John Webster: A Remembrance

John WebsterI was very sad to learn late last night that John Webster, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, died suddenly yesterday morning. You can find a fine summary of John’s theology by Fred Sanders here and a eulogy by Stephen Holmes here. The internet will be full of tributes in days to come, but I want to offer a short remembrance.

John was the chair of the Divinity department when I completed my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. He was not my supervisor, but he was always available for a conversation. We had many (a testament to his generosity). I remember one in particular. It was so telling of John’s approach to theology. We were discussing God’s providence and the manner of his interaction with the world. At one point John leans back, puts his hand on his forehead and thoughtfully says, “In this matter I think we must give our attention first to God’s revealed character, and only then look to theories of causation. Character first, then causation.”

And that was John’s whole approach to theology. Whatever else it’s about, it is first and foremost about God – and principally about God’s life in himself. Hearing last night about John’s death was especially shocking because I had spent the day reading his recently published God Without Measure (it was like spending a day with him). There he writes,

Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold subject. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him” (Vol. 1:3).

God first, then everything else in light of God. Whatever else we might say about God’s interaction with the world (his outer works), the theologian must first – diligently and cheerfully – give her attention to God’s life in himself. For John this was a corrective to so much that goes wrong in Christian thought, not least of which the migration of theology away from the praise of God. So quickly we slip from the register of doxology into speculation. But when we train our attention again and again back onto God the distance shortens between the work of sanctified reason and praise. John explains,

If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective, it can only  be by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to the divine splendour. But deeply important as they are, concepts are only serviceable as the instruments of spiritual apprehension” (Vol. 1:27).

The spiritual apprehension the theologian seeks comes in this life as faith, not sight (Heb. 11:1). Following Aquinas (so often a voice in John’s recent work) he wrote, “Theology is oriented chiefly to invisible things, ‘things that are unseen’ (2 Cor. 4:18)” (Vol. 1:6). This is as it should be, for faith is the particular form of seeing fitting for the Christian life. But it will not always be so. In glory we will stand in the presence of God and share in his life. This was John’s hope and it is mine. As I grieve John’s death I praise God in the same breath that what he saw by faith he now has by sight.

Lord Jesus Christ, may your name be praised through the legacy of John’s work and the sweet remembrance of his friendship.

“Dear Lazy Preachers…” Sincerely, Martin Luther

Martin Luther regularly collected and published his sermons following the calendar of the church year. They were known as “postils,” and during his life they were some of his most read and beloved works. Luther himself was pleased with them but lamented that Luther-Preaching-in-Wittenbergsome “lazy” preachers read them word-for-word from the pulpit:

There are some lazy, no-good pastors and preachers who depend on these and many other good books that they can take a sermon out of. They don’t pray, study or read, pondering nothing in Scripture, just as if we need not read the Bible, using such books as a template and calendar to earn their living (LW 6281-85).

I appreciate Luther’s point, but I am conflicted. Let me explain.

On one hand, preaching verbatim another person’s sermon detracts from the essence of preaching: the pastor stands among his or her congregation and in the power of the Holy Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through his or her unique humanity. That refraction, or mediation, is what makes preaching different, more even, than simply reading the Scriptures aloud. It affirms the goodness of creation as it is experienced in the preacher’s own humanity (docetism always lurks in the wings). So, beyond Luther’s point about the pastor’s engagement with the Scriptures through prayer in preparation for delivering a sermon (certainly right), there is also something distinctly human about preaching that is lost when a sermon from someone else is delivered.

Further, a sermon is spoken in the midst of the particular moment of a church’s life, a moment surely common to others but one that has never before occurred and never will again. The time in which a sermon is proclaimed is unique in the history of the cosmos: this pastor, in the midst of this congregation, at this moment in history!  The human and historical essence of preaching is depleted by preaching a sermon that is not native to a  community.

In Luther’s case the pastors forthrightly read his postils, but today it often happens without anyone’s knowledge. The son of a nationally known author and speaker told me that his father was once visiting a church and heard one of his sermons preached. Even the personal illustrations from his family’s life were used! I have also known several churches that removed their pastors for preaching sermons they found on the internet or borrowed from others. Pastors are under much pressure to perform in the pulpit, and the internet is an easy source of content.

On the other hand – hear me out – perhaps a pastor can rightly do what Luther lamented. Continue reading

Dear Theologian, you do not have a PhD in economics

Stock MarketTheologians are in a tricky place.  We are trained to reason about God himself.  Yet, we are also trained to reason about the world and the many dimensions of created existence.  The latter often makes us feel as though we are qualified to give an expert opinion on anything under the sun, but we are not.

