Tuesday, March 30

The Chernobyl Dead Zone

Recently, a Russian nuclear researcher, Elena Korievko, took a solo tour through the famed Chernobyl "dead zone." It is a ghostly swath of land stretching from Russia, through the Ukraine, and into Belarus where one can literally drive for hours and not see a single soul. Very sobering. Very spooky. Now Ms. Korievko has documented her trip and her research on a fascinating web site. It takes some time to navigate through the entire site--and at times her English is a bit rough--but I think you'll find that her photos alone make it worth the effort.

Monday, March 29

Shore Family Update

Bannockburn student, Amy Shore, has created a blog site to keep folks updated on her family's progress in life and faith. Her father, Joe, just underwent a liver transplant after suffering from Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC) for nearly two decades. This remarkable family's testimony of grace is a genuine inspiration.

The Fragrance of Oppression

Earlier this morning I was speaking to a local pastor about the remarkable work of the Gospel in Northern Iraq. Even amidst great turmoil--or perhaps because of it--the Good New is going forth with power and unction. My pastor friend was a bit surprised when I told him the following story--and he encouraged me to reprint it here despite its earlier distribution through Table Talk magazine:

The assailant fired off nearly thirty rounds. He shouted, “Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar! God is great!” He turned on his heel and left the taxi driver to die. And thus, on February 17, 2003, the Iraqi church had yet another martyr. Ziwar Muhammad Isma'il, a believer from the city of Zakho, not only left behind a wife and five children, he left behind a remarkable legacy of faithfulness in the midst of adversity, discrimination, oppression, harassment, and persecution.

Ziwar, a Kurd, came to saving faith seven years ago. “Since then he has been faithful to, and open, about his faith. Many times he was threatened and twice arrested, though never charged,” reported his pastor. Though practically illiterate, he had memorized large portions of the Scriptures and served as a deacon in the fledgling Evangelical church. Thus said his pastor, “he was always very well aware, as are all of us in the church here, of the fact that at some point, martyrdom is all too likely. He accepted this without reservation.”

I confess that when I received the e-mail reporting Ziwar’s death, I was shocked. But, I know I shouldn’t have been. Long ago the Apostle Paul asserted, “All those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). There is no way around it. No amount of compromise can divert it. Persecution is inevitable.

Jesus explained this fact to His disciples saying, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the Word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My Word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).

Ziwar understood, perhaps better than most of the rest of us, the ever-present danger of Christian profession in the midst of this poor fallen world.

Everyone loves a winner. The sweet smell of success draws nearly all of us like moths to a candle flame. Popularity, celebrity, prominence, and fame are not only the hallmarks of our age, they are just about the only credentials we require for adulation or leadership.

As a result, we are generally not too terribly fond of the peculiar, the obscure, or the unpopular. At best we reserve pity for losers. In fact, we view with suspicion anyone who somehow fails to garner kudos from the world at large. If they have fallen prey to vilification, defamation, or humiliation we simply assume that they must somehow be at fault.

There was a time when martyrdom was among the church's highest callings and greatest honors. Early on, Christians embraced the truth that "all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). The heroes of the faith have always been those who actually sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and reputations for the sake of the Gospel.
But no longer. There is almost a kind of shame that we attach to those who suffer persecution or isolation or oppression. If their cause does not meet with quick success, we are only too hasty to abandon them. Maybe they didn't try hard enough. Maybe they just made a couple of dumb mistakes. Maybe they had faulty theology. Maybe they just failed to marshal effective public relations techniques. But however they got into the mess they're in, we are all but certain that they are not the kind of models we ought to follow.

E.M. Bounds, the great nineteenth century pastor and evangelist who penned several classic books on prayer, asserted it was "all too often the case" that "when the church prospers it loses sight of the very virtues from whence its prosperity has sprung." According to Bounds those virtues "invariably have sprung out of either the suffering of believers or their response to the suffering of others."

Throughout the history of the church, believers have suffered both fierce persecution and enforced obscurity. They have been beaten, ridiculed, defrocked, and defamed. They have suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace. They have been hounded, harassed, and murdered. Through it all though, they bore testimony to the fact that they found solace in the realization of genuine hope—a hope that did not depend on the confirmation of worldly notions of success; a hope that did not need to adjust to the ever-shifting tides of situation or circumstance. They were somehow able to comprehend that the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the faithful are the seeds of real success and that our diligent, unflagging efforts on behalf of the despised and rejected are our most potent caveats to the worldly-wise.

Though that may be an alien notion to us today, it has been the common experience of virtually all those who have gone before us in faith: apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors, pastors, evangelists, missionaries, reformers, and witnesses. They tasted the bittersweet truth that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to "those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness" (Matthew 5:10) and that great "blessings" and "rewards" eventually await those who have been "insulted," "slandered," and "sore vexed" who nevertheless persevere in their high callings (Matthew 5:12-13).

And so, though they often suffered the slanging ridicule and irate torments of the world, they remained steadfast, continued their course, and walked in grace. Like Ziwar, they were willing to risk everything for the sake of truth.

The fact is, our response to the "fragrance of oppression," as historian Herbert Schlossberg has dubbed the persecutions and sufferings of our world, is perhaps the single most significant indicator of the health and vitality of the church. It is in "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger" (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) that our mettle is proven.

E.M. Bounds said it well, “The easy smile, the temperate deportment, and the contented visage of a successful and prosperous Christians can but impress few, but the determined faithfulness, the long-suffering fellowship, and the stalwart compassion of yokefellows in hardship is certain to convey the hope of grace to many.”

Everyone loves a winner. That's not all bad--as long as our understanding of who the real winners are conforms to Biblical standards. But then that's the rub, isn't it?

I loved Ziwar before. But now, he is my role model.

Sunday, March 28

Virgil’s Place in Letters

Rehearsing the litany of woes that has afflicted modern academia has, to be sure, grown to be an all too repetitive and wearisome task. Nevertheless, when introducing a figure of such significance as Virgil, a bit of hand wringing may be necessary just to put his legacy in proper perspective. The fact is, though almost altogether unread today, Virgil’s influence on the literature of Western Civilization has been immeasurable. His writing—along with the works of Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Homer—gave substantial shape to Western ideas about art, music, poetry, prose, rhetoric, drama, narrative, and history.

In the days when, according to Middlebury Emeritus Professor William Harris, a minimum of eight years study of Latin was expected for graduation with a collegiate Batchelor’s degree, it might have been reasonable to assume familiarity with the entire twelve books of Virgil’s literary masterpiece, Aeneid, the ten books of his pastoral poems, known as Eclogues or Bucolics, and his treatise on the four aspects of farm-life, tillage, horticulture, cattle-breeding, and bee-keeping, known as the Georgics—from which all of us farmer-folk Christened “George” inherited our name. Alas, those days are long gone. Now Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Homer have been replaced in the standard curriculum by such piffle, drivel, and swill as Norman Mailer, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, and Germaine Greer.

