Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Henry Center Presents Bruce McCormack on Election

This week and next, the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is featuring Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary for the Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology.  The series title is “The God Who Graciously Elects,” and you can watch the live-stream of the final four lectures by clicking here.

This is a high-level academic lecture series aimed at scholars and other interested parties.  The language will be technical and the conversation theological and philosophical.  Though all won’t agree with everything McCormack posits, many will find fodder for thought in these lectures.  Personally, I am thankful for the investment the Henry Center has made in sponsoring elite theological conversation.  We need more, not less, of these kind of lectureships in evangelical circles today.

A word on Kenneth Kantzer, by the way.  Kantzer graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a PhD in Philosophy of Religion in 1950.  He was an intensely intelligent man but labored for most of his life to establish TEDS as a divinity school, recruiting faculty members like David Wells, Harold O. J. Brown, John Woodbridge, and D. A. Carson.  Now virtually forgotten, Kantzer wrote very little but made a mark on Protestant higher education through TEDS.  It is appropriate that the Henry Center honor him with its capstone lectureship.

Here’s a talk on evangelicalism (go to Carl Henry, and click “Know Your Roots” part two) that Kantzer gave some years back.  Those who wish to read a bit more about him can check out Doing Theology in Today’s World, edited by Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey.

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Two Great Societies: Jonathan Edwards and Pastor-theologians

It’s been uncomfortably quiet at this humble little blog.  This is due in large part to a friend of mine who goes by the name “dissertation.”  He’s very needy; I’m hoping soon to part company with him.

At any rate, I thought I’d share a bit about some upcoming events that you may be interested in.  The first is the annual gathering of the Jonathan Edwards Society in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Some of you out there don’t care about Edwards.  That’s fine.  We can still be friends (kind of).  Others, however, share an interest in America’s greatest theologian.  In fact, that interest borders on affection, perhaps even reverence.  I’ll go out on a historiographical limb and say that there is perhaps no one person from the eighteenth-century who draws more interest in America than Jonathan Edwards.  Perhaps Ben Franklin?  Well, the Ben Franklin society is a “giving club” at Penn.

The JES is a giving society too, but we give papers, not money.  I’m looking forward to this event held from October 6-9, 2011, just two weeks away.  If you’re so inclined, drop by and hear a number of papers on topics related to Edwards (here’s my abstract), including submissions from Collin Hansen, Wes Pastor, and Chris Chun.  Some papers, I think, will be staunchly evangelical, others more theologically progressive.  I anticipate a vital debate, even as I look forward to visiting the home of the theologian who has had the deepest impact on me.

Another society that I’m a part of is the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (SAET), which meets from October 9-11 in Oak Park, Illinois.  I’ve mentioned the SAET on this blog before; it’s getting a great deal of attention these days as interest in the pastor-theologian model spreads.  At the SAET, we’ll discuss James Davison Hunter’s rich monograph To Change the World (Oxford, 2010).  We’ll think together about how the book’s discussion of cultural transformation relates to evangelical and pastoral life.  Led with excellence by Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand, this will be a rich event.

Participants in the SAET First Fellowship this year include fellows Greg Thompson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia; Jay Thomas of Chapel Hill Bible Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; John Yates the Younger of Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Preston Sprinkle of Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, California.  This group of evangelical pastors and theologians is diverse, God-driven, and high-powered.

If you’re so inclined, visit the websites of the JES and the SAET.  Perhaps some out there will be interested in joining up with these needful organizations.

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The Story Is Salvation: Trevin Wax on the Soterian

Trevin Wax has just reviewed Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel and has offered a thorough interaction with this creative book (with a great cover-design, I must say).  After registering a number of agreements with McKnight, Trevin suggests several shortcomings.  One of these involves the way McKnight conceives the story of Scripture.  I’ll quote Wax at length, as this section is excellent.

The heart of my differences with Scot’s proposal is not in defining the word “gospel.” It’s not in the gospel announcement’s need for the Story. It’s in the way we read that Story. There’s the rub. The reason I think it’s ultimately unhelpful to distinguish between a story gospel and a soterian gospel is because I think the story is soterian, that is, the grand narrative of Scripture is telling us about God’s glory in saving sinners through the cross and resurrection of His Son. The heart of Israel’s story is hope for salvation delivered by the coming Messiah-King.

