It Takes a Hard Forehead and a Heavy Heart to Preach (For the Church)

takeshardforeheadThinking about preaching while reading the prophets is a sobering thing. Whether it’s Isaiah’s commission to preach to a deaf and blind people, or Jeremiah’s call to go preach without fear to those who threaten his life and reject his message, the prophets don’t exactly make good promo material for aspiring seminarians.  (“Preaching God’s Word–Learn how to do it without getting killed.”) Nevertheless they are essential reading for anyone trying to engage in ministry within the church, especially the ministry of the Word. I was reminded of this again this week as I came to Ezekiel in my devotional.

Ezekiel’s Assignment and Ours

In Ezekiel 2-3, Ezekiel receives his commission to preach to the wicked, rebellious house of Israel in a vision. The basic call was to persevere in preaching the word of the Lord no matter what because through him God will make them know that “a prophet has been among them.” (2:5) This seems tough, but encouraging right? I mean, he is told that it will be evident that Ezekiel is God’s anointed prophet. God will be with him powerfully. That’s gotta be good?

Eh, not so much. There’s more.

See, while promising to be with him, God also makes it clear he’s not going to be greeted with a lot of success. He is going to be rejected. His message will fall on rebellious ears and stubborn hearts. He says that he’s sending him to a people who are so stubborn that, even though the message is not hard to understand, and the language is not a barrier, even so, they will reject it because they continually reject God. (3:6) Yet still, God calls him to be a “watchman” over the house of Israel (3:17), preaching a warning to God’s people so that they might turn, repent, and not come under judgment. Knowing that the people will rebel, knowing that they will reject him, knowing the difficulty he is still to preach the word of the Lord.

How are we to preach under conditions like this? What drives faithfulness in situations like this? How do we bear up under the pressure? Most of us don’t think about this going in. I mean, we might “know” it’s going to be hard. We might “know” that if we faithfully preach the word, not all that we say is going to be received well. Nevertheless, coming face to face with recalcitrant members of the body, people who won’t repent, members you’re intimidated to speak honestly to for fear of causing them to leave, can catch some of us off guard and make us lose our nerve. Even with the Spirit of God indwelling the hearts of believers, nobody likes being told to repent. The house of Israel can still be a rebellious people this side of the Cross.

You can read the rest of the post over at For the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Don’t Underestimate the Scholastics (Or, Gleanings from Richard Muller’s PRRD)

MullerThis last year I embarked on a journey of reading through Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, much as I did with Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics last year. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down posting Turretin of late, though. There’s a few of reasons for that. First, I simply hit a wall. Turretin’s good, but dense. Sometimes you have to put a book down to pick it up again. Second, I’ve been prepping for Ph.D. work and other reading and studying has gotten in the way. Finally, though, I also sort of got distracted from Turretin when I acquired the four volumes of Richard Muller’s magisterial series Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. 

The title describes the project clearly enough. While Muller is not canvassing all of the theology of that period, he does aim to set the record straight about the Reformed school theologians following the age of the Reformers on issues like theological method, Scripture, and the doctrine of God (Attributes, Trinity). He does so by an extensive review of primary sources, as well as setting them against their context of the prior medieval tradition, the Reformation, and the intellectual currents of their own day.

If I could sum up my gleanings from Muller’s volumes in one sentence, it would be: “Don’t underestimate the scholastics.” Which is something people have apparently done all too often. According to many theologians in the late 19th and 20th Century, especially under the later influence of Barth and the Neo-Orthodox, this was allegedly a period of relative darkness, where theology fell into “causal”, “rationalist” metaphysics and philosophical obscurity, after a brief period of pure gospel light shining from the pens of Calvin and Luther. According to Muller, that’s a rather neat “just-so” story that crumbles upon inspection of the actual sources. The Reformed Orthodox scholastics actually had a bit more going for them than that.

While I haven’t finished the four volumes (I’ve got about a third of volume 3 left and volume 4 to go), and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize even one, I figured I could list a few Mullerian points to keep in mind when encountering the scholastics themselves, or critical historiography on them. I’ll proceed in no particular order.

