History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past

Many young Christians probably have some mixed feelings about our missionary past. For those of us growing up in the Church, the big heroes are the brave families who head out to spread the Gospel, risking comfort and danger for the sake of the call. In some settings, the 19th-century mission movement is still held up as a halcyon high-mark of the Gospel’s progress in the world, shrouded in mythic glory. Of course, then you go to school, read modern critical accounts, and find accusations (some substantiated and quite damning) of the colonialism, cultural imperialism, and destruction associated with the movement, and the glow fades, leaving a hazy, uncomfortable shadow in its place. Awash in the realization that the history of Christian missions has included atrocities and wide-spread practices deeply at odds with the Gospel, it’s easy for younger, sensitive Christians to become ashamed at any mention of our missionary heritage.

Recently though, there’s been a bright ray of light slowly piercing its way through the gloom. According the latest research, 19th-century Protestant missionaries were not the source of everything wrong with the modern third world. Witness the story of John Mackenzie:

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some of the implications of MacKenzie’s research, both for what it tells about how to do Christian scholarship, and what it can teach us about approaching our own Christian past. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Everyone’s Worth a Shekel (Or, the Ground Is Level At the Foot of the Cross)

shekelThere were a few different taxes in Ancient Israel, but one of the most fascinating was that of the Temple Tax:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more,are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

At first, this might strike us as an unfair regressive tax.  A half-shekel might be a pittance to a wealthy man, while to the poor tenant farmer, this is a great financial sacrifice. All throughout the Old Testament, though, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the different responsibilities that greater or lesser wealth places on those who possess it. Yet here we are faced with a straight, flat tax. Is this a callous requirement neglecting the poor by placing a disproportionate burden on them? Did Yahweh forget the poor here?

In his commentary on Exodus, John Durham suggest something else is going on here:

The sum thus fixed was not by any standard a large amount, but the instruction that rich and poor alike were to give precisely this payment is an important indication of the equality with which all men were received in Yahweh’s Presence. They were all to give equally because they were all to be received and remembered equally; the money was to be used for the expense of the Tent where Yahweh by appointment came to meet them. (Comment on 30:16-17)

Similarly, Craig L. Blomberg says,

The flat rate ensured that even the poorest, who might not be required to give nearly so much via the various tithes, would have to give sacrificially at least here. —Neither Poverty, Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, pg. 47

The equality of tithe speaks to the equality of persons before God. All stand equally condemned before a holy God in need of atonement, and all are equally welcomed into his reconciling presence in the Temple. None can claim greater rights to God’s peace and covenantal blessing, through payment, or inherent extra worth. None ought feel unworthy to come to him in prayer simply because of a lower financial stature. The tenant-farmer’s life is to be redeemed at the same cost as the mighty land-owner’s.

In other words, everybody’s worth a shekel in God’s eyes, which, I suppose, is an Old Testament way of saying “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine–The Dead Guy Most Recommended by Other Dead Guys

StAugustineAugustine was the first true theologian I read in college. I took a class on early medieval philosophy entirely focused on it, and I must say, it was a deeply formative experience for me, spiritually and theologically. For a while now, I’ve wanted to offer an encouragement  to those who have never spent any time with Augustine to do so–an endorsement of sorts, about 1500 years late. Thankfully, Herman Bavinck has already done it for me:

Thus Augustine became a theologian of the greatest importance for later dogmatics, one who dominated the following centuries. Every reformation returns to him and to Paul. For every dogma he found a formula that was taken over and repeated by everyone else. His influence extends to all churches, schools of theology, and sects. Rome appeals to him for its doctrine of the church, sacraments, and authority, with the Reformation felt kinship with him in the doctrine of predestination and grace. Scholasticism, in constructing its conceptual framework, took advantage of his sharp observation, the acuteness of his intellect, the power of his speculation–Thomas, in fact, was called the best interpreter of St. Augustine. Mysticism, in turn, found inspiration in his neoplatonism and religious enthusiasm.  Both Catholic and Protestant piety buoy themselves up on his writings; asceticism and pietism find nourishment and support in his work. Augustine, therefore, does not belong to one church but to all churches together. He is the universal doctor (Doctor universalis). Even philosophy neglects him to its own detriment. And because of his elegant and fascinating style, his refined, precise, highly individual and nevertheless universally human way of expressing himself, he, more than any other church father, can still be appreciated today. He is the most Christian as well as the most modern of all the fathers; of all of them he is closest to us. He replaced the aesthetic worldview with an ethical one, the classical with the Christian. In dogmatics we owe our best, our deepest, our richest thought to him. Augustine has been and is the dogmatician of the Christian church.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena, pg. 139

If that doesn’t encourage you to pick up some Augustine, I don’t know what will.

