I spent a couple of hours today chatting with an old friend of mine. He is now a pastor of a Lutheran congregation. He is a fine fellow whom I long to re-acquaint face to face with a pipe and a fine beer. After all these years we have kept a relatively lively relationship over the phone. We have even joined forces to write a lengthy piece combating an evangelical prohibitionist advocate of our day.
Interestingly what brought us together even more so in these last few years have been our theological journeys. We both attended a fundamentalist college, but even back then we were already pursuing dangerous literature. One time he brought a book back from home that had a warning sign on its first page written by his mother. The first page stated that we were to be careful as we read this book for it was written by a Calvinist. Lions, and tigers, and Calvinists, oh my!
How far we have come! It has been over 10 years since we parted those glory college days, and now we both are pastoring healthy congregations. We are in different theological traditions, but very rooted in our Protestant commitments. Beyond that, we are rooted in a vastly historic tradition.
As I pondered that conversation I wondered just how much I have changed over this last decade. I went from a revival preacher to a liturgical minister. Now don’t get me wrong, I long for revival, I just don’t long for the same type my brothers long for. This revival I long for is filled with beautiful images, a pattern-filled story, tasty bread, and delightful wine; church colors, rituals– in the best sense of the term—and lots of feasting. While my fundamentalist brothers longed for the sweet by and by, and times they would gather at the river to sing of that ol’ time religion. Those romantic days no longer appeal to me.
How have I changed? In so many ways! But my changes were not just theological. I have held the same convictions I have today on a host of issues for over 10 years. My changes were more situational and existential (and normative for the tri-perspectivalists out there). My reality has changed. I now treasure different things that I did not treasure a decade ago. You may say marriage does that, but the reality is I have taken my sola scriptura to the next level. I have begun to see its applicability beyond the sphere of the mind. The arm-chair theologian no longer seems admirable. Even marriage carries a symbolic significance to me. This is not just a privatized institution; it is, to quote Schmemann, “for the sake of the world.” Yes, I have changed.
I have also changed existentially. I have learned to delve deeply into personal piety and have found it refreshing. In the past my piety led me into the valley of pietism. It was discouraging; pessimistic. Now my piety keeps me in green pastures. My existential struggle with doubt is no longer a reality. I have found objectivity in the most unlikely places. They have kept me secure and alert to my own tendencies; to the idols that I have failed to crush. Jesus has become more than an intellectual pursuit, but the heart of the issues, because he is the heart of history.
Yes, I have changed since my college days. I would like even to affirm that this is the new me; a “me” broken by idolatry and restored and renewed by word, water, and wine. Thanks be to God!
Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life. We need theology not because there is something wrong with the Bible, an improper form perhaps, but because there is something wrong with us. The Bible is fine, just as it is. The problem is that we are slow to grasp it, both because of our weakness and because of our sin. So the theologian, like a good preacher, takes the biblical text and explains it to us.
In light of recent discussions on law/gospel, I was reminded of this short gem from my former professor John Frame:
We should be reminded of course that there is also an opposite extreme: preaching “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that Christ makes no demands on one’s life. We call that “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” We might also call it preaching “gospel without law.” Taken to an extreme, it is antinomianism, the rejection of God’s law. The traditional law/gospel distinction is not itself antinomian, but those who hold it tend to be more sensitive to the dangers of legalism than to the dangers of antinomianism.
Such considerations may lead us to distinguish in a rough-and-ready way between preaching of the law and preaching of the gospel. Of course, even in making that distinction, our intention ought to be to bring these together. None of these considerations requires us to posit a sharp distinction. And certainly, this rough-and-ready distinction should never be used to cast doubt on the integration of command and promise that pervades the Scriptures themselves.