“Scholasticism.” The first point that Muller beats into your head is that “scholasticism” is a method of study and organization, not a theology on its own. Quite often you’ll see general references to the teaching of “scholastic” theology of the Reformed, Lutherans, or whoever as if simply in virtue of being scholastics they’re all saying the same thing. That’s not the case. To put it crudely, scholastic theology was “school” theology or theology done according to the methods of organization and argumentation and logic that was prevalent in the academies of the time.

That said, scholastic methodology was practiced by the Reformed, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics, and even some of the Radical theologians of the time. But while they may have all used the same form of syllogistic argument, the quaestio form, or so forth, they often came to radically different conclusions on theological judgments about Scripture, justification, the will and knowledge of God, and any number of other issues. So, again, when someone talks about “scholasticism”, it makes sense to ask, “Whose scholasticism?”

Method/Genre Matters. There are a lot of different issues that could be shoved under the question of method and genre, but one is the way it shapes how we think of the piety and spirituality of the period. The theology of the Orthodox period has been accused of being “dry”, “arid”, and devoid of the vitality of earlier Reformation preaching. This is allegedly a result of its rationalism and divorce from the earlier spiritual concerns of its forebears. Muller points out that much of this is, in fact, an issue of style.

First off, much of the actual material is not dry and is quite concerned with the life of piety. Even in the most technical works, you’ll usually get a section on the pastoral “use” of even the most abstruse doctrines. All the same, in their systems, the Orthodox were often writing for the academy, in an institutional setting for the training of students, and so their systems are not always reflective of their popular works or preaching. Even today textbooks are very often more technical and boring than sermons.

Reading Turretin and Thomas Watson this year has been instructive for me in this regard. Watson’s work a Body of Practical Divinity is a work of “homiletical” theology, sermons commenting on the catechism. Turretin’s is an apologetic, technical work. While I’d be hard-pressed to find major theological differences between them–indeed, Watson’s distinctions can be quite scholastic–their styles can seem far apart. Watson sings and Turretin, with a few exceptions, lectures. One lively and pietistic, the other dry and academic, but the difference here is one of method and genre, not theology.

Exegetically-Focused. One of the major criticisms of the Scholastics is that much of their theology is just Aristotle or some other metaphysician baptized. It’s the “Greek” charge in a lot of ways, simply applied a thousand years later. Instead of the “biblical” theology of Calvin and Luther, the scholastics abandoned their principled, textual basis and returned to abstract speculation to construct their doctrines of God and the decree. The problem with that is the actual texts of the scholastics. While it’s true that many did return to retrieve certain categories from the medievals in order to sharpen up some doctrines that the Reformers didn’t do as much work with, it’s hardly the case that we’ve got just a bunch of metaphysical logic-chopping.

As Muller points out, before they wrote their systems, most of the Reformed scholastics taught Scripture, wrote commentaries, preached, and trained heavily in the humanistic study of languages and rhetoric. Read one of Turretin’s questions and you’ll see references to texts in their historic contexts, typology, Rabbinic exegesis, and knotty linguistic issues. Or on the issue of God’s attributes, it is true that there are a number that can be treated by some theologians in a more philosophical mode, but many are packed to the gills with careful discussions of Scripture references. Beyond that, most systems began with a discussion of the biblical “names” of God as the source of reflection on God’s nature before they even touched the more abstract “attributes.”

Philosophically-Eclectic. Muller has pointed out that while there was a generalized sort of “Aristotelianism” in the intellectual air at the time, that hardly means that the Reformed scholastics were a monolith in this area. In fact, it seems that the Reformed were “eclectic” in philosophical matters. This is true on a number of levels. Some, for instance, were far more skeptical than others of the place that philosophy could play in the formulation of Christian doctrine in subordination to Scripture.

On another level, different types of Reformed theologians drew on different theo-philosophical streams for their reflections. Some drew on Thomas, while others reflected certain emphases found in Duns Scotus or Ockham, and even later, some flirted with Cartesian philosophy. And it was hardly ever a matter of simply taking over distinctions uncritically, but adopting them and adapting them in line with their own reading of Scripture in order to expound the truth of the Scriptures.