For those of you interested, I’d recommend starting with The Confessions, and digging around from there. Also, this biography by Peter Brown is supposed to be top-notch, and Justin Taylor has recommended Matthew Levering’s new book on The Theology of Augustine as an excellent introduction.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Reasons I Blog as a Pastor

blogging beardThe other day a blogging friend of mine asked a few of us other bloggers why we blog. He wanted to know our purposes and motivations for all the time and effort we put into the practice. What drives us? What do we hope to gain from it at the end of the day?

Although there are likely more, after a little thought, I came up with four basic reasons I blog and it turns out that in the long run, they all end up helping me do my job as a pastor better. I figured I’d share them here with you. Maybe it’ll re-invigorate your own blogging, or encourage some of you to pick up the practice for yourself.

1. I Like Thinking Things. I think and read a lot. Communicating what I read and think about tends to be  fruitful way for me to process it. That said, to be perfectly honest, I can’t preach half of what I think about. I mean, can you imagine me unleashing a talk on theological epistemology on my college kids? That’d be just abusive. Until I get into a Ph.D. program or something like that, blogging is an intellectual outlet for me to rip into some of the nerdier, or less immediately relevant theological and cultural analysis I might be tempted to engage in. In that way, it’s kind of a nice little intellectual pressure release for me.

2. Directly Serving the Church. The second reason I blog is that I think that it can directly serve the Church in general and my church in particular. I can think of at least three ways this happens:

  • For one, some of my students, especially my away-at-college students, tell me they read the blog occasionally, and so hopefully they’re learning from some of what I’m addressing. It’s one way for me to keep teaching them, even when I don’t have their butts in the seats right in front of me.
  • Next, some of the stuff I hammer out on the blog actually does make it’s way into my preaching eventually. Just this last week I was doing some research for an article I was writing that ended up dovetailing perfectly with my sermon. This happens regularly enough, that I can safely say my writing has helped improve and expand the wealth of material that I’ve actually processed and insights gained to be redeployed in direct ministry context. In other words, writing helps me be a more insightful preacher and pastor.
  • As for the broader Church, I know I’ve gained from other pastors and theologians who have tackled issues online that I have been grappling with, or didn’t even realize I should be. Without presuming too much, I hope my own writing contributes to blessing the church at large, both through the edification of their elders, or by directly addressing theological and practical questions in a popular form. My hope is that this blesses the life of the broader Church as it is built up in the knowledge of Christ.

3. Stewardship of God’s Gifts And Sanctification. Next, if God has given me an ability to communicate, it’s actually just responsible to continue to steward it and develop that gift. Blogging is a way to keep developing my skills as a writer and a communicator. What’s more, it’s pushed me character-wise as I’ve engaged in the broader community, and connected me with other like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) brothers and sisters who have helped develop and shape my thought, I think, for the better.

I can’t tell you how much of a blessing my Christ and Pop Culture team has been to me, or the growth I’ve had in working with the crews at The Gospel Coalition or Mere Orthodoxy. I think my church has, in some ways, a holier pastor because of the writing. (Which, based on my writing, might raise the question of just how bad was I before I started?)

4. Joy. Finally, I blog because I enjoy it. Honestly, I don’t know about everybody else, but once I started writing, it started getting addictive. Yes, the prideful stuff like page-views and twitter-followers is there too. I’ve been sanctified in Christ and yet, I am still being sanctified, right? Still, the pure joy of crafting an argument and turning a phrase is just enjoyable. Some articles can be a task and dull at times, but fundamentally, the practice of writing is something I have come to love doing for its own sake.

But how does this play into my pastoring? Well, overall joy and emotional health stemming from one practice in my life, spreads into other areas. The stress relieved, or joy derived from some time writing gives me energy to tackle some of the pastoral tasks that can threaten it, or just leave me tired.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Follow-up Thoughts on Sneering Calvinists


I’m better than you.

