Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 1

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This morning’s papers were so rich that I decided I would do a quick summary before the afternoon sessions and hope to do part 2 of the day later on tonight. Our second day of the Karl Barth conference opened with a pair of papers that I will simply be unable to do justice to here, but hopefully you will get the gist. (I hope you will forgive me if these summaries aren’t as well written as they should be. I’m going for keeping up to date rather than perfect synopses!)

Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) treated us all to a homiletically and theologically rich presentation entitled, “The Theological Existence of the Pastor.” Sonderegger focused on the chapter in Barth’s Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “Temptation.” She noted, of course, that the word “temptation” in English does not quite convey the richness of the German word Anfechtung of which Barth spoke. In her lecture, Sonderegger sought to address how it is that pastors (and along with them, theological teachers) ought to view the failures which they will inevitably face in their ministry, despite the fact that such ministries are perennially concerned with the attention to the Word and God as their subject matter. In this regard, Sonderegger was careful to note that Barth does not so much exclude the role of Satan the tempter in an account of temptation as much as he makes Satan subject to the one work of God; Satan here is an unwitting agent in God’s hand.

But more importantly, Sonderegger points out how Barth locates the matter of temptation or trial–and most specifically, the trial faced by the pastor in those times when God is silent–directly in the context of the Goodness of God. God, according to Barth, is not only good by nature, but also in act, such that God is not only the ground of goodness (his being and nature) but also the God who in all his ways acts in goodness toward his creatures. Consequently, even in the experience of silence, the pastor must first remember that silence ought not be be equated to absence–a mode of speaking that is sometimes used in the mystical traditions and a notion which Barth would explicitly reject. For God to be silent is never to be taken as evidence that God is absent.

Sonderegger went on briefly to tie Barth’s description of temptation/Anfechtung together with his doctrine of “Nothingness” (das Nichtige), noting that for Barth, negation is not to be equated with evil. For example, a creature is not God, but this by no means implies that the creature is evil; rather, Negation in creation is the shadow of God’s good creation. Consequently, when dealing with failure, and indeed silence, in the service of God, the pastor/teacher/Christian must recognize that whether God speaks or is silent is no denial of God’s providential goodness toward us. On the contrary, the pastor must realize that both in God’s speaking and in his silence toward us, he is ever the good Judge who judges in freedom. Sometimes this means that silence is not to be regarded as a negation of our work and sometimes that silence is precisely a judgment of us as weak, sinning covenant partners, but always, whether in God’s speaking or in his silence, we must truly believe that in that speech or silence, God is truly good toward us.

The second paper, also profound beyond my ability to summarize here, came from Dr. Adam Neder (Whitworth University). Neder’s paper, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Some Barthian Thoughts about Teaching Theology,” sought to bring some of  Barth’s thoughts in ET to bear on the matter of theological pedagogy. As Neder introduced the paper, he noted that ET can be read as good news to the theological teacher, mainly, that theological work can be one of the most important tasks a human can be asked to do and when done properly is “pleasing to God and helpful to people.” But ET is also a warning that when done badly, theological teaching  can be “the most terrible thing on earth.”  ET, as Neder put it, can be read as if were an “MRI of a sick theologian which reveals that such a malady as vain theological teaching is not only serious and contagious, but deadly.”

Neder’s outline was almost deceptively simple, yet profoundly moving. According to Barth, he argued, three things can be said about theological teaching:
1) Successful theological teaching depends on the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is so obvious that it almost needs no defence, yet as Neder pointed out, it sets before the theological teacher a serious conundrum: Whatever one does in the theological classroom will be meaningless if the Holy Spirit does not do his work, and yet, as the free Holy Spirit of God, there is nothing one can to do guarantee the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the theological teacher, as Barth says, “to sigh, cry, and pray that the Holy Spirit will show up.” This means there are no failsafe pedagogies upon which one can rely, and consequently, what works today may not work tomorrow. Whatever else we do, then, we must figure out how it is that we will ensure that at the very least, we do not fail to invoke the Spirit, in hope, into our classroom.

2) When the Spirit acts, our classes will NOT be a safe space filled with bored spectators. Neder began by pointing out how common it has become to assume that a classroom must be a place of safety for a student–a place where he or she can ask questions and not fear reprisal or ridicule. While that is a good philosophy as far as it goes, such a philosophy may lead a teacher to assume that when a student has enjoyed or felt safe in a class that it has therefore been successful. As Neder humorously put it, “If students are enjoying your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they are enjoying your classes!” However, as he points out, such a safe environment of enjoyment may not be the best place of learning. 

Here Neder pointed out how Barth insisted that theological teachers must be ever aware that the teaching of the Gospel demands a confrontation and a decision, a space in which a personal response to GOD is required (not just a response or reiteration of the class material). In this regard, Neder points out that Barth distinguishes between teaching a student about God and seeking to bring students before what God has said to them. It is only as we lead student to realize that they are recipients and addresses of God’s Gospel that we will be truly doing our duty as theological teachers. And in such instances, the classroom may be the least safe place, but it will certainly not be boring.

3) Good teaching is an act of service and love. As Barth put it, “Without love, theological work would be nothing more than miserable polemics.” Here Neder addressed the temptation to vanity that theologians face, and as he put it, theologians must learn ever anew that you cannot simultaneously win the praise of God and the praise of people–with the latter category uncomfortably indicated in in pursuit of top classroom evaluations, tenure, peer-reviewed articles, etc. The vain theological teacher is an ironic affront to the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Just as it is difficult to hear the billionaire quote from the Sermon on the Mount, so, too, it is difficult for students to hear the Gospel when their teacher is self-evidently concerned more about their own promotion and comfort than that their students should be confronted and comforted by the Gospel. True theological teaching, therefore, requires self-emptying love and service, but that runs contrary to every natural impulse we have toward self-promotion and self-preservation in our careers.