Continuity and Discontinuity. Finally, there’s the big issue Muller is concerned to discuss, which is whether or not the Reformed Orthodox systems represented a radical break with the early Reformers or stand in essential continuity, and why that did or didn’t happen.  There are a number of factors that go into answering this question but the answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

First, we need to grapple with getting the past right. You have to get it clear in your head that Calvin isn’t the sole benchmark for pure, Reformation theology. He had plenty of colleagues like Musculus, Vermigli, Hyperius, Bucer, Viret, and others, who were also respected, Reformed theologians who played a role in laying the foundation for the Reformed tradition. So continuity can’t just be measured by “What did Calvin say? And did they say the same, exact thing in the same, exact style?” You need to take into account the broader, Reformed context.

Also, it helps to know where and how the Reformers themselves actually differed or didn’t differ from their Medieval forebears. On many questions, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, so they simply don’t address the issue at length. Then the Reformed Scholastics come along and say something that sounds kind of like the Medievals and they get accused of diverging from the Reformers, when it’s more simply a matter of saying louder when the Reformers had basically assumed.

Second, we need to take into account that history happens and new situations call for new responses that aren’t necessarily in opposition to what came before, but may represent a legitimate development. So, when Calvin and Luther were writing, you had the challenges of a new movement fighting for its life with all the vitality, fire, and eclecticism that goes with that. With the Post-Reformation period came the phase of institutionalization needed to preserve and protect the gains made in the Reformation. Hence the rise of the schools and the appropriateness of scholastic development of Reformation theology.

Not only that, many of the arguments shifted over time. In the Post-Reformation period you get a lot more distinctions in certain areas of theology that weren’t treated by the Reformers, mostly because they weren’t up for grabs. So when the Socinian heretics come along and start arguing for a finite God, limited knowledge, rationalist metaphysics and epistemology, and so forth, the Reformed scholastics find themselves with new challenges to be treated. The same thing is true with the growing sophistication of Roman Catholic counter-arguments, as well as certain areas of dispute with the Lutherans such as the sacraments. Things got more complicated, so the theology expanded to match it.

There’s more to get into here, but time and again Muller shows that in the early and high periods of Post-Reformation Orthodoxy the scholastics developed the theology of the Reformers in a new context in ways that are both continuous and discontinuous with what came before. Along the way, he shows that there are riches to be mined in the mountains of those dusty, old tomes. Over and over again, I keep thinking to myself that certain contemporary “advances” are only beginning to catch up to the clarity and sophistication of the old masters.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Nicaea and Chalcedon Can Help you Read Your New Testament. (Or, Wesley Hill on Paul and the Trinity)

Paul and the TrinityDoing systematic theology through exegesis and exegesis using systematic categories can be a tricky business. A little knowledge of history can show us the way that sometimes our easy recourse to our inherited theological grids may have short-changed our exegesis. For instance, are NT references to the Son of God so obviously and cleanly statements of deity as many have traditionally believed or are they references to his Davidic lineage? And when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” is he really referring to his human nature or, as most recent scholars have suggested, is it a reference to the heavenly, divine figure of Daniel 7, “One like the Son of Man”? In both cases, we see that some pressure from our inherited theological systems has forced our exegesis to miss some things. Critical evaluation has undermined some old conclusions, but happily enough, in this case, it ended up reinforcing the basic theological structure on more secure historical grounds.

In recent times, though, there’s been a movement in biblical studies towards recovering classic theological categories and doctrines for the sake of aiding historical interpretation. In his recent work Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, Wesley Hill argues that by consciously avoiding trinitarian categories in an effort to be “historical” in their interpretation of Paul in his Jewish context, scholars have been working with one hand tied behind their backs. This is especially the case in their approach to texts regarding Christology and the doctrine of God.

Redoubling Around “High” and “Low” Christologies.

