Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hezekiah and the Temptation of “Peace in My Time”

Isaiah 39 contains a haunting transitional narrative. In 36-37 we learn of the LORD’s rescue of Judah from the Assyrians after the good King Hezekiah turns to the Lord for help. In chapter 38, he learns of a sickness which will kill him, but again, upon his prayerful request, the LORD heals him. After these things, we come to our story.

hezekiah

At some point before their rise to power, envoys from Babylon come to Jerusalem to confer. Hezekiah, feeling strong and secure, shows them all that he has, all of his treasury, belongings, and holdings. After this, Isaiah gets word of this visit and asks Hezekiah about it. Hezekiah, unblinking tells him what he did. And this is Isaiah’s response:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts:  Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.” (Isa. 39:5-8)

There are two possible ways to read the story. On the one hand, perhaps Hezekiah is humbly submitting to the word of the LORD, knowing that God has already been patient with Judah in the past. This is a possible read that is not entirely unlikely given Hezekiah’s righteousness in the past.

That said, I think this unlikely given his willingness to plead for his own life in the narrative of chapter 38. Also, he is already depicted acting foolish and boastfully in displaying his wealth to the Babylonians. Even more, though, he betrays himself by that last line, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

This is a selfish, foolish thought for a King and leader of God’s people to have. It was then, and as I was reading the story, I was hit with the weight of how foolish it is today.

While it is often the case that pastors and church leaders are obsessed with what’s to come and are too fixated and updating, tweaking, and “vision-casting” for the next 20 years, sadly, it is very easy to fall into a certain sense of  complacency or cowardice as well. As long as their churches, their denominations, and their ministries are “working well enough for now,” they write off the need to plan, to fight, to prepare, and pray for the conflicts of tomorrow. It could be anything. Doctrinal matters left unresolved in your congregation, stale or non-existent evangelism to the next generation, financially unsustainable programs, and so forth. So long as the bill won’t come due on your watch, you ignore it.

One example from my own experiences. I don’t write much about the troubles my old church went through as they decided whether or not to stick it out in their declining, liberalizing denomination or move to greener, more orthodox pastures. It was a long, protracted process, with prayer, committee meetings without end, public forums, and everything you’d expect of a Presbyterian church trying to do the due diligence.

At one forum, they had brought in a couple of orthodox pastors who represented two positions: stay or leave. The fella who was arguing for staying had been in ministry for 30 plus years, apparently faithfully, and was about to retire. He argued that leaving the denomination would be akin to getting a divorce, quitting when the going got tough, and so forth. (Nevermind that it had been ‘tough’ for decades and was now entering the ‘terminal’ phase.)

In the Q&A I asked him what he thought a young member pursuing ordination should think about joining a denomination who, if he and his church were to face a lawsuit over maintaining an traditional stance on marriage and related issues, would not actually back him legally. At that point, the pastor sort of blustered and said something to the effect, “Well, you know the time is coming when you’re going to have to learn to take a stand for being a Christian and suffer for it.”

Now, that’s true as far as it goes for any Christian. But in the context, it wasn’t actually a call to courage and faith in God’s providence. It was the comfortable counsel of a man who was about to retire and didn’t really have skin in the game. You could see it didn’t matter to him what younger pastors coming up after him would have to deal with in the denomination he had failed to keep from plowing into the ground. There would be peace in his time and for maybe a couple of years after that so, “toughen up and fight the good fight, son.”

This is just one example of the kind of carelessness about tomorrow that only is concerned with, “peace and security in my days.” What’s haunting about this, is remembering that Hezekiah was a good king. And this man was not a failed or unorthodox pastor. This is a trap that even generally faithful leaders can fall in.

Considering it now, it’s something I can only pray the Lord keeps me from when my time comes to think beyond my own days.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Assorted Thoughts on #TGC17

no other gospelThis last week I had the privilege of attending TGC’s National Conference for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There was a focus on Galatians and remembering the legacy of the Reformers for the sake of the Church of today.  I have to say, overall it was a very encouraging time. I would commend the audio to all the breakout sessions to you when it becomes available at TGC’s website. For now, the main plenaries are up and worth your time.

