Friday, August 31, 2007

Convocation Benediction 2007

This is the benediction I gave today at our 52nd opening convocation, drawn from Ephesians 4:20-21:

As you enter into this new year,
receive these good words from God:
May God grant you his grace to learn Jesus this year,
his great and dying love for you,
his continued intercession for you at the throne of God,
his ongoing work in and through you;
and as you gain this knowledge,
may God grant you to delight
in his love, intercession, and work
for his glory, your joy, and the nations' good.
Go in God's love, Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Carl Trueman on southern theologians

Carl Trueman is back at it again with a thoughtful post listing three reasons why 19th century southern theologians are not worth one's time (along with a reference to my long-lost brother, Rob Lowe). While admitting that perhaps they aren't the most useful when it comes to systematic theology (a debatable point--Dabney, for example, was the theologian who best convinced me about the biblical and theological rationale for infant baptism), I would submit that it is exactly on the issue of how theology operates within cultural systems that Dabney and Thornwell prove most useful. That is to say, Dabney and Thornwell are important for historical reasons (and contemporary lessons), even when they may fail our tests for theological purposes.

I think this was one of the points that I tried to weave throughout my biography on Dabney. It was why I used this Dabney quote as the epigraph for the entire book: "We shall be wise, therefore, if we harken to the striking instruction of these instances, and make it our method to submit with modesty to the sober teachings of the past in all our legislation for the future." All too often, we have a hard time thinking self-critically about how our theological claims serve to legitimate (illegitimately!) various familial, economic, political, social, moral choices we make. By looking critically at someone like Dabney or Thornwell who blew it so royally on race and slavery, we have a better opportunity for noticing our own blind spots in our cultural systems.

I've made this point before from the perspective of cultural history (here ; here, here, here, and here; as well as here and here)--but it bears repeating: we can only gain perpsective on our present cultural systems through a critical appraisal of the way others have lived in cultural systems in the past. But even more, it is only as we view this past critically and sympathetically do we really understand that all human beings are deeply and profoundly sinful and flawed, save one: Jesus is the only hero of the historical story.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Christ and Culture, no. 1

I intend to post more on this issue, one about which I care much and have dedidicated much thought. But John Piper's reflections on this theme are so very useful (and so very Piper). You can read the whole here, but a salient quote: "The fact that Christians are exiles on the earth (1 Peter 2:11), does not mean that they don’t care what becomes of culture. But it does mean that they exert their influence as very happy, brokenhearted outsiders." And all I can say to this is, yes.

Setting Up False Devils

Read this piece by Richard Mouw....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Overcoming Sin and Temptation

Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.

I have to admit it: I have struggled to read John Owen. This is not exactly the best thing for a church history professor who has an abiding interest in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. And yet, like many, I found Owen’s sentence and argument structure to be so long and convoluted that I gave up in despair ever truly accessing his theological and pastoral insights.

Until I received a copy of this newly edited version of his three classic works on sin and temptation. Kelly Kapic (from Covenant College) and Justin Taylor have done believers a great favor in producing this edition of Owen’s Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers; Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It; and Indwelling Sin. Unlike other editions of these works that either modernized the language or rephrased Owen’s main theological points in different words, this edition is straight Owen—with important differences.

In terms of form and style, the editors helpfully defined nearly every archaic word at the bottom of the page (I swear sometimes Owen makes up these words!); Justin Taylor provided a helpful introduction at the beginning of each treatise that summarizes the argument; and they provided are very helpful outlines in the back of the book to assist the reader follow the flow of the argument (necessary for Indwelling Sin especially). Most helpful to me was the way the editors italicized Owen’s main points and broke up long paragraphs to make the reading much easier. All of this made Owen much more accessible for the struggling modern reader.

In terms of substance, Kelly Kapic’s marvelous introduction was both inspirational and informational. Not only did Kapic highlight key themes with a light and masterful touch, but he demonstrated why Owen is worth all the trouble. And of course, Owen himself was rich, reminding us “to be killing sin or sin will be killing you” (p. 50). I found him making pithy observations on sin and sanctification that I would subsequently write into my journal for meditation and future use.