While moving away from a focus on titles like “Lord” and “Christ” in the last few years, much of the discussion has been caught up in understanding how Paul’s Christology modifies (or doesn’t) his monotheism. In other words, it assumes a view of God and the world, then tries to figure out where Paul places Jesus on the spectrum of things. Is his view of Jesus “high” or “low”? Does it “threaten” his monotheism, or is Jesus unified or differentiated or subordinated enough to protect against polytheism, modalism, or whichever danger seems more pressing to you as a scholar? Hill’s argument, insofar as I’m not destroying it, is that a retrieval of trinitarian categories like “relationality” and reading strategies like “redoublement” are helpful in moving us past some of the difficulties created by the low/high paradigm.

With the fathers like Athanasius, medievals such as Aquinas, and even recent relational theologies, Hill argues we need to understand that the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutually-defining in the texts in such a way that both unity and differentiation is accounted for. God is the one who raised Jesus Christ by his Spirit (Romans 8:11), and so forth. The Father’s person is defined by his relation to the one who would become Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus is the one who has always been the Son of that Father. The Spirit is the Lord, the Spirit of God as well as the Spirit of the Son. That is who he is and always has been.

Or with the idea “redoublement”, we see that there are two non-ultimate but equally appropriate ways to consider and read texts about Jesus’ relationship to God. First, in many places we find language about what is “common” to them both,  for instance, the “form” or nature and equality that the Son shares with God (Phil. 2:6). But also, and just as important, is the differentiated relation between the two as we see that the Son whose elevation and gift of the “name that is above all names”, still ends up glorifying “God the Father” who is distinct from the Son (Phil. 2:11).

The same movement is useful in other key texts such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, where we have a clear inclusion of Jesus within the key monotheistic Shema which asserts YHWH as Lord and God against all false, non-existent lords and gods of the nations. Two options usually present themselves to the interpreter. Either keep the distinction between Jesus and God and downplay the significance of the inclusion or recognize it, but play down the very clear distinction between Jesus and God. The concept of redoublement helps us accept both the asymmetrical differentiation according to person–Jesus isn’t simply absorbed into a flat “God” identity–but also Jesus’ place on the Creator side of the Creator/creature distinction at the heart of the text.

Watson’s Chalcedonian Clarification

Hill develops all of this at length, through careful, historically-sensitive exegesis of the Greek text, dealing with historical proposals by scholars such as Hurtado, Bauckham, McGrath, and others. Parallel to Hill’s work, though, I’ve been reading through Thomas Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Catechism, A Body of Practical Divinity and was reminded of the way recovering Chalcedonian categories for New Testament interpretation helps clarify exegetical difficulties as well.

For instance, there are a number of texts in the New Testament that suggest Christ has been exalted, or that upon his resurrection and Ascension he received a new, kingly status that he didn’t possess in the past:

…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (Romans 1:3-4)

…Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Philippians 2:9)

But if the Son is eternally God, then how can he be exalted at a certain point in time after the resurrection? How can he receive a name that has always been his from all of eternity? In these texts, interpreters as far back as the first couple of centuries have found reason to see some sort of adoptionism whereby Jesus was not always God, but becomes the Son of God at a particular point in time.

Commenting on the Catechism’s section on the exaltation of Christ, Watson addresses the difficulty posed by these texts:

In what sense has God exalted Christ?

Not in respect of his Godhead, for that cannot be exalted higher than it is: as in his humiliation, the Godhead was not lower; so in his exaltation, the Godhead is not higher: but Christ is exalted as Mediator, his human nature is exalted.

In a move that parallels, complements, and possibly clarifies our retrieval of redoublement, Watson draws on the affirmation that Christ has two natures, both a human and divine one. The Son has eternally always been the Son of the Father, equal in power, glory, beauty, and divine authority. And yet, at a particular point in time he assumed–added to himself–a human nature that has not always sat on the throne of heaven, but has walked in humility and weakness as a peasant in the 1st Century. This union, the person of the Godman, the Mediator, according to Watson, is the subject of these texts speaking of the exaltation of Christ. It’s not simply the Son according to his divine nature, nor a simply human Jesus abstracted from the Son–that Jesus can’t exist. No, it is the Son in his humanity who is exalted and newly acclaimed as king upon the throne of the universe.

