoming in 2021.
Throughout history, Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and in response to those attacking their beliefs. Further, Baptists have used Confessions to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters, and to show connection to the broader Christian tradition.
Yet, Baptists have not been a creedal people in that they have not sought to place their Confessions in a place of greater authority than Scripture. This tension has caused confusion and misunderstanding throughout history not only by those who have sought to interpret the Baptist tradition, but also by Baptists themselves. Famously, one group of Baptist churches proclaimed at their initial organization, “We have no creed but the Bible,” even while most of the churches represented held and used Confessions of Faith in their congregations.
Have Baptists understood Confessions of Faith as creeds added to the Bible? This paper will present a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism to alleviate historical confusion and contemporary misunderstanding as to the role, importance, and value of Confessions of Faith in the Baptist tradition.
Defining Baptist Confessionalism
Baptists have used Confessions to define what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters. Confessions, in this sense, are merely summary statements of their corporate understanding of the teaching of Scripture on a given doctrinal issue. Another way to say this is that Confessions are used to define the terms by which Baptist churches include or exclude those with whom they will work.
The preamble to the Baptist Faith & Message states that this Confession of Faith “endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us” and that “We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”
Defending Baptist Confessionalism
Baptists have used Confessions to defend what they believe both to friends and foes. Sometimes this has been done to show other believers in like-minded, but different, ecclesial traditions that there exists a significant amount of shared theological common ground where perhaps many assumed little existed. Other times, Confessions have helped a watching world to see that the claims of a false accuser simply have no rational basis of truth. Never assumed to be infallible documents, Baptists have felt the freedom to revise their Confessions as a specific context or theological crisis might require.
The vehicle that Baptists have used to defend the beliefs they “most surely” hold has been Confessions of Faith. As Baptists developed cooperating entities or pursued partnerships with one another among churches, the Confessions proved helpful in communicating to non-participants what was and was not believed and held by their groups. In addition, as Baptists developed institutions, schools, mission boards, they used confessions as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.”
To What End?
Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe. To put it another way, this paper defines and defends the historic practice of Baptists defining and defending. But to what end?
Often lost in the history of Baptist use of Confessions is the ultimate reason for the Confessions. Beyond defining and defending, these local documents summarize the faith of Baptist churches in God himself and therein lies their power. Here Baptist historians and theologians can be helped by two Anglicans.
Dorothy Sayers, in her work Creed or Chaos? reminded that in the presentation and summary of doctrine, there is great drama. The drama, or value, is not in “beautiful phrases, nor conforming sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertation that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
Alistair McGrath, describes the study of Creeds and Confessions as the windows through which we look to gain “access to a greater reality, rather than being the object of study itself.” He explains, “Christian doctrine offers us a subject worthy of study in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its imaginative gateway, and behold our world in a new way.”
In this sense, Confessions of Faith are lenses through which we can look to gain a fuller understanding of how other Christians in the Baptist tradition have summarized their knowledge of God that they found in the Bible.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1949; Sophia Institute Press, 1974), 25.
 Alistair McGrath, The Landscape of Faith (SPCK, 2018), 25.
In 1853, a young Charles Spurgeon was invited to leave his church in the country and take up a preaching ministry at New Park Street Chapel, where he would stay until his death in 1892.
The story goes that the famous London congregation sent him a letter requesting him to come and when he read it, he passed it along to his deacons saying, “They must have another Mr. Spurgeon in mind.”
For Spurgeon was young and, like Alexander Hamilton, “didn’t have a dollar to his name.” All he had was a few years of preaching and his “top-notch brain.”
Nevertheless, he went to London and for his first sermon there he preached on James 1:17, in a sermon called “The Father of Lights.”
A version of the sermon is reprinted in his Autobiography, but the original manuscript will soon appear in the final version of The Lost Sermons published by The Spurgeon Library and B&H Academic in 2022. Spurgeon reflects on the majestic aspects of the unchanging attributes of God—but listen to where Spurgeon decides to put his emphasis:
“He is immutable. The sun changes, mountains crumble, the ocean shall be dried up, the stars shall wither from the vault of night; but God, and God alone, remains ever the same.
“Were I to enter into a full discourse on the subject of immutability, my time, if multiplied by a high number, would fail me. But reminding you that there is no hang in His power, justice, knowledge, oath, threatening, or decree, I will confine myself to the fact that His love to us knows no variation.
“How often it is called unchangeable, everlasting love. He loves me now as much as He did when first He enscribed my name in His eternal book of election. He has not repented of His choice. He has not blotted out one of His chosen; there are not erasures in that book; all whose names are written in it are safe for ever. Nor does God love me less now than when He gave that grand proof of love, His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for me.”
In a recent chapel message on this same text, it was my aim to present how this type of reflection and focus on God and His Christ is the answer for persevering in faithfulness. In James 1:12-18, James writes two paragraphs that serve to present two sides of the same issue—namely how does the believer remain steadfast in times of trial.