Publius Vergilius Maro was born October 15, 70 B.C. at Andes, near Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul. He died 51 years later on September 21, 19 B.C. at Brundisium, possibly as the result of sunstroke. He was thought to have been sickly, slow of speech, and of a countrified appearance. His writing was sometimes criticized for its rusticity, too—but he was hardly ill-educated. He studied law, medicine, mathematics, and probably some Epicurean philosophy. As a result, his attachment to agrarian ideals, communitarian values, and domestic pleasures were all an outgrowth of his serious attempts to do social criticism with his art.

The Emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid to glorify Rome and the Roman people by means of a Homeric epic about the adventures of Aeneas, ancestor of Romulus—the fabled founder of Rome—and ultimately the Julian line—of which Augustus was, of course, the scion. Thus, the real subject of the Aeneid was not Aeneas, rather it was Rome and her imperial dominions. It’s history was not that of the post-bellum world of the Mediterranean, rather it was of that romantic land of imagination.

After working on his magnum opus for more than eleven years, Virgil succumbed to his many ailments, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. Virgil had requested that the manuscript be burned, not published, should he die before it was finished, but Augustus countermanded these instructions—one of the rare instances in history where tyranny proved advantageous to the future of civilization.

As a result, the work lived on to achieve a kind of literary immortality. Augustine believed Virgil was the greatest of all the pagan poets—indeed, he portrayed him as a kind of proto-Christian figure. Dante looked to Virgil as his guide in traversing the dangerous terrain of The Divine Comedy. Petrarch modeled his Africa on Aeneid. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Theseid in the classical form of twelve books and in precisely the same number of lines as Aeneid—indeed, he is said to have started its composition sitting in Virgil's tomb. Geoffrey Chaucer summarized the Aeneid in The House of Fame and The Legend of Dido. It comes as little surprise that critics have found more than twice as many allusions, nods, feints, and references to Virgil in the works of Shakespeare than to any other author. John Keats created a prose translation of the entire Aeneid by age fourteen—saying later it was the single most significant influence in the shaping of his aesthetic sensibilities. Likewise, Victor Hugo translated Virgil at sight at age nine in the entrance exam for his school. Matthew Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson were also supremely influenced by Virgil—crediting his verse style with establishing an aesthetic standard against which all the rest of the Western Canon ought to be measured.

Though it might be difficult to raise Virgil so high within the pantheon of literary greatness, nevertheless, the current mood of neglect says far more about our lack of sense and sensibility—to say nothing of our pride and prejudice—than it does about the applicability of his work to the modern world.

Virgil or Vergil?

The academically correct spelling of Publius Vergilius Maro’s name really ought to be Vergil rather than Virgil. According to Gilbert Highet in the misspelling began early, possibly as the result of the poet’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet's sexual restraint. In the Medieval age, his name was thought to refer to the poet’s magical powers—as in the virga magic wand. But however mistaken, modern popular usage demands that we refer to him as Virgil—if for no other reason than the fact that it drives the tenured academic lint pickers at the university absolutely crazy.

Thursday, March 25

A Modern Fairy Tale

Today he is hardly considered a major figure in the annals of American letters. In his own day, however novelist and poet Stephen Crane was recognized as a literary prodigy. Indeed, he was among the brightest orbs in the starry American literary constellation. He was frequently compared with Tolstoy, Zola, and Kipling. Mark Twain praised him as “an undeniable master of the literary crafts.” Buchan, Tolkien, and Lewis each acknowledged his “stunning evocative abilities.” Chesterton ranked him “before Meredith, Alcott, and the Bronte sisters” and “perhaps only behind Scott, Austen, Stevenson, and Dickens” among the great Victorian novelists. Conrad dubbed him “non-comparable as an artist.” And Howells inscribed his name “among the brightest of the sons of genius.” He helped to launch the Naturalist Movement through his use of detached narration, great attention to detail, and characters from lower social classes.

Early on, Crane evidenced extraordinary gifts. He began to compose stories, satires, and verses at the age of fourteen. When his mother, an impoverished widow, secured a college scholarship for him, he turned his hand to political essays, elegies, criticism, and social commentary.

Alas, even the greatest gifts, the best advantages, and the finest opportunities can be easily squandered. He plunged into a life of wastrel bohemianism and concupiscence. He ventured into the rough and tumble literary world at the turn of the century. He frequented the theaters, dressed fashionably, and drank profligately. He boldly rejected the faith of his childhood and embraced a life of defiant worldliness.

He continued to write prodigiously as well—often in dissipated all-night binges. He managed to create an arresting style from a unique conflation of his reading and his own invention, that offered readers an eerie sense of eye witness authenticity—though it was entirely speculative and romantic.

As Crane became more and more adept at manufacturing his fantasies—fantasies of stark realism—his excesses became even more pronounced. Though his piddling advances and royalties were quickly squandered, he actually intensified his dissolute lifestyle. Going without food or sleep for days on end, he wrote ceaselessly with a tortured passion unequaled in American journalism letters. Then he would indulge in drinking sprees, carousings, and fierce street brawls.

His greatest work, The Red Badge of Courage, was published in the autumn of 1895. It quickly went through two editions before the end of the year. By the next summer the novel was an international bookseller list and had gone through fourteen printings; remarkably enough, Red Badge has never been out of print since. Though Crane achieved almost overnight celebrity, unremunerative contracts with the publishers and a general lack of good business sense kept Crane insolvent throughout his life while his debauched lifestyle seriously eroded his health. As quickly as his star had risen, it suddenly fell. Within four years of his first publishing triumph, he was dead at the age of twenty-eight.

In Red Badge, Crane traces the effects of war on a single Union soldier, Henry Fleming, from his dreams of soldiering, to his actual enlistment, and through several battles of the Civil War. Unhappy with his dull, quiet, and boring life at home on the farm, Fleming yearns to somehow earn glory and renown for his heroic achievements in battle. After he enlists however, he discovers that a soldier’s life consists of two parts futility, one part confusion, and one part terror. Set at the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville (though it actually remains unnamed in the story), the young idealistic soldier is forced by the dumb certainties of experience to become a hardened realistic veteran. And in the process, he comes to the difficult realization that boring is actually a virtue not a vice.

The reality is that boring is what most people are actually yearning for—they just don’t know it. Boring is having no people to see, no tasks to accomplish, no expectations to meet, no pressures to deal with—it is the ideal adventure. People go halfway around the world to find a secluded beach or a remote cabin or a mountain chalet, just so they can do nothing. It is dull people who have to be stimulated constantly. Something has always got to be going on.

We are addicted to the razzle-dazzle. We want wow. And we want it now. Our whole culture, from popular entertainment to corporate management, is predicated on the idea that our lives ought to be defined by a frenetic go-go-go sense of busyness. There is no time to reflect. No time to think. No time to do anything at all except be busy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Somehow, Stephen Crane realized a century ago what we are still struggling to come to terms with. He realized it too late to wrench his life away from the precipitous decline of debauchery—though his novel remains a morality tale, a steadfast warning for us.

