Seminary

 

Jul

17

2013

guest|3:14 am CT

(Not) Living the Dream

Tyler Eason blogs at Coffee @ Midnight.

If you’re an average American, you spend over 1/3 of your waking hours at work. And according to multiple surveys taken through the years, over 2/3 of Americans are not satisfied with their jobs. This means that if you are normal, you spend a lot of time doing a job you don’t really like.

I don’t hate my job, but it certainly is not my passion. I am currently trudging through seminary while working full-time in a corporate setting.

My passion is to pastor a church one day, but I spend forty hours per week sitting in front of a computer screen. I want to teach and preach the gospel, but I am stuck in a cubicle every day.

This can happen to more people than just seminarians, though. We all have a passion. Most people have dreams of what they see themselves doing in five or ten years, but the flame for that dream is all too easily doused by the reality that today we are stuck doing something we really don’t love.

While this is normal, it doesn’t have to be a constant thorn in our flesh. It’s okay not to love what you do all the time, but I do believe that a lack of desire and zeal for where we work and what we do can be an indicator of a deeper problem. So here are a few areas in which God has changed my thinking in the area of my day-to-day, regular, not so ideal job.

1. My walk with Christ

Often in life, we can tell where we truly find our joy, by what brings us the most disappointment. I have realized that my passion and zeal for shepherding His church has often trumped my passion for Him. I have springs of living water in Christ, but continue to seek satisfaction from the broken cistern of a better, more appealing job (Jer. 2:13). I have learned that my thirst will never be quenched by anything but Christ Himself. He alone is my source of joy, not my dream job.

2. My relationship with my family

It is so easy to carry the burden of my job home with me. This quickly sucks my passion out of other wonderful things in my life. God is teaching me that before I can be qualified to lead His church, I must learn to lead and provide for my family (I Tim. 3:5). My ho-hum job is a means to provide for the people I love. It’s not a dream job, but it’s a good job. For that, I should be thankful.

3. My view of pastoring

We often glamorize that which we long for. There will surely be pleasure in shepherding His church, but some of the things that I am passionate about I can do each and every day without the title. I can love people. I can talk about Jesus. I can pray for people. I can point them to the Bible amidst the hardships of life. No matter what job we currently have, we can find ways to pursue our passions in the midst of our daily work. This will grow your passion, as well your quality of work right now.

Overall, we can’t escape the struggles of work. No matter what we do, at the end of the day we will come home with thorns and thistles in our hands. We should definitely work and put in the effort to pursue our passions, but even those will disappoint.

Ultimately, we serve Christ through our jobs (Col 3:23). Pleasing people is nearly impossible, but through Christ our Heavenly Father is pleased with us. He is so pleased with us that He is willing to hold off on giving us our immediate wishes so that we may know Him more. Each and every day God has placed us in a place where we can enjoy Him thoroughly and love others genuinely.

It’s okay to pursue your dream job, but on the way, don’t make the mistake of ignoring the blessings found in your mediocre, daily grind. We can follow our Good Shepherd in this endeavor, knowing that he can relate to our struggle. He was a regular guy, going about a normal job for thirty years before he started his formal ministry. Were those years insignificant? Absolutely not. He didn’t just endure his work, but he embraced it as a means of submitting to his Father’s will. By his grace, we too can embrace the job we have en route to the job we want, knowing that God will produce fruit in a way that will better prepare us for the very job we long for now.

 
 

Dec

05

2012

Trevin Wax|3:39 am CT

Research and Respect: 3 Things to Remember as You Study

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams (University of Chicago Press, 2008) contains a wealth of information for scholars seeking to do their research with excellence. The writers offer practical suggestions on how to find a topic, start a draft, support one’s claims, and maintain the interest of the reader.

Due to its informative scope and instructional nature, this book is difficult to summarize succinctly, much less interact with at a personal level. But most of the authors’ advice can be summed up in three simple principles that guide the researcher’s task. Though research is often done in solitude, the process itself inevitably involves a three-way conversation between the researcher, the researcher’s colleagues, and the researcher’s readers.

In reviewing The Craft of Research, I will highlight a few suggestions under the general principles of respecting your readers, respecting your fellow researchers, and respecting your own role and purpose during the process.

1. Respect Your Readers

A good researcher always keeps the reader in mind. Research papers are more than just requirements for a degree; we write them as a service to our readers.

To respect your readers, you must first know who they are. As a researcher, you need a general idea of who will pick up your paper and consider its claims.

“Just as we judge a writer as we read, so a writer must judge his readers, but before he writes,” the authors say (17).

It is important to not presume that your reader will care about your research, even if the readers you envision would be naturally interested in the subject. Instead, good researchers make plain the reasons why a reader ought to care. We go about the task with the question of “So what?” always in the back of our mind (47). Therefore:

“The first question an experienced researcher should ask about a problem is not Can I solve it? but Will readers think it should be?” (64).

As important as the “So What?” question is, we must go beyond providing for our readers an answer without regard to form. Respecting the reader means we will make the delivery of the answer as interesting as possible.

The introduction of the paper should seize the attention of the reader by promising an answer to a pressing problem. The body of the paper should be written with the reader’s interest in view. Better for our readers to come to the end of our work and disagree with our conclusions than to never reach the end due to loss of interest (232).

It is true that the crafting of research can be tedious at times, but our writing need not be. “Our dense writing indicates not the irreducible difficulty of a work of genius,” write Booth, Colomb, and Williams, “but the sloppy thinking of a writer indifferent to his readers” (250).

Though keeping the reader in mind may seem like an undue burden for researchers, this practice actually helps us accomplish our work more effectively. Envisioning our reader reminds us that the goal of our work is to serve others.

Furthermore, the discipline of considering our readers helps us become more skilled at the art of conversation. “When you write for others, you demand more of yourself than when you write for yourself alone,” the authors say (13). By keeping others in mind, our task is given proper shape. In every report, we seek to “make a claim, back it with reasons, support them with evidence, acknowledge and respond to other views, and sometimes explain your principles of reasoning” (108).