Of course, Hill deals with sort of thing in his work as well. Still, reading Hill alongside Watson has further reinforced the value of reading both modern and historical authors, as well as biblical and systematic theologians, as legitimate sources and models for the practice of reading Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the sort of either/or affair it sometimes becomes in certain academic contexts. a number of helpful, further insights on the reading historical texts in a

Indeed, in this work, Hill himself is a model for reading historical texts in a theologically-responsible way and reading texts theologically in a historically-responsible way. I’d highly commend his work to anyone looking to see it done right. May his tribe increase.

Soli Deo Gloria

All Things Go! (Or, When the Trinity Moved Us From Trinity to Trinity For a Ph.D.)

sufjan-stevens-illinoise-900My wife and I got married four years ago this Friday. When we walked up the aisle after pledging ourselves in covenant before God and a couple hundred witnesses, our recessional song was Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” At the time, we loved it simply because it was Stevens, upbeat, had a gospel center, and had that lovely chorus line, “All things Go, All things go” mirrored how we felt about beginning our marriage. It’s rather amusing to think about because, really, McKenna and I aren’t by nature the adventuring “All things go” people Stevens’ is talking about. We both lived at home for college. Our first place was literally 15 minutes from where we grew up. We are each other’s first roommates. Little did we know how pregnant with prophetic meaning that song selection for those first forty steps as a married couple would prove.

Trinity 1.0

At the time, I had just started working at my church Trinity United Presbyterian in Santa Ana, as the College and Young Adult Ministries Director. I cannot express what a privilege and blessing this job has been. I could not have written a better first ministry spot for myself. This congregation, with its rich history, worship, solid preaching, and godly people has been a wonderful place to begin pastoral work. Beyond that, it’s formed a crucial home for the first years of my marriage, and a place that my wife and I have grown as disciples of Christ. I cannot express how precious this place and its people (especially my students and partners in the Student and Family ministries) have become to us.

Working with students, young adults, and just spending time in the broader congregation shaped me as a preacher, teacher, discipler, and simply a child of God. What’s more, because of Trinity’s rich, Presbyterian, confessional and intellectual heritage, it was not seen as bizarre for me to spend time studying for sermons and writing as much as I have these last few years.  It has been encouraged as an outgrowth and proper part of my church ministry to my students and peers, and for that I could not be more grateful.

While Trinity has been a wonderful home to us, after a great deal of prayer, counsel, and reflection, we realized God was calling me to pursue further academic work for the sake of the church, specifically doctoral work in systematic theology. To be honest, it has always been there in the back of my mind, but I love the church, preaching week-in and week-out, meeting with students, and so forth. Still, the last few years of reading, writing, developing intellectually, significant academic relationships, and having pretty much every one of my groomsmen and their mothers look at me and say, “Dude, you need to get your Ph.D. or I’m gonna fight you”, had its effect. So, last fall I (or rather, we) began the application process.  While the process was a spiritually trying one, it has also been a strengthening one for us, which has been one of the various confirmations along the path that this road was God’s will for us.

Trinity 2.0

Of course, the most significant sign came when we received the news that I had not only been accepted to the Ph.D. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), in order to study with a man I’ve been reading, learning from, and blogging about for the last eight years, (surprise, surprise) Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer. For those who don’t know him, he’s one of the most respected Evangelical theologians working in the United States right now. While I could say a number of things about the impact his work has already had on me, I’ll simply note that his emphasis on the crucial pastoral function of doctrine for the life of the church has been at the heart of what I’ve tried to do in my own ecclesial ministry. (Here’s a nice write-up of him in Christianity Today.) And that’s not to mention all the other stellar faculty at TEDS.

Beyond that, we found out that I had been awarded the new Dahl Scholarship. This is a fellowship at full funding of tuition plus a modest stipend for four years of coursework and research.  For God to open this door just seemed too obvious an opportunity to walk away from. So we took it.

I’ll be honest, “excited” doesn’t begin to cover it. If you’d have told me a couple of years ago, that I’d be getting this shot, I would have laughed in your face. (Though, McKenna insists she knew something like this would happen all along). And yet, that’s the reality. This Fall, Lord willing, I’ll begin coursework for my Ph.D. in systematic theology at TEDS with Kevin Vanhoozer as my supervisor.