On Being a Christian Professor

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Some of you probably think that I have fallen off the face of the earth, but for some reason, this past year has just been so busy that my ability to keep up the blog was hindered. Hopefully I can get back to it a bit more regularly this coming year.

Recently, I was given notice that I will be promoted to full Professor here at Briercrest College and Seminary. As part of my portfolio for promotion, I included a short essay I wrote entitled, “On Being a Christian Professor.” I append it below and I hope you enjoy it.

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On Being a Christian Professor

The Cornell professor of history, Carl L. Becker, once said, “A professor is somebody who thinks otherwise.” In other words, professors are, amongst other things, marked by a refusal simply to accept and reiterate that which is accepted as common sense or conventional wisdom. Thus, professors, according to Becker, are those persons whose thinking is on the liminal edge of their discipline, leading the way into thoughts which heretofore have not yet been thought.

Such a characterization of a professor as an original thinker, of course, is widely held. But it is precisely this commonly held view which leads us into a kind of intellectual conundrum. For if it is commonly believed that it is a fundamental requirement of professors to “think otherwise,” then there is but a hair’s-breadth between the professor and the madman, both of whom “think otherwise”! Who adjudicates between that which is thought “otherwise” in the mind of the professor and the mind of the madman? One can justifiably understand why the phrase “mad genius” has found its way into everyday parlance!

It is, of course, highly ironic that the idea of a professor as an intellectual contrarian has forgotten that the Latin meaning of professor, professōris (from which the English word is clearly derived) is quite simply “teacher.” And this is not even to mention the more obvious English verb, “to profess,” from which the noun is derived! Had sad it is, then, in modern times the professor has become associated primarily with great feats of cognition rather than with great feats of pedagogy. Undeniably, the professor must think; there are today too many examples of professors who have gained tenure but who have long ceased to contribute anything of worth! But thinking without teaching is akin to inhaling without exhaling!

As I ponder what it means potentially to take up the designation of professor, I am drawn to one of the apostle Paul’s aphorisms as tremendously apropos: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

It is quite likely that the apostle, an educated man himself, understood something of academia. Perhaps he even had some of the Sophists of his day in mind as he penned these words. Sophists, one will recall, were men who travelled itinerantly, teaching (for a fee) on whatever subject was in popular demand. Some sophists prided themselves on being able to win an argument, even against the established “experts” of the day. But to be sure, the end goal of the Sophists was personal profit and public recognition rather than the upbuilding of their pupils.

Whether he had Sophists in mind or not, Paul goes on to indict “the man who thinks he knows something” when he clearly does not: Such a man is one who “does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:2). On the contrary, Paul declares, it is the “man who loves God” who is “known by God” (1 Cor 8:3). That is interesting, isn’t it? Paul shifts the whole equation around, making “being known” as having greater importance than “what one knows.” And in the middle of it all, he inserts—love.

It is perhaps in this vein of thought that Augustine later argued that the primary difference between the city of man and the city of God is not a differing set of ideas, beliefs or knowledge, but the difference between what is loved and cherished. In fact, Augustine defines a “people” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by common agreement as to the objects of their love” (City of God, 19.24). Whether a people of the world or a people of God, they are defined by what (or whom) they love. We become that which we love. Or to paraphrase the Jesus, “Whatever you cherish reveals who you are” (Cf. Matt 6:21).

While it may be that there is a distinct people group within academia bound together by their common love for a particular field of knowledge, in a Pauline-Augustinian perspective, Christian academia—and therefore the professors that supposedly lead the way—must necessarily be defined and driven by God’s love for us, and in proper response, our love for God, the highest and finest object of our love. The common object of our love must be none other than the God who has first loved us (1 John 4:19).

So what does this all have to do with the topic of “being a professor” at Briercrest? Hopefully it is becoming plain: To be a Christian professor is to profess the God who first loved us. Such a profession of this truth cannot be restricted to lofty thoughts thought otherwise, but in the inextricable combination of Christian teaching by word and deed in the name of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. To be a Christian professor, in other words, starts with holy confession and issues in holy love. All disciplinary tasks of researching, publishing, marking, mentoring, meeting, and studying aside, the base line prerequisite of the Christian professor is to point students away from oneself toward the source of all love and life, God himself the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all. The professor’s first words, then, ought to be a prayer, like unto the Baptist who cried out, “He must increase, I must decrease!” (John 3:30).

The theological implications of this stance, of course, are staggering, such that I almost tremble to recount them. Nevertheless, it is clear that that Christian professor must stands in sharp contrast to the Cartesian professor who asserts, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” On the contrary, the Christian professor is one who confesses, “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” It is my prayer that this would be how I am marked—as one who in all my academic and professional pursuits is more concerned about embodying the love of God than assertion of my own independent existence and significance.

Whatever the case, it is in this construction between love and knowledge that the role of the professor as a teacher may be understood. Two things are briefly observed.

First, knowledge in this biblical framework is relationally defined. To know is to be loved. We are nobody apart from the love of God demonstrated toward us in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 5:8). But in and through the love of God in Christ, we are somebody. It is this knowledge that is fundamental to our identity: We become as we are loved. We do not become and subsequently love; we become because we are loved. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “My egocentric identity has been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer my ego that lives, but Christ lives in and through me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who made me who I am by loving me and giving himself for me” (Cf. Gal 2:20).