Showing deference to our readers will lead us to make concessions at times and thereby legitimize others’ views (145). Too often, we put forth a claim with “arrogant certainty” and unwittingly undercut our own argument (127). Instead, we should recognize that our relationship with the reader provides a challenge to reader and researcher alike. We are involved in a give-and-take relationship, an interaction that strengthens our argumentation.

To challenge the reader, we must explain the significance of the proposal and consider how many beliefs the reader will need to change, should our proposal be convincing (124). In being challenged by our readers, we must put ourselves in their shoes and put our argument through their wringer, fully anticipating and answering the major objections they might raise (142). 

2. Respect Your Fellow Researchers

A second principle that guides the craft of research is respect for one’s fellow researchers, the scholars who have laid a foundation for our research as well as contemporary scholars who are interested in similar subjects. Research is a community project.

“The knowledge we all rely on depends on the quality of research that supports it and the accuracy of its reporting” (4).

Erecting a shoddy frame upon a solid foundation is disrespectful to the builders who have gone before us. For this reason, we should pay careful attention to the facts employed to back up our claims. Never should we shape the facts or manipulate their presentation in a way that tilts the force of an argument in our favor (135).

A good way to respect fellow researchers is to “read your argument as someone who has a stake in a different outcome – who wants you to be wrong” (140). In interacting with scholars who disagree, it is important to read charitably and not “against the grain.” Some researchers latch on to certain qualifications or concessions that are admittedly not central to an author’s argument in order to claim the author’s work as additional support (98). This kind of research disrespects the reader and fellow researcher alike.

One of the primary ways we can respect fellow researchers is through the careful quotation of sources. As a rule of thumb, we should summarize when all we need is the point of the passage, paraphrase when we can be clearer than the original, and record exact quotations when they come from an authority that adds weight to our claim (97). Likewise, we should cite sources as a way of honoring fellow scholars “by acknowledging your intellectual debts” (196).

3. Respect Yourself and Your Purpose.

The Craft of Research is aptly titled. This kind of work is indeed a craft, which means that as researchers, we can and should seek to improve our skills. It is important to respect our own abilities and keep the purpose of research at the forefront of our minds.

Booth, Colomb, and Williams advise the researcher to write a little bit every day and do what is necessary to improve one’s critical thinking skills (33). As we go about our work, we must respect the purpose of research enough to submit to evidence even when it contradicts our intended and anticipated answer. Though it may be easy to only read sources in a way that affirms our point of view, we must remain open to research that challenges our weak points (84). This is, after all, the point of our work: to “gather information to answer a question that solves a problem” (10).

As we begin the research process, we should consider whether the problem under consideration is practical or conceptual. A practical problem will be resolved by recommending a course of action. A conceptual problem will be resolved by adding to our present understanding. For this reason, the answer to a practical problem is called “applied research” while the answer to a conceptual problem is called “pure research” (53).

In respecting the purpose for our work, we must prioritize primary sources, the “raw data” most relevant to the topic at hand. Secondary sources utilize primary data, while tertiary sources summarize the results of secondary sources for general readers. All three kinds of sources can be helpful, but the bulk of our time should be spent with primary sources. The Internet can be a terrific place to discover primary source materials, but ought to be regarded with suspicion when it comes to secondary and tertiary sources (77-80).

One of the most important ways to respect yourself during the research process is to remember that your views on the subject are important. Some researchers will throw together a number of scholarly opinions on a given subject without ever making their own views known.

Booth, Colomb, and Williams issue a good reminder, that “readers want your analysis, not a summary of your sources” (178). The purpose for your research is to put forth your own point of view. After all, what is the point of writing unless you believe your claims to be true and your argument to be sound enough to change others’ opinions on the matter (106)? Whenever we forget the purpose of our writing, our proposal loses relevance and becomes less convincing.

Conclusion

The Craft of Research is full of practical advice for those who want to engage in the research process carefully, effectively, and persuasively. Following the instructions in this book will enable researchers to avoid common pitfalls while doing research. Our work ought to be characterized by respect and consideration: for our readers, for our fellow researchers, and for ourselves.

 
 

Sep

11

2012

Trevin Wax|3:25 am CT

4 Things Every Intellectually-Minded Person Should Remember

A sense of trepidation accompanies me at the beginning of my Ph.D. studies. One look at the syllabi for my first week of seminars, and I am overwhelmed by the pages to be read, papers to be written, ideas to be considered, and arguments to be made.

At the same time, a flash of excitement and courage wells up inside me when I think of all the men and women who have traveled this road. In the midst of life’s pressures and family responsibilities, work requirements and daily routines, men and women across the world have carved out space in their lives to embark on the journey of “the intellectual life.”

Following in their footsteps, I share their passion but need their perspective. I share their calling but need their counsel.

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods was written in 1934 by A.G. Sertillanges, a scholar who upheld and embodied the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, the towering theologian of the Middle Ages. Here are four major themes that I found particularly helpful in Sertillanges’ work.

Lesson #1: Recognize the Intellectual Life as a Calling.

One does not stumble into the intellectual life. Rather, one accepts this life as one accepts the call to a new vocation. The purpose of this vocation is to develop and deepen one’s mind and thinking, but this calling should go beyond personal ambition or mere hobby.

Sertillanges envisions the intellectual life as directed by a passion for truth-seeking as a service to others. “Truth is ever new,” he writes. “Like the grass of morning, moist with glistening dew, all the old virtues are waiting to spring up afresh. God does not grow old” (15).

Likewise:

“We retain better what has struck us. For this reason along with many others, the intellectual should cultivate that sense of the newness, the freshness of things, which is the starting-point for a vigorous urge towards fruitful creation or research” (184).

The calling to the “intellectual life” should be answered with a continuous cultivation of curiosity. The thrill of discovery is what bids us along in our pursuit of truth. Sertillanges imagines the scholar as “carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration” (126).

