Four Themes for Pastor Theologians at the CPT Conference 2015

pastor theologianThis week I had the privilege of attending The Center for Pastor Theologians’ first annual conference in Oak Park. I’ve been excited about it for some time, not simply because of the buzz around the subject right now, but also because of the space I inhabit in my own studies, having recently (temporarily?) left my position in the local church. Now, I unfortunately could only make one of the days, but thankfully, it was the largest bulk of the time. That said, what I did catch was on point. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand know how to put a conference together.

First off, Calvary Memorial felt like it was designed to host this sort of event. I mean, really, when I say it’s beautiful, I’m not just blowing smoke. Second, the size of the conference was really nice. I’m terrible with numbers, but it seemed like maybe two hundred or so people were, which is great for meeting, chatting, and feeling like you’re not being herded around like a bunch of cattle. I had the pleasure of meeting a number pastors and students working through some of issues I’ve been chewing on. Beyond that, the line-up was great. Not only the plenaries–which I’ll get to–but the breakout sessions, which featured speakers who could have easily been plenary speakers. If I had some spare cash and any extra time to read, the exhibitor section would have been tempting as well, with their sizable discount on books. All that to say, I look forward to coming back next year.

Oh, and one more thing: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the worship. For one thing, I was surprised at how good it was. The worship team had a tightly ordered, historic, yet contemporary liturgical order with each plenary session that actually ministered to some burdens in my soul. And that’s the second thing: I expected to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, there, but I was blessed to be comforted spiritually. But shouldn’t spiritual benefit be one of the impacts of a theological conference?

The Speakers

Now, as I mentioned, I only made it for the Tuesday portion, but that included the plenaries by Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, and Kevin Vanhoozer. While I was sad to miss Wilson and Hiestand’s pieces and the panel discussion, I was far from feeling robbed. All three were in fine form. Leithart discussed the Pastor as Biblical theologian, Smith, the Pastor as Political theologian, and Vanhoozer, the Pastor as Public theologian. Here’s what was funny: while all of the talks were distinct, content-rich, and focused on different aspects of the pastor’s theological work, there were some very clear–though, I think, unplanned–commonalities and themes. What I’d like to do is highlight four of them, summarizing and drawing on the different talks to do so.

Local. The first theme that clearly stood out was their focus on the local setting of the pastor. Leithart explicitly grounded his reflections around the activities of of the preacher in the “parish” ministry of study, pulpit, and table, as he sees one of the challenges of the pastor as biblical theologian is to develop new methods since much biblical scholarship that’s arisen in the academy is simply unusable by the church. As Vanhoozer joked, “Location! Location! Location!” is not only a principle of real estate, but of the reality of gospel-theologizing. Local pastors are theologians who are to know the specific locales–geographical, cultural, and spiritual–of the people (the public) to whom they are ministering. Smith even spoke of pastors as cultural ethnographers who are keen observers of their people and their environments, observing and reflecting on the cultural liturgies that shape the polis that exerts spiritual formative influence on their people.

Apocalyptic. Connected with this is the pastor as “apocalyptic” theologian. I believe the term was Smith’s, but it easily could apply to all three, though especially Leithart who framed his reflections around a close reading Revelation 17. In any case, local pastor-theologians are to be keen cultural observers, in part, in order to “unveil” and unmask the unreality of the prominent paradigms of the good life shaping our people without their understanding. Smith spoke of the “purging of the Christian imagination” that is partly the work of the pastor theologian who exegetes the festivals and practices of Empire. A theological sociologist, of sorts. Vanhoozer also stressed the formative power of culture, returning to some the themes from his work Everyday TheologyPart of ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to the public of your people, means exposing the lies of the principalities and powers at work in the everyday rituals and narratives that hold our imaginations captive to the bestial practices of Empire.