Red Badge is a novel of spectacular descriptions—vivid scenes which would satisfy a growing consumer society’s desire for thrilling spectacle. Written in a post-photographic age, the novel discards contemporaneous conventions of battlefield prose for a discontinuous succession of flashing images that yield photographic revelations. Crane limited the novel’s point of view and fragmented its narrative in order to focus the impact of each of his battle pictures. He wanted to somehow make his readers see the truth of his descriptions.

He focused the narrative on the physical, emotional, and intellectual responses of people under extreme pressure, nature’s indifference to humanity’s fate, and the consequent need for compassionate collective action. He explored the effect of colors on the human mind, the harsh realities of war and fighting on the social fabric, the lasting impact of father-son relationships on community life, the interlacing themes of sin and virtue on the cultural consensus. The result was nothing short of riveting.

The English critic Sydney Brooks, totally convinced by Crane's depictions of combat in Red Badge, assumed that Crane had fought in the Civil War. If Red Badge were “altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience,” Brooks asserted, “its realism would be nothing short of a miracle.”

In fact though, Crane was not born until nearly a decade after the conflicts depicted in the novel took place. When he wrote those scenes, he had not seen any form of warfare at all. Indeed, though informed by a certain amount of research, the book was entirely the work of a fantastic imagination. His realism was completely made up. In that sense, he was a romantic of the basest sort.

In writing about the life and legacy of King Alfred the Great, G.K. Chesterton quipped, “King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibly be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.” Chesterton recognized that sometimes that which appears to be most realistic is actually most fantastic and that which appears to be most fantastic is actually most realistic. In the case of Stephen Crane, we have a remarkable writer known for his authenticity, but whose realism was in fact just a romance.

Modern critics have assumed that Crane produced a new thing—a kind of fictionalized journalism. In fact, what he produced in Red Badge was a fairy tale with a moral.

Tuesday, March 23

Agreeing to Disagree

"The surest signs of a healthy society are open and free debates. We must be able to agree to disagree. In a democracy protecting the rights of our adversaries is as important as protecting the rights of our advocates." Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

"A man who knows that the earth is round but lives among men who believe it to be flat ought to hammer in his doctrine of the earth’s roundness up to the point of arrest, imprisonment, or even death. Reality will confirm him, and he performs that greatest of all services in a free society: debate." Hilaire Belloc (1871-1953)

"We come back to that sharp and shining point which the modern world is perpetually trying to avoid. We must have a creed, even in order to be comprehensive. Anyone setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute." G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

"It is far easier to agree on what we are against than it is to agree on what we are for. Opposition movements are a potent force for social change until it comes time to actually make the necessary changes. We all know what not to do. But knowing what we ought to do is another matter altogether. The negative is no replacement for the positive." Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

"Our true friends will stretch us intellectually, will understand our deepest longings and fondest dreams, and will encourage us to embrace the future in dynamic and constructive ways. In difficult times they are most assuredly there for us—and we are there for them—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Likewise, in times of blessing our fellowship is sweet, sure, and secure. They even disagree with us at just the moments when we need such challenges and thus perform a service far greater than those who perpetually tell us what we want to hear." John Buchan (1875-1940)

"Friendship can take different turns—it can run like a river, quietly and sustainingly through life; it can erupt like a geyser, forcefully and intermittently at times; or it can explode like a meteor, altering the atmosphere so that nothing ever looks, feels, or functions the same again." Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Fighting Fair

Of all men, Christians should be able to disagree nobly and graciously. Sadly, that is rarely the case. Karen and I are currently in South Florida, enjoying the sunshine, the seafood, and the pool while we do a bit of studying and writing. One of the books I am slowly working through is the new Knox Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision theological controversy. Last summer advocates of the Federal Vision theology, John Barach, Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk, Steve Schlissel, Tom Trouwborst, Steve Wilkins, Doug Wilson (nearly all of whom are dear friends) and their critics, Christopher Hutchinson, George Knight, Richard Phillips, Joey Pipa, Carl Robbins, Morton Smith, and Fowler White (many of whom are also dear friends) exchanged papers (and barbs) in Fort Lauderdale in an effort to clarify positions and hopefully mollify tempers over what had recently become a major brouhaha within the Reformed world. By all evidences in the book, The Auburn Avenue Theology, the participants somewhat succeeded in the former but failed altogether in the latter, alas.

Edited by Cal Beisner (also a long-time friend and my supervisor in a D.Min. program I have been working on the last few years), the book gathers together the various papers and the responses. Reading them has been both invigorating and depressing. The invigorating part is due to the fact that I have had to exercise brain muscles I haven’t used in far too long—these are brilliant articulate men dealing with marvelous doctrines of grace. The depressing part is due to the fact that the papers often talk past one another—major questions are left unanswered and bravado, hubris, and antipathy often substitute for dialog, discourse, and interchange.

I had assumed that what I would discover was that this controversy was essentially much ado about nothing; that it was likely more about personality than about substance; that at its root, it was more about logomachies than heterodoxies; that it might be whilst one side was defending the Biblical doctrine of justification of faith, the other was merely explaining propitiation or sanctification, or redemption or some other aspect of Christ’s finished work. Having carefully read more than half of the book, I still have yet to be convinced that this is not the case. More than anything though, I have come to the sad realization that even when we attempt to fight fair, charitably, and graciously (that after all was the stated aim of the colloquium), we tend to descend to a default mode of sloganeering and bombast. And the result is that “the name of God is blasphemed” because of us (Romans 2:24).

Saturday, March 20

Bad Reviews

From time to time folks will write or call me to ask why I only do positive book reviews. Why don’t I do genuine criticism? Why don’t I lambaste all the piffle, drivel, and swill that seems to subsume so much of the publishing industry these days? There are two simple reasons.

First, I don’t have time to read bad books. There are still too many classics that I have yet had a chance to read. I don’t have any inclination to waste precious time plowing through boring, or wicked, or sentimental, or lurid works. If I discover that a book is not worth reading after a couple of chapters, I stop reading it. And if I wouldn’t waste my time reading something, I figure I shouldn’t waste your time telling you as much. How much better to profile the myriads of volumes that are really worth reading--and thus, are really worth writing about.

The fiercest criticism I can offer a bad book is to ignore it.

Secondly, my whole purpose in writing articles, columns, blogs, and newsletters about books is not merely to write articles, columns, blogs, and newsletters about books. I don’t need the space, the PR, or the extra job. I make no pretense of being a journalist or a professional critic of belles lettres. I am a reader who happens to enjoy sharing my favorite discoveries with others. I try not to be promiscuous in my praise. But I have no intention of masking my enthusiasms either.

Now, if a Mein Kampf were to come along, I suppose I’d likely be obligated to point out its gross malignancy. That would most assuredly be a noble task worth undertaking. To be sure we need to be alert to the dangers around us. We can’t afford to be incognizant of the dark forces that threaten to topple our culture. We mustn’t stick our heads in the sand. Lord knows, I’ve spent much of my writing career lampooning the enemies of justice, mercy, and humility before God. So I’m certainly not saying that we need to shy away from condemning the prejudice, perversity, and intellectual dishonesty that are the hallmarks of modern inhuman humanism. But the fact is, most bad books--like bad movies, bad music, and bad art--aren’t all that important. They will ultimately collapse under the weight of their own absurdity and generally do not warrant our frenzied concern.