Far from a sterile routine of burying oneself in dusty books, the intellectual life is an adventure, an ongoing exploration of truth. As such, it demands discipline and rigor commensurate with the seriousness of its calling. “Vocation means concentration,” he writes. “The intellectual is consecrated; let him not scatter himself in exacting futilities” (43).

Lesson #2: Submit Your Intellectual Pursuits to Truth.

Sertillanges commands us to put aside personal ambition and devote ourselves to the discovery of truth. The scholar seeks to “find things,” not “make them” (130). “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us,” he says. “Truth serves only its slaves” (4).

Any intellectual aspiration must be subservient to truth. We pursue truth whatever the cost. “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating truth to itself,” Sertillanges writes (6).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the receiving or rejecting of criticism. “If the criticism is right and you wrong, do you mean to resist truth?” he asks (252). Scholars committed to discovering and promoting truth must be willing to admit their failures and squelch their selfish tendencies.

“Inspiration is incompatible with selfish desire. Whoever wants something for himself sets truth aside: the jealous God will not sojourn with him” (210).

The pursuit of truth leads us beyond academic studies of books, journals, and seminars. “Truth is everywhere,” Sertillanges writes. In the normal activities of life there is a “continuous stream” passing by, giving inspiration to the scholar’s soul (72). Truth is not discovered in books alone but also in “conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls…. In all contemplation, even that of a fly or of a passing cloud, there is a fit occasion for endless reflection” (73).

Since truth can be found anywhere, all areas of study ultimately connect to each other. “No branch of knowledge is self-sufficing,” Sertillanges writes (102). One’s study in the field of science may lead to new ideas in the field of sociology. One’s enjoyment of classic literature may yield insights in the study of theology. No area of study exists in isolation, sealed off from all others. Truth is interconnected.

Pursuing truth also leads us to celebrate and affirm truth no matter where it comes from. “Train yourself to indifference about sources,” Sertillanges writes. “Truth alone has a claim, and it has that claim wherever it appears” (135).

Because truth reigns over all scholarly endeavors, we impoverish ourselves if we limit our discovery of truth only to those who agree with us. To this end, Sertillanges advises the scholar to read people who are often wrong.

“He who stumbles without falling makes a bigger step forward” (164).

Through studying the errors of others, we may be given the opportunity to discover and savor new truths.

Lesson #3: Understand the Intellectual Life Requires Considerable Discipline.

Sertillanges advises the scholar to create space for concentrated study. A strict and rigorous routine does not hinder the liberty of study but enables it. “A stream narrowly hemmed in by its banks will flow more impetuously,” he writes (8-9). Discipline refers more to intentionality and concentration than to the quantity of hours spent in solitude. “Have you two hours a day?” he asks (11). “It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely” (96).

On reading, Sertillanges advises the scholar to exercise wisdom in two things: choosing books and choosing in books. Regarding the choice of books, he recommends we go to the sources “in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand,” while “choosing in books” refers to the practice of reading only what is most relevant to the pursuit of truth. Not everything in a book is “of equal value” (150-51). Sertillanges advocates smarter reading, not necessarily more reading, since “the mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (147).

There are places in The Intellectual Life where Sertillanges’ recommendation of solitude tends toward an unhealthy introspection. “We must bear in mind that one can only unfold oneself in that fashion by first living with oneself, closely, in solitude,” he writes (50). Likewise, when he advises the scholar to “rise above things” even when engaging in other activities, he borders on affirming a Gnostic-like existence that does not allow us to be fully present in the daily routines of life. “You must become all spirit,” he writes (40).

Despite some of these overstatements, Sertillanges’ vision of a well-balanced life is welcome. “We must not overestimate ourselves, but we must judge of our capacity,” he writes (28). Over-extenuation can be avoided through proper diet, spending time outdoors, and getting sufficient sleep. Exercise also plays an important role in the life of the mind. “Many workers set their brain in motion by means of the motion of their limbs” (220).

Spending time with children should be seen not as distraction from the intellectual task but as a refreshing interruption.

“Children complicate life, but so sweetly that they should serve to give the worker fresh courage rather than to lessen his resources” (45).

Likewise, Sertillanges is right to maintain the difference between solitude and isolation (12). A scholar must be nourished and sharpened by his colleagues.

Sertillanges’ counsel goes beyond the hours of intellectual activity. There is even a disciplined way to sleep! “Sleep itself is a worker,” he writes (82). It is during sleep that our brains continue to work and connect the truths we have been studying. One should not view rest as a necessary evil, but as one of the scholar’s great blessings. A life of constant discipline will lead us to maintain a routine that maximizes our energy and output.

“The best way of all to relax would be, if possible, not to get tired” (244).

Lesson #4: Remember the Goal of the Intellectual Life is Virtuous Character.

The most illuminating insight in Sertillanges’ book is the connection between truth and virtue. Character matters. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good,” he writes. “Their roots communicate” (19). It does us no good to discover the truth and then fail to live accordingly.

As one applies truth to the everyday choices of life, one grows in virtue and by extension grows in his or her capacity to discover more truth.

“Is not virtue the health of the soul? And who will say that health does not affect the sight?” (20)

The finished work of the scholar is not the papers one hands in or the books one writes.

“The man is the finished work” (235).

Truth is connected to life. Life must bow to truth.

Conclusion

It is no surprise that Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life is still in print after so many years. The truths in this book assist the scholar in understanding the purpose of research, the desire for truth, and the cultivation of healthy work habits.

 
 

May

22

2012

Trevin Wax|3:40 am CT

A Theologian You Should Know: George Eldon Ladd

Ever used the phrase “Already / Not Yet” to describe the timing of God’s kingdom? If so, you’re indebted to George Eldon Ladd, longtime professor at Fuller Seminary and one of the most influential evangelical scholars of the 1900′s.

