On Scholarly Charity

I just received C. Clifton Black’s enticing new book, Reading Scripture with the Saints, and something from the Foreword grabbed my attention—to that in a moment.

Black’s newest is another addition in the now established and ever-expanding body of literature known as theological interpretation of Scripture. Much of these works put contemporary readers back in conversation with their sometimes scorned but Portrait-gallery_1944oftentimes just forgotten ancestors.  As he says it, to “reacqauint, or introduce, a new generation of biblical exegetes and their brilliant grandparents.” The book is a “small museum” and on its pages hang portraits of Christianity’s “masters of the sacred page”: Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Benedict of Nursia, Maximus Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Charles Wesley, not to mention a few surprises like Shakespeare, Washington, and Lincoln.

Black patiently leads the reader through the gallery one portrait at a time, pausing long enough to look closely but not so long that the rest of the museum goes unnoticed. In such an exciting museum you mustn’t linger too long at any one portrait; there is too much to see, too much to be learned. Not every portrait will be to our liking, but each has something to offer the reader of Scripture: discernment, craft, imagination, moves to avoid in some cases, certainly.

All very interesting to be sure, but it was Stephen Fowl’s opening words about scholarly charity in the Foreword that caught my attention and prompted me to post about the book. They are worth quoting at length:

One of the very first tasks I took up as a newly minted PhD was a review of Clifton Black’s The Disciples According to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate. I do not recall why I was asked to review the book or why I even agreed to do it, since I am not a specialist in Mark. The book was an absolute delight to read. Even though the material was quite technical, Black had a graceful writing style that made the material accessible without oversimplifying and distorting it. The book is a gentle but devastating criticism of the attempts at redaction criticism of Mark’s Gospel. My only complaint was that the book might have been too gentle. As a much younger scholar I longed to read a concluding chapter where Black would complete his domination of his scholarly foes, send them packing, and stand alone victorious  on his patch of scholarly terrain. What Clifton Black already knew, and I had yet to learn, was that not only are Christians  called to practice interpretive charity as part of their discipleship; it is also good scholarship, too. Even when there may be flaws, sometimes significant flaws, in the works of others, there are still things to learn. If you seek to annihilate your scholarly opponents, you will not only do them a disservice; you will rob yourself of the opportunity to learn what they have to teach” (xi).

When your friends write books

In the last month three friends have given me a copy of their most recently written book. Just moments ago, my friend and colleague Tom Bergler handed me his book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. My response matched the one I had with my other two friends: “Wow, thank you so much; I can’t wait to read it!” But alas, I am deep in the weeds of my semester and probably won’t be able to touch any of these great books until Christmas recess. Still, I thought it would be fun to highlight them here, and after the New Year I hope to blog about each.

Following on the heals of his acclaimed The Juvenilization of From here to MaturityAmerican Christianity, Tom’s new book is a hands on guide for helping individuals and faith communities to grow in Christian maturity. Tom suggests that spiritual maturity, what he calls “basic competence in the Christian life”, is not only desirable but attainable, and throughout the book he offers a wealth of practical, research-based guidance for effectively fostering spiritual maturity in Christian believers and congregations. The problem with much North American Christianity, which he so carefully and effectively outlined in his previous book as “juvenilization”, is here addressed and accompanied with steps toward maturity.

Matt Heard is a long-time friend (way, way back), and his new book, Life with a Capital L: Life with a Capital LEmbracing your God-given Humanity, is a fantastically accessible and robust portrayal of life with Christ as redeemed humanity – full, true, authentic humanity in all its messy and beautiful physicalness. Talk of “spirituality”, the buzz word of contemporary religion, often has the effect of downplaying God’s commitment to physical reality, thus Matt writes, “When God brings me to life by his Spirit, the purpose is to enable me to be reborn into a new way of being human – a return to my original purpose of appreciating and living out the privilege and responsibility of being part of the Creator’s creation. My spirituality isn’t something to be developed in a vacuum; its not an isolated compartment of my life but a central part of being human. An engaged and healthy spirituality should breed an engaged and healthy humanity.”

Beloved DustKyle Strobel, my coeditor on Sanctified by Grace, just sent me his book, Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth About Yourself. It is a beautifully written book, and timely. Not unlike the beginning of Calvin’s Institutes, Kyle and his coauthor Jamin Goggin show the basic importance of grounding self-understanding in God’s understanding of us: “We live on borrowed breath. We are alive in the most profound sense of the word – filled with the very breath that spoke creation in being. Within this tension is a status that is regal but lowly, significant but insignificant, unique but ordinary. God looks upon humanity’s frame of dust and says, “I formed you, I love you, and I delight in you.” You are beloved dust.” “This vulnerable position,” they continue, “is, paradoxically, where life is found. Life is not found in hiding from God, in showing God that you are good or convincing him or others that you are valuable. Life is found in real, honest, and vulnerable relationship with the God who calls you his beloved.”

I’ve got (someone else’s) mail

(c) University of St Andrews; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI’ve just finished reading a volume of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ letters collected by Iain Murray and have now taken up the letters of Samuel Rutherford in the Puritan Paperbacks series. Rutherford, if I may say so, didn’t come down on the right side when debate took place over whether (and in what sense) the substitutionary death of Christ was necessary for the forgiveness of our sins, but I feel some connection to him since his likeness looms large in a painting in College Hall at St Mary’s College, where doctoral seminars take place for St Andrews theology students. Indeed, I used to study in the Rutherford Room, and Rutherford’s gravestone (d. 1661) is still visible in the cemetery on the east end of town.