At a time when most people are only too well aware of the smothering mediocrity of American pop culture, why not direct attentions to those works of encouragement, edification, erudition, and enlightenment? That's what I am aiming at when I recommend a book.

Indeed, the Apostle Paul reminds us to keep things in proper perspective--to major on the majors and minor on the minors: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything praiseworthy, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Wednesday, March 17

Letting the Terrorists Win

Al Qaeda got exactly what it was after this week in Spain. They won. They killed hundreds of innocent people, brought an entire nation to its knees, and overthrew the government all in one fell swoop. Osama and his wicked minions attained a perverse victory. Spanish voters decided to join the French and the Germans in allowing the Pagan enemies of law, order, civilization, and freedom to dictate the future course of men and nations. As Chuck Colson asserted in his BreakPoint commentary yesterday, "There is a white flag blowing in the breeze over the beautiful city of Madrid. Muslims, who once fought a bloody war to occupy much of Spain--which they did for centuries, have now done it with a few bombs, an ominous portent indeed."

The American response to this delterious turn of events ought to take at least two forms: on the one hand we ought to grieve for Europe's surrender to the barbarian hoard of Islam; on the other hand, we ought to give thanks that our own leaders have not bowed the knee to fear and intimidation--at least, not the leaders we presently have. Let us pray that in the upcoming election cycle we do not go the way of Spain in capitulating to the demands of Muhammed's pious monsters.

Talking Lessons

Mark your calendar now: on Friday and Saturday March 26 and 27 in Franklin, Tennessee, the amazingly gifted public speaking coach, Nate Larkin, will offer his seminar How to Talk to a Crowd. If you ever have to do public speaking, you won't want to miss this one. Nate will teach you how to overcome stage fright. He will teach you how to organize your thoughts. He will teach you how to make audiences, laugh, cry, and most importantly, listen. He will teach you how to do all this and more while still just being who you are, what you are, and how you are. Sign up online now simply by visiting the TalkingLessons.com website.

St. Paddy and St. Tom

While St. Patrick's Day is certainly worth celebrating, I have to confess that around our household March 17 is more than just a remembrance of the death of Ireland's great patron in 461. It is also the birthday of my theological hero and the inspiration for much of the work I do in our local church, at our classical school, through our missions organziation, and at King's Meadow.

The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was born on this day 1780 at Anstruther on the Fife coast. During the course of his long and storied career he served as the pastor of three congregations, taught in three colleges, published more than thirty-five best-selling books, and helped to establish more than a hundred charitable relief and missions organizations. He practically reinvented the Scottish parish system as well as the national social welfare structure. He counted such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, King William IV, Thomas Carlyle, William Wilberforce, and Robert Peel as his friends. Indeed, he was among the most influential and highly regarded men of his day.

In 1809, having already made his mark as a brilliant professor of mathematics at St. Andrews and serving a small rural parish, he underwent a spiritual transformation following an extended illness. Afterward, he completely abandoned himself to his little covenantal community. He married and had his first children there. He established a classical school at the heart of the parish. He set about a reform of the ministry to the poor, the widows, and the orphans. He established a pioneer missionary society and a Bible society. In addition, Chalmers began his prodigious and prolific publishing career.

Chalmers went to Glasgow at the invitation of the Magistrates and Town Council in 1815. He served first in the Tron Church until 1819, and then, he was transferred to the newly-created parish of St John’s, a poorer parish with a very high proportion of factory a workers, where he had the freedom to develop ministry to the poor and needy.

From the beginning of his ministry in the city his preaching was fully appreciated, and many attended from throughout Glasgow, but Chalmers was concerned that his ministry should first and foremost be to the parish--where some eleven or twelve-thousand people lived and worked. He commenced a program of visitation from house to house which took two years to complete. He organized the eldership to cooperate in this task and developed Sabbath evening schools. He undertook care of the poor, education of the entire community, and reform of the local political economy. In addition, he became a popular author, at times even besting his friend Walter Scott in sales.

In later years, he prepared others for a similar impact in ministry at St. Andrews University and the University of Edinburgh--always modeling mercy himself. He helpoed to launch the modern missions movement as he mentored the best and the brightest with a worldview perspective that sent them out into the midst of the world. He was ardent in evangelsim. He was active in politics. He was involved in the promotion of the arts and sciences. In 1843, he led the Evangelicals in the establishment of the Free Church--a new denomination intent on living out the full implications of Bibilical discipleship. And in 1846 laid the cornerstone for its New College.

Thomas Carlyle said of him “What a wonderful old man Chalmers is. Or rather, he has all the buoyancy of youth. When so many of us are wringing our hands in hopeless despair over the vileness and wretchedness of the large towns, there goes the old man, shovel in hand, down into the dirtiest puddles, cleans them out, and fills the sewers with living waters. It is a beautiful sight.” By the end of his life, Chalmers had changed his land like no other since Knox.

So on this day, celebrate with me the legacy of both St. Paddy and St. Tom!

Sunday, March 14

Revolution v. Reformation

Like the great antithesis between the city of God and the city of man, the antithesis between revolution and reformation is altogether unbridgeable. It defines and distinguishes irreconcilable differences. It pits one total and exclusive worldview over and against another. It discerns the stark contrast between black and white with no hint of grey between.

Like the way to perdition, the road to revolution is wide, and many are those who travel it. Like the road to paradise, the road to reformation is narrow, and few are those who travel it. It is little wonder then that men and nations actually prefer revolution to reformation. After all, the broad road promises easy and efficient going. The narrow road promises only a long obedience in the same direction. The broad road advertises quick results, spectacular sights, and razzle-dazzle publicity. Whereas the narrow way offers only small beginnings, quiet faithfulness, and a humble reputation.

The way of revolution practically guarantees health, wealth, and wow. The way of reformation only bears witness to faith, hope, and love. Revolution demands the hard and unrelenting science of charts and graphs, programs and policies. Reformation is content with the gentle persuasions of doctrine and liturgy, covenant and sacrament. Revolution has big plans, amalgamating fervor, and gargantuan purposes. Reformation has but diligence and steadfastness in the face of daily responsibilities. Revolution is undeterred by the facts; reformation is undeterred by the obstacles. Revolution, like the passing pleasures of sin, never fails to disappoint; reformation, like love, never fails.

Alas, the contrast between the two, revolution and reformation, is as stark within the church as without. Indeed, the revolutionary mind is as prevalent in the church as it is anywhere else in the world.

I am currently reading J. Gresham Machen's Selected Shorter Writings (P&R). The book, edited by D.G. Hart, is a testimony to a life committed to reformation over and against revolution at a time when the church went right along with the world in lauding revolution in all its sundry forms. Besides being brilliant, inspirational, and stunningly prescient, the essays, book reviews, editorials, and commentaries afford a fresh perspective of the scope and sequence of the battle--the battle that continues to rage--between revolution and reformation.

Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary in 1929, discusses everything from Evangelical Scholarship and Dogmatic Theology to the joys of walking and the appreciation of fine art, from Prohibition and Fundamentalism, to good music and bad books, from politics and culture to ecclesiology and hermaneutics. Rereading these declarations of his stalwart defense of the faith combined with his unfettered joy in life offers all of us a bracing dose of reformational resolve to standfast against the wily seductions of the revolutionary impulse. Thanks. I needed that.

Controversy's Benefits

Controversy in the Body of Christ is an unfortunate consequence of sin in this poor fallen world. Our common redemption does not exempt us from wrangling and disputing, alas. We are bound to have family squabbles. We are sadly inclined to carp, complain, murmur, nitpick, and bellyache. We are all too likely to exaggerate and manipulate one another’s best intentions and worst mistakes. We are sinners. And as a consequence we almost always find ways to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Not only are we generally wrong about how we have been right, we have been wrong about how we have been wrong. We make even bigger messes of our messes.

None of this is welcome.

What is welcome is the study—the laborious scrutiny and the begrudging clarity—that will often accompany controversy. Invariably, believers who are quite naturally disturbed by dogmatic divisions will be provoked dig more deeply in order to discern the truth. Thus, even in our worst moments some of our best opportunities emerge—opportunities to think, to grow, to mature, to reconcile, to restore, and to heal.

The current controversy in Reformed circles over the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith has been painful and destructive. It has been shameful and divisive. Fellowship has been sundered. Communion has been disrupted. Joy has been smothered. Very few of us have been able to escape its deleterious effects. And that is a bad thing.

In addition though, this vital and fundamental Gospel truth is being studied and discussed and written about with a new sense of urgency and purposefulness. And that is a good thing.

Though I would never have asked for the fulminating, backbiting, sniping, rumor mongering, and anathematizing that has pitted some of my dearest friends in ministry against one another, I for one have been grateful for the doctrinal precision it is provoking—and for the books I have, as a consequence, been reading and collecting.

I was thinking of this particularly this weekend as I read Francis Turretin’s Justification (P&R). Translated by George Giger, edited by James Dennison, and introduced by R.C. Sproul, the book is actually an excerpt from the larger Institutes of Elenctic Theology (also published by P&R). I’d quickly read the larger work some years ago, but I really took my time with this excerpt—and greatly benefited from the slower and more careful pace.

Turretin was a third generation reformer and the heir of the great Genevan legacy of Calvin, Beza, and Goudimel. It is not surprising then that in this book he takes up that vaunted mantle in altogether dismantling the Roman Catholic argument for an analytical and inherent justification. Neither does it come as any surprise that he carefully establishes the forensic character of imputed and synthetic justification. Indeed, he shows that this Reformation perspective is the only Biblical foundation for the propitiation of just wrath, the remission of sins, and the adoption of the elect into the family of God. As a result, he builds a beautiful and dynamic Scriptural argument for justification by faith alone. The response of the reader in the face of such sovereign grace so marvelously exposited can only be astonished doxology.

Indeed, that is the argument of Richard Phillips in another new book, Chosen in Christ (P&R). A study of the glory of grace in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the book asserts that far from being a cold, hard, and mechanical dogma, the doctrine of God’s purposeful providence can only stir the heart to joyous elation. Predestination is not a problem to be argued about, it is a glorious revelation to be celebrated with sheer glee. Election is our most substantial comfort, not our most perplexing dilemma. Sovereign grace—the basic presupposition underlying justification by faith alone—is thus the greatest provocation to covenantal obedience. Phillips writes beautifully, devotionally, and expositionally. He brings the doctrines of grace to life. This is the kind of fresh, delightful, and—dare I say it?—new perspective of the Gospel that we all desperately need.

To be sure, there are differences in the current controversy that ought not be minimized or disregarded. Doctrinal precision is not a virtue to be blithely dispatched. But in reading these books, I did not find myself more inclined to choose sides in the current controversy—indeed, I found instead substantial evidence for a happy reconciliation of all sides should flaring tempers ever cool and sword rattling ever quiet.

As I contemplated these things and as I read these books, I found myself provoked to worship. I went looking for answers to the questions posed by a debate and instead found solace for an ache in my soul. I found myself shaken with a holy fear and a grateful awe in the face of a Sovereign God choosing me—me of all people—to walk in faithful obedience within the covenant community. I found myself utterly and completely enthralled—and to be in thrall to Christ is a most blessed estate, especially in such fractious days as these.

Saturday, March 13

Fun Run

While you were probably still sleeping this morning, I was running in the Tom King 5K race. We had a chilly start at the Titans stadium in downtown Nashville. But before long the sun and our exertions had all of us—there were over a thousand runners—more than a little warmed up. Once again, I was somehow able to lower my personal best time while attempting raise much needed funds for the Classical School of the Medes in Iraq. If you would like to sponsor me or another runner in our effort to rebuild Iraq one child at a time, please contact Joanna in the King’s Meadow office. If you would like to see me limp along the highways and byways, our next race will be on April 10th at the Sonic Sunrise 5K. And then there will be the big one: on April 24, we will run in the Country Music Marathon.

Equal Opportunity Offender

The renowned English preacher of the last generation, D. Martyn Lloyd Jones once remarked: "The great effect of our Lord's preaching was to make everybody feel condemned, and nobody likes that." On almost every page of the New Testament, we find Jesus offending someone. When He wasn't confronting the Scribes and the Pharisees, He was rebuking the promiscuous and the perverse. When He wasn't alienating the Saducees and the Herodians, He was reproving the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. He even had a knack for estranging His own disciples with His "hard sayings" (John 6:60) and "dark parables" (Matthew 13:11).

Jesus "meek and mild" was rarely meek or mild when it came to sin. He pulled no punches. At various times, and when the situation demanded, Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs, and dirty dishes. He actually referred to one of His chief disciples as Satan. So that His hearers would not miss the point, He sometimes referred to the objects of his most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant. Others He often addressed with the most withering invective. God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that His listeners found deeply offensive. He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice. He was an equal opportunity offender.

Christ came into this world to call all humanity unto repentance. Thus His message stands out as an unflinching condemnation of the fallen estate of all humanity: the great and the small, the good and the bad, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor. It matters not who we may be or from whence we come, the Gospel is an affront to all that we have done and to all that we are: "There is none righteous, no not one." Such a message was never intended to be popular; it was intended to be true. There is no justice in a killing kindness; it may be attained only in the brutal apprehension of our dire need of Christ. We all desperately need Good News, not nice news. And that is simply not a popular notion. Not now. Not ever. Thus, "He came unto His own and His own received Him not" (John 1:11).

