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.

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!

Prayer for my students (and me) on the first week of classes

How are we already one month into the spring semester?  I prayed this prayer with my students at the conclusion of the first week of classes in a course on the doctrine of the Christian life.

Isaiah 8:21-9:1 – Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and Imagefearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

God of Grace, your coming to us always precedes our coming to you,

we come sometimes eagerly
other times stubbornly
but we always finding our true selves in coming.

Your “nevertheless” marks our way, for whatever way we find to you is one you charted already:

you made a way for there to be anything at all
you made a way for a barren couple to be your partners in blessing
you made a way for your blessed-to-be-a-blessing-people to exodus
you made a way, you made a way, you make a way

We have called these way-makings of yours

Creation
Covenant
Exodus
In short, faithfulness.

We gave different names to your way-making in flesh, calling it

Incarnation
Atonement
Reconciliation
Redemption
Sanctification
Restoration
Perfection
In short, grace.

As we give ourselves to considering the particular existence which arises from these actions – the Christian life – continue making your way to us and among us through it, and may there be for us no more gloom, only the light which dawned. Amen.

Advancing Trinitarian Theology

I just returned home after participating in the LA Theology Conference. La TheologyHere, I want to give some highlights, a general overview, and then pose a question I had after the conference was completed. First, the conference in general was fantastic. Fuller was a great venue, it was run incredibly well, and the event as a whole had a nice overall rhythm to it. In some conferences you feel like you are running around non-stop, but this was full without being overwhelming. It didn’t hurt, of course, that January in So Cal is gorgeous, so sitting outside having a coffee in between sessions was a nice way to decompress. Second, the plenary sessions were great. There was a nice variety, but they built off of each other well without simply patting each other on the back. The one obvious agreement among the plenary speakers was that social trinitarianism is something of a train wreck, but even that was handled in different ways. And finally, ending the conference with a panel discussion really helped tie it all together. It was here where the disagreements came to the surface. There was some question about apophaticism, and along with that, with analogical or univocal predication. There was a general dislike of the immanent/economic distinction, with different individuals accepting it as an imperfect but helpful distinction, and Lewis Ayres claiming it was too broken to salvage. Ultimately, it was all very interesting. Continue reading

Abiding with the Dying

ImageLike so many across the Midwest I am hunkered down watching massive amounts of snow fall outside my window. My kids have worn themselves out in the white stuff, and with a cup of coffee and plate of Christmas cookies I have a few moments to reflect on a recent visit to my parents and to my elderly grandmother.

My mother and father are the primary caregivers for my grandmother (97), who is now bedridden and rapidly loosing mental grasp of herself and her surroundings. Sitting with her is less now about conversation than holding her hand and reminding her that I am present. The tasks are without doubt more physically and emotionally arduous for my parents. Unlike them, I am not called upon to meet the daily challenges her care requires: scheduling nurses, carrying to the bathroom, monitoring health, anxiously waiting daily for the next sign of deterioration.

Being in the presence of the care my parents are offering confirmed something Ben Quash writes about in a lovely little book called Abiding. The dying ask three things of us above all else (quoting Dame Cicily Saunders): help me, listen to me, stay with me. Quash goes on:

The challenge of caring for a dying person is that the effectiveness of the usual tools and roles is relativized. The patients are not going to get better, and they do not need a ‘solution’ to something. What will often be most precious to them, instead, is people to undertake to ‘accompany’ them in what they are going through…The model of abiding that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is not one in which the tick of the clock is accumulating units of expensive time, and the persons involved are either engaged in the targeted application of technical skill or professional know-how, but are attentively and mutually available to each other. They undertake ‘accompaniment.’

What I experienced first-hand with my grandmother, and strongly suspect my parents are as well, is the painful relativizing Quash describes. Our power to be effective, Continue reading

Christology: Ancient and Modern

As many of you know, I’m sure, the LA Theology Conference is coming up in the near future. For more info, see here. ImageThis year the conference will be held at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA and will be focusing on the doctrine of the Trinity. I will be reading a paper on beauty and the doctrine of God, utilizing a retrieval from Jonathan Edwards’s trinitarian aesthetics to ground a certain mode of theologizing. But more on that later. The LA Theology Conference has quickly positioned itself as one of the more interesting theology conferences in the country, pulling in great plenary speakers and providing a context for dogmatic theology on the west coast. But more recently, it has also proven it can turn its conferences into an incredibly useful theology text. 

Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Zondervan, 2013) has recently been released, and it is made up of the five plenary addresses from last years conference  as well as five of the nine other papers presented at the conference. As with any conference volume of this type, you can always trust that the chapters will be illuminating, but, in my experience, conference volumes are incredibly uneven (even more so than other edited volumes, which are often uneven at the best of times). While I wasn’t struck by this volume being uneven, it did have a range of emphases and approaches, some more philosophical than others, some more strictly dogmatic, others with a more historical or biblical focus. Overall, I am not only pleased by the breadth and depth of the essays, but I believe this could serve as a useful theology text. As with any text, the professor would want to narrate the broad issues prior to the students reading this kind of work, and would also want to “pull back the curtain” on some of the theological spats taking place (trying to explain, for instance, why Torrance would think it necessary to deny simplicity!).

Overall, if the LA Theology Conference can continue to put out volumes like this one, I think it will set itself apart among theology conferences. With the plenary speakers for the next LA Theology Conference (this January), one can assume that will happen.  

Theological Conversation

When studying for my PhD at the University of Aberdeen I walked home nearly every Imageafternoon with a fellow student and office mate who lived in the flat next door. Kyle, another contributor to this blog, became one of my closest friends. Those theological conversations while strolling back to our families were rich, and I credit them to helping me complete my thesis. Clarity often comes when we  articulate our thoughts. That insight left to rattle around in your head, the one you suppose to be brilliant, may sound silly when you put it in words – that revelation is a great gift!

One morning over the summer I was having a similar sort of theological conversation with a colleague at Huntington. He brewed a fine cup of coffee, we settled ourselves into his nice little office, and our conversation meandered from topic to topic: his work on Barth’s aesthetics, my research on Radical Orthodoxy, our common love of beauty, etc.

When parting, Bo reminded me of a beautiful little exchange between Anselm and his conversation partner Boso in Cur Deus Homo:

Anselm: What you ask from me is above me, and I am afraid to handle ‘the things that are too high for me.’ If someone thinks, or even sees, that I have not given him adequate proof, he may decide that there is no truth in what I have been saying, and not realize that in fact my understanding has been incapable of grasping it.

Boso: You should not fear this so much, but you should rather remember what often happens when we talk over some question. Continue reading