So this last week I wrote a post about Sneering Calvinists over at the Gospel Coalition. I basically said that the Reformed have gotten a somewhat justified reputation for being prickly and arrogant, you don’t have to be a crazy, wicked person to reject Reformed distinctives, and since we believe in humbling grace, we should not be terrible to these people. Honestly, not really hard stuff.

Essentially, I was talking about what some other Reformed commentators/theologians, like R. Scott Clark have talked about before. While challenging the notion that Reformed types are of necessity prickly he goes on to talk about the reality of the ‘cage phase‘: 

Let’s admit, however, that sometimes, upon first becoming Reformed, some folk become jerks. Sometimes this phase is temporary. Mike Horton calls this the “cage phase,” when a new convert to Reformed Christianity needs to be put in a cage until he matures. Some, when they first discover “the doctrines of grace” (code for unconditional predestination and justification by grace alone, through faith alone) can actually become angry that they’ve been denied these truths for so long.

For some, this is a temporary phase. For others, they never seem to grow out of it–but they should. If you haven’t before, go read the whole article–it’s worth it.

Well, the reactions were interesting. For the most part, they were positive–from both Reformed and non-Reformed. I had a lot of Reformed people agreeing, a few confessing a need for repentance, and in general, people seemed thankful that somebody within the camp had said it. I even had a few wonderful emails from people looking for book recommendations in order to learn their theology better so they wouldn’t misrepresent it! Also, from the non-Reformed, there were a number of people who similarly grateful that someone from within the camp had said it.

Still, there were a number of hurt, angry, and just plain confused responses that I thought were worth commenting on.

No, This is Not All Reformed People – Just to be clear, for those who couldn’t catch it earlier: I don’t think all Calvinists sneer or are terrible. Actually, I generally like them. I read them. I agree with them. When they’re not teetotalers, I drink beer with them. In fact, the bottom half of my article was dedicated to talking about a couple of them who were instrumental in my own journey into the Reformed fold. As I’ve come in, I’ve found that there are plenty more like them. Finally, the post was featured on The Gospel Coalition–visible Calvinist central. I wouldn’t write for them if that wasn’t the case.

Yes, Arminians Can Be Terrible Too – The other common reaction was the “Arminians have been terrible too” defense. Some wanted to know why I singled out Calvinists in my article, since theological pride is a common Christian inheritance, not unique to the Calvinist. Which is true. I’ve witnessed plenty of Arminian sneering, and sometimes the worst of it comes from those who love complaining about Calvinist sneers. Todd Pruitt had a good balancing word the other day:

For example I could write posts about the fact that the meanest and most self-righteous people I have ever encountered are Arminians. But what would that accomplish? Honestly, some of these posts sound a bit like, “I thank you Lord that I am not like this mean Calvinist.” What is more, until prominent Arminian theologians stop publicly comparing “the god of Calvinism” with Satan, then the reports of mean Calvinists are going to ring a bit hollow.

I couldn’t agree more.

So why focus on Calvinists? A number of reasons. First, and most simply, I was telling my story. It involved moving into the Reformed camp, from outside the camp, and my experience with sneering Calvinists.

Next, the Gospel Coalition is read primarily by those of a Reformed theological persuasion, so it makes sense to focus my argument for my audience. If I’d have aimed it too broad, it’s all to easy for those of us with a bad case of plank-in-eye, to miss the personal application and think “Yes, this is perfect for my arrogant Catholic friend!” In fact, I suspect that some (not all, but some) of those raising a complaint on this score, were simply irritated that they couldn’t dodge my attempted plank-removal service.

After that, I wanted to avoid the danger Pruitt talks about. Again, I can rip off plenty of examples of sneering Catholics, sneering Orthodox, sneering Post-Evangelicals, sneering anti-Calvinists who seem to have no other theological distinctive beyond their central tenet: “Calvinism is the devil.” I could do that, because they exist and they’re a pain as well–God bless ’em.  Still, while it’s possible, and necessary at times, to point the foibles of those outside the fold–as I’ve done myself before–it’s all to easy for it to be written off as “well, he would say that, he’s Reformed”, or, “Oh look, the Gospel Coalition–Calvinists–are telling people to play nice. Isn’t that cute?”