We don't want to hear that our hearts are "deceitful and wicked above all things and beyond cure" (Jeremiah 17:9). We don't want to hear that "we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) or that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We don't want to hear that our corrupt lives have resulted in a corrupt culture where the innocent are exploited, the helpless are despoiled, and the downtrodden are utterly forgotten. We don't want to hear that there are very real and tangible consequences to our sin that ultimately must be dealt with. We would much rather find a series of steps that would "enable" us, "empower" us, or help us to "recover," than we would to hear the clear message of grace, "Repent therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19).

According to Lloyd-Jones, "If Christ had come and told us that the way of salvation was to consider a great, noble, and wonderful teaching and then to set out and do it, why, we would have liked it. Thoughts of imitating Christ always please mankind, because they flatter us. They tell us that if we only use our wills we can do almost anything. . . . The world today in its state of trouble is very ready to listen to sermons that tell it somehow or another about the application of Christian principles. No one is annoyed at them. 'What wonderful thoughts' people say. 'What a wonderful conception.' But the message of the Gospel is that, 'The world is as it is because you are as you are. You are in trouble and confusion because you are not honoring God; because you are rebelling against Him; because of your self-will, your arrogance, and your pride. You are reaping,' says the Gospel, 'what you have sown.' We all dislike that, and yet it is always the message of Christ--He called upon men and women to repent, to acknowledge their sin with shame and to turn back to God in Him, but the message of repentance always has been and still is a cause of offense."

Tuesday, March 9

Holy Fear and Humility

The great English critic and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, once quipped: “Some men please themselves with a constant regularity of life, and decency of behavior. Some are punctual in attendance on public worship, and perhaps in the performance of private devotion. Such men are not hypocrites; the virtues which they practice arise from their principles. Their religion is sincere; what is reprehensible is, that it is partial."

Apparently, the great man understood only too well the tendency of men to happily embrace religion--as long as they could have it on their terms. That is a far cry from Biblical faith.

The Christian approach to any issue, or any problem, or any situation, or even any circumstance--in fact, the Christian approach to the whole of life--must always be theocentric. In other words, it must begin and end with--and ultimately be centered in--the Lord. He is, after all, the Alpha and the Omega of all things in reality (Revelation 1:8). To attempt any approach to reality without this in view is to invite frustration and failure. God is sovereign (Psalm 115:3). This is the fundamental truth that underlies the Christian worldview. Thus, our lives must be suffused with a holy fear and reverence of Him--to the point that everything is thereby affected.

The Bible is prolific in its vehement assertion of this truth: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7). "Hear O people of God the Good News: in the fear of the Lord is strong confidence, and His children will have a place of refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to avoid the snares of death (Proverbs 14:26-27). "Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety upon Him because He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:5-7).

Humility is not exactly a popular concept these days. Fernanda Eberstadt, in her brilliant coming-of-age novel Isaac and His Devils, captured this sentiment: "Humility has a dank and shameful smell to the worldly, the scent of failure, lowliness, and obscurity."

How different is the Biblical perspective. A nation whose leaders are humbled in fear before God will suffer no want (Psalm 34:9). It will ever be blest (Psalm 115:13). It will be set high above all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1). Similarly, families--and even individuals--that walk in humility will be exalted and lifted up in due time (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6).

The Westminster Confession of Faith was written between 1643 and 1648 by a remarkable group of English reformers. The cornerstone of its magnificent formulation of Biblical orthodoxy is its conception of God’s nature and character: “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal most just and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”

This precise perception of God’s regal character is matched in the Confession by a sober realization of His sovereign attributes: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His glory in, by, unto, and upon them: He is alone the foundation of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleaseth. In His sight all things are open and manifest; His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to Him contingent or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands.”

Thus, the Confession concludes with a practical admonition: “To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.”

Though such humble affirmations formed the backdrop of the thinking of the Reformers--and thus in turn, the much of the fabric of early American culture--it is a far cry from our own comprehension of God today. In fact, the combination of doctrinal precision and awestruck humility of the Westminster divines necessarily sounds rather foreign to our ears, not just because they made liberal use of a exacting tone and a majestic language at odds with our relaxed syntax and egalitarian prose, but because their very perception of God is foreign to us.

We are prone to think of God--when we think of Him at all--as wonderful. We are less likely to see Him as willful. Certainly He is both, but the overwhelming emphasis of Scripture is upon the will rather than the wonder. It is upon the exercise of God’s prerogative rather than the expiation of our pleasure. The difference is probably a matter of slights rather than slanders. Nevertheless, it is a difference that makes for rather dramatic consequences.

Thus, to some of us God is little more than a cosmic vending machine in the sky, designed to dispense our every want and whim. To others of us He is a grandfatherly sage who lives to patiently offer us certain therapeutic benefits and baubles from His largess. To still others He is a kind of Santa figure--jolly, unflappable, and determined to bestow goodies upon incognizant masses. Invariably though, we moderns tend to see God in terms of ourselves--in terms of our wants, our needs, our preferences, and our desires. We have apparently, as Voltaire accused, “made God in our own image.”

To the Westminster divines, such a prideful conception of God would have been altogether unrecognizable as the God of the Bible. Such a conception would have been incapable of laying foundations of Christendom--thus rendering the flowering of American civilization utterly impossible. In fact, according to psychologist Paul Vitz, such a conception is not knowledge of God at all, but a form of “self-worship.”

Thus, if we fail to come to a full and accurate knowledge of God--if it is shallow, or superficial, or self-centered, or supercilious as our modern evangelical conception of God is apt to be--then we are not only likely to miss God's purpose and will for our lives, we are likely to make a mess of the world around us as well. And so we have.

Thus, the Shorter Catechism properly begins by asserting that, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The English reformers, recognized that the beginning of any serious endeavor must necessarily be rooted in a humble and holy fear of our Gracious and Almighty God--that worship of Him, fellowship with Him, service to Him, and communion in Him, must be the vortex of any and all other activities. The Biblical faith is a circumspect fear of the Living God. That is its essence.

Monday, March 8

Heed the Call

He didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. Nevertheless, his counsel proved to be invaluable. He somehow was able to wrench my indecision and uncertainty out of the realm of the individual and the subjective and into the much surer and securer realm of the covenantal and the objective.

I had been wrestling with the issue of calling for months when I walked into a dusty little antiquarian bookshop and providentially discovered a frayed, foxed, and frazzled copy of a booklet entitled Heed the Call. It had actually been written for a now practically-forgotten ecclesiastical crisis in 1844 by Thomas Chalmers, but it seemed to me to be more relevant than ever as I carefully poured over its brittle pages.

Like Chalmers, I had once been a pastor, but was currently engaged in education, publishing, missions, and parachurch ministry. And like Chalmers, I often wondered if I had made a wise choice--or rather, if I had somehow failed to heed God’s call. What were the Biblical and covenantal criteria for a call to the Gospel ministry? Was my calling somehow diminished by the fact that I no longer opened the Word to a congregation week by week? Was I missing God’s best? How could I know for sure?

Drawing on the great heritage of the Reformation and the inestimable riches of Scripture Thomas Chalmers not only answered my plaguing questions, but afforded me a perspective of calling that all my years before, during, and after seminary never did.