One hint from my own experience that may prove useful: I made it my determination to read ten pages from Owen every day as part of my morning worship. That set a good limit for what my mind could absorb and consider throughout the day, but it also provided a natural pace through the book. It took me the better part of two months to complete, but the net result was worth it. However you go about reading this book, for the good of your soul, please do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Acts of Theological Rebellion

Richard Mouw's description of reading Bernard Ramm's The Christian View of Science and the Scripture not only was hilarious--he wrote, "When one of the speakers at the camp denounced Ramm’s book as heretical, my friend secretly showed me his copy—in that context it might as well have been an issue of Playboy! I got him to lend me the book and I read it, and the two of us discussed it at length. We were co-conspirators in a private act of theological rebellion." It also reminded me of my own theological act of rebellion from way back in my murky past.

It happened when I was a graduate student at Bob Jones University. Prior to going to "the University," I had been raised in a broadly evangelical environment--a Plymouth Brethren assembly and then a Bible church. We loved Moody Press and Charles Ryrie; and we were also open to various versions of the Bible--the first Bible my parents gave me was a NASB Ryrie Study Bible. We saw ourselves as participating in a broadly evangelical approach to Scripture interpretation and as appreciating evangelical scholarship on the Bible.

When I made my way to BJU via Liberty University (long story), I found that they were "only KJV" (as opposed to "KJV only"--the distinction being that "KJV only" people believed that the KJV was the only inspired English translation of the Bible while "only KJV" people knew that to be hogwash but , while using other translations for private study and personal devotion, agreed to only use the KJV for preaching and teaching). While many of my teachers were open to modern word-for-word translations (like the NASB), they were death on the NIV. The NIV was viewed as having too much "interpretation" in the translation and hence was not a "safe" bible for "Bible-believers."

Not only was the University not too friendly to modern translations like the NIV, but they also didn't care too much for modern biblical and theological scholarship. Even organizations like ETS, which was relatively small and very conservative in the late 1980s (this was a few years after Robert Gundry was forced to leave ETS over issues related to his Matthew commentary), were viewed suspiciously.

But as I have already noted, I wanted to be able to access, evaluate, and engage modern theological scholarship. And so, one day, I snuck down to the Family Bookstore at the local mall in Greenville, SC. Having saved up my money for some time, I knew what I wanted to buy; I looked both ways before I entered the store, worked my way casually over to the proper section, picked up what I wanted, bought it, and carried the sack quickly out of the store. I went back to my apartment and pulled it out of the brown paper sack...

...A new NIV Study Bible! At the time, the NIV Study Bible was the standard for study bibles, representing the best of evangelical scholarship in the study notes and translation (Covenant Seminary's R. Laird Harris, Harold Mare, and Wilbur Wallis contributed as did Westminster Seminary's Ray Dillard and Richard Gaffin). I still have this Bible, ragged cover and all--it reminds me of a "declaration of independence" of sorts from the type of fundamentalism towards which I was sorely tempted.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Caring for Ministry Wives

The Washington Post recently reported that one of the largest seminaries in North America plans to offer a women-only concentration in "home-making." Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, hopes that the program will focus on assisting ministry wives on the ministry of "hospitality in the home--teaching women interior design as well as how to sew and cook." In addition, these women students will "also study children's spiritual, physical and emotional development."

From the face of it (not having memorized SWBTS's mission statement), it does look like this program is "off-mission" for a theological seminary. And yet, Southwestern's attempt to address the needs of future ministry wives raises an important issue to which seminaries, presbyteries, and local churches would do well to pay attention: namely, the need to care for ministry wives. And this is because our lack of attention to supporting the entire ministry family is destroying these families "in Jesus' name."

All too often, ministry wives bear the brunt of their husband's ministerial calling. While their husband dedicates himself to caring for the needs of the congregation--often working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks in doing so--the ministry spouse is expected to bear the absence of her husband with grace, dutifully raising their children as a single parent, sacrificing family meals for session meetings, and dealing with either the ambition or exhaustion of her ministry-focused husband.