It can be a significant source of temptation for a professor to see her or his students as underlings whose identity are not yet shaped and who have come to the professor to gain this identity. Somehow, professors can get caught up in thinking that they have succeeded as a professor when their students end up looking a lot like them. But a Christian professor must, indeed, “think otherwise!” Rather than seeking to make students look like us, we professors must continually remember that pupils do not gain their primary identity students or academics, but as sons and daughters loved by God. As malleable as our students are, and as intellectually and pedagogically influential as we may aspire to be, we violate our students’ primary identity when we forget that they are, first and foremost, loved by God and only secondarily and temporarily “our students.” Good professors remember that the goal is not to make students in our image, but to lead students to discover Who it is that first loved them and therein to discover their true identity. This kind of “theo-pedagogy” in which we lead students to God does, of course, run the risk that students, in the long term, will remember more about God than they do about us. But that, I believe, is a risk worth taking. He must increase, I must decrease.

Second, in the knowledge of God’s love for us, a professor must be constrained to act in accordance with our nature as those whose identity is extra nos—external to ourselves. As those whose identity is founded in the Father’s outwardly focused love toward us in Christ, we ourselves become intrinsically other-focused. “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” In this regard, the professor is marked by sacrificial service to those under our temporary care. It is our service to our students when, above all else, we love them. Of course, the content of that love for the student must be biblically defined. We love them through the display of patience and kindness. We love them as we resist pride, boasting, envy, and anger. Indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians gives abundant insight for the kind of sacrificial love we ought to have toward our students—most plainly because that is the kind of love which God has already shown to us in Christ.

But why love? Can we not teach without love? Clearly we can—if we are content to be remembered as nothing more than a clanging cymbal (Cf. 1 Cor 13:1). But the Christian professor loves, not only as an additional requirement to her or his profession, but as something vitally intrinsic to it. Rather than succumbing to the temptation to separate love and knowledge, we must be adamant that to love is to teach. Indeed, the antithesis to loving our students is to withhold the life-giving, person-defining knowledge of God revealed in Christ! Teaching, therefore, in a biblical sense, is more than the passing on of knowledge and information, but the daily life display of the fullness of life in the Spirit spoken and practiced in a community of learners called to seek first God’s kingdom, whatever the subject matter and whatever academic discipline may occupy our professional time. How tragic it would be for me to have spent my career passing on biblical and theological content, only to have a student detect in me evidence of theological sophistry! How utterly appalling and horrifying that someday I could potentially be judged—not only by my students but by God himself!—to have been a “posing professor” who had the appearance of godliness through proper use of words, phrases, paragraphs and discourses, but who had denied God’s power through a failure to love! (cf. 2 Tim 3:1-5) With God’s help, I pray this will not be me.

 

Marriage and Illness – A few thoughts

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This weekend I am presenting my first ever seminar entitled, “In Sickness and in Health: A Biblical Perspective on Marriage and Illness.” It will be held at Lethbridge Evangelical Free Church January 22-23,  in conjunction with their “E-Free School of Discipleship.”

This is an area that is really outside of my “technical” expertise. It’s not as if I have formally studied the topics, even though I have had long interest now in the theology of marriage (largely due to the influence of Douglas Farrow, my Doktorvater, who has written passionately about it for a number of years now. If you haven’t read his Nation of Bastards yet, you should!).  However, the idea of relating marriage and illness came to me late last fall after having a pretty long conversation with one of my seminary students whose spouse has a long term, serious illness. It then occurred to me that out of 20 years of marriage, my wife has struggled with one form or chronic illness or another for almost 16 or 17 of those years, and maybe I had a few things to say about it. It was then I volunteered to do this topic in Lethbridge, even though in the past few weeks I’ve wondering what in the world I got myself into!

Once I began preparing (by, of course, going to the library! that’s how a theologian does it!), I realized just how very little has been written in this area specifically. Yes, there’s tons written on marriage, and tons written on illness, but I could hardly find works that explored exactly what illness does to a marriage and how the Scriptures might inform how not only to “survive” but to “thrive” in a marriage where chronic (or even terminal?) illness is the reality.

So in the end, I found myself having to work out a lot of the concepts and content for my seminar on my own. And to be sure, Maureen has been my sounding board and encouragement for lots of the concepts I’m trying to work out. Thanks, Bub!

If there are a couple of items that stand out as central there are probably two really important things (though now I could write a whole lot more than a few weeks ago!)

1) The concept of marriage being created (even before the Fall) with a prelapsarian mandate to battle chaos–a reflection of the Creator’s driving out the “formless and void” of Gen 1:2 (“chaoskampf” for those who need the technical word!). The male and female were mandated to “Be fruitful and increase, to fill the earth and subdue it” (a chiasm in the Hebrew). Fruitful marriage is marriage that has figured out how to subdue chaos, my thesis goes.

All couples, of course, have to contend against the chaos that seeks to break up their relationship. The forces seeking the destruction of marriage are varied, including the “expected” things like sexual impurity, workaholism, financial stability, the stresses of raising a family, and the like. Yet for a couple struggling with chronic illness in the mix, the “chaos” is just a little more evident and “in their face” than perhaps couple who do not need to contend with it. The “blessing of illness,”  if I can put it that way, is that it serves as a very physical, concrete reminder that we are all travelling the road to death and decay, and if viewed properly, can be an opportunity to learn to “live well” in light of the “grieving” that all couples will eventually face when death separates them. But really, all couples really are tasked with this important task–to “order the chaos” as a reflection of the good Creator’s creative and redeeming activity.