Following on that point, as I’ve said before, criticisms of those in the Reformed fold are best delivered by those within the fold:

When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.

While I was writing primarily of theological distortions, this can apply just as well to distortions of piety and character. Honestly, I focused on Reformed folks because I’m Reformed and I want us to shed that reputation. I want the whole, “Calvinists are jerks” meme to be manifestly a distortion, so that’s no longer an excuse–crappy or not–for writing off Reformed doctrine. Maybe I’m just being selfish for my Reformed brothers and sisters–I want all the jerks to be their jerks.

Not Good Enough – Finally, there were the non-Reformed who thought I didn’t go far enough. They accused me of still treating other traditions and theological persuasions as lesser and encouraging condescension towards non-Reformed believers–though of a more benevolent sort. To that, I can only reply: I’m sorry. That’s not my intent. I’ve reread it and I’m not sure what I should have rewritten, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve learned plenty from my non-Reformed friends, teachers, and theologians. At points I don’t agree with them, and so I’m going to continue to talk as if Reformed  theology is, in the main, correct. I can’t help that–that’s how belief works. Still, if I demonstrated any arrogance or dismissive tendencies towards other traditions and believers in my attempt to discourage that sort of thing, please do forgive me.

Well, as always, there’s more to say, but I’ll have to wrap it up here today.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Your God is An Object , Then People Become Objects

petersonI was chatting with a friend last night online about the link between the prophets condemnation of idolatry and their abhorrence of social injustice. In the course of things I said to him, “If you think about it, idolatry is a failure to do justice to the beauty of God. From there, it bleeds out into a failure to do justice to the beauty of God’s Image-bearers.” The two phenomena are inseparable–eventually one leads to the other.

Reflecting on Elijah’s condemnation of Jezebel’s treachery against Naboth in pursuit of his property, Eugene Peterson puts some biblical heft to that principle:

When you have a god that is a thing, a god that you can use, an object, neighbors also become things, something to use, objects. With an impersonal god, you end up with an impersonal neighbor. Jezebel certainly did.

The champions of Baal, priests and queen alike, did not have an easy time of it with Elijah. On Mount Carmel Elijah championed Yahweh, the name of God; in the Valley Jezreel Elijah championed Naboth, the name of the neighbor. Elijah was as much a prophet in the valley as he was on the mountain. Elijah lived his life on the margins–marginal to the popular religion of the day, marginal to the power politics of the day. Because he lived on the margins he was unimpressed by what went on in the center: the impressive worship experience put on by the 450 priests of Baal on the mountain, the impressive demonstration of hubristic contempt of a neighbor by the patroness of Baal in the Valley. As it turned out, it was from the margins that Elijah re-centered the life of Israel both in worship of their God, Yahweh, and in respect for their neighbors.

The Jesus Way, pg. 121

May we be a people who are unimpressed by the worship of the gods of this age–money, sex, power–and therefore impressed with the sacredness of our neighbors. When Money is not god, we will not make our neighbors commodities to be bandied about in of the pursuit of wealth. When Sexual Fulfillment is not god, we will not treat our neighbors as mere bodies to be used and consumed in of our pursuit of pleasure. When Power is not god, we will not treat our neighbors as pawns to be manipulated in our pursuit of power.

When the LORD is God, we will love our neighbor in our pursuit of giving glory to their Maker, in whose sacred Image they are formed.

Soli Deo Gloria

Donald Miller and the Myth of Isolated Worship (CaPC)

isolated worshipSo, Donald Miller wrote an article about why he doesn’t go to church much. You can read it here. I was surprised by how much I didn’t agree with it, given the way his earlier works blessed me when I was in college (especially some of the moving things he has written about needing community).

In essence, for this article Miller took some of the worst cliches and cultural trends of American life that contribute to our consumeristic view of church and handily bundled them all together in one article. I guess he’s performed us a service, though, because they’re kind of all there, ready to be dissected in one sitting.

You can go read me dissecting it over at Christ and Pop Culture. Also, please do me a favor and read this one. It’s important. 