I have no grand thesis or synthesis about it, but a few assorted thoughts now that I’m home and am somewhat recovered.

The Gospel is Really Good News. First, I just enjoyed hearing as much preaching out of Galatians as I did. I know that you can preach the gospel from any book, but you basically trip over it in every verse in Paul’s power-packed epistle. Hearing careful Scriptural preaching regarding justification, the history of redemption, Christian liberty, and the cross is one of the better ways of remembering and carrying on the legacy of the Reformation. Beyond that, it just ministered to my soul.

Older Preachers. Second, I was struck when listening to Sandy Wilson’s talk on Galatians 2 what a blessing it is to hear older preachers. When I was a younger man (say 20), I loved hearing the dynamic 30-year-olds preaching. I podcasted some of the hip, young voices whose references and humor sensibilities were closer to mine and really wanted to imitate them. Now that I’m 30, I love listening to preachers in their sixties.

Obviously, they’ve had years of practice and experience. But that’s not the whole of it. Plenty of young preachers are fine expositors and skilled orators. Beyond technical skill, though, there is a qualitative difference that comes with years of wisdom, maturity, heart-ache, and being closer to the end rather than the beginning of the ministry race. It’s like there’s a different energy. I’ve heard Tim Keller comment that with younger preachers, you’re more likely to pick up the subtext under the exposition that says, “Do you like me? Am I smart? Good? Funny?” or whatever, that is more likely to have evaporated in the years of the crucible of ministry.

I’m not sure there’s an obvious set of tips to get there besides prayer, living life, and growing up. Also, as a note to young preachers, if you listen to other preachers, mix it up. Don’t ignore the great preachers of our parents’ generation. Even if you don’t resonate immediately with the style, there’s gold to be gleaned, not just in content, but I think in spiritual presence and wisdom.

Marriage and Real Life. When you write and do the sort of work that leads to friendship through correspondence and social media, one of the great things about conferences is being able to hang out in the flesh. Email and Twitter are fine, but face to face solidifies things.

This time I was able to bring my wife along, though, and it’s interesting what a difference that makes. For one thing, I didn’t have to miss her, which is huge.

But beyond that, I was reminded of Matthew Lee Anderson’s theory that you can’t really call someone your friend until they have met your spouse. Matt is absurd to the extent to which he takes it, of course. Still, every time she met another one of my “writing friends”, it felt like they were finally meeting another part of me–or rather, a fuller version of me. It’s like two halves of your life no longer feel quite so bifurcated.

I suppose it’s a testimony to the way marriage really is a matter of joining lives, uniting the two into one flesh. There’s a real sense in which don’t really know me until you know McKenna.

Millennials and Their Parents. Beyond attending, I did give a talk on Millennials at one of the breakout sessions. That was a blessing and an honor. For those who were praying, thank you. One thing I’ll say is that I was very encouraged by the conversations I had after the session. I got the chance to talk to a few different kinds of people who came. Some were young types looking to minister to their friends in their churches. Others were older pastors who were genuinely striving to understand this generation. I already knew this, but there is good work being done in the church despite some of the stats we read.

Maybe my favorite, though, were the parents who were there. One lady in particular, Kathy, was a joy. She was one of the volunteers helping out at the event. I asked her why she was here volunteering and she replied laughing, “Millennials.” Kathy and her husband had something like 4 or 5 children in the age bracket and had just made the decision move to after 30 years at their old church to a new one that had maybe two other people their age, with the rest being Millennials. Smiling the whole time, she just said she couldn’t understand these kids or how to serve them, but she was trying.

That heart to sacrifice comfort to move, and seek to love a group she didn’t understand well, but wanted to love gave me so much hope. I told her that just being there, walking up to them, inviting them over for dinner, and being married in front of them is probably the best thing her and her husband can do to love them well. The more Kathys we have the in Church, the more hope I have for the Millennials within it.