When I read the Old Testament narrative, I can’t get through the Pentateuch and not tremble at the thought of standing before God without an animal sacrifice. I can’t read the story of Judges without shuddering at the pervasiveness of sin and the need for a Messiah-King. I can’t read Isaiah and not recognize my need for a righteousness that comes from outside myself.

Scot reads the announcement of 1 Corinthians 15 and wants to emphasize that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. I see the announcement of 1 Corinthians 15 as the gospel presentation by which we are being saved. The big story that the Bible is telling is a story of salvation – its promise and provision through the coming kingdom of a crucified Messiah. And this is why pitting the Old Testament storyline against atonement theology makes little sense to me. It’s not just that I view the gospel as a soterian. I view the story that way as well.

This point is dead-on.  There’s a lot of talk about preaching the “story” of Christ as opposed to “personal conversionism” and that sort of thing.  But look at the OT and what does one find in the story of Israel?  Salvific act after salvific act after salvific act.  Surely this is not the only matter unfolding in the OT, but it is in my reading of it most definitely the core.  In other words, you cannot separate God’s saving work and the history God authors.  As Ricky Gervais would say, “Not possible.”

Surf over to Trevin’s blog and read part one and part two.

I would say in conclusion that McKnight is clearly onto something in his book.  He is attempting, as I understand him, to bring together the kingship and messiahship of Christ.  That is a laudable task.  Accordingly, he is seeking to unite two models of the atonement: Christus Victor, the victory of Christ over the forces of darkness executed at the cross, and penal substitution.  Without going into an engagement with McKnight’s program, I would say that this is a vital project, one that I’m encouraged to see a number of scholars and doctoral students taking up.  Because of various pressures, evangelicals of the recent past were tempted to emphasize just one model of the atonement, viewing others as “liberal.”  I understand why they did this, but it’s great to see the models cohering in our day, as they should–with penal substitution very much at the core.

My friend Jeremy Treat, a Wheaton PhD student under Kevin Vanhoozer, fellow SAET member, and one of the brightest young theologians out there, is doing work in this area, and I can’t wait to read it.  During my time at TEDS, I wrote a paper for theologian Graham Cole’s atonement class on Carl Henry and his view of the atonement.  Unbeknownst to practically anyone, Henry did his own blending of atonement “models,” fusing penal substitution with the moral influence theory.  Evangelicals stand to benefit from much more of this kind of creative, biblically grounded theological work.

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Hanging Out with Francis Schaeffer on a Friday Night in College

Was Francis Schaeffer significant?  Was he significant for you?  He was for me.  I’ve got a piece up at the Gospel Coalition entitled “Everything But the Knickers: The Enduring Influence of Francis Schaeffer” that offers a brief apologetic for his importance.  Here’s a snatch from it:

In a news cycle driven by the latest quotes from Rick Perry, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, you would not expect to see Francis Schaeffer popping up on the daily ticker. The American expatriate, wearer-of-knickers, connoisseur of Swiss cosmopolitanism, and, above all, philosophically minded Calvinist public intellectual once made national headlines, to be sure. But suddenly he has returned, posthumously torturing the public square with supposed plans of a Christian political takeover, a master-strategy foiled in his day yet rising again in the phoenix of Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign.

In the piece, I engage with the idea, recently suggested by Alan Jacobs, that Schaeffer was not important to evangelicalism beyond promoting a basic interest in ideas and art.  I seek to show that Schaeffer in fact had a wide-ranging impact on our movement.  You can surf over there and puzzle through whether you accept my case.

I’ll leave my thoughts on that page, but I will add an anecdote I didn’t include in the TGC piece.  When I was at Bowdoin College, Schaeffer was a big deal to my friends and me.  When many of our classmates were cutting loose on weekends (and others were in the library!), several of us gathered to watch How Should We Then Live?, the 1977 Gospel Films production by Schaeffer and his son Franky.  The ten-part series electrified us.  We studied at a college that did not offer many classes in the grand style of Schaeffer, the traditional Western approach to history that reads it as a great sweeping gust of ideas and epochal events.  The material was inspired by Kenneth Clark’s ultra-popular Civilization series, a project that won massive popular acclaim but turned off some academicians who sniff at overarching historical narratives.