In reasoning about not only the triune God himself but also created things, it is vital to remember that, as theologians, we are positioned to reason about created things just sub specie Dei, ‘under the aspect of God’, or in relation to God.  We rightly speak about the characteristics of the created order that follow immediately on its relation to its Maker, but we do not proceed in any direct way from ‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth’ to ‘Therefore, photosynthesis occurs by way of…’.  As theologians, we do not have special insight into the immediate principles and operations of plant or animal life.  Learning about such things would require that we, like anyone else, read a book about them.

Nor do we, as theologians, have any special insight into economics.  As theologians, we can and should point out that God cares for the poor, according to Holy Scripture.  As theologians, we must at the same time admit that this important note in the Bible gives us absolutely no clue as to whether the distinct and complex economic proposals of any given presidential candidate will in fact prove best suited to helping the poor earn a good living and look after their families.

Theologians need not refrain altogether from speaking about concrete economic issues.  But our training as exegetes of the Bible and stewards of the church’s theological tradition cannot be the basis on which we stand when we choose to say that such-and-such a proposal will turn out well or badly.  This means that, if we wish to speak about such matters, it must be with reference to the serious work of actual economists, not by lazily appealing to broad ethical principles as if that could directly settle something in the American political scene or should obligate all Christians to agree with one’s own preferred method of working out such broad principles in the complexities of contemporary society.

Theologians, whether you’re ‘feeling the (socialist?) Bern’, backing a candidate whose integrity and trustworthiness have been duly called into question on a number of fronts, or looking to (vacuously, and certainly least probably for TF readers) ‘Make America great again’ – can you feel the writer’s excitement about this year’s options? – do everyone a favor and give specific detail and argument whenever you wish to have credibility in speaking about specific economic proposals.  Or, we might even (gasp!) sit back and let our brothers and sisters who know a thing or two about economic policy and history teach us something.

Prayers for Those who Govern

Being in the midst of the election primaries in America, this prayer came to mind from the Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Some of us are more jaded than others about the political process, which always makes his optimism more than a little jarring to me (maybe I need to be jarred a bit). Even so, his prayer for those who govern is as fitting today as it was in 1910.

God, thou great governor of all the world, we pray thee for all who hold public office Rauschenbusch, Walterand power, for the life, the welfare, and the virtue of the people are in their hands to make or to mar. We remember with shame that in the past the mighty have preyed on the labors of the poor; that they have laid nations to dust by their oppression, and have thwarted the love and the prayers of thy servants. We bless thee that the new spirit of democracy has touched even the kings of the earth. We rejoice that by the free institutions of our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed and turned to the patient service of the commonwealth.

Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state may feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning. Breathe a new spirit into all our nation. Lift us from the dust and mire of the past that we may gird ourselves for a new day’s work. Give our leaders a new vision of the possible future of our country and set their hearts on fire with large resolves. Raise up a new generation of public men [and women] who will have the faith and daring of the Kingdom of God in their hearts, and who will enlist for life in a holy warfare for the freedom and rights of the people (Prayers of the Social Awakening, pp. 75-6)

It reminds me of another prayer. When Karl Barth prayed, he would often intercede for political leaders and those with influence over the political process and public opinion. Though the second world war had largely squashed the political optimism one hears in Rauschenbusch’s prayer, Barth’s prayer shares his request for God’s intervention. Here is one:

Let dawn continue to break a little in our hearts, in [our university], at home with those Barth lecturingwho are dear to us, in this city, in our nation, and throughout the whole earth. You know the errors and misdeeds of that make our current situation once again so dark and dangerous on all sides. Let a fresh wind blow through it, that might at least scatter the thickest fog from the heads of those who rule this world, but also from the heads of the peoples who permit themselves to be ruled, and above all from the heads of those who make public opinion (50 Prayers: Karl Barth, p. 2).

Let me know if other prayers from theologians come to mind during this election year. We can make it a running series.

J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life

After benefiting from J. I. Packer’s Knowing God as a younger Christian and, more JI Packerrecently, listening to people like Mark Jones and Carl Trueman draw out Packer’s spiritual wisdom in one-on-one interviews, I was pleased to get a review copy of Leland Ryken’s book J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015).  Though not an expert on Packer, I do love to read Christian biographies in order to see God’s faithful work in the lives others and, frankly, to take comfort in the fact that even the greatest saints are just as human as the rest of us.