Ladd broke through the sterile debates about whether the kingdom of God was a present, spiritual reality or a future, earthly reality. He popularized a view of the kingdom as having two dimensions: “already/not yet.” Ladd was also one of the first solid evangelical scholars to go outside the fundamentalist camp in order to interact with liberal scholars in the academy, men like Rudolph Bultmann.

For a biographical overview of Ladd’s life and work, I suggest A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America. See my review of this book here:

A Place at the Table is much more than a biographical sketch of Ladd’s life. D’Elia cautiously enters into the theological discussion he describes in order to spotlight Ladd’s contributions to evangelical scholarship and his interactions with scholars from outside the evangelical world. Those who read D’Elia’s book will receive an education, not merely regarding the historical aspects of Ladd’s interesting life, but also regarding the theological debates of the time.

I’ve also interviewed Ladd’s biographer, John D’Elia, about his work and his legacy:

Ladd’s legacy within evangelical scholarship is hard to overstate. I argue in the book that he carved out a place for evangelicals in what was then the threatening and bewildering world of critical biblical scholarship. By demystifying the methods of critical scholarship, Ladd made them available to evangelicals who wanted to use them in their study of the Scriptures. Historic premillennialism, then, is really an incidental part of Ladd’s story. The real achievement in Ladd’s career can be found in the wide range of biblical scholars who sat at his feet and then went on to make their own mark. Those scholars are as diverse as John Piper and Robert Mounce on the
one side, and Eldon Epp and Charles Carlston on the other.

If you’re going to start reading Ladd, let me suggest his book, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Check out my review here:

The Gospel of the Kingdom is illuminating, clarifying and (thankfully) brief. It is amazing that Ladd manages to fit all of this great theological teaching into 140 pages.

There is a reason this book is still in print. It is unmatched in its clarification of what the kingdom of God is, and how the kingdom of God can be already present but not yet here in its fullness.

I’ll close this post with Ladd himself. Here are two ways Ladd defined “the gospel,” one personal and the other in light of God’s kingdom:

“I can only bear witness at this point to what Heilsgeschichte means to me. My sense of God’s love and acceptance is grounded not only in the resurrected Christ but also in the Jesus of history. He taught something about God that was utterly novel to his Jewish auditors: that God is not only gracious and forgiving to the repentant sinner but is also a seeking God who, in Jesus’ person and mission, has come to seek and to save the lost…

God has shown me that he loves me in that while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me (Rom. 5:8). This is not faith in history; it is not faith in the kerygma; it is not faith in the Bible. It is faith in God who has revealed himself to me in the historical event of the person, works and words of Jesus of Nazareth who continues to speak to me though the prophetic word of the Bible.”

- George Eldon Ladd, “The Search for Perspective,” Interpretation 25 (Jan. 1971), 56 and 57.

“This is the good news about the kingdom of God. How men need this gospel! Everywhere one goes he finds the gaping graves swallowing up the dying. Tears of loss, of separation, of final departure stain every face. Every table sooner or later has an empty chair, every fireside its vacant place. Death is the great leveller. Wealth or poverty, fame or oblivion, power or futility, success or failure, race, creed or culture — all our human distinctions mean nothing before the ultimate irresistible sweep of the scythe of death which cuts us all down. And whether the mausoleum is a fabulous Taj Mahal, a massive pyramid, an unmarked spot of ragged grass or the unplotted depths of the sea one fact stands: death reigns.

“Apart from the gospel of the kingdom, death is the mighty conqueror before whom we are all helpless. We can only beat our fists in utter futility against this unyielding and unresponding tomb. But the good news is this: death has been defeated; our conqueror has been conquered. In the face of the power of the kingdom of God in Christ, death was helpless. It could not hold him, death has been defeated; life and immortality have been brought to life. An empty tomb in Jerusalem is proof of it. This is the gospel of the kingdom.”

- from The Gospel of the Kingdom

 
 

Mar

26

2012

Trevin Wax|3:17 am CT

4 Things to Remember While in Seminary

Not too long ago, I enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate with a friend from seminary. He graduated not long after I did, and he was telling me about how involved he was in his local church. As we were reminiscing about our seminary days, he said something that stunned me:

“I regret seminary.”

Come again? I asked him to explain.

“I don’t regret going to seminary. I regret how I went to seminary. The very things I should have prioritized, I didn’t. If I had it to do over again, I’d take a different track.”

In talking with my friend, I realized that his regrets were largely the result of his lackluster church involvement during his seminary years. I have another friend who told me that seminary was a particularly “dry” time spiritually. He admitted the tendency to substitute theology for passion.

These conversations have led me to reflect on four things every seminary student should remember:

1. Remember Your Youth

Too many seminary students act like they’ve arrived rather than they’ve been sent.

Most evangelical institutions will not accept students unless they are recommended by their church and pastor. It’s true that you may choose the seminary you want to attend, but make no mistake – you’ve been sent there. Your church has expressed confidence in your gifts, abilities, and calling. Otherwise, you’d be somewhere else.

All this means that other Christians – likely older, wiser, more mature in the faith – have sent you on this journey. You are the youngster starting this new path. Remember that. Remember that you’ve been sent by older, wiser Christians to older, wiser teachers. You have not arrived. You’ve been sent.

But some seminary students are older, right? In age, yes. But all students are younger in learning, perhaps in experience, etc. You may even be older than the person teaching you, but you are certainly younger with respect to knowledge of the subject.

So remember your youth. Whether it’s your youthfulness in age, learning, or experience, don’t forget that you’re there to learn. 

2. Remember Your Heritage

Along the lines of remembering your youth, you ought to remember your church heritage. Most people don’t get saved at seminary. They trust Christ as children in godly homes. Or maybe as teenagers in a vibrant student ministry. Or as the result of faithful preaching and teaching from a biblical expositor.

In other words, someone else somewhere else has shaped you into the man or woman of God you are. Don’t forget that.