Canonical. Of course, unsurprisingly, all three stressed the ministry of the Word as forming a canonical consciousness. Vanhoozer noted that the sermon is the “quintessential theological act”, which pastor-theologians practice in order to communicate the excellence of Christ and shape the congregation into who they already are in Christ. Leithart also stressed the ministry of the Word, suggesting that for the Word to have this effect, sermons must begin to take the shape of deep Bible studies, which illumine the narratival, typological, and theological depth of the texts, in order for our people to begin to inhabit the world of the Gospel. Hearing his phenomenal handling of Revelation 17 and the various theological, cultural, and political implications in his presentation, it’s hard to disagree. Looking to the practice of St. Augustine, Smith emphasized the preaching of the Word as well, but also pointed to Augustine’s theological work in his letters to the general Boniface, in which he gave biblical counsel in order to shape Boniface’s vocational self-understanding. The theological ministry of the Word expands beyond the pulpit for the pastor of a sent people living in a secular age.

Liturgical. Finally, all three, unsurprisingly if you know their work, emphasized the liturgy and especially ministering the sacraments as key theological activities of pastor theologians, both for shaping their theologizing and their people. Vanhoozer says the Lord’s Supper is the “summa and apologia” of the gospel; it is a “verbal, visual, and visceral” summary of the good news. As such, it is a powerfully formative liturgical practice for shaping the theological imagination of the polis of the church. The Table and the Pulpit go together in the work of the pastor theologian.

Of course, I’m still barely scratching the surface of these talks, especially since abstracting commonalities like this obscures the unique arguments of Leithart, Smith, and Vanhoozer. For that reason, I’d encourage you to go check out these talks and those of Hiestand and Wilson on the CPT Vimeo channel, which will be posted up by next Monday. I know I’ll be checking in to catch up on the sections I missed myself. In the meantime, they’ve got some helpful videos already up.

To sum up, the conference was a

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Manhood w/ Nate Pyle

Mere FidelityOur society is wracked by a heavily-freighted questions of meaning, significance, and identity. Few questions are more central, though, than those concerning gender and sexuality. In this show, we invited on our friend Nate Pyle to talk about the subject of “manhood”, as he’s just written what promises to be a helpful book on the subject, Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. As always, it’s a fairly lively discussion, since none of us are exactly on the same place on the issue. We do hope this conversation is fruitful and clarifying for you, even if you end up walking away with more questions than when you started.

Language For God in Patristic Thought by Mark Sheridan

patristicStudying Christian history, it’s funny to see the way certain verses take on out-sized significance for how the Bible is read and the faith is interpreted in the tradition. For instance, Etienne Gilson has traced the way a certain “metaphysics of the Exodus” developed around the declaration of the LORD, “I AM who I AM” (Exod. 3:14).

In his study of Language for God in Patristic Tradition:Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Mark Sheridan shows that the verse, “God is not as man to be deceived nor as the son of man to be threatened” (Numbers 23:19) and an early (mis)rendering Deuteronomy 1:31 (“As a man takes on the manners of his son”) were two of the key texts that shaped and gave rise to ancient Christian methods of interpreting Scripture. Following the tradition of Philo of Alexandria and others, the Fathers had an explicitly theological method for reading Scripture, especially as it pertained to speaking of the ways and works of God in human language in ways “appropriate” and “fitting” to the divine being. This especially concerned the ascription to God of things like human hands, feet, physical activity (anthropomorphism) as well as human emotions like delight, surprise, repentance, or even anger (anthropopathism), which were particularly problematic for the Fathers.

Sheridan traces the various Scriptural and philosophical intuitions shaping the Fathers of the early Church from essentially three sources: Greco-Roman reading strategies, Hellenistic Jewish appropriations, and finally, the New Testament texts themselves.  First comes the strategy of allegorical interpretations developed by the Hellenistic exegetes in order to save texts like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey from the moral critiques of the philosophers like Xenophanes, who took aim at the questionable morals and oh-so-human depictions of the gods in such works. Hellenistic Jews like Philo redeployed them in order to read the Old Testament narratives and Law for apologetic and edificatory purposes. Later on, seeing warrant in Pauline and New Testament allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament, the Fathers drew on the Philonic tradition in order to aid them in their own Christological and moral readings of Scripture.

