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.

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).

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

New creation and ‘Gnosticism’: à Brakel once more

a brakelAside from frustrations experienced when someone advocates a pretribulational rapture, I would consider myself someone who doesn’t get riled up about eschatology very easily. Christ will return, and the dead shall rise (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christ will judge all, and God will bring creation out of its bondage to decay so that all those whose names are written in the book of life will dwell there with God forever (Rev. 20:11-15; 21-22). These are central to our Christian hope. Yet, there are still interesting questions to be discussed in the ambit of the main concerns.

In reading through à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I came across his discussion of the nature of the new creation and paused for some reflection. Will this heaven and earth be purged of sin and death and restored by God, or will God annihilate the current creation and start over completely? According to à Brakel, respectable folk can disagree on this one, but he provides some compelling reasons to hold that the ‘structural edifice’ or ‘substance’ of the current heavens and the earth will remain and simply be purged and restored to a right condition.

These reasons include: (1) Peter expects restoration (apokatastasis) in Acts 3:21. (2) Paul’s reference to the ‘whole creation’ in Romans 8:18-25 is broader than the company of Christian believers, and the ‘whole creation’ is to be delivered, not annihilated. (3) The ‘folding up’ and ‘changing’ of creation in Psalm 102 and Hebrews 1 assumes that what is changed ‘continues to exist in essence’. (4) Peter (2 Pet. 3) likens the destruction of creation to the perishing of the old world in the flood of Noah, which was not an annihilation of all things (4:353-5). Because of Revelation 21:1, à Brakel is prepared to allow that the sea may be omitted from the new creation, but even here ‘[w]hether this refers to substance or characteristics, we shall leave unanswered’ (4:355). Indeed, there’s quite a lot that à Brakel is prepared to leave ‘unanswered’: Continue reading

Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

Continue reading

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.