Not only this, pastoral confidentiality often means that the ministry wife is the last to know what is going on (even when it seems the rest of the church somehow knows); or, on the other side, church members use the ministry wife as a conduit of gossip and (mis)information that they hope she will relay to her husband. She bears all things, internalizes all things, tries to smile at all things, and cries over all things.

And sometimes ministry wives fail--because the local church fails, their husbands fail, the support system fails, and they fail. But above all, I wonder if our (i.e. churches, presbyteries, and seminaries) failure to recognize, name, and attempt to talk about the challenges of ministry for a couple's marriage contributes to all of this.

It is one of the areas of discovery that my colleague, Bob Burns, has uncovered in his research through the programs of Covenant Seminary's Center for Ministry Leadership (CML)--ministry marriages are a signficant contributor to sustaining pastoral excellence (or pastoral failure); and we continue to wrestle over what his findings mean for Seminary education at our shop. And that's why, while Southwestern's answer may be wrong-headed, at least they are trying to think through how to support future ministry wives.

Maybe our presbyteries, seminaries, and local churches need to engage in a sustained and meaningful conversation about tangible and meaningful ways we can support and care for ministry wives. We need to do this for the sake of our sisters, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of Jesus' name.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Click here to see what Jonathan Edwards would look like on the Simpsons.

[HT: Reformissionary]

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cheese, Fundamentalism, and the Antithesis, no. 2

With a title this good, it demands two posts. Having reflected on the fundamentalist side of this conversation between my friends Rick Phillips and Carl Trueman, the more interesting (and untouched) part of their exchange touches on the divide within the Reformed world. Because what I heard in Rick's comments particularly may actually help us diagnosis why sometimes Reformed-types don't get along so well.

At one point, Rick wrote, "Frankly, because of the big idea of antithesis, I am more comfortable with the fundamentalists than I am with the broad evangelicals. More and more, broad evangelicals do not get the idea of antithesis, and for this reason even when they have a pretty good formal doctrinal statement, they seldom really stand up for it. In Psalm 1 terms, the broad evangelicals are to willing to 'walk in the counsel of the ungodly.' Broad evangelicals want to be successful; fundamentalists want to be faithful." Aside from the fact that I heard this regularly as a student at BJU, this observation is striking for a number of reasons.

If you think about this in terms of the Reformed world, I think you get a good sense of the divide that sometimes characterizes us and it is a leftover of the Kuyperian legacy--there are those who stress the "antithesis" and those who stress "common grace."

Those who stress "common grace" tend to want to engage the culture and seek its transformation. They want to read current novels, watch the current movies, listen to the current music and find continuing echoes of Eden. They want to produce art that reflects honestly the brokenness of the world as well as the possibility of redemption, science that affirms the purposefulness of all creation, history that looks unflinchingly and critically, yet hopefully, at its subjects, politics that seeks proximate love and justice. And they want to do these things as part of God's work of redemption in this present age, knowing that God's grace has gone before them in these various spheres.

Those who stress the "antithesis" note that the world has never been a safe place for Christians and the church (Matthew 5:10-12; John 16:33) and that the world itself is passing away (1 Cor 7:33; 1 John 2:17). As a result, they want to name the world as "the world" (to use Stanley Hauerwas' memorable way of putting it) and only the church in the preaching of the Gospel can do that. They want to take seriously the noetic effects of sin, the continuing reality of the world's brokenness, the continued influence of the devil in the world, the real temptations of power and influence and their corrupting nature upon the church. Above all, they want to maintain the "holiness" of the church (remember, it is the one holy catholic and apostolic church, they would say) and the purity of the its doctrine (not just peace and unity, but purity of the church is in the PCA ordination vows).

There are dangers on both sides. Those who overstress the antithesis tend toward a separatism that leads to ghettoization. My wife and I went back to BJU while on vacation and it struck us once again how time sort of stands still there. Going into the bookstore, there were, proportionally, very few books written after 1995 (although I was thankful for all the Banner of Truth and Sprinkle publication reprints there). When I was a student, I rebelled against this sense that it was dangerous to engage the academic world; I wanted to participate in the larger academic conversations that were simply not available to me there. I felt like we were talking to ourselves.