Having established this groundwork, Sheridan examines the way the Fathers treated key problem texts such as the creation narratives, patriarchal misconduct, or even the Divine command in the Conquest of the Holy Land. He also devotes a lengthy chapter to patristic interpretation of the Psalms, both for their anthropopathic and anthropomorphic language, as well as their morally compromising character in the imprecatory language. Finally, he ends with some comparisons between modern and ancient strategies for reading Scripture, and a very helpful, summary appendix on the theological structures and presuppositions to patristic interpretation. In a sense, it sort of sums up the work as a whole.

First of all, some positives. The book is clean, clear, and well-researched. Sheridan’s obviously an expert and he’s done a marvelous job setting out his theses from the primary sources, focusing on some of the key patristic figures such as Chrysostom, Augustine, and especially Origen. Second, his commentary is uncluttered, to the point, and informative. Next, Sheridan’s great at not simply focusing on the shape of the reading strategies, nor simply doing history for antiquarian interest. He cuts to the heart of the theological issues involved by returning to the question that concerned the Fathers which still concerns us today: what are we to say about God in light of the Scriptures? What is fitting to ascribe to him? These are not easy questions to answer but Sheridan helpfully makes available patristic perspectives that could prove fruitful for current generations to adopt, redeploy, or at least consider as they do their own wrestling with the text, as every generation must do afresh.

On the negative side, I had a couple complaints. First, I found it a bit odd that while the Fathers’ concern with how to treat ascriptions of anger or violence to the Godhead seems to be a special concern, there is no treatment of one of the clearest texts on the matter, Lactantius’ De Ira Dei (On the Anger of God). You can’t treat everything, but that text also might undermine the fairly consistent portrait of the Fathers’ handling of the issue. Second, Sheridan’s own theological interests come out towards the end chapters comparing Ancient and Modern strategies for reading the Bible, especially with respect to texts like the moral failures of the patriarchal narratives, or the conquest narratives, judgment, and so forth. He’s fairly critical of the modern, “literalist” approaches, clearly favoring ancient and, to be honest, rather moralizing interpretations. That said, he gives a fairly thin theological argument in favor of his preference beyond descriptively and unsympathetically explaining modern approaches and saying something like, “that doesn’t seem like enough does it?” Rarely does he theologically argue against modern concern for issues of historicity, sensitivity to genre, and so forth.

In general, though, I came away both more appreciative and critical of the Fathers’ interpretive efforts. Their theological concerns are not always our theological concerns, nor are their prejudices our prejudices. When reading Genesis, we’re not typically afraid that our hearers will think God has actual, physical hands he’s shaping Adam with. We’re worried about evolution and science, while the Fathers were worried about a fall back into the mythology their hearers had just come from, and so rightly aim to highlight God’s distinction from the gods they knew. This is corrective and instructive. Popular preaching in many churches isn’t as concerned as it might be that people draw the wrong impression from the anthropopathic portrayals of God’s ways with us. We fail to consider what it means that “God is not a man.” What’s more, for those interested in Christ-centered preaching, some of the Christological readings Sheridan draws our attention to are simply fantastic. Chrysostom, in particular, comes out shining like a star. Origen, as well, rose in my admittedly prejudiced estimation.

All the same, though I’m quite allergic to modernist, chronological snobbery, I simultaneously came away more appreciative of some of the advances of in modern hermeneutics by comparison. We simply can’t do the same kind etymological theology that was common at the time. Taking seriously historical context, comparative religious backgrounds, and more sober philological work has curbed our tendency to seek out “hidden meanings” often divorced from the literal sense of the text (which not all Fathers did!). And this is a good thing. I don’t think turning the story of Hagar and Sarah into an allegory of moving from the study of logic and rhetoric to the deeper study of philosophy is an adequate reading of the text, as some of the Fathers did. Nor, for all their problems, do I think turning the conquest narratives into a treatment of the conquest of the vices of the soul a reading that respects the texts as the historical narratives as they were given to us.