2) The importance of “lamenting hopefully.” I stumbled across Michael Card’s A Sacred Sorrow in my research in which he states that too many Christians suffer in a “harmful silence” in the face of disease, death, sin, and destruction. In marriages where illness is a factor, hopeful lament can become a spiritual salve: It doesn’t heal the illness, but it allows couples to give word to the frustrations they both face by directing their hopeful lament to God. Thus, biblically, lament is (almost always–there are exceptions, like Psa 88) coupled with hope. So, I argue  that:

Lament without hope leads to despair and fatalism.

and

Hope without lament leads to unrealistic optimism.

I’ve been tempted in both directions (though frankly, somehow I find that Maureen seems to have a better balance here, even though she is the one with the sickness!) Sometime illness can lead a couple into a perpetual spiral of despair, and lament comes out sounding more like resignation to fate than submission to the Creator. On the other hand, there are those who hope so much in a potential cure (either through hoping for divine intervention, or looking for the next great medical cure) that they ignore the reality of the sickness and fail to lament. This unrealistic optimism is, finally, an idolatrous activity that hopes “in the created rather than the Creator–who is forever praised” (Rom 1:25).

Anyways, for those who know me personally, I’d appreciate your prayers on my behalf for this weekend–that it would be fruitful, that the right people would come, and that I’d be pastorally sensitive to the Spirit.

The OT in the Key of “C”

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I stumbled across this little teaching aid in my files which I had developed years ago when I was pastoring. The goal was to give an overview of the Old Testament in a single evening service. It ain’t profound, but I enjoyed the memory! I hope you enjoy it, too. It is essentially a 50 step “chronology” of Old Testament history alliterated entirely with “C” words (i.e., the OT in the key of C)! I offer it to you in the spirit of Advent, knowing that the whole of the Old Testament is an anticipation of the One who is to come.

  1. Creator (Gen 1:1)
  2. Creation (Gen 1, 2)
  3. Creatures (Gen 1:27)
  4. Communion (Gen 3:8)
  5. Catastrophe (Gen 3:14-19)
  6. Castaways (Gen 3:23)
  7. Children (Gen 4:1-2)
  8. Crime (Gen 4:8) – Murder of Abel
  9. Cataclysm (Gen 6-9) – The Flood
  10. Confusion (Gen 11:1-9) – Babel
  11. Call (Gen 12:1) – Abram’s call
  12. Covenant (Gen 12:2-3)
  13. Circumcision (Gen 17)
  14. Confirmation (Gen 21) – Birth of Isaac as confirmation of covenant
  15. Cheater (Gen 27) – Jacob’s deception
  16. Conspiracy (Gen 37:12ff) – Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave
  17. Congregation (Gen 47:27ff) – Jacob and sons gather in Egypt
  18. Commissioning (Ex 3) – Moses call
  19. Calamity (Ex 7-11) – Plagues
  20. Celebration (Ex 12) – Passover
  21. Chase (Ex 14:8) – Pursuit of Israel by Egyptians
  22. Crossing (Ex 14:21-22) – Of Red Sea
  23. Complaining (Ex. 16:2) – Israel grumbles
  24. Commandments (Ex. 19ff) – The Decalogue
  25. Calf (Ex 32)
  26. Chest and Ceremony (Ex 35ff, Leviticus) – Ark and the Levitical requirements
  27. Cloud, Circuit, Camp (Israel’s wanderings in the desert)
  28. Catharsis  (Num 14:21-23) – Israel purified for reentry to Land
  29. Combat (Joshua)
  30. Conquest (Joshua 1:3)
  31. Colonization (Joshua 13ff)
  32. Corruption (Judges 17:6) – “Everyone did as he saw fit”
  33. Champions (Judges) – Deborah, Gideon, Samson, etc.
  34. Confederation (1 Sam 8 ) – People ask for a king; get Saul
  35. Coronation (1 Sam 15-16) – God selects his own king David
  36. Capital (2 Sam 5:9-10) – Jerusalem established as Israel’s capital
  37. Comfortable (2 Sam 8:15) – Blessing of Israel under David
  38. Climax – (1 Kings 8 ) – Solomon builds temple of YHWH
  39. Civil War (1 Kings 12) – Kingdoms clash
  40. Collapse – Kingdom is divided
  41. Carnality (1 & 2 Kings) – prophetic call to repentance by prophets
  42. Cursed (2 Kings 17:7, 25:1) – Nations are judged
  43. Captivity (Exile of North in 722 BC, and South in 586 BC)
  44. Carte Blanche (Ezra 1) – God gives Israel permission to return home – [Ok…I was running out of English words!]
  45. Construction – Ezra 3:7ff – rebuilding of temple
  46. Celebration (Ezra 6:19ff) – Passover once again celebrated
  47. Confession (Ezra 10) – Israel repents and confesses sin
  48. Completion (Nehemiah) – rebuilding of the walls
  49. Complacency (Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi) – People fall into old routines
  50. Cessation – End of OT history

Professors’ Availability in Graduate Theology Programs

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Though already a few months old, I just stumbled upon R. R. Reno’s musings on what to look for in a graduate program in theology as found in the online edition of First Things. (Reno is associate professor of theology at Creighton University). In essence, Reno advocates for a program that will keep you breathless academically, i.e., one that won’t let you settle into mediocrity.  But he also rightly cautions:

Graduate students need professors they can trust to give time and attention to mentoring.

And right after this,

The moral character of a program matters a great deal. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that can develop between an excellent mentor and a few really good professors and fellow graduate students. A culture of selfishness among faculty that leads to the neglect and poor treatment of graduate students—this is fatal.