It’s easy for students to go to seminary, fill their heads with knowledge, and come back to their home church with a superior attitude. They mock the simplistic traditions, the (seemingly) mindless activities, and the perceived shallowness of the teaching. For a moment, they forget their roots, their heritage, and their upbringing.

Seminaries don’t have to intentionally foster this attitude; knowledge can do this to you by itself. But the arrogance of forgetting one’s heritage makes for a sad seminary experience.

Don’t forget those who loved you, raised you, and cared for you. You would not be where you are apart from their influence.

3. Remember Your Soul

There’s also the temptation in seminary to feed your mind and not your soul. Now, before we make too sharp a distinction, let me further say - the way we feed our soul is often through our mind. Learning precious truths can be a thrilling and affection-stirring experience, and it should be.

But at some point, there is a tiny curve in the road – a barely noticeable turn where you replace your passion for God with passion for knowledge about God. See the subtle difference?

Now, anyone who has a passion for God should also want to have knowledge about God. But there’s a point where your theological study is no longer in service to your knowing God. It’s theology for its own sake. It’s theology in service of your grades, in service of your reputation, in service of your own intellectual curiosity. Whatever the case, if your learning about God is not driven by your desire to know God personally, your mind will expand but your soul will shrink. You’ll be consumed with ideas about God instead of God Himself.

Nothing like the local church will help you remember your soul. Stay involved. And spend some time sitting at the feet of saints who don’t have a Ph.D.

4. Remember Your Mission

Seminary is not a time for taking a break from mission. Don’t let the seminary lifestyle lead to apathy for evangelism and missions.

Education and mission go together. Why? Because theological reflection is missionary reflection. The apostle Paul did not hammer out the theology of Romans while sitting in an ivory tower. He wrote his letters as a missionary on the move. He wrote with Christians in mind – guiding and shaping their mission too.

Don’t forget your calling. You are not called to seminary. You’re called to mission, and seminary is only a step in helping you fulfill your mission.

Conclusion

The biggest danger in seminary is that in the increase of knowledge, you lose sight of the most important things. The more you know, the more you are likely to forget.

Satan would love nothing more than to transform your joy of attending seminary into an intellectual snobbery that renders you ineffective in ministry. Guard your heart against this paralyzing pride. Weeds grow next to the flowers. The flowers are blooming at seminary. The question is: will you choke out the weeds of pride in your heart or will the weeds choke out a lifetime of fruitfulness?

So don’t forget. Fight to remember. And don’t be the guy who wishes he could do seminary differently.

 

[This article was written at the request of my friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]

 
 

Mar

07

2012

Trevin Wax|3:14 am CT

Understanding Migration Between Christian Traditions: A Conversation with Rob Plummer

A couple weeks ago, I posted a review of a new book edited by Robert Plummer, Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanismthat chronicles the journeys of four individuals between four Christian traditions. Dr. Plummer was my hermeneutics professor at Southern Seminary, and he is also the author of 40 Questions About Interpreting the BibleToday, he joins me for a conversation about his experience in editing this intriguing new book.

Trevin Wax: Why a new book on faith journeys? You teach at a solidly evangelical (Baptist) seminary. You have a vested interest in seeing people come to faith and be discipled in your evangelical church. Why explore the recent migrations from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or high-church Anglicanism?

Robert Plummer: As I explain in the introduction to the book, I began to notice a trickle of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – both from my local church and the seminary where I teach. When I looked for resources that helped in understanding this migration and responding biblically, I had difficulty finding anything helpful. I originally thought about describing and assessing the phenomenon myself but decided that the book would be much more interesting and accurate if recent converts were allowed to tell their own stories.

Also, I wanted to line up experts to respond. Gregg Allison (a recognized Evangelical expert in Catholicism), for example, responds to Francis Beckwith. Patristics scholar Craig Blaising knows Eastern Orthodoxy well and responds to Wilbur Ellsworth’s conversion.

Trevin Wax: How did you choose the contributors?

Robert Plummer: For the persons who converted, I wanted well-known people who had some history in the tradition that they had left.

  • Francis Beckwith, for example, resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society to become Catholic.
  • Greek Orthodox priest Wilbur Ellsworth was formerly pastor of First Baptist Church, Wheaton.
  • Chris Castaldo had deep Catholic roots (see Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic) before finding his home in the Evangelical faith.
  • Lyle Dorsett’s journey led him through various churches before landing in Anglicanism.

Trevin Wax: Why was an Anglican included, since there are many who consider themselves Anglican and evangelical?

Robert Plummer: Frankly, I originally did not want to include Anglicanism in this book because Anglicanism is, in some expressions, thoroughly Evangelical. But the publisher convinced me that enough “free church” Evangelicals convert to Anglicanism that it is a related phenomenon we could not ignore. For example, Todd Hunter, former head of the Vineyard movement has recently written a book about his conversion to Anglicanism (see The Accidental Anglican).

Trevin Wax: What were the hopes you had in putting this book together? What were some of the concerns or worries you had as you worked on this book?

Robert Plummer: I have several different hopes for the book, but let me focus on one here – for the Evangelical readership – that it would help us both understand and respond to persons leaving our churches for liturgical Christian traditions. Speaking quite directly… I believe an Evangelical understanding of the gospel, salvation, and the Scriptures is correct. (If I did not, I would leave Evangelicalism.) Yes, I respect persons leaving my faith tradition.

Nevertheless, through the responder sections of the book, I want to lay before potential converts the reasons I think they are making a mistake to leave Evangelicalism. And for those with friends leaving Evangelicalism, I hope this book equips them to make a loving appeal to stay. Chris Castaldo’s riveting account of his journey from Catholicism to Evangelicalism also highlights the strengths of Evangelical claims, I think.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. I did not include the stories of former Evangelicals as simply foils for my views or as “straw men.” I enlisted competent scholars who made passionate and skilled arguments for the reasons they preferred another faith tradition. We need to listen to these stories and arguments in all their strength.