I’m not entirely sure why I am drawn to the genre of personal letters as a means of promoting my own spiritual growth, but, certainly with Rutherford’s letters, one of the benefits is seeing the grace of God at work in the midst of a saint’s trials. Rutherford was imprisoned for his ecclesiastical commitments and faced the prospect of exile in Aberdeen – how does this strike our Aberdeen friends? – and his endurance in hardship is a token of God’s faithfulness and mercy. Life was hard, and he was prepared to live it, trusting that God was and is good and that fellowship with the triune God is greater than all things.

This, for me, is one of the draws for reading the letters of spiritual giants: reassurance that God is good and faithful when his people suffer. Another benefit of reading letters or biographies, I would suggest, is that we are given a window into the humanity of great thinkers and leaders. To know that Lloyd-Jones loved a good joke, to know that Spurgeon (for a while!) loved a good smoke*, reminds us that our Christian forebears were human and that, when we in the Christian life cannot escape the natural, mundane, enjoyable details of everyday life, this doesn’t mean we’re unfaithful or unfruitful Christians.

 

* Theology Forum does not promote the use of tobacco products. Actually, it just doesn’t discuss tobacco products at all.

‘Calvinism’ and its Discontents: a Plea for Understanding

John CalvinTalk of the ‘new Calvinists’ or ‘new Calvinism’ abounds online these days, and the movement has elicited critiques in print in Austin Fischer’s book Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed and in portions of Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism. Yet, one new blog post on Calvin’s Institutes – cast in the form of a break-up letter – is the most immediate occasion for the reflections offered here. Here are some loosely connected musings: one concerning the approach to the issues, one concerning theological issues themselves, one suggesting some practical ways forward for the curious. Continue reading

Steve passes his PhD viva!

ImageCongratulations to our very own Steve Duby for passing his PhD viva at St. Andrews (Dr. Duby)! We are all thrilled for you Steve. Enjoy the sweet relief of having the preparation and inevitable stress of the unknown behind you.

It is impossible to forget the moments immediately before my viva and those right after it – they are indelibly etched in my memory. There are no other experiences quite like it, nor is there any adequate way to explain or help someone prepare for it. Sure, you can brush up the argument your thesis puts forth, and all that, but no amount of pre-thinking or strategizing prepares you for the moment it actually begins. ImageAnd it is all compounded by the strange relationship you develop with your PhD thesis. For years you agonize over it, laboring on the argument, fussing over the formatting, laying in bed thinking about it when you wish it was the one thing you could stop thinking about. Then you have to send it off like a child leaving the house at 18 for your examiners to…well, you don’t entirely know what they will do with it. And suddenly its all over. You make a few corrections (Lord willing, only a few), then wonder what you are going to do next.

Here’s to you Steve, and whatever comes next!

Prayers for Overwhelmed Students (from my students)

Student-led prayer is an essential part of the daily repertoire of my theology courses. The prayers are composed in the form of collects, an ancient form still regularly practiced in many churches. For each class one student composes a collect according to the theological content of the day. Following the collect form, the prayer springs out from the day’s content into a fitting address to God that leads to petition. As the preface to our study, it sets our feet on the cadence of lex orandi, lex credendi. The idea for this practice originated years ago with something Ben Myers wrote on the purpose of theological education: “not simply to make students cleverer, but to help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness…In this way, scholarly discipline becomes a form of discipleship; theology becomes an exercise in prayer.

I can hardly emphasize this more: the daily collect prayers my students write time and again amaze and humble me, both in their theological richness and in their sensitivity to the lived moment of the day in which they are spoken.

The following two were recently offered In the midst of semester-end busyness. I reproduce them here for the sake of  students elsewhere who are experiencing the same (the doctrinal topic for the day is in italics).

Image[eschatological hope] Hebrews 10:24-25 – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Everlasting God, sovereign creator from the very first day till the very last, as we all look forward to the near horizon of the end of this semester – the day – let us remember not to neglect to meet with one another these last few days, but to hold together both our sadness at departing and our joy of the future, let us hold all of these emotions in the hope of you. In the same way, let us all look to the far horizon – the Day – and let us not neglect to hope for all that you will do for us in the future. You are our hope. Do not be ashamed to be called our God” (W. Stauffer).

[theological interpretation of film] “When we come to the place of exhaustion, where we question the purpose of hard work, and the fruits of our labours, I pray we look to you for our reward. I ask that you help us to persevere not in the hopes of greater recognition, but in the hopes that we are no longer able to depend upon ourselves so that we learn dependency on you, and so that we are humbled by what we accomplished knowing it was all through you and not in ourselves. Let us rejoice in this recognition of your grace and guidance. God be glorified in all things, in our weakness and in our strength. We delight ourselves in you who is our awesome maker and our true source of life” (O. Watkins).

Here is a short reflection from another student on what she sees happening in the process of composing the collect:

What took place was a giving back to God what I thought I had accomplished on my own. I had done the reading. I had answered the questions. I did the learning. But it is God who teaches. He enables me to learn. By praying my learning to him, I praise and acknowledge him for it. Grace encounters even my pride in my studies and begs me to be transformed; to acknowledge and worship God for everything in my life, including my studies (H. Lutton).