For those of you who may be wondering, my provisional subject of research will be a be doctrinally-constructive account of the attribute of God’s holiness. I hope to examine God’s holiness in biblical theology (OT, NT), moving on through historical accounts, and in the end, formulating a systematic account that deals with what it means for the Triune God to be eternally holy, in both the moral and the ontological sense. From there, I want to develop some applications of God’s holiness for how we think about atonement and the church’s own holiness. At least, that’s the plan right now.

As for what the plan is afterward? We’re not sure. At this point, I’m comfortable with the ideas of teaching in seminary or returning to full-time church work. Honestly, after four years of preaching and teaching at least twice a week 50 weeks of the year, I’m actually kind of scared about how much I’m going to miss the pulpit (or, dinky music stand, really). Something in-between like a pastor-theologian sounds pretty appealing, right now. But a lot can happen in four years.

Moving and Prayers

Of course, as many of you have put together already, that means we’re going to move. We’ll be living at Trinity in Deerfield, Illinois, about a half an hour outside of Chicago, (hence my intro). After 29 (and 28) years of living in California, we’re heading out to the Midwest. As I told my students the other night, “The Trinity is moving us from Trinity to Trinity.”

Oh, and, by the way, it’s happening in about a month (end of July, beginning of August). Which is why we need your prayers. For everything.

IMG_0574

This is our, “We’re so excited about the future but please-oh-please pray for us” face.

But also, these specific things:

  1. Marriage. After God, our relationship as man and wife is job number one for us. We don’t want that to change. A Ph.D is great, but not worth our covenant. Please pray this time is a special one of strengthening and marital joy.
  2. Moving. We’ve never done that before. Not really. There’s a ton of work we need to do. Pray that God gives us wisdom and good deals on moving stuff.
  3. A good church and community. We have to find a church that I’m not working at. That’s weird for us. But we know the importance of being plugged into a good church where we can find godly community and fit well. Pray that we find a healthy, gospel-rich church, and that we’re ready to be flexible on non-essential preferences. Also, the TEDS community. I already know a couple of great people in it. Still, we want to make friends and contribute to whatever community we find there.
  4. Job. Yes, I’m receiving a scholarship, for which we are very grateful and without which we could not go, but my wife is leaving her job, so we want to find something for her fairly quick. For those in the area, or who know people, she’s got a B.A. in Social Studies and history, a teaching credential, and an M.A. in Education. For the last two years, she has worked in administration at a local K-8 parochial school and is super at administrative stuff. If you know of anything, feel free to shoot me a tweet or email me at reformedish@gmail.com.
  5. Family and friends. We love our families and friends and we’re fairly sure they love us. We’re gonna miss them. Also, they’re going to miss us. Please pray for our hearts and theirs in this time.
  6. Studies. Finally, please pray for my studies. This is a gift of time and resources that I want to steward well for the sake of the church and God’s kingdom. Pray that I focus, grow, and am dependent on and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be present in my program. I mean, seriously, if you’re not a cessationist, pray for me to receive the gift of tongues. Like French and German.

Wrapping it Up

A few last details are worth noting.

First, moving and getting a Ph.D. is likely going to be a time-consuming task. Just a guess. For that reason, I’m probably going to be doing a lot less blogging and popular writing for the next few months until I get my Ph.D.-legs under me. And even then I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do. I’m not stopping completely, of course. I don’t think I could. Still, part of stewarding God’s gifts to me in this program is stewarding my time and intellectual energies, despite the immediate joy and blessing I receive from writing in this format. So, if you see things slow down, that’s probably why. (Oh, also, I’m not likely to slow the podcast down, though).

Second, there are far too many people to thank at this time: parents, friends, students, co-workers, pastors, professors, fellow-writers, editors, and mentors from near and far. Suffice it to say that if there is one thing that this experience has taught McKenna and I, it is that God’s providential care comes through the community of God’s people. None of the fruit that this process has already produced would have been possible without the Spirit-empowered words and prayers of our spiritual family.

Well, there you have it: The Rishmawys are moving to Chicago. All Things Go! All Things Go!