As I’ve talked to students at various points who are either looking at a Masters or Doctoral program in one of the theological disciplines, I’ve made a similar point. While there is no doubt something fantastic about big theological departments or faculties that can offer dozens of advanced and specialized electives (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit covetous about those situations!), in the end all of those electives can begin to taste a bit sour in the academic mouth if your professors don’t have the time of day for you. The size of the school doesn’t necessarily mean anything here. I’ve heard from students in large schools with dozens of professors report about the good one-to-one relationships they have with some of their professors, and I’ve also heard of students in very small schools where the professors lock themselves up in their office (or aren’t in their office at all) and seem to excel at avoiding students. What matters is, as Reno calls it, the “chemistry” or “academic climate” of the school. This is extremely important to discern long before you enroll.

So if you are one of those people looking for a grad program in theology or biblical studies, let me just build a little on Reno here: In addition to finding out about the faculty’s areas of specialty, locate and have  a conversation with some students who have studied with the professors under which you are interested in studying. Find out how often the professors were able to meet with them, and to what extent they were truly personally, intellectually and spiritually available to their students. Of course, professors are usually busy, busy people, and so you need to be realistic on what you can expect; almost no one has an extra dozen hours a week to hang around with you for one-to-one mentoring. Nevertheless,  if the professors can only see students on the rarest of occasions, that factor alone should be enough to give you pause. Is it the definitive factor? Not necessarily. But in the end, if you do a graduate degree in a theological discipline and come out feeling isolated and more individualistically inclined than you may already be–you might want to think twice.

When I was looking for a doctoral program, I sought to meet the professors who I was interested in studying under long before I applied at her or his school. I had about 6 names in mind, and had opportunity to sit down for a meal with 3 of those. Though it was not the only consideration, having had spent time with my supervisor over a meal was a significant factor in helping me decide to apply at the university where he was.

Galatians 6:6 says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (NIV). By all means! But at least part of the ability to share all good things with the instructor must come from the instructor’s availability to her or his students. If a professor doesn’t appear to be willing to be available to you, why would you want to study with her or him?

10 Commandments for Theological Students

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I will always remember with fondness the German theologian Helmut Thielicke’s (pronounced, “tea’-lick-ah”) little classic entitled, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. On the opening page, Thielicke explains, “I must see and hear my listeners not only as students but also as souls entrusted to me.” (p. 1)

As I reflected on this, I was reminded once again, as I begin my 17th (!) year of teaching in a theological college and seminary, that those people who sit in my classes are not only students, but souls entrusted to me. As I thought about this, I wondered, “What might I be able to offer to my students at this particular time of year–when everything is fresh and exciting?” Although it may have been done before, I offer here my own version of the 10 Commandments for Theological Students.

1) You shall have no other god before God. I cannot bring myself to alter the substance of this first commandment. As Karl Barth put it in a famous article in 1933, the first commandment is in fact the first axiom of all theology. In other words, theological students must never forget that God is the central object of our study in theology. As important as Scripture, tradition, history, and ancient texts are, in the end, theological study that forgets that theology is about God has lost its way already. In short, the first commandment for theological study is to remember that God is a Subject who freely gives himself in Jesus Christ as an object of our study and reflection, but that a proper response must be finally one of worship–worship before  the Incomprehensible, Immeasureable Holy One who cannot be captured in our words, sentences, and theological papers, and yet who condescends to be known by sinning humans.  We dare not forget this most important of all axioms: The focus of study for theological students is–God. Yes, theological students will face the demands of long hours of poring over the biblical text, memorizing Greek conjugations, deciphering the difference between enhypostasis and anhypostasis, and learning how to do exegesis, homiletics, and administration. But a theological student should never forget that all of this is for naught if theology is not ultimately concerned about–God.

2) You shall not create a theological idol. Anyone who engages in formal theological study for any amount of time realizes that one’s preferences for some authors, scholars, theologians, or exegetes tend to narrow significantly over time. This is, at least in part, the practical reality of the theological disciplines: No one can master or read the work of everyone even within a narrow sub-discipline. Consequently, we tend to have our favorites. Now, you’ve either been under a rock, or you simply don’t know me all that well if you haven’t figured out that my favourite theologian is Karl Barth. Yours might be N.T. Wright or John Calvin or Augustine or Walter Brueggeman. The point is, beware of allowing that favourite to become a theological “pin up”–an idol, to use the biblical parlance.

True, I have no problem confessing my great admiration for the work of Karl Barth, and I read him more than any other theologian. But I also have learned that the best way to avoid idolizing a theologian is to read the opponents as well. For all my disagreements with Brunner, for example, I think that at several crucial points he had things more clearly thought out than Barth. And that helps me to remember that for all his genius, Karl Barth, too, was a sinner and was, like us all, prone to error.

But most importantly, see commandment #1 above: theological study must finally be about God, not about Barth or NT Wright, or John Zizioulos, however thankful I am for these faithful scholars. Unfortunately, it is the case that sometimes theological students become “experts” on theologians and scholars and consequently miss the main point of all theological study: to know God and his benefits, and to proclaim him to others, like us, in need of his grace.

3) You shall not take the name of other sub-disciplines in vain. It is almost inevitable that theological students will eventually assume that their chosen sub-discipline (whether systematic theology, historical theology, biblical exegesis, pastoral theology, church history, ethics, liturgics,  or some other sub-discipline) is in some way superior to all others. At such points, it can be easy for theological students to become contemptuous toward students in other disciplines; but this should not be so. For in the end, the compendium of theological disciplines is analogous to the Body of Christ: Every member ultimately needs the other, even if we might secretly think that some parts are more honorable than others.  Theologians need exegetes, and exegetes need historians, and historians need ethicists, and ethicists need homileticians. Rather than peering/sneering down our noses at those in other disciplines and scorning their work, I would encourage you to learn to discipline yourself to read at least one book in a discipline not your own for every ten that you read in your own. You might be surprised that they have something to teach you!