Now, to be fair, my friends and I often felt that the same thing happened when I was at WTS. We called it the "Clark-Van Til vortex." Whenever we were in class, some student would inevitably raise his hand and say, "You know, this really all goes back to Clark-Van Til." I would then draw a vortex on my paper and hold it up for my friend to see as we slipped into the vortex for 30 or 40 minutes of point-counterpoint on these issues. We often felt that the issues we would debate at WTS were in our own little ghetto of the Reformed world, separated and cordoned off from the rest of the world. I don't think we wanted to be "successful"; but we did want to be engaged.

To be candid, I think that when some of our Reformed brothers talk about "Reformed sectarianism," what they mean is the kind of separatism that an overemphasis upon the antithesis can foster. They want to read N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas; they want to be involved in the larger theological conversations. And it may be that our recent debates about justification were (for some) as much about whom am I allowed to read as anything else--whether intellectual separatism that draws from an overemphasis upon the antithesis would develop a list of prohibited books (like the "blacklist" of prohibited churches that BJU used to maintain when I was a student).

There is a danger on the other side: those who overstress common grace tend toward a triumphalist culturekampf that can lead to secularization. Sometimes I wonder if there are no boundaries in our willingness to engage culture, looking for hints of Eden. I was at a pastors gathering a few weeks ago and one of the guys was talking about a recent R-rated movie that he watched; his evaluation was, "Well, it was terribly violent and there was one pornographic scene in it." Another of the guys at the table said, "Oh yeah, I want to see that movie too." I left wondering whether these ministers would think well of me if I went to a bar in East St. Louis, Illinois, to witness a murder and watch a stripper; that strikes me as a moral equivalent.

Now, to be fair, we need Christians who think deeply about the cultural artifacts of our moment in time, who exegete our culture and present the Gospel to it. Don't hear what I am not saying: we need apologists. My fear is that in our attempts to transform culture through engagement of it, to be "relevant," that we will end up seeing the Holy Spirit in the spirit of the age to such a degree that the Spirit becomes the age's spirit and vice versa. In doing so, the church can become so secular that Leviticus 11:44 and 1 Peter 1:16 become nice pastoral advice for some people somewhere--but not us and not now.

To be candid, this is what I hear in Rick's concern. He is fearful that the church is sliding morally and doctrinally toward a liberalism that sadly replicates the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that loses sight of the Gospel and its transformative power, and that trades its spiritual birthright for a mess of relevant soup.

In the light of all this, I think in the Reformed world, and especially in the PCA, we need to recognize some things: First, it is not possible to reconcile common grace and the antithesis; Kuyper couldn't, lots of smart Dutch theologians haven't, and I don't expect we will either.

Second, recognizing this, we should realize that we will probably tend toward one side or the other--part of this will be family of origin issues, early religious training, personality predilections, etc.

Third, as we lean one way or the other, we need to become much more self-critical. There are a number of complex reasons why we see the world the way we do; we need to be honest with ourselves so that we don't simply sanctify our ideology as "biblical" when it might be deeply flawed.

Fourth, we also need to recognize the dangers inherent in the way we lean and try to hedge against them. For example, I recognize that by training, background, etc., I probably lean toward the antithesis--my hedge is that I am constantly trying to engage the academic world, recognizing that God's grace is to be found there as well in the scholarship produced by unbelievers or those who have different Christian commitments from mine.

Finally, above all, we need to exercise the judgment of charity toward each other. By recognizing the dangers in our position, we are freed to recognize the value of the other--I can affirm my brothers and sisters who in common grace run coffee houses and line their churches with their art in order to engage in conversations with others. They bring something to the body of Christ that I don't bring; they are "jazz" to my "three-chords and a chorus" (1 Cor 12:12-27). I need those who emphasis common grace; and they, frankly, need me.

After all, if someone brings aerosol cheese to a party, someone else needs to bring crackers. Unless you are Carl Trueman--who points the cheese can directly into his mouth and sprays.

Cheese, Fundamentalism, and the Antithesis, no. 1

I'm just back from vacation, having waded through over 150 (!) email and am now surfing the net to catch up on what I've missed. One thing I missed was the lively conversation going on at Ref21 between my friends, Rick Phillips and Carl Trueman, about cheese (not sure how that got in there), fundamentalism (especially the Bob Jones University variety), and the nature of the antithesis.