In sum, the Fathers were careful, sensitive, educated, and time-bound interpreters of Scripture, whose readings and ways of reading are worth our time and attention. They are our spiritual and theological Fathers worthy of our respect, consideration, and apprenticeship, though not our slavish imitation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rishmawy TEDS Update – Three Months In And We’re Still Here

Rishmawys in ChicagoHere in Illinois the trees have turned color–gold, auburn, purple, and brown. We’ve been here only three months and, while today’s a gorgeous, sunny, and windy day, we’ve already had some rainy cold nights that put to shame the worst of what we get in the middle of February in California. Which, I suppose, isn’t saying much.

It’s been three months since we packed up the car, trecked across country, and settled ourselves down in Ludwigson Hall here at TEDS. Which means it’s past due for a bit of an update on how McKenna and I are doing.

Prayers Answered

First off,  we want to thank everyone who has been praying along with us for the trip. We’ve felt the support, especially those of you who have reached out to send us little notes, or texts, and messages checking in on us. It’s meant the world. I figured I’d begin the update in the shape of recounting prayers God has answered already.

So, in case you couldn’t tell based on the photos on Facebook and such, we got here safely and have mostly settled into our apartment and general life patterns. There’s still some furniture to purchase, photos to put up, and so forth (I still have about 5 boxes of books that need shelving), but we’re in decent shape. We even have acquired Illinois licenses. No, you can’t see the photos.

Academically, I haven’t failed any classes, yet. True, my first semester isn’t over, but I still count that a win. Also, yes, class is great. I try not to be a fanboy, but sitting in Dr. Vanhoozer’s class really is a bit surreal, even after a couple of months of it. And it’s not only his classes either. All of my professors have been great so far, and it’s been a wonderful experience to be back in the class, discussing Scripture, theology, French, or whatever class I’m in. It’s challenging and stimulating and I still have trouble believing this is my life now. Reading theology for hours a day is my job. I’m supposed to be doing that.

Beyond that, God has been faithful in providing us community here at TEDS–and not just for me. The community here has been stunningly welcoming and loving to us. People I’ve known for less than a week or two, lending us a spare mattress for the first few days we got here, others helping us move in, a friend driving me to the doctor’s when I was car-less, and one dear friend even allowing me to crash on his couch for a week. McKenna’s joined a great ladies’ Bible study and might have closer friends here than I do, already. Of course, we’re still getting to know people, but we’re just surprised at how great everybody’s been.

Following off of that, we found a church. In fact, we just joined this Sunday morning. We are officially members of Grace Presbyterian on the North Shore in Winnetka. We checked it out the first week we came and it felt good right away. We tried a different church the next week, but we ended up feeling like we’d missed church. Grace quickly felt like home, after only two or three weeks. Everybody has been very warm from the get-go and our small group is this wonderful inter-generational group that’s brought us in with open arms. Also, it’s just a solid church. There’s good, Christ-centered preaching. We receive the Lord’s Supper every week. Worship is centered on God. Your pastors know your name. And there’s a surprisingly involved congregation.

Also on that note, we found a job for McKenna—at the church! Yup. It’s funny how that worked out. She must have applied to fifteen or more schools and no dice, and then a spot at church worked out. So, she’s the Executive Assistant, working on organizing volunteers, helping implement systems, and assisting our pastor Marshall. And we’re confident she’s gonna do great. So, as it happens, she works at a church and now I’m the one who works at a school.