Anyway, I am grateful to God that I was not partying, losing myself in the temporal pleasures associated with the hedonic exercise that is modern collegia.  In God’s good grace, my buddies and I were instead clustered around a tv on many Friday nights, watching an eccentric old man in odd if stylish clothing walk us through western ideas from a robustly theocentric perspective at warp-speed.  I count this as one of the moments in my life that God awakened me to the power and importance of ideas, and I am sure many others out there have had similar experiences.

I do not suggest in the TGC piece that Schaeffer was a perfect man.  It is clear from material covering his life that he was not.  He seems to have been extremely busy, which left him with little time for his children, perhaps Franky, his boy, most significantly.  I’ve read up on Franky’s childhood, and though I’m not always clear about what exactly happened in the Schaeffer home, it does seem true that Francis was in some times and places too busy for his son.  I wonder if Schaeffer’s life suffered from some aspects of “celebrity Christianity” that some talk about today–too much travel, too little time with one’s wife and kids, not enough engagement with a local church and body of elders.

Even with the flaws of Schaeffer laid bare, though, I contend that he was an important man, a hero of the faith.  My friends and I studied at a very challenging secular school, and we found guidance and answers in Schaeffer.  He did not let us down.  His literature is very much worth engaging today; he deserves, I think, to be remembered well in evangelical circles, to be studied and appreciated.  All of us are sinners; not many of us will affect so many so powerfully as Schaeffer.

Were you influenced by Schaeffer?  If so, I’d honestly love to hear how.  Leave a comment if you like.

(Image: Randy Alcorn)

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The Hard-bitten Economy

Christians differ on economic and political matters.  Many are likely unified in these days, though, in a recognition that our national economy continues to struggle (to say nothing of the global economy).

Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard has written a tough-minded piece worth reading on our present economic state.  Here’s a bit:

[F]or almost four years, a prolonged and brutal economic slump has coincided with sustained government efforts to bring demand forward and get consumers spending as they did before the crash. The powers that be say they’ve tried everything: temporary tax cuts, public works, Cash for Clunkers, Cash for Caulkers, cash transfers, preferential loans to favored companies, plus two rounds of what’s known as “quantitative easing,” aka money creation. They’ve sent money to states to prevent layoffs of public sector workers. They’ve entangled the government in AIG, GM, and Chrysler and further entangled it in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Nothing’s worked.

Continetti does not blame only Barack Obama, but George W. Bush.  He does, however, conclude with hard words:

The fact is that everyone is drowning in debt. Governments, banks, individuals all took on far too many obligations. We’ve been on a sugar rush for a decade—and the president says the answer is just one more Pixy Stix.

Read the piece.  We are in tough times, times that seem to call for drastic financial measures.  Prayer is needed for our leaders and for the development of bright young evangelical minds that can handle these and other matters with biblical fidelity and nuanced insight.  Common sense is hard bitten today; one can hope for a renaissance of it.

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Remembering 9/11: Up and In

We have heard their stories often in the previous decade.  The fire fighters of New York City who streamed into the two towers of the World Trade Center to rescue the hundreds of people who were trapped in them.  The names are available on nondescript web pages: Joseph Agnello, Sean Hanley, Robert Parro, William Wren.  With many other rescue workers, they placed themselves in imminent danger–impossible to estimate on the morning of September 11–in order to fulfill their duties.

It is the fire fighters who have recently gripped me.  I have only the images and recollections that anyone else does–the Dateline specials, the hardcover books, the magazine stories.  I have never been trapped in a burning building, so I can’t adequately piece together what it was like for the firemen to ascend towers that only minutes later would fall.  The image I do have is one clouded by soot and dust and fire.  On one side stream office workers desperate to cheat death.  On the other side go the firefighters.  They do not slow down.  They don’t complain.  They keep climbing, climbing, climbing.  Up and in.  Higher toward the top, deeper into the nightmare.

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There is a passage in Genesis that speaks to another passage.  It’s one of the only Bible texts that I can think of that includes a ladder.  So reads Genesis 28:10-14:

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran.  And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

This passage, like many rough-and-ready Old Testament passages, does not offer us context for this vision.  The author doesn’t give us a disquisition on dreams in the Ancient Near East and how this one relates.  Jacob receives this picture ex nihilo.  Like other patriarchal figures, he is expected to handle this mind-stretching reality, to update his plans and hopes accordingly.  The Lord has extended his covenantal promise through Jacob, and the ladder to heaven will be borne by his descendants as it was his forebears.