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Vanhoozer: “What’s the Harm if Pastors Are Not Theologians?” (Video)

Over at the Center For Pastor Theologians, there’s a series of fun little videos up with Kevin Vanhoozer. Here he is briefly answering the question, “What’s the harm if pastors are not theologians?” It’s Vintage Vanhoozer and sums up perfectly my own convictions about the overwhelming importance of theologically minded pastoral education and ministry. A pastor who is not a theologian should be a contradiction in terms.

From Center for Pastor Theologians on Vimeo.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jude on Showing Mercy to Three Types of “Doubters” in the Pews

mercy 2Last week I wrote a reflection/brief commentary on the short book of Jude. In it I dealt with the general problem of false antinomian teaching that had been cropping up in the church, it’s parallels to the current doctrinal struggles with moral revisionism, and our call to remain faithful in the middle of it all. Well, though I dealt with the whole of the letter, I judged it worth returning to the letter and take a closer look, especially at Jude’s admonitions to mercy towards the end.

As I read this last week with my small group, I was struck by Jude’s emphasis on mercy. I suppose I am a bit more sensitive to the subject after meditating on Thomas Watson’s beautiful reflections on the mercy of God. Still, after a letter full of warnings judgment it can strike some as a bit of a left turn. And yet it shouldn’t really. Only those with a sharp appreciation for God’s holy opposition to sin can understand the gratuitous nature of the mercy of God. It is to this dimension of Jude’s thought that I’d like to direct our attention. There is a level of discernment and discrimination (in the good sense) Jude shows, which we need to recover if we’re going to deal pastorally with those in our midst prone to various sorts of “doubt” and disagreement.

Meditating on Future Mercy

After condemning the false teachers and issuing a general call to faithfulness and resistance, Jude offers encouragement to his people:

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (20-21)

Jude tells his people to build themselves up like the holy Temple they are on the foundation of the faith, the solid doctrine they’ve been handed on from the apostles, prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit. They should do this as they keep themselves in the love of God, obeying God’s will. In order to do this, Jude says they should “wait for the mercy of our Lord.” Waiting for the future mercy of God in the final salvation that Jesus will bring when he returns gives them the strength to endure.  This is one of those places where having a sense of the “now and not yet” dimension of our salvation is so crucial. Christians are able to trust in this future mercy only because they are confident of the mercy already shown them in the sacrifice of Christ’s cross. His death for sin is the assurance they have passed from death to life and that the judgment of God to come no longer has their sins in view.

Mercy Towards Three Types of Doubters

From this encouragement to meditate on the mercy of God towards them, Jude urges them to extend this mercy towards others.

Be merciful to those who doubt;  save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (22-23)

That’s one of the true tests of whether or not you understand the mercy of God: do you have any inclination or instinct to show others the grace God has shown you? If you are an unmerciful person who tends to hold grudges, keeps anger hot, and ready to unleash on others, stop and spend some time meditating on the mercy of God. You cannot do this enough.

In any case, Jude moves on to enumerate three types of people (doubters) who need to be shown mercy, but in each case there seems to be a different shape that this mercy is to take. While mercy is to be shown to all, distinctions need to be made. As we’ll see, it might be unmerciful to do otherwise.

First, there is the group that seems to be “in doubt”, or hesitant. Here we can imagine the average church-goer sitting in the pews who has been confused by the influx of smart, charismatic false teachers advocating a tempting lifestyle. It’s not an aggressive, arrogant doubt, but one that is tentative, and would likely respond if properly and carefully corrected. I’ve seen this a lot. In fact, this about 99% of what I’ve encountered in my time. Students who come in, worried about this or that article they’ve read, difficult conversation they’ve had, and so forth and they ask me a difficult question. In this case, usually that is needed is a careful conversation or two and they are ready to hear biblical truth. Mercy here is gentle engagement.

Second, there seems to be a different category where the “doubt” is more aggressive. Richard Bauckham suggests that as those who need to be “snatched out of the fire”, these people have already been lead astray by the false teachers to the point of engaging in sinful, licentious behavior. And yet, it is likely that many here would respond to proper correction. All the same, it may be that a sharper approach is necessary. Once you’re engaged in sin, all sorts of rationalizations set in which require a more forceful approach. It’s the different between warning little Johnny from running into the street while he’s in the yard, versus reaching out and pulling him out of the street after he’s already crossed the line. It’s not sufficient to call softly. “Johnny, please come back here” when there’s a car rumbling down the road, set to interrupt his play-time. In the same way, a different level of rhetorical and spiritual urgency will be required in this second case, not to mention possible movement towards church discipline.