4) Remember to  put to rest–temporarily–your critical theological skills while worshipping. Even though the object of inquiry in theological study is ultimately none other than God himself (see Commandment #1), theological students must learn the discipline of worshipping God while temporarily suspending their newly emerging theological critical skills. This is especially important when the sermon is being delivered Sunday morning. Though you might see all your pastor’s exegetical fallacies, call into question his intertextual references, and be puzzled by the lack of good homiletical structure in his sermon, you must learn to temporarily put to rest your critical acuities, and try to remember that like everyone else gathed together in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day, the Person on display is God in Jesus Christ, not the pastor or the worship leader or the Sunday school teacher. You have, after all, come to worship God and to hear from him, not to assign a grade. Of course, your training will inevitably train you to see theological problems. That is a good thing. But remember that God has appointed pastors and teachers to have  spiritual charge over us, and theological discipline includes the ability to learn from even imperfect preachers. Because after all, you may well be one of those imperfect pastors and teachers yourself someday as well.
Oh, and while I’m at it: Remember the exhortation from Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” For some reason, theological students can be easily deceived into thinking, “I study Scripture and think about God all week long. I don’t need to be involved in a local body of believers on Sunday as well.” This is simply wrong, and I encourage you to resist the temptation to be a “Bedside Baptist” during the course of your theological study.  If anything, regular involvement in a local church keeps our feet grounded in the community where the theologically educated are most needed. If there is a suspicion amongst the rank and file church goers of our day about formal theological education, it may in part be because of how often theological students account for so many of the empty spots in the pews on Sunday morning. The logic may be flawed, but it is hard to avoid the connection that so often, theological students are the least likely to be in Church, so therefore, theological education must be bad. Don’t contribute to that flawed logic. Be in Church next Sunday!

5) Honour your theological fathers and mothers. At one level, theological students simply need to learn to respect and honour the wisdom of their professors, even at times when it sounds like they might seem to be completely off-base and, indeed, theologically suspect in comparison with one’s pastor or mentor back home. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying that theological professors are perfect–by no means. I know too many of them myself, and I happen to see one in the mirror every morning when I shave! But beyond honouring your teachers (they, after all, have typically committed something like 8 or 12 years after high school of study to prepare for their role) be sure also to honour your theological fathers and mothers back home as well. It can be an awful show of disrespect, after a year or two of theological education, to begin to look down one’s nose at those pastors and elders back home who may not have had the same privileges you have had, and to begin to judge them harshly for their lack of theological and biblical sophistication. In such cases, never forget that it these same “simple” pastors and teachers and elders and parents back home who are truly your spiritual fathers and mothers. It is far too easy to become a theological critic; it is far more difficult (and the sign of theological maturity) to be able to appreciate and still learn from those from whom you may have already passed in theological sophistication!

6) You shall not verbally, intellectually, or rhetorically murder your theological opponent. For the most part, theological students seem to manage to avoid physically killing one another in the heat of a theological debate. (Although in the history of Christianity, there have been some exceptions!)  But my experience tells me that almost all of us (including me) will not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the heat of a theological argument. We will use every resource at hand to squash (“metaphorically murder”) our opponents. It is during those intense moments of theological debate (which, by the way, I happen to think can be very healthy) that one needs constantly to check oneself to make sure that it is the truth that one is after, and not simply the desire to win the argument at all costs. To paraphrase the Apostle, “If I decimate my theological opponent in the pursuit of truth, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging symbol.” (Cf. 1 Cor 13:1) Unfortunately, in 17 years of theological education, I have more than once seen Christian fellowship broken over what really amounted to either a trivial, or unwinnable theological argument. This isn’t to commend avoiding theological arguments at all costs: Indeed, we probably need more theological debate these days than less!  But always remember that ultimately, the goal of a theological argument should be more often irenical than polemical: It is for the building up of the Body, not the utter destruction of our theological detractors.

7) Do your utmost to say out of bed with the “spirit of the age.” In 1 Tim 4:1, Paul warns, “the Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” This is one of those commandments that is of uttermost importance to heed, but so easy to fall into breaking. Just as we live in an age where we are bombarded daily in the media with images and suggestions to follow our base sexual desires, so, too, theological students enter a realm where daily (or at least more often than the average layperson) there is a temptation to chase after the latest theological, philosophical, or cultural fads–all in the name of being “theologically relevant” or “up to date” or “theologically sophisticated.” Of course, it is not always easy to sort out which ideas are truly “things taught by demons” from “the truth of the Spirit.” Subtlety is, of course, one of Satan’s own tools of deception. Most of us are not caught off guard by the obviously false things, but all of us are, from time to time, tempted to get into bed with the spirit of the age, and to commit theological adultery.

So how do we avoid this falling into this temptation? Well, at one level, this is what theological education is all about–learning to discern truth from error, and to use Scripture properly to make those judgements. But in the end, keeping commandment #6 means, at least in part, learning whom to trust, and that means listening to the wisdom of teachers whom you know have demonstrated a consistent walk with the Lord, and from whom you can also learn. Oh, and pray a lot, too! As the ancients used to say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” [The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief].

8 ) You shall not steal time from others which is rightfully theirs. You might have thought that the eighth commandment  for the theological student might be a good place to mention something about plagiarism. As all students quickly learn, it is an academic sin, whether in Christian or secular settings, to steal ideas from others and to call them your own. That’s a good thing to remember. So don’t plagiarize.