Well, that’s it for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Learning to Pastor From Leviticus

When I was a college minister, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for pastoral theology. Actually, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for most things, with the exception of an atonement talk here or there. I suspect I’m not alone. Most of us don’t relish the idea of delighting our parishioners with details of cleansing skin diseases.

But I’ve recently been learning how mistaken we are when we take this approach to Leviticus.

Pastoral Care in the Old Covenant 

In his recent work, Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (IVP Academic, 2015), L. Michael Morales draws our attention to the pastoral implications of Leviticus’ first verses:

The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.” (Lev. 1:1–3)

Whenever an Israelite offered a burnt offering to the LORD, he was to present it to the priests first. The priests were to inspect it for any hint of defect, blemish, disease, infirmity, or weakness (Lev. 22:17–28). As Morales points out, this gave the priests a chance to exercise pastoral care for God’s people.

Located at the center of the Torah, the provisions of the sacrificial system formed the heart of Israel’s shared life with God. Not only did God use them to instruct his people in holiness (contrary to what many of us have been trained to think, God likes to both show and tell), but they were how he brought sinful people into his presence. Sacrifice was as much about God’s longing for us to draw near as it was about our inability to do so.

Worshipers, then, were to offer God their best as an act of worship. Offering a weak or defective animal indicated either carelessness about the things of God or a lack of trust in his provision. They signaled a distant heart. So the presentation and inspection of the sacrifices was an opportunity for the priests to offer pastoral accountability, correction, and instruction.

I continue to unpack the implications for New Covenant worshippers and pastors over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria 

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

Kingdom Opportunities Means Kingdom Adversaries (TGC)

Kingdom adversariesPaul’s ministry philosophy never ceases to surprise me. Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wraps things up by informing them of his plans to come to them soon, but not yet: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9).

Paul says he’s going to stay in Ephesus because there’s a wide door open for effective work. Apparently people are responding to the gospel, being discipled in the way of the Lord, built up into the image of Christ, developed into community, and trained as elders. The kingdom is moving forward.

Also, “there are many adversaries.”

I don’t know why, but that little phrase stopped me short. I suppose that despite everything I’ve seen, read, and been told about Christian ministry, I still have this sense that if God is for a thing, there shouldn’t be any opposition; if it’s a real opportunity for the kingdom, that will automatically mean the field is clear and there are no obstacles or enemies. My assumption seems to be that if God is with me, then everything will go smoothly and all will embrace me.

And yet nothing in the story of Scripture leads us to believe that’s true.

You can go read the rest of my article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Christian Wonderland: How Parachurch Ministries Can Serve the Church

wonderlandI work with college students at a local church. I’m the college guy. Aside from Bible studies and coffee shop conversations with local students, my job is prepping those who head off to college for a life of faith of their own. Can I say just how much I appreciate upon their return, hearing about the wonderful campus ministries they’ve gotten involved in? I love the great parachurch ministries like Campus Crusade, or FCA, or Navigators that shepherd and disciple our students while they’re away. I love the campus life ministries on Christian campuses that get our students involved in studies and missions. I love the summers of deep growth that happen when a student goes off to work at a Christian camp.

But if I’m honest, I have one significant issue with these ministries: all too often they are unintentionally setting our students up to fail in the local church.

See, in a lot of ways, ministries like this are better than church in their eyes. I mean, here, you have a lot of people your same age, asking all the same questions, and struggling with all the same issues. They’re all worshipping to the same G, C, D chord anthems, sold out for the same causes, excited, ready to go, full of life, and earnest. Special speakers who specialize in dynamically communicating to their niche segment are brought in for chapels or special events. The leaders’ sole interest is the spiritual life and vitality of 18-20-somethings and the meeting hours are designed around college students’ schedules. It’s beautiful. It’s what I call Christian Wonderland. It’s a magical place to visit, but doesn’t entirely reflect the reality of commitment to the church.

Over at Lifeway Christian Leaders Blog I talk about how parachurch ministries can turn that around and really prepare our students for life in the real church. You can read it here.

Soli Deo Gloria