Don’t Be a Sneering Calvinist (TGC)

sneering calvinismI’m fairly new to the Reformed tradition and still piecing it all together, especially when it comes to the thorny issues of election and sovereignty. In a sense, I’m a reluctant Calvinist; I still prefer words like “Reformedish” to describe myself, yes, because of my identification with the broader tradition, but also because of how slowly I’ve been drawn in. That being the case, I still remember what it’s like to find Calvinism and Calvinists thoroughly off-putting.

There were different reasons for this wariness.

Okay, for the rest of the article, I give my reasons and tell Calvinists not to be terrible. You can read it at The Gospel Coalition.

Yes, I Happen To Think Other People Are Wrong–And So Do You

its-okay-if-you-disagree-with-me“So wait, you think all those other people who disagree with you are wrong?”

Have you ever been in a conversation about a controversial subject and run up against that flabbergasted response, or something like it? This can happen in just about any conversation, but it’s most common in the area of religion, either between believers/non-believers, or believers of different theological persuasions.

For some, the question means something along the lines of, “Wait, how can you be so sure that you’re right given the sheer tonage of people who believe differently?” That’s a question of justification–a challenge to give reasons for why you disagree with so many. That’s a legitimate challenge in my book. Others, though, are dealing with a different issue. The assumption for many, either unstated, or stated shortly thereafter, is that the simple act of believing something to be true, yourself correct, and others wrong is inherently arrogant, immoral, and astoundingly intolerant.

But the plain fact of the matter is that it’s not. It’s just how believing works.

There’s a basic feature of belief such that, when you believe something to be true, you necessarily think you are right in holding said belief. If you didn’t think you were right on that point, you wouldn’t hold that point. You’d believe something else. The corollary is that if you think something is true, and someone believes otherwise, you think they are wrong with respect to that particular piece of reality.

Take something trivial–if I look outside at the world and come to the belief that it is currently raining, and then someone asks me, “Do you think your judgment that it is currently raining is correct?”, it’s quite sensible for me to answer: “Yes.”  They then ask me,  “So you think you’re right in believing that it’s raining?” The obvious answer to that question is “Yes.” It is rather impossible for me to coherently hold the belief ‘It is now raining’, and ‘I am wrong about my belief that it is raining’ at the same time. Now, the obvious corollary is that should someone ask me after that, “So you believe that all the people who don’t think it’s raining right now are just wrong?”, I’ll respond, “Yes, I do happen to think they’re wrong on that point.”

Note, my belief that other people are wrong and I’m right in this situation isn’t really a moral issue. I’m not particularly arrogant for believing myself to be correct, nor am I implying that they’re particularly stupid for disagreeing with me. Nor does this imply that I am not open to correction on this belief. It just naturally follows from the fact that I hold something to be true. Actually, all it means in this case is that I happen to be closer to the window and have been able to see that the world really is a certain way that they don’t see yet. In fact, when I state the belief, ‘It is raining right now’, my focus is not on my correctness, but simply on the fact that it’s raining.

Now take this out of the trivial.  Say I go ahead and say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord, resurrected from the dead, and vindicated of all of his claims to be Messiah, Son of God, and so forth.” I actually hold that these things are true descriptions of the way things are. Just by the nature of what a belief is–holding of something to be true–it naturally follows that I think I’m right in holding this belief, and that those who believe contrary are wrong on this point.

Again, this doesn’t preclude me from holding my beliefs humbly, admitting the possibility of error, or being open to correction. Nor does this mean I believe myself to be particularly smart, good, or reasonable for believing this over those with whom I disagree. It simply means I currently believe the world to be this way–it is the case that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and so forth. Also, of necessity, the person who doesn’t believe Jesus is Lord of all, and so forth, similarly holds her own views to be correct, and mine to be incorrect. And that’s perfectly fine.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t challenge the arrogance and presumption with which some people hold their beliefs. The diversity of views held by other intelligent, morally-sensitive individuals ought to give us pause to slow down, and consider our own beliefs, or the reasons that lead others to believe as they do. And yet, once we’ve established our beliefs–that we believe reality is a certain way, even religious reality–it’s okay to admit we think we’re right and that others are wrong.

Now, at this point, some might be unconvinced. You disagree. “Believing something does not require you to think you’re correct and other people are wrong. It’s possible to hold your own beliefs on a subject without holding that opposing views on the same subject are confused or wrong. Derek, you’re mistaken and wrong on this point…oh, wait.”


Soli Deo Gloria