But I think that far too often, theological students can easily end up stealing something other than just others’ ideas. What? Their time. Speaking from personal and painful experience, I did two theological degrees while married, and I can without any pride at all confess that sometimes, my theological work simply was an excuse to steal time from my wife–time that really was rightfully hers, but which I justified as being not as important as time spend studying theology. Fortunately, I have an awesome and forgiving wife who has taught me much (though I am still learning) about what it really means to give of one’s time for someone else. Practically, this means that even though you are doing something really, really important (I can’t think of many more things more important in life than to set aside a portion of one’s life in focused study of Scripture and of the knowledge of God), being a theological student does not give you license to steal time from your spouse or family. If you are married, it is better to end up as a “B” student with a strong marriage, than an “A” student and divorced. In short, be prepared to resist the temptation at times to steal time from your loved ones, even though the studies you are engaged in are all about God. Here I think of Malachi’s lament:

Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. (Mal. 2:13-14)

We may think we are pleasuring God with our wonderful theological papers and argument, and I want to affirm that indeed, God is pleased with such offerings when offered in faith. But such offerings can quickly become a stench in God’s nostrils when we break faith with our spouses in order to produce them. It is then that, fearfully, the Lord will act as a witness against us. Lord, help us!

9) You shall not misrepresent your opponent’s theological position. We all have theological opponents, and we seem to get more of them the more we engage in theological study. But theological students must learn the very difficult discipline of speaking and writing truthfully of the position of those with whom we disagree. The problem is that the opponents we most want to debunk are likely guilty of breaking this commandment themselves. The reason we are so adamantly opposed to them is because they have misrepresented us, or our favourite theologians or authors, in some way. So the temptation is to fight fire with fire. Rather than carefully showing where our opponents are indeed right on some accounts, and wrong in others, we have a built-in carnal desire to present their work as something reprehensible and utterly false. Philosopher’s call this “constructing a straw man.” Theologically, it simply is called “lying” or “bearing false witness.”  While theoretically, it may in fact be possible that there are utter liars and heretics writing and teaching out there, those aren’t usually the one’s that concern us the most. Indeed, it is the ones who have elements of truth in what they are saying that we can be the most tempted to label and libel. On the contrary, the sign of theological maturity is the ability to concede and acknowledge the truth of parts of our opponents’ arguments, even while patiently recounting why the other parts of their argument are faulty. Unfortunately, such an approach takes great patience, lots of time, and a great deal of Spirit-enabled love–something that most of us are in all too short supply.

10) You shall not covet someone else’s library. I may be speaking only from personal experience here, but I suspect that a common temptation, especially among theological students, is to surpass your neighbor’s library, either in quantity (“I have more commentaries on John’s Gospel than George”) or at least in quality (“Henry may have a lot of books, but most of it is fluff! I only buy books of enduring value”).  This isn’t to say that you ought not to buy books. In fact, I have a hard time understanding how some students (and even pastors) are proud of the fact that they have so few books! Books are, after all, the tools of the trade for those seeking to be engaged in the ministry of the Word. But those same necessary tools can so easily become a snare and a trap. We see our neighbor’s library shelf, or the latest theology text, or yet another book on Barth (guilty!) and we think we need to have it. Let’s face it, folks: This is the sin of coveteousness more often than we may care to admit.

So what am I commending here? I’m not saying stop buying books, but I am saying, get in the habit of counting to at least 10 (or 20 or 30!) before plunking down the cash for yet another book. I speak here of one who is guilty of having many too many books on my shelf that I have not yet read! Or better yet, see if you can borrow the book from a library instead of buying it. If after reading it you still think you need it, fine–go ahead and buy it if you can. But don’t get trapped into buying books for the sake of buying books. Take this from one who has been learning this lesson the hard way over the past years!

Did you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt. 2)

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In my first post reflecting upon the importance of “public reading of Scripture” as part of the Pauline triad mentioned in 1 Tim 4:13, namely, reading, preaching, teaching, it was assumed that in the first instance, “public” reading meant reading Holy Scripture in the context of corporate worship. That is, “public” was assumed to mean “ecclesial” (literally, reading in the context of churchly gatherings). Now I have no doubt that Paul intended this at a very minimum. But is that the only implication? In other words, is the reading of Scripture necessarily an event limited to Christian gathering, or are there other ways in which Scripture itself can become part of a larger, decidedly, non-ecclesial public hearing? 

On the one hand, it may be possible to accomplish public reading of Scripture in a very direct way. Direct applications of public reading of Scripture might include reading the Bible to any and all who may listen (or even to those who do not) in public settings (e.g., on the street corner, over the radio waves, at the bus-stop, on the steps of Parliament, or who knows where and how else creative minds may accomplish this). Some evangelical mission organizations, like HCJB, have included public Bible reading as part of their ministry for years. Interestingly enough, Bob Seale (a good friend and theological father to me), pointed out to me today that in the coming week, the entire Bible will be read continuously over Italian state radio at the prompting of Pope Benedict XVI and at the outset of a synod of 200 bishops to discuss the place of Scripture in the world today. (Read more about it here and here and here.) Talk about taking the directive to being devoted to the public reading of Scripture!

On the other hand, as important and effective as these direct options for public reading of Scripture may be, I also want to suggest that public reading of Scripture may enter into the public hearing also in more indirect, and therefore somewhat more subversive, ways as well. When I was teaching my Truth and Method class a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time reflecting on the nature of ecclesial confession, guided in part by Eberhard Busch’s important lecture delivered on the 70th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration.