Let me also say – even when we cannot convince someone to stay, there is great value in hearing the undiluted story of why they left. We have to ask ourselves, “Has our lack of love or biblical fidelity contributed to their departure?”

Trevin Wax: Early on in my blogging endeavors, I met a guy who grew up Southern Baptist and then converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. The idea of conversion from one Christian tradition to another was not new to me. In Romania, I had seen lots of people leave Orthodoxy and join Baptist or Pentecostal churches. But never had I seen the migration go in the other direction. So I did a blog series interviewing my Orthodox friend, a friend who left Orthodoxy, and then reflecting on the differences. I’ve also had some conversations with a Roman Catholic on the blog before. In all this dialogue, it has seemed to me that the dividing line is less about doctrine and more about authority. Who or what is the final judge in matters of interpretation and practice? In your view, what role does authority play in these discussions? And is this the true dividing line between Catholics and evangelicals or is it justification by faith alone?

Robert Plummer: Yes, authority is big. Who or what has the final say in matters of faith and practice – Scripture? Tradition? Experience? Or some combination? Obviously, as an Evangelical, I believe Scripture is the final authority, but I also understand the important secondary role tradition plays in all Christian churches – even those that deny they have traditions.

I think Evangelical abuses of authority can lead some people to seek out a sense of stability they experience in liturgical churches. Also, many Christians do have a good desire to feel more connected with the church throughout previous centuries. Few Evangelical churches are educating and connecting their people well with previous centuries of church history.

Trevin Wax: What advice would you give to a college student whose roommate is converting to Eastern Orthodoxy?

Robert Plummer: A few suggestions:

  1. Ask questions and listen. Don’t immediately criticize. Try to understand the attraction of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Visit the church they are attending and graciously observe. Admit your own biases and erroneous preconceptions.
  2. Read up on Eastern Orthodoxy in places like Wilbur Ellsworth’s and Craig Blaising’s chapters in Journeys of Faith. Another recommended book is Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes. Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective.
  3. Pray.
  4. Speak the truth in love.
 
 

Feb

20

2012

Trevin Wax|3:28 am CT

Church as an Oasis of Grace: Refreshment for the Journey

I’ve had the privilege to attend and speak at multiple conferences over the past couple of years. Last year, I cut down my speaking engagements to one a month, simply so I wouldn’t be away from the family for extended periods of time. Travel can be draining, even when you get to see new sights, meet new people, and enjoy good conversation.

But a couple weeks ago, I traveled to Southeastern Seminary to speak on Counterfeit Gospels for their 20/20 collegiate conference. Though it was an overnight trip with significant travel and a packed schedule, I arrived home feeling energized instead of drained. While we were catching up about our time apart, Corina asked me if I was tired. I replied, “Yes, but only physically. Spiritually and mentally, I feel refreshed.”

I started to think about why this conference in particular left me feeling refreshed? Three reasons:

1. Conversations about Mission

After the evening session was over on Friday night, two students from The College at Southeastern tweeted me and asked if I was interested in going with them to Applebee’s. Now, it was already late and I was tired, but since my internal clock was on Central Standard Time, it wasn’t as late as it seemed. And there’s no better way to get a feel for a college than to hang out with a couple of ordinary students. So, I responded to their tweet (surprised them too!) and we headed out to Applebee’s for a couple hours.

What did we talk about? In a nutshell – MISSION.

Oh, we talked about a few other things in introduction. But soon, these guys were bubbling over with what they were really passionate about – evangelism. I heard about the drug addicts they were witnessing to and meeting once a week for discipleship. I heard about the church plants they are involved in and the people their churches are reaching. I heard about the intentional missionary mindset they had in their communities.

In short, mission was the topic of discussion. There were a few times we talked about theological issues in evangelicalism, but even then it was clear that theology was in service to mission. I was refreshed by the unwavering Great Commission focus I discovered in these two young guys. The same was true of my host for the weekend, who told me stories about his mission work in the Philippines.

2. Theologically Rich Worship

Conferences are usually about the speakers, right? That’s why I hadn’t put much thought into what the music portion of the conference would be like. But Matt Papa took the stage and led us in songs he had composed, songs that were theologically rich, contemporary expressions of ancient biblical truth. And the sound of a thousand college students reveling in the finished work of Christ and committing their lives to him in response… well, I’ll just say that it was more than I expected. In a good way.

The renaissance of theologically-minded hymns coming out of the next generation is one of the brightest aspects of evangelicalism today.

3. Gospel-focused friendships

The brothers I was able to spend time with at SEBTS were gracious and hospitable. Our conversations were about the gospel and its implications for personal spirituality, for the mission of the church, and the way we treat each other. It’s true that I already had established friendships with faculty at SEBTS and the speakers at the event. Even so, there’s nothing better than the refreshing conversation that comes from guys who are joyful, focused on the cross, and excited to be making a difference for the kingdom.

The Take-Away

Church ought to be this way. For everyone. We don’t need conferences for this. We meet with the Body of Christ every week.

Our churches ought to be about the mission. (After all, the church is the sign and instrument of the kingdom. We exist to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ so that more and more will worship Him, know Him, and love Him.)

Our churches ought to have theologically rich worship services, where we exalt God and exult in God.

Our churches ought to be filled with people who have gospel-focused conversations, where we bring the gospel to bear on every inch of life, hold one another accountable, rebuke one another in love, and encourage one another in grace.

Let’s not rely on conferences to give us fuel for the journey. Let’s work to make our churches an oasis of grace, a place for refreshment and empowerment as we seek to fulfill the mission God has given us.

 
 

Nov

17

2011

Trevin Wax|3:56 am CT

My 5 Favorite Seminary Classes

In December of 2009, I received a Masters of Divinity from Southern Seminary. Recently, as I was looking over my class list and the required credit hours for my MDiv years, I thought about the classes that I enjoyed the most. Each of them were so good that I would take them again. Here are my five favorites in no particular order.