Titled, “Beauty for Trials: God Knows the Way Out,” I review James’ purpose and then assert that the greatest obstacle to our perseverance in trials is our sinful nature. To put it another way, we are the problem. However, while God never tempts us, he remains with us when we are tempted. He is the solution and trusting him, and all that is good, beautiful, and true about him, will lead us to persevere.
In 1536, Martin Luther published his Disputation Concerning Justification, a series of statements concerning Romans 3:28:
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
From Luther’s Disputation, one passage he uses to describe the beauty of the believer’s standing before God lingers in my mind: a simple image of an umbrella.
In this one image, Luther conveys imputation, propitiation, and substitution. All fifty-dollar theological terms to be sure, but truly priceless biblical truths that give hope both those in Christ and those still outside of Christ.
Here is Luther:
Moreover, God forgives and is merciful to us because Christ, our advocate and priest, intercedes and sanctifies our beginning in righteousness. His righteousness, since it is without defect and serves us like an umbrella against the heat of God’s wrath, does not allow our beginning righteousness to be condemned. (LW 34:153).
What joy to know and have access to Martin Luther’s umbrella.
At Midwestern Seminary this fall, Matthew Barrett and I will offer again The Reformation PhD Seminar. The seminar starts August 31 and will meet for a week-long sessions during October 26-30.
For the students already enrolled we recently made the syllabus available and we wanted also to make it available here as well so any other interested students can view it and see if they would like to enroll as well prior to the start of the seminar on August 31.
We’ve offered this seminar several times at Midwestern and typically attempt to cover the entire Reformation Era in broad strokes with focused primary source readings from the major figures.
However, this time, the big take away is that we are structuring this offering of the Reformation Seminar to focus deeply on Martin Luther!
We will still give time and discussion to the Reformation movements more broadly at points, but we’ve decided to give dedicated focus to the life and thought of Luther himself to allow PhD students the opportunity to read as much Luther as possible and grow in their knowledge of the Reformation as a result.
To put it another way, this fall we will follow Martin Luther and gather together to read and discuss his works under the merciful shade provided by his glorious Umbrella.
As our President, Jason K. Allen, said well, “With these new offerings, students can still continue to access learning from our incredible faculty even in these most difficult times. We can think of no better way to be ‘for the church’ than by working to help students complete their degrees in new and innovative ways.”
To that end, I have joined with several of our faculty to offer a newly added class this summer. During June 1-4, 2020, I will teach a class that meets the requirements for “Baptist History” at the graduate level and “The Church” at the undergraduate level.
This is a special joy and providence for me as this is my favorite class to teach, and one I have taught regularly since 2005. However, due my need to teach other courses next year, I was not scheduled to teach it this coming fall–but now I get to offer it!
This course is our required historical theology course that gives me the opportunity to appeal to students that ecclesial tradition matters and that, in most cases, it is not what they think it is.
In fact, the history of the Baptist tradition is far more doctrinal, relevant to day to day church life, and helpful for the task of world evangelization than they’ve ever imagined. I have one course to convince them of this and I love that challenge.
Why is this the case?
For my expanded answer, you should enroll in the course!
In the mornings this year I’ve been re-reading a fourth century masterpiece.
While Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is remarkable, it was C. S. Lewis who termed it a ‘masterpiece’ in his famous introduction to a new English translation of Athanasius’s work.
As I read through the chapters of De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, I started summarizing each of the fifty-seven sections in my own words and soon realized the helpfulness of this exercise.
Reading this old book has served to accomplish for me what C. S. Lewis hoped it would. Lewis advised, then in 1944, that in an era of modern controversies and division within Christianity “the only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
In specific, Lewis had in mind books that put forth a “standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” Even though it is now 2020 and we are not facing the same controversies of 1944, Lewis’s commending the reading of On the Incarnation does, indeed, put our controversies in perspective.
My reflection led me to another thought: could I condense and conform my thoughts on Athanasius’s work into a poem to summarize what I had gained? As only a poetry-appreciator, not a poet, I set out to learn more about form and structure and settled on a simple sonnet.
The sonnet, I learned, allows for poems with musicality but also to be read in silence. The 14-line structure and rhyming patterns function “like a box” and since sonnets are often meant to focus on a person, I thought it a good form to follow for a poem on the incarnation of Christ.
The result of my reflections on this “old book” was, first, a sonnet for Advent, and now the following sonnet for Easter.** Thanks to C. S. Lewis, it has helped me to keep this remarkable year in proper perspective.
**Working from my summaries of Athanasius’s last five chapters, I sought to structure the three quatrains around each chapter, with the last focusing on the last three. I created a spreadsheet to aid in building each of the 14 lines in iambic pentameter and around a specific rhyming sequence and then edited to final form.
For further reading:
Athanasius, On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei, translated and edited by a religious of C.S.M.V. (Centenary Press, 1944).
C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).
Peter Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria: His Life & Impact (Christian Focus, 2019).