Finally, there is a third group of those whom we are still to show mercy, but do so with fear. At this point Jude appears to be referring to the false teachers themselves. There is a certain kind of person who is not simply confused, not simply doubting, not only led astray through a lack of knowledge or sinful desire, but is actively pursuing and propagating false teaching. This isn’t the kid with normal (though difficult) questions or the relatively skeptical but honest dude in your Bible study. No, this is someone with a culpable level of responsibility, or personal authority, who is trying to influence others into adopting beliefs and practices that oppose holiness and the truth of God. It’s the difference between Eve being led astray through doubt, and the malicious serpent who “doubted” and taught others that same sort of doubt.

Jude commands us to show them mercy, nonetheless, but do so with fear because there’s a foolish sort of “openness” that can put you in danger of being led astray. Of course, you still need to love this person, pray for their salvation, and hope that God changes their hearts. But you probably need to change the way you engage with them, have fellowship with them, or whether you treat them like a believer or not. There’s a holy fear, a hatred of sin which is a part of the love of God (Rom 12:9), of even the garment that leads to sin, which means that at a certain point you may have to guard yourself from certain kinds of conversations or contact. This person needs mercy, but there’s an understanding that they should be engaged by the proper authorities who are equipped for that sort of thing. Don’t be too arrogant to think you can’t be misled.

The Trouble with Mercy Outside the Church

Now, there are all kinds of application for this sort of text today. First, of course, is in our actual churches. Pastors, people in the pews, and various church leaders need to have these distinctions in mind when dealing with false teaching popping up. You need to be able to distinguish between the honest Christian who is “hesitant” and those who are maliciously stirring up others. Dealing harshly wth the first would be to break a bruised reed, while dealing too gently with the latter might put the rest of the flock in danger. This can be difficult, which is why we should constantly be in prayer in the Spirit, meditating on the person of Jesus, and the witness of Scripture so that our instincts and imaginations can be formed and shaped by God’s Word.

Second, there’s the troubling question of online interactions. See, one of the problems I see with a lot of the doctrinal discussion online is that all of these categories get mixed up. The internet makes these lines harder Say there’s some blogger in the third category, actively trying to lead people astray, but who is read and finds sympathy with people in categories one and two. And say some pastor moves to correct or argue against a position they’re advocating. Well, the problem I see is when your signals get crossed and the harder words you have for the false teacher get read as the tone, approach, or estimation of those who are merely hesitant, or maybe still open to rebuke. Ironically enough, in your desire to guard them, they might end up being pushed towards that position in reaction.

On the flipside, you have those in that third category who hide under the mantle of the first. “Is that what God said?” becomes a cover for “Did God really say?”, so that the aggressive doubt being advocated gets smuggled in surreptitiously under its more benign cousin. I don’t know that I have a real answer to all of this. I suppose I think it’s important enough to simply be aware of those dynamics and the way it colors the way we read online engagements, or go about conducting them. Stating our understanding of what exactly it is we think we’re doing, thinking about who our conversation partners are, who might silently watching from the sidelines, and so forth. For others, it might simply be wise to start considering the nature of doubts and questions. To that end, I’d recommend Matt Anderson’s book The End of Our ExploringI can’t think of a more helpful resource on the subject.

Finally, I suppose I can end by simply noting the way that this is one more text that reminds us every inch of Scripture, even the weirdest bits like Jude, has some fitting word to speak into our day. A word of truth as well as a word of mercy for those who struggle with it.

Soli Deo Gloria

He Who Has Ears Let Him Hear (A Parable for Preachers)

Jesus talkingEvery preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.

I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.

First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).

Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.

That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course,  interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).

All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?

I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father.  And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.

And this was their response to Jesus?

And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.

But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.

Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.

Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.

Soli Deo Gloria