Finally, the marriage is still good. We’ve been praying together and have been stretched a ton. But in the middle of that we’ve had to lean on each other in new ways we never would have, were we not living in a completely different state, thousands of miles from home. It’s been hard, but there’s been a lot of joy and laughter in the midst of it.

Some Learnings 

Finally, because I’m a blogger, I suppose it’s appropriate to note a few learnings from the trip so far.

First, being an adult is hard. I mean, I was an adult before, but moving across country, figuring out things like new health care, and licenses and all that business is just tough. People tell you that, but I don’t think I ever had to face it as full force as I have out here.

Second, the kingdom is big. And international. You know, it’s been funny to talk to people about moving out here because I don’t think we’re getting the typical experience. You’ll get questions like, “How are you adjusting to Midwestern culture? Is it a shock?” And McKenna and I are kind of unsure how to respond because at Trinity we live next to Australians, Koreans, Germans, and people from South Carolina (which is its own wonderful thing, from what I’m gathering). And it’s great. It’s been quite an experience to learn about how different everybody is, while at the same time sharing the main thing in common: the gospel of Jesus Christ. TEDS has a ton of international students looking to learn here, then go back home and serve their people faithfully back home. And meeting them and growing to know them has already been a rich, expanding experience for us.

The Internet is interesting. It probably looks like a really cool wonderland to everybody back home. And in many ways it is. We’ve been to Chicago a few times. I am now a member of the Chicago Art Institute–which instantly made me a patron of the arts. That’s pretty sweet. But let’s be honest, I never update selfies about those times I’ve broken down sobbing at the thought of how much I miss my friends, or my parents, my sister and her husband, their beautiful little babies, or my in-laws, or our old church family at Trinity. But that’s happened.  Nor do I constantly post about the horror and dread of figuring out the health care, or paying for our car’s compressor going out, or the half-dozen other stresses that have come up in the last three months. Sure, I call my parents freaking out and they pray me down. Which is good. But I don’t Instagram that, ya know? And not even because I want to hide or deceive, or put on appearances. It just doesn’t feel natural. And that’s fine. But all that to say, I’ve long known the internet to be a bit of a funhouse mirror, but this trip has helped put some perspective on my understanding of even the pictures of others’ internet appearances.

Finally, this one could be said in two different ways: “God is utterly faithful”, or “God is timely in his own time.” God has been coming through for us this whole trip. It has not been easy. It has not been simple. It has not been a perfect little jaunt off to a new life in Chicago-land. All the same, it has been good. God has been utterly and purely good, with no shadow of turning, providing all that we need in the time that he knows we need it–even if that’s a couple of weeks later than we were entirely comfortable with. And that’s fine. He knows what he’s doing.

One of the things Dr. Vanhoozer has said more than a couple of times in his lectures, is that if he really wanted to know what your theology was–what you truly believed about God in Christ–he would have to follow you around with a video camera and watch how you live. How you spend your money. How you spend your time. How you treat your neighbor, your wife, your child, or yourself. For myself, I’ve had to realize that if I really believe that God is my Father in Christ who grants me his Spirit, who will never leave me or forsake me, then I’ll breathe easier. I’ll sleep instead of stress at night. And so that’s been part of my prayer life: Father, you’re sovereign, so I’m going to breathe right now.

Prayer Requests

For those of you wondering how you can continue to pray, we’d simply ask for a few things.

First, continued prayers for our marriage. After our walk with Jesus, that’s priority number one for us.

Second, school is challenging. Please pray for my focus and discipline. It’s been a few years since I’ve written a paper or taken a test, so there’s some worry there.

Third, McKenna asks for prayer that she do her job well and continue to grow close with the staff and volunteer team. Also, of course, that we continue to plug in and find different ways to serve.

Finally, we miss our family and friends. It was nice having our buddy Matt come out, as well as having McKenna’s parents out here for a few days. All the same, we’re looking forward to seeing everybody at Christmas.

Thanks for listening.

Soli Deo Gloria