Now for those of you who are a bit fuzzy on what a “confession” is, let me simply say that it is not the same as a statement of faith, a doctrinal statement, or a creed, and certainly not the same as a “vision statement” or “statement of values” that so many churches seem to have adopted as of late. (You might guess that I’m not overly thrilled with these latter concepts, but that’s a whole different post!) As Busch puts it, a confession is first and foremost a confession of the Christ of Scripture (and not particular doctrines concerning Christ), and secondly, a confession is a declaration that “stands in the service of action, which is more powerful than the situation in which it is being confessed, and thus is not bound to it.” (182). This is in contrast to a reaction where a text is bound to the situation which gives the delcaration its impetus (and which therefore binds it more closely to that time and situation). Such texts usually appear as “statements” upon a particular issue and as such, usually are necessarily reactive in nature. In contrast, as Busch beautifully put it, a confession (such as the Barmen Declaration) is not timeless, but it is also not timebound. (182)  

As important as all that Busch says (and really, you have to read the article), what is crucial to this present discussion is to notice the structure of the Barmen confession (and many other confessions, for that matter). That is, as a genre, a theological confession has three essential parts: 1) a text of Scripture; 2) A positive affirmation following from the Scripture; 3) A denial or rejection as a corollary or follow-up of what is affirmed.  In this latter part–the rejection part of the confession–Busch notes that the “Yes” of a confession’s affirmation always brings with it, whether implicitly or explicitly, a “No” indicating that which must rejected. In other words, you cannot say “Yes” to something without explicitly or implicitly saying “No” to something else. The problem is, I think, is that we often want to say yes without saying no. Granted, our job is primarily to say Yes in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 1:20), but we can never neglect to say the “no’s” that our “Yes” necessarily implies. You cannot, for example, eat of the table of the Lord, and partake also of the table of demons (1 Cor 10:21).

 Now as important as all that Busch had to say in the article, it dawned on me during my class that the structure of a Churchly Confession corresponds, more or less, to the Pauline triad of reading, preaching, and teaching commanded in 1 Tim 4:13. That is, a confession moves from Scripture (=reading) to affirmation (=preaching, i.e., the “positive” proclamation of what Christ has accomplished) to negation (=teaching, i.e., distinction between truth and error in doctrine, and by which we properly live our lives before God. Notice the corresponding emphasis on “life and doctrine” in 1 Tim 4:16). So in other words, Paul is saying to Timothy that the church will not neglect its essential mission whenever she understands herself primarily as confessors in this threefold way: 1) Showing in every way possible that Scripture is our formal authority for all matters of life and doctrine, i.e., actually reading Scripture before and in the context of preaching and teaching and debating and wherever else questions about what a Christian  believes, says, or does arises; 2) Proclaiming in every way possible that Jesus Christ is our material authority–our actual authority and Lord, and not only ours (the Churches) but Lord of the whole world at every level, including the political; and 3) showing in every way possible that a “Yes” to Christ means a “No” to many other gods, that to confess Christ also means to reject and renounce those things which do not cohere with Scripture as that by whom we come to obey Jesus Christ. (This last part is probably the most uncomfortable notion of all, especially for us Canadians who tend never to want to reject anyone or anything for the sake of some kind of deference to universal notions of tolerance and respect.)

But how does “confession” accomplish the reading of Scripture “publicly” and indirectly and subversively? As I think of many of the “moral” debates which Canadians have and are facing in public policy debates, I want to suggest that as valuable as it may be to find a common ground with other religious groups, or even in political concepts such as freedom or rights, the Christian church must not fail to take her stance as a people who are 1) guided by a Holy authoritative Book, 2)  who are unashamedly willing to publicly identify herself with Jesus Christ; and 3) who humbly but firmly reject gods, ideologies, ideas, and ways of living that are explicitly anti-Christ.  That is, we fail to ensure that Scripture is heard publicly when our strategy for having a voice in the public forum seeks primarily a common ground with other non-Christians (as important as common grounds may be) rather than primarily and unabashedly affirming that we are who we are as people bound to obedience to the Christ of Holy Scripture. If we happen to have common ground, fine and good. But this is a consequence and a product, not a starting point for Christian speech in the political realm.  And perhaps one of the ways we can begin to learn how to do this is to recover and relearn and begin to call for a truly evangelical confession that is more concerned about proclaiming Christ than reacting to the situations in which we continually find ourselves. In so doing, we will likely not accomplish a “timeless” Christian confession, but we may also find that we are less “time-bound” to the winds of the endless political and public policy discussions which we find ourselves so often reacting to.

Let me also say that to its credit, evangelicals in Canada may actually be in a better position actually to begin to move toward writing such a series of confessions than any other Christian religious grouping. Evangelicals, we say? They can’t agree on anything, we are told. Well let me say (and I’m certainly not the first, but I will say it boldly): Balderdash!! This is a lie that we evangelicals are continually told about ourselves and which is simply not true. True, we can’t always agree on doctrine, but if there is a common commitment to Christ, this is no where better illustrated than in evangelicals’ ability to work together and cooperate when it comes to mission. Indeed, the whole “evangelical parachurch” culture (John Stackhouse, Jr. has been an important voice noting this), as quirky and theologically problematic as it may be, is nevertheless living proof that evangelicals, when it comes to confessing Christ, are able to look past many of our differences and act in as a unified way as any WCC ecumenist could wish. Why? Because evangelicals have always held Scripture up as our authority (even if our doctrines of Scripture are sometimes a bit contrived) and we have always wanted to point people to Jesus (even if our own following of him is also lacking and lukewarm at times), and we have always been concerned about right doctrine (even if sometimes we have allowed this to become the dominant issue even over following Jesus). Perhaps it is time to start asking, Will the evangelical Church in Canada fulfill her mission by a threefold commitment to reading, preaching, and teaching, particularly as we think about the important function that an otherwise largely unexplored theological genre among evangelicals–the confession–might play in making God’s Word (written and living and preached) heard in the public sphere?