I guess I have a unique perspective on all this because I am a graduate of a fundamentalist Christian school, BJU graduate (BA, 93; MA, 94) as well as a WTS graduate (PhD, 2002; I even had Trueman on my dissertation committee!). In addition, I've spent a great deal of time writing and researching American fundamentalism as a academic, working on a book on fundamentalism in the southern Presbyterian church (yes, there was such a thing; wait till my book comes out and you will see!). So, perhaps I can put offer some insight to my friends.

Unlike many of my colleagues who graduated from "the University" and then transitioned to the Reformed faith, I have what I call a Richard Mouw/Smell of Sawdust appreciation of fundamentalism, for a number of the same reasons that Rick mentioned:
  • they take the Bible seriously, upholding supernaturalism and inerrancy;
  • they are determined to do whatever God in his Word says to do, leading to a passion for missions and evangelism;
  • they are serious about piety;
  • and, as Rick notes, they have a firm recognition that "the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:17), which leads to an emphasis upon the antithesis.
I'm personally very thankful for this part of my inheritance from my fundamentalist upbringing and education. I'm glad to call my family (my wife's siblings all married BJU grads as well) who attend fundamentalist churches brothers and sisters in Christ, glad that they raise their children in church and teach them the Bible, and glad that they love the Lord.

On the other side of the ledger, Carl is exactly right that there is a dark side of the antithesis, which often leads to an uncritical embrace and defense of the unjust status quo (e.g. in 1960, Dr. Bob Jones, Sr, published a booklet entitled, "Is Segregation Scriptural?"; and who can forget the classic title of John R. Rice, "Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers" or his defense of free market capitalism as the "biblical" system of economics). Of course, there is a dark side of the other part of the Kuyperian inheritance--as historian Joel Carpenter as noted, common grace can often lead to secularization and has in neo-Calvinist educational institutions, both in the Netherlands and the United States (I touch on some of this in my essay, "Southern-Friend Kuyper? Robert Lewis Dabney, Abraham Kuyper, and the Limitations of Public Theology," WTJ 66 (2004): 179-201).

Likewise, there is an unhealthy cult of muscular personality that pervades fundamentalism, where individual pastors build fifedoms for their own glory (see, e.g, the wonderful study of W. B. Riley by Wayne Trollinger) and manipulate people for their own success. And of course, you can find this in the Reformed world as well, whether in the PCA or in other Reformed microdenominations. It does us well to admit that the "T" in the Reformed inheritance applies to all of us--because of total depravity, because of indwelling sin, all of our positions, ideas and ideals, can lead us astray. Really, the only thing that any of us have going for us is the steadfast love of God (Psalm 103).

Having affirmed and admitted all of this, I find myself falling back to my understanding of Reformed catholicity (though it drives my friend, D. G. Hart, bonkers)--my primary identity is a believer of Jesus and I'm called to love other believers in Jesus regardless of their spiritual maturity or theological perspective (even, shudder, Arminians). I live out this identity as a Presbyterian, committed to the wholeness of the Reformed faith as the best explanation of the Bible and eager for others to embrace the same perspective that I hold. I affirm catholicity while holding personally to the Reformed faith.

Hence, my fundamentalist friends are my brothers and sisters in Christ; they have a great deal to contribute to the life and health of Christianity in North America and around the world; they have preserved a deep love for God's Word and a passion for evangelism that would put most Reformed types to shame; and they rightly point us to the need, at times, to separate from unbelief or worldliness for the sake of personal and corporate holiness. I have a great deal to learn from them. That doesn't place them beyond critique (in the same way that I and my tradition is beyond criticism); that doesn't mean that I no longer hope they will come to embrace the doctrines of grace in the same way I have. In addition, I will continue to engage with them honestly out of my confessionally Presbyterian identity, not shading the truth of what I believe the Bible teaches.

And so, Reformed catholicity forces me to affirm that it is a good thing to partner with fundamentalist believers, like those at BJU, for the Gospel and even send our kids to their Christian schools. Even if they've never heard of aerosol cheese.