I am a strong proponent of theological seminaries. As a graduate of RTS/Orlando (pictured on the left), I have been immensely privileged to sit under godly scholars. In particular, Professor John Frame highly affected my thinking in apologetics and ethics. As a result my understanding of how higher education should be reformed is also framed by John’s thinking. Here is a sample of how he would re-structure seminary education today:
I cannot help but mention my conviction that this problem is partly the result of our present system for training theologians. To qualify for college or seminary positions, a theologian must earn a PhD, ideally from a prestigious liberal university. But at such schools, there is no training in the kind of systematic theology I describe here. Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, as the application of God’s infallible word. Students are welcome to study historical and contemporary theology, and to relate these to auxiliary disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism. But they are not taught to seek ways of applying Scripture for the edification of God’s people. Rather, professors encourage the student to be “up-to-date” with current academic discussion and to make “original contributions” to the discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning. So when the theologian finishes his graduate work and moves to a teaching position, even if he is personally evangelical in his convictions, he often writes and teaches as he was encouraged to do in graduate school: academic comparisons and contrasts, minimal interaction with Scripture.
In my judgment, this is entirely inadequate for the needs of the church. It is one source of the doctrinal declension of evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries in our day. Evangelical denominations and schools need to seek new methods of training people to teach theology, educational models that will force theologian candidates to mine Scripture for edifying content. To do this, they may need to cut themselves off, in some degree, from the present-day academic establishment. And to do that, they may have to cut themselves off from the present-day accreditation system.
—John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 278 n. 6.
In this interview, James Grant speak about Frame’s as controversialist and catholic. Pastor Grant is a contributor to the book Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame.
The “two Kingdoms” perspective:
This discussion is sometimes caught up in eschatological debate: is the Kingdom of God only future or is it in some sense present now? Sometimes it is waylaid by debates about the roles of church and state (as Horton’s exposition of the “two kingdoms” view on 206-217). But apart from these debates, isn’t it obvious that when people come to trust in Christ they seek to bring biblical standards to bear in their workplaces? Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Can we possibly exclude from “whatever” our work in politics, the arts, or finance? And can we possibly forbid the church to give us guidance in our attempts to improve society?
What does it mean to be engaged in politics to the glory of God? That is not always easy to define. I would agree with Horton that Christians often exaggerate their expertise on social issues; sometimes nonbelievers can do a better job of gathering the relevant facts. But if I am charged with the work of planning national health care, I certainly must ask how biblical principles apply to that. When a believer produces a sculpture, it may be difficult for him to see how his faith is relevant to each stroke of his tool; but he certainly doesn’t want critics referring to it as a symptom of modern nihilism.
So Christless Christianity is essentially an evaluation of the American church, not from the standpoint of a generic Protestant theology, but from what I must regard as a narrow, factional, even sectarian perspective. Readers need to understand this.
Editor’s Note: This article was first posted in December of 2004.
Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) is today one of the most well-known seminaries in the world. When J. Gresham Machen proposed a new seminary in 1929 (see Gary North’s analysis of Westminster’s history in his book : Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy ) few believed it would be as recognized as it is today. However, since Machen’s death on January 1st 1937, his followers have found many ways to keep themselves busy in intra-mural debates. At first it was the serious matters of debate (inerrancy vs. German Higher Critics), but then when that was over they found ways to entertain their warring spirits (some of these men were and are still gracious and humble theologians; but it is my contention that their involvement led to more confusion than biblical resolve). Machen’s influence in Reformed denominations has led to a host of debates that have afflicted the Reformed church for over 60 years.
In his magnificent article, Professor John Frame (RTS/Orlando) lists with clarity the many debates that have occurred as a result of Machen’s legacy. The article is called: Machen’s Warrior Children. In this extensive article Frame traces the 22 most heated discussions in Reformed circles in these past six decades. Some, of course, are more heated than others–such as Theonomy vs. Westminster Seminary– but Frame’s prayer (see the end of the article) is what he calls an “unrealistic dream;” a dream that there may be peace in the church and that the body of Christ would unite for the sake of the kingdom.
All debates in theology are debates that necessitate discussion, but not all debates necessitate division. Herein is the problem for theologians and for those who desire to be theologians (myself included): we do not have the wisdom to decide what debate is worthy of discussion or division. Perhaps Frame’s article will instill a bit more caution and discernment in these matters. After all, Paul’s prayer was that “our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (Phil.1:9-11).
My professor John Frame and Pastor Andrew Sandlin have begun a lively, but cordial discussion on the Classical Conception of God. You can find the context of the debate here.