Hermeneutics with Robert Plummer

Plummer’s new book, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Biblegives an overview of what we discussed in this class. I took Hermeneutics my first semester, and I’m glad I did. This class set the course for me to interpret the Bible carefully throughout the rest of my seminary education and during my initial years of preaching and teaching in a local church.

Ministry of Proclamation with Hershael York

Don’t let the fancy name fool you. This was a basic preaching class. Each student was required to preach in class while being evaluated by Dr. York and the other classmates. But what could have been an awkward situation turned out to be a very encouraging exercise. The ethos of the class valued faithfulness, excellence, and the desire to listen to the Lord speak to us through one another. Even more memorable than the preaching segments were the casual conversations with Dr. York that concerned life, family, and pastoral ministry. There’s nothing like taking a class from a professor who has the life and ministry experience to back up his theory.

The Sermon on the Mount with Jonathan Pennington

This was a January class in which we worked our way through the entire Sermon on the Mount in five days. Dr. Pennington began the class with some issues of interpretation. The rest of the time was spent discussing the text itself. The big project turned out to be very practical. We were asked to craft 12 sermon outlines from the Sermon on the Mount. I wound up doing 34 because I was planning to preach through the Sermon on the Mount on Wednesday nights. That teaching series lasted more than a year and culminated in my memorizing the Sermon on the Mount and then delivering it by memory at church.

The Reformation with Shawn Wright

What I remember most about this class was the enormous amount of reading and outlining required. I probably did more work for this one class than two or three other classes combined. The good news was that at the end of the semester, I had worked through all the historical research and come out with a deeper understanding of Reformation theology. Because this was a difficult class, there weren’t as many students willing to take it. The smaller class size fostered an open atmosphere for fascinating discussions. I came to appreciate the different theological emphases of the Reformers and the pastoral motivations behind the cultural movement.

Contemporary Theology with Greg Thornbury

This was a “J term” taught by visiting professor Greg Thornbury from Union University. The reading requirements bogged us down in some very difficult and dense work from postmodern thinkers. But the class conversations were spectacular. The main thing that I remember about Dr. Thornbury was his passion for the subject matter that he taught. That excitement rubs off on students, even when the subject matter is difficult to comprehend at times.

(Favorite visual: Dr. Thornbury – eyes closed tightly, totally engaged in his teaching, gesturing like crazy while kneeling on a swivel chair that continued to slowly turn until he was facing the whiteboard and not the class.)

Grateful

Out of all the classes I took at Southern Seminary, I can’t think of one that wasn’t beneficial and enjoyable. I’m grateful for the educational opportunities God has given me, and I look back on all my seminary classes (but these in particular) with the fondest of memories.

 
 

Nov

14

2011

Trevin Wax|3:01 am CT

So You Want to Be a Bible Scholar? A Look at Ben Witherington's Book of Advice

The story that opens Ben Witherington’s book Is There a Doctor in the House?: An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar clues you in that this isn’t going to be a typical “how-to” book for higher education. In a few paragraphs, Witherington recounts an episode in his life that includes a sweaty run through an airport, an almost-missed plane, a pair of torn trousers, and an embarrassing greeting. The immediate impression is that humility matters. Bible scholarship is different than other forms of higher education, and Witherington makes that point over and over again, not just through the advice he offers those considering this path but also through the humble way in which he offers it.

The purpose of the book is narrow. Witherington isn’t writing for those who want to be serious students of the Bible without becoming teachers. Nor is he writing for teachers of the Bible who have no ambition at becoming published Bible scholars. Instead, his target is a growing number of seminary students who desire “to become a good and even well-published Bible scholar” (20). But even if Witherington’s target audience is narrow, he insists that the learning process must be broad. He writes:

“…to be a serious student, much less a teacher or scholar of the Bible, you must have a love for learning – and not just learning during a particular period of your life, but lifelong learning” (21).

Pushing back against the anti-intellectual climate of some parts of evangelicalism, Witherington lays out the necessity of careful thinking when it comes to the Bible. “Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to the truth of and about God’s word,” he writes. “Indeed, ignorance is the enemy of the truth” (23).

This emphasis on truth-seeking is felt throughout the book. He not only stands against those who embrace ignorance as a virtue (some segments of evangelicalism) but also against those who embrace agnosticism as a virtue (the postmodern turn). “It is important that you do not allow your piety to outrun the evidence or overrule the pursuit of truth in the service of the truth,” he counsels. “Christian Bible scholars above all must be truth seekers” (34).  And truth-seeking means that we are not dealing with ideas, but reality. He goes on to write:

“…in fact the writers of the New Testament are not merely encouraging us to enter a debating club where ideas are thrown around like Frisbees. The New Testament writers believe they are talking about realities – real persons like Jesus, real events like the resurrection, real experiences like the new birth. The moment theological or ethical reflections forget that ideas are ways of talking about such realities is the moment when one has untethered theological or ethical discussion from its historical or real foundation” (69).

There are some wise words of counsel here, particularly in relation to humility and the ability to admit when you are wrong. I love this quote:

“The Bible teacher or scholar doesn’t need someone to invent humility pills; just taking in and taking seriously regular doses of the wisdom of the Bible is enough to humble any normal person” (124).

And then there’s this good word of warning:

“It’s precisely when the text does not cough up the results you were expecting or wanting that you find out what sort of Bible teacher or scholar you actually are” (127).

The best part of Witherington’s work is his insistence that biblical scholarship be done in service to the church. “It is not enough to know the Bible if you want to teach it,” he says. “You need to know the God of the Bible” (77). He goes on: “Research by a Christian is never done just for its own sake, or even just to advance knowledge in a given field. It is done in service to the Lord and to His church” (83). Amen!