Ryken’s portrayal of Packer is thorough, striking, to my mind, a reasonable balance in dealing with various aspects of his subject’s life (Packer’s own personality, his service in the Anglican church, his work on the Puritans, etc.).  Part I of the book has four sections and, in the first block of chapters, we meet the young Packer growing up near Gloucester and becoming a Christian at Oxford, where, as an undergraduate, Packer decided to pursue ordained ministry.   Next, we read of Packer’s postgraduate work on Puritan theology that set the course for much of his later theologizing, and of Packer’s marriage and two years as an Anglican minister.

In the third block of chapters, Ryken covers Packer’s professional life in England, describing his work at Tyndale Hall and Trinity College in Bristol and at Latimer House in Oxford, a think-tank for promoting evangelical convictions within the doctrinally mixed Church of England in the 1960s.  The fourth group then deals with Packer’s controversial move from England to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and also with Packer’s extensive involvement consulting and writing for Christianity Today.

Part II  focuses on ‘the man’, including lesser-known interests of Packer, like his love of jazz music, walking and mystery books and his ability to speak for the ordinary person in contrast to someone like John Stott, whose privileged upbringing gave him a markedly upper-class demeanor.  Finally, Part III treats various ‘lifelong themes’ and controversies in which Packer was involved.  His ongoing theological and existential appreciation for the Puritans and his commitment to the Anglican church stand out here.  Readers with prior knowledge of twentieth-century British evangelicalism and of Packer’s own life won’t be surprised to see material on the interpersonal tension with Martyn Lloyd-Jones or on the Evangelicals and Catholics Together phenomenon, for example.

Continue reading

A Theologian’s Psalm

Rocky MountainDespite the title of this post, no biblical psalm belongs to the academic theologian alone, nor does the academic theologian belong to some special class of Christians.  At the same time, I cannot help but see a special significance in Psalm 131 for those of us who practice theology in an academic environment and occupy ourselves with investigating the most complex and demanding spiritual and theological questions out there on a daily basis.  It reads,

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with its mother,

Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth, and forevermore.

I know that when I begin unwittingly to twist my vocation into a matter of checking up on God and making sure that all his ways seem perfectly reasonable to us human beings, I certainly need this reminder to calm my mind before the God who does not need us to make sure he is properly handling his oversight of the world.  It is a relief to recall that the ‘secret things’ belong to the LORD, while the ‘revealed things’ belong to us and to our children (Deut. 29:29).

Sanctified by Grace Blog Tour Wraps up

The blog tour for Sanctified by Grace wrapped up over the weekend. Here is a list of all the posts (most recent at the top). Thank you, bloggers, for participating in the tour and for giving our book such careful attention!

I still have some thoughts I would like to share about the ways I have used this text in undergraduate classrooms. But, you know, the semester-start is swamping me at the moment. Hopefully later this week I can set aside some time for that post.

Sanctified by Grace by Grace Blog Tour: Mortification (Mere Orthodoxy, 29 January 2016)

I needed to see more clearly that the mortification of sin in an individual believer’s life is something initiated by God in the Gospel and that our response to him is precisely that—a responseMy friends who have been to seminary have a simple phrase for summing up what Webster is describing here: “The indicatives drive the imperatives.” Because you have been crucified with Christ (indicative) you are now free from the dominion of sin and need not go on doing the things (imperative) that would kill you if left unattended by the kindness of God.

Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of Christian Life (The Scriptorium Daily, 28 January 2016).

In one sense, the whole book’s about sanctification, about the growth in holiness culminating in perfect, eternal fellowship with the triune God and his people. But it’s much more comprehensive than that,covering all the major doctrinal loc…This is a helpful way to think through the various doctrinal loci without trying to say everything, and the lens of sanctification is timely.

Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life (Marturo, 27 January 2016) [I love Nate’s description of our approach with a musical metaphor! It works, and I am going to use it in the future. Thanks Nate!]

The book is, using a musical metaphor, “an account of the Christian life that explores the full scale of notes and harmonic richness from Christian dogmatics. Different doctrinal connection points represent different tones within a scale. Many accounts of the Christian life stick close to a single tonal center, perhaps only deviating to the octave or interval of a 5th above, giving minimal melodic or harmonic variation. Here, the full range of tones and harmonies are brought into play, weaving together a more interesting melodic result.”

Sanctified by Grace Blog Tour: Election (Mere Orthodoxy, 26 January 2016)

Book Review: Sanctified by Grace (Out of Bounds, 25 January 2016)

What Am I Reading? “Sanctified By Grace” (Die Evangelischen Theologen, 20 January 2016)

Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, A Book Review and Highlight of Suzanne MacDonald’s Doctrine of Election (The Evangelical Calvinist, 19 January 2016)

Sanctified by Grace – The Triune God (CWoznicki Think Out Loud, 19 January 2016)