Jesus applies this text to himself in John 1:51, offering his nascent pack of followers the insight that they would “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Nathanael, who had just confessed, in words better than he knew, that Jesus was the Son of God, could not have immediately understood the significance of Christ’s stunning declaration.  The one who was greater than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was here.  He would not simply bear the ladder.  He was the ladder.

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One aspect of the passion narratives of the gospels that strikes me are the way in which they trudge toward the cross.  The buildup can be excruciating, if you know what’s coming.  There are moments in the telling that make you want to cry out, “Please, please, hurry this up!  Why must this injustice be prolonged?”  Our horror makes us desperate for the conclusion.

But Jesus did not stop trudging.  He kept going.  Bearing splintered wood on a back roaring with pain, he kept walking.  He did not stop.  He went up to Golgotha.  Head down, eyes narrowed, pain clouding his view, embracing the sureness of his fate, feeling the coldness of isolation, smelling the stench of crucifixion.  As he went, he reflexively turned to prayer—he did not need prompting like his brothers and sisters—but he found nothing there, the sky had become a ceiling.  His creation had become a tomb, and it pressed in on him, and he felt the coffin walls at his sides, and he screamed!  But he was not heard.

Still he went further.  Higher till he hung in the air, forsaken.  Higher than any man had ever gone before, higher than even the bravest soldier or firefighter or truth-teller would go.   He went in to the darkness.  Deeper he pressed into death, descending into the abyss. Deeper than his brothers could go, deeper into the belly of condemnation.

All the way.  He went all the way.  Up and in, climbing, climbing, climbing, until the earth was no more, and the flame of wrath extinguished.  And the cosmos was silent.

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The Quirky Strengths of Finnish Education

If you enjoy puzzling over what makes for effective education, this story from Smithsonian magazine, entitled “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?,” will strike your fancy.  As past stories referenced on this blog have shown, there is a major debate in America over what makes for good teaching.  Is it having bright minds teach children?  Small classroom sizes?  Individualized instruction?  Not having standardized tests?  Having standardized tests?  Same-sex classrooms?

This article by LynNell Hancock does not definitively answer all of these questions.  It does, however, showcase the impressive accomplishments of Finnish schools:

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were thatgood.”

Those whose children spend long hours in American classrooms may find this interesting:

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

Read the whole thing.  Much to chew on here.

(Image: Stuart Conway)

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The Art and Utility of Christian Biography

Over at the Gospel Coalition, A. Donald MacLeod, an eminent Christian historian, has penned a piece entitled “The Joys and Frustrations of a Christian Biographer.”  The piece is a slightly edited version of the commencement message he delivered at Westminster East in the spring of 2011.  I read it then and have read it again and find it a highly profitable essay.  In my doctoral work on the re-enchantment of the evangelical mind, I have used MacLeod’s text on C. Stacey Woods, a notable Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship leader, and commend it to you.

Here is a little snatch from the essay:

Note my title: I write as a Christian biographer. And that distinction, that qualifier, is bound to be regarded by many as prejudice, as demonstrating a lack of professionalism, a limitation on objectivity, an inhibition of open-minded examination of the facts. The presumption is that Christian biographers have an agenda: through the recounting of a person’s life to instruct, to defend, and perhaps even to warn, the reader.

This is fodder for thought for young Christian scholars and historians.  MacLeod also contemplates the need for a balance of truth-telling and fairness to one’s subjects.  Sometimes, we Christians veer into hagiography out of a desire to honor those who have gone before.  Better to be truthful yet gracious:

I remember the shock I received when researching in the United Church of Canada archives a biographical piece about Jonathan Goforth, whose wife’s hagiographic Goforth of China also became a missionary classic. In reading the correspondence from 1889, setting up the Canadian Presbyterian north Honan field, I met a very different Hudson Taylor than that portrayed in his daughter-in-law’s two-volume biography: irascible, dictatorial, and arbitrary when fighting over territorial comity agreements. You do not have to go as far as Fighting Angel, Pearl Buck’s 1936 cruel parody of her southern Presbyterian missionary father, Absalom Seidenstricker, to discover more realistic accounts of missionary life. Frank Houghton’s beautifully written Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur is cautious but truthful, though you have to read between the lines.