The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers lived from 1780 to 1847. During the course of his long and storied career he served as the pastor of three congregations, taught in three colleges, published more than thirty-five best-selling books, and helped to establish more than a hundred charitable relief and missions organizations. He practically reinvented the Scottish parish system as well as the national social welfare structure. He counted such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, King William IV, Thomas Carlyle, William Wilberforce, and Robert Peel as his friends and confidantes. Indeed, he was among the most influential and highly regarded men of his day.

Even so, at the end of his life, when his reputation was well-established, his contribution to the life of Scotland, England and Ireland fully recognized, and his fame spread around the world he did not hesitate to involve himself in--and ultimately lead--a movement that was to divide the Church of Scotland, and to set him in apparent disregard of the authority of the highest civil court in the land.

With the disappearance of Roman Catholic authority in Scotland in the sixteenth century, Reformers worked hard to replace it with a faithful national Church. Their struggle for spiritual independence had been a long and costly one under the leadership of John Knox, Andrew Melville and Alexander Henderson amongst others. At long last, in 1690, their Reformed Church was legally recognized by the crown as the established Church of Scotland. The danger of such an establishment was that the state might attempt to manipulate the internal affairs of the Church.

Sadly, that danger was realized when Parliament imposed conformity with the standards of English patronage upon the Scottish Church. In reality, patronage was hardly different from the Medieval practice of lay investiture--it gave lords, lairds, and landowners the right to appoint a parish a minister who might or might not be Biblically qualified for the post or acceptable to the elders of the congregation. The patronage conflict in came to a head in 1838 when several ministers were forced on congregations opposed to their settlement and the Court of Session and the House of Lords ratified the appointments. Many, including Chalmers, believed that the integrity of the Gospel was at stake.

At about the same time, it was decided by Parliament that the Church did not have the power to organize new parishes nor give the ministers there the status of clergy of the Church. She had no authority to receive again clergy who had left it. And perhaps worst of all a creeping liberal formalism was slowly smothering the evangelical zeal of the whole land--in large part due to the assumption of pastoral duties by men altogether unfit for such a solemn vocation.

In other words, there arose in the land a crisis over the issue of what constituted a legitimate call to the ministry, how it was to be recognized, and how it was to be maintained.

Alas, despite repeated requests, the Government refused to take action to deal with the threat of spiritual atrophy that a deficient or subjective view of calling inevitably produced. After a ten year long struggle to regain the soul of the church, the evangelical wing, led by Chalmers and others, laid a protest on the table of the Assembly and some four hundred ministers and a like number of elders left the established Church of Scotland on May 18, 1843, to form the Free Church.

When the General Assembly of the Free Church was constituted that grave morning, Thomas Chalmers was called to be its Moderator. He was the man whose reputation in the Christian world was the highest; he was also the man whose influence in directing the events leading to what would eventually be called “The Disruption” had been greatest.

Obviously, if the conflict had been provoked by a faulty view of what actually constituted a call to the Gospel ministry, it was incumbent upon the evangelical leaders to articulate the correct view. Chalmers wrote Heed the Call to do just that.

He argued that there were essentially “only two guiding principles for the affirmation of any doctrinal standard, yet which are of particular relevance to the current discussion. They are but the plenary objectivity of Holy Writ and the living appurtenance of parish life; again, they are but the authority of Scripture and the parameters of the covenant.” In other words, he believed that it was not necessary to depend on either the predilections of the rich and powerful or the inclinations of the people at large to determine who was or who wasn’t called into the ministry. The Bible was, is, and always shall be clear in detailing specific criteria and prerequisites for vocational service in the Church. But not only that, covenantal communities serve as the proving grounds for those criteria and prerequisites so that there is a kind of checks and balances system at work.

Chalmers asserted that the Bible makes it plain that any candidate for the ministry as well as the members of his immediate family must evidence constancy of character and virtue over the course of time (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). He must also demonstrate particular pastoral gifts and aptitudes in the handling of the Gospel (Eph. 4:4-16; 2 Tim. 2:15-16). As he said, “The Word of God countenances as requisite both a testable sanctification and a notable endowment.” And such mandatory capacities are observable within the context of everyday parish life (Philem. 4-7). He said, “An affirmation of the ministerial calling is the inevitable result of a life rightly lived, gifts rightly shared, and proficiencies in handling both Scripture and adversity amongst those who might best be able to judge a candidate’s sincerity: his neighbors.” Accountability is thus assured.

He believed that by holding candidates for the ministry to this twin standard, both “the integrity of the Church’s divine offices” and the “vitality of every other calling to which believer priests might be appropriately inclined” would be preserved. The result was that mere desire, or opportunity, or inclination, professional preparation, or even obvious aptitude alone was insufficient to commend a man to the pulpit. And despite the need for faithful pastoral servants, all manner of haste in discerning the authenticity of calling was carefully avoided (1 Tim. 5:22). Ministry was thus maintained as an vital organism rather than as a mere organization. The Biblical precepts set the standard and then the community of faith affirmed and confirmed compliance with that standard in the life and work of every candidate.

When I first read the almost too-simple prescriptives of Chalmers in Heed the Call, I was flooded with a sense of relief. The issue was not nearly as complicated as I had made it out to be. I was able to rest in the assurance that there was no mystical override, no metaphysical trump, no divine notary that I had somehow overlooked or misread. Instead, I could rely on the clear mandates of Scripture as confirmed by those God had providentially placed around me in my own local church. As Chalmers proclaimed, “Word and covenant: the one true foundation with its one true environ; they surely are the only, yet fully sufficient, provisions at our disposal for the discernment of purpose in this poor fallen world by which we might duly heed the call.”

Over the past two years, all this has taken on new relevance for me because I have been presented with several calling-decisions by pastoral and college search committees. I am grateful, now more than ever before, for the wise counsel Chalmers has afforded me across all the years and all the miles.

Sunday, March 7

Iraq Mission Trip Photos

At even longer last, I have posted photos of the Iraq missions trip that we took last September--including glimpses of the three campuses of the Classical Schools of the Medes and the amazing pastors' conference in Kirkuk. Amazing!

Thursday, March 4

Peru Mission Trip Photos

At long last, I have posted photos of the Peru missions trip that we took a couple of months ago now. Better late than never, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 3

Reading Even More of the Patristics

I received a flurry of responses to my blog yesterday about reading the Patristics. Among the sundry attaboys and amens was a very helpful list of books from my friend, the writer and educator, Patrick Poole.

He wrote: “I finished G.L. Prestige's God In Patristic Thought recently, and found that it had the best explanation of Hilary's role in trinitarian development by introducing coinherence. Solid scholarship on the whole topic of theology proper by the Fathers. Advanced reading but worth the effort. You might have seen Christopher Hall's two books from IVP: Learning Theology With The Church Fathers and Reading Scripture with The Church Fathers. I found both extremely helpful, with the former being very accessible for novice readers. I've lent out my copy of W.H.C. Frend's The Early Church several times as an easy read in the history of the period. Bettenson's The Early Church Fathers has great topical selections from all of the patristic luminaries. Also, you might have noticed that Liberty Fund has just republished Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture. It looks like a spectacular volume, especially for the $10 price for the kevar softcover. Very well bound. My 1961 edition is falling apart, so it is next on my purchase list. Needham's The Triumph of Grace: Augustine's Writings On Salvation and Carol Harrison's Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity were great reads on my list last year. Finally, over the weekend I started re-reading Gerald Bonner's bio on Augustine. Food for thought.”