I resonated in particular with his desire to see more cross-disciplinary conversations in biblical studies. “Not only do we need more dialogue across disciplines, we need more Bible scholars who actually are committed to be biblical theologians and biblical ethicists, seeking to apply the insights they have gained from the Bible to current and pressing theological and ethical issues” (73). Yes, yes, yes! The church is hungry for scholarship that not only gives insight into the meaning of the text but presses those insights into application for today’s world.

As one who is considering future Ph.D. plans, I benefited greatly from the wisdom of Ben Witherington. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a helpful primer on becoming a biblical scholar with a heart for the church.

 
 

Oct

04

2010

Trevin Wax|3:52 am CT

Thoughts on Christianity Today's Profile of Albert Mohler

The cover story of this month’s Christianity Today is a lengthy profile of Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The story is written by Molly Worthen, a writer and journalist finishing her Ph.D. at Yale. The article covers the history of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention as well as Mohler’s influence in the wider world of evangelicalism. After reading the story a few times, I wanted to weigh in with some thoughts.

First, I deplore the way that many evangelicals (particularly those in the conservative circles I run in) belittle Christianity Today. I’ve heard the jokes: Christianity Astray, Capitulation Today etc. Some dismiss CT as if the magazine never takes strong stands based on solid biblical reflection.

I have critiqued CT articles from time to time, but I don’t join the chorus of constant CT-critics. Generally speaking, the issues I sometimes have with CT’s coverage tend to be issues I have with the prevailing sentiments of evangelicalism. CT provides a snapshot of the para-church big-tent wing of evangelicalism, a tent that encompasses Christians with different views on a number of important issues. If I were to agree with everything I read in CT, I would no longer be reading the type of publication that CT seeks to be: an evangelical magazine that speaks from and to village-green evangelicalism.

Enough with that. Now, on to the cover story.

When I first heard about CT doing this profile, I thought, It’s about time! Albert Mohler is highly influential in a number of circles that are, in turn, highly influential for evangelicals. When you put these different circles together, you realize just how much influence Mohler exerts. Three circles stand out:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention. (He is a denominational strategist who played an important role in the the Great Commission Resurgence, not to mention the fact that he casts the vision for the Convention’s mother seminary).
  • The Religious Right. (Though he eschews the term “culture warrior” and is more nuanced than the typical voices in conservative politics, his cultural analysis is very popular. He has become a sort of spokesman for this wing of evangelical thought.)
  • The Reformed Resurgence. (Through his leadership in Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, and his well-known Reformed theology, he has carved out a role as a guide to young Reformed types seeking church and cultural renewal.)

Looking at Mohler from the perspective of the Reformed Resurgence, the Religious Right, and the Southern Baptist Convention reiterates his status as a mover and shaker for evangelicals. In many ways, he resembles one of his mentors, Carl F.H. Henry. Speaking of Henry, the most ironic part of CT’s cover story is that it paints Mohler as being outside the mainstream of evangelicalism for his complementarian and inerrantist views when, in fact, it is Mohler (and not CT) who is carrying the mantle of former CT editor Carl Henry on these and other issues.

Worthen’s profile of Mohler is not condemnatory. She carefully presents his views on many issues. The best parts of the article are when Worthen is quoting Mohler or summarizing their conversations. She ably describes the building blocks of Mohler’s vision: for Southern Seminary, for the Southern Baptist Convention, for the conservative political movement, etc. Overall, Worthen’s article is neither a hack job nor a puff piece.

That said, Justin Taylor rightly described the article as “condescending.” The tone is negative at times, and Worthen’s condescension comes out in some of the offhanded remarks she makes in her reporting.

For example, when speaking of Southern Seminary’s current theological outlook, Worthen includes a parenthetical remark:

“As proof of the seminary’s current ‘diversity,’ some faculty protest that they are only four-point Calvinists.”

Her sarcasm aside, Worthen fails to understand the administration’s adherence to the Abstract of Principles, which ensures that all faculty fall in line as at least a moderate Calvinist. Her remark assumes that great theological diversity in a faculty is a virtue, whereas Mohler believes it is more virtuous for the faculty to be faithful to the confessional statement of the seminary founders.

Southern Seminary students aren’t portrayed nicely either. She describes the student visitors to Mohler’s personal library as “goggle-eyed” and gullible.

When it comes to Mohler, Worthen conveys respect for his accomplishments, but she wonders out loud if he is the intellectual everyone thinks he is. She writes of his personal library:

“A self-conscious air pervades the library, in the jumble of cultural artifacts intended to convey worldliness; in the shelves lined with a conspicuous number of Great Books, Harvard Classics, and other pre-packaged sets that seem the fruit of a single-minded mission to conquer a body of knowledge, or at least to give that impression.”

So the library may be part of Mohler’s attempt to come off as smart? As if the man, after all of his academic accomplishments, needs a big library to demonstrate his intellectual fortitude?

Later, she goes further, saying that Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an “articulate controversialist.” She trots out two of Mohler’s controversial positions (though it’s hard to imagine that his creationist views are that controversial for evangelicals, most of whom fall squarely into the Answers in Genesis camp and not Biologos). Because of the space she devotes to controversies, Worthen leaves out Mohler’s more important view of  ”theological triage,” a concept that is very influential for conservative evangelicals seeking to uphold sophisticated theological distinctions and yet engage in partnerships with Christians who hold other views.

Worthen’s most perplexing comment is her charge of elitism. She writes:

“Mohler is just as elitist as the moderates of Old Southern: he is certain he has the truth, and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.”

It appears that, for Worthen, elitism equals being certain one has the truth. Is that necessarily so? Cannot agnostics be elitist? What about postmodern theologians who revel in uncertainty and easily dismiss the “ultra-rationalistic” theological viewpoints of earlier evangelicals? What about journalists who are certain that certainty equals elitism? If Mohler comes across as an elitist in this article, a closer reading makes Worthen come across even more so.

In the end, Worthen gets a lot of facts and details right, but she puts them together in a way that makes her portrait of Mohler unflattering. Yes, the article could have been worse. But it could have been better too.