MacLeod’s conclusion is inspiring.  He spells out the very serious need for the study of the Christian past.  There is so much–too much!–to learn from it, and I agree wholeheartedly with the piece in general and this conclusion, upon which I cannot improve.

It was Cicero who stated: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In theological curricula today church history has too often been sidelined or ignored. Perhaps that is why the church can appear immature and ill-informed, repeating past mistakes and failures: so soon we forget. Biographies are a way of incarnating the historical, bringing it alive, making it intensely personal and authentic. Well-crafted biographies, written with integrity and honesty, can serve the people of God well. In spite of the occasional frustration, and recognizing the awesome responsibility involved, my work as a Christian biographer has given me joy and fulfillment. Soli Deo gloria.

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A Harvard Degree Won’t Buy More than a Sandwich

The New York Times just published a short piece entitled “Generation Limbo: Waiting it Out” by Jennifer S. Lee.  The subject material will be familiar to many cultural observers, but the article underscores the difficulties many twentysomethings are having today in advancing into adulthood.

Lee introduces the group:

Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.

And so they wait: for the economy to turn, for good jobs to materialize, for their lucky break. Some do so bitterly, frustrated that their well-mapped careers have gone astray. Others do so anxiously, wondering how they are going to pay their rent, their school loans, their living expenses — sometimes resorting to once-unthinkable government handouts.

One interesting aspect of the article is that many of the college grads profiled are from exceptional schools.  The Ivy League and its colleagues seem to catapult less of their graduates into the Center of the Universe these days:

For Geo Wyeth, 27, who graduated from Yale in 2007, that means adopting a do-it-yourself approach to his career. After college, he worked at an Apple Store in New York as a salesclerk and trainer, while furthering his music career in an experimental rock band. He has observed, he said, a shift among his peers away from the corporate track and toward a more artistic mentality.

“You have to make opportunities happen for yourself, and I think a lot of my classmates weren’t thinking in that way,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of setting up your own lemonade stand.”

There’s much to be said about an insightful, if brief, piece like this.  The cultural ground has shifted beneath our feet.  This is true for at least a segment of the young adult population.  Of course, there are plenty of young overachievers out there who are working hard and advancing fast.  In addition, there have always been folks who, for whatever reason, went to a pressure-cooker school, only to choose a simpler, slower way of life.  I grew up among some of these types in coastal Maine.  In my relatively underpopulated region, there were grads from Dartmouth, MIT, Swarthmore, Bowdoin and many other schools who chose not to work in major city centers.  They wanted a quieter life surrounded by natural beauty, and they got it.

There are some new pieces to the puzzle sketched for us in Lee’s piece, however.  The twentysomething population that fits into the “Generation Limbo” profile is not merely choosing a quieter life, but seems unaware of the personal challenges and societal costs of their aimlessness.  Money is not everything, least of all for a Christian, but it is hugely helpful in providing stability to oneself and one’s family.  Of course, beyond some mere instinct to start a family (which is good!), Christians believe that we fulfill the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 by pursuing procreation.  God designed the natural family and gave this model to us for our growth and flourishing.  Many of the college grads profiled in the piece have little sense or concern for such realities.  What’s more, the social costs of listlessness will be significant over time.  The struggling American economy must bear the weight of able-bodied citizens who are not, for whatever reason, “producing” at a historically adult level.  The money for food stamps, of course, comes from someone, right (or is it created out of thin air)?

We shouldn’t miss, though, that a fair number of these recent grads have come of age in a new world order.  They were not prepared for the adult world by their parents; they were given a promise of complete fulfillment in work and maturity; they jumped through many hoops to achieve, only to find themselves exhausted by the end of their schooling.  The reality of Generation Limbo owes first in my view to moral and spiritual teaching (or the lack thereof), but this phenomenon has emerged with the help of other factors as well.

Pieces like Lee’s remind Christians and churches of the need to invigorate our youth with the biblical vision of Christ-fueled labor aimed at theocentric glory.  The dominion mandate extends into today.  Other visions of maturity and adulthood will falter, eventually, but the biblical depiction of labor as intrinsically good and maturity as God-glorifying are truths far more exciting and purposive than the pursuit of such ends as money, success, or personal fulfillment, none of which can sustain us as an ultimate end.

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HT: Ben Domenech’s excellent Transom email list

(Image: Matt Roth for the NYT)

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