Food for thought indeed. I've read all of the books Patrick suggests except the Learning Theology volume by Hall--and it is on my must-read list.

In addition to the volumes Patrick recommends I have found the histories of Schaff, Pelikan, and Needham very helpful, the anthologies of Lightfoot, Staniforth, and Sparks delightful, and the comprehensive set edited by Schaff, Wace, and Donaldson of all the Patristic writings indispensible. But the single most valuable volume I have stumbled across in the last couple of years is the massive encyclopedia edited by Allan Fitzgerald for Eerdman's, Augustine through the Ages. It is a treasure house of information and inspiration, not just about Augustine, but about the whole of the Patristic age.

All this talk of books covering the wide ranging period from the Didiche to The City of God obviously raises the question of just who is it that we include when we talk about the Patristics. I suppose that speaking in a general way, the epoch of the Fathers was, in the Western Church, the first five centuries after Christ. In the Eastern Church, the Patristic Age may be extended to embrace John of Damascus in the middle of the eighth century. Scholars have traditionally arranged the writers, not unnaturally, into four groups. In the first group are the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, or those writers who were roughly contemporary with the formation of the New Testament canon. These all wrote in Greek. In the second group are those writers from the third century--approximately from the time of Irenreus to the Nicene Council. They wrote partly in Greek and partly in Latin. In the third group are the Post-Nicene Latin Fathers--those writers from the age of the great Ecumenical Councils. In the fourth group are the Post-Nicene Greek Fathers--those writers from the Golden Age of Byzantium.

Most modern collections of the Patristics include only writings from the first group--which is a great pity. To ignore Clement of Alexandria means that we lose much of our knowledge of classical antiquity. John Chrysostom can no more be left out of the world of letters than Chaucer or Shakespeare. And the Confessions of Augustine is one of those rare books which belong to the whole human race, and should always live. That said, the first and formative period of the Patristics--the Formative Period--is a great place to start. This will be the focus of the conference Servant Group International and King's Meadow will be sponsoring on April 17. I am very much looking forward to reading and preparing for that conference.

Tuesday, March 2

Reading the Patristics

Like America’s Founding Fathers, the Patristics are often invoked but seldom actually read. They are often referenced but seldom actually quoted. Though they are at the heart of traditionalist sloganeering, they have in fact, only rarely actually contributed to the traditions they supposedly have inspired. Today they are the great unknowns, these Church Fathers. Even in those communions which place much emphasis on Apostolic Succession--the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Copt--there is scant knowledge of those who succeeded the Apostles. Their words and works are seldom more than anecdotally revered.

The irony of this goes beyond the obvious--the fact is the writings of the Patristics are imminently readable and widely available. The earliest Christians were both literate and literary. They were people of the Book and of books. As a result, their refined letters, sermons, tracts, commentaries, manifestos, credos, dialogs, proverbs, epigrams, and sagas were carefully, preserved, anthologized, and preserved through the centuries. The harried and persecuted believers during the imperial epoch took solace in their pastoral wisdom. The pioneering Medievals grounded their worldview on Patristic foundations throughout the era of Christendom. The reforming Protestants carefully considered their precepts during the tumultuous days of the Reformation. Indeed, nearly every generation of Christians through the end of the nineteenth century made a study of their ideas an elementary aspect of classical education.

Alas, reading their works demands a certain amount of diligence, thoughtfulness, and discernment--as is necessarily the case with all substantive writing--which is probably why reading and studying the Patristics passed out of favor during the late great twentieth century.

Theoretically, the Patristics continue to be appealing to us. We repeat the pious reforming litany--let’s get back to the pattern of the early church; let’s restore the integrity of pure, primordial worship; and let’s strip away the accumulated layers of traditional practices, rituals, and ceremonies. Somehow we imagine that the Patristics support us in this. We suppose them to be simplistic, primitive, and primal. So, we are often surprised to discover them to actually be complicated, refined, and mature. And if there is one thing that the modern church is in rebellion against, it is depth, sophistication, and acumen. The result is that we carry on with a blithe don’t confuse me with the facts naiveté.

In fact, all the great controversies of our day were controversies in their day--and the Fathers of the faith addressed them substantively. Questions of soteriology and Christology, questions of liturgy and epistemology, questions of hermeneutics and ecclesiology were all dealt with in some detail. And the answers they often gave were anything but simplistic, primitive, and primal.

Through the writings of the Patristics we are brought to see the abandon with which the Christians gave themselves to their new faith. We see evidence of the struggle for moral purity that Christians were compelled to wage amidst the corruption of paganism. To “come out from the world” was to the believer of that day no mere figure of speech, but the actual entrance into a new moral atmosphere. We see their passion for maturity and substance--a maturity and substance that was evidenced in everything from their liturgies to their apologetics. Perhaps though, the most dramatic element to notice in reading the Patristics is the early and persistent emphasis on covenant--the idea pervades Polycarp’s encouragement to those being persecuted; it invades the discussions of liturgy in the letters of Ignatius to the Ephesians and Romans; it is evident in the anthologized sayings of the Didache; and it is the theological backdrop of the semi-apocryphal writings of Barnabas and Hermas.

Indeed, this is the great theme sounded by the Patristics. Even as they described their dynamic ecclesiology, as they illumined their substantive liturgy, and as they affirmed their salient, articulate, and stalwart theology, they were simultaneously driving home this essential sociology of home. They understood only too well that there is no place like home. But a token of Heaven, our true Home, the covenant community in which we temporally make our home is yet a place of joy, of peace, of plenty, where supporting and supported, dear souls mingle into the blissful hubbub of daily life. No matter how benevolent, no matter how philanthropic, and no matter how altruistic some social or cultural alternative may be, it can never hope to match the personal intimacy of godly domestic relations. Except in the rare and extreme cases where strife and bitterness have completely disintegrated familial identity, there is no replacement for the close ties of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, aunts and uncles, kith and kin--and their extensions within the family of families known as the Church. Though under siege in our day, covenantalism was recognized by the Patristics as the glue that holds societies together.

As a result, reading these Fathers is not merely an exercise in antiquarian curiosity--it may well be, apart from the study of the Scriptures themselves, the most relevant of all our educative pursuits.

Studying the Patristics

On Saturday April 17, Servant Group International and King's Meadow will sponsor After Acts--a one day Church History Conference from 10:30 AM to 3:00 PM at Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN. I will be speaking on the subject of the early part of the Patristic period. I'll profile some of the most remarkable individuals and the specific issues with which they had to deal throughout their lives and ministries. More information about this exciting opportunity will be forthcoming.