In Defense of Teaching Morals

A few weeks back I offered a tribute to my dad for being a good parent to an unbelieving child (yours truly) by (1) being an agent of common grace, introducing me to “received laws” that God communicates generally to man in his image (language, logic, conduct, industry, etc.) and by (2) offering me the special grace of salvation and urging me to receive it. In his mercy God softened my heart in my late teens to receive the latter, but in the meantime, my parents were not stymied in their parenting efforts—they had plenty of common grace to pass along to their little pagan. They knew well that the world is filled with pagans of various degrees. Some pagans are morally upright, honest, industrious, law-abiding, and conservative. Others are immoral, dishonest, lazy, lawless, and licentious. And since I was at the time determined to remain a pagan, they deduced that a moral pagan was preferable to an immoral one. So they heaped common grace upon me and worked hard to make me the best possible pagan I could be.

Common grace, you see, is the sphere in which believers and unbelievers are able to successfully interact, and the sphere in which special grace is introduced. Greater levels of common grace typically lead to greater opportunities for the Gospel. And that is because greater levels of common grace tend to make the intersection of believers and unbelievers more agreeable and thus more frequent. When common grace is abundant, Christians are more easily able to earn a hearing as neighbors, teachers, lawyers, governors, etc. Further, when common grace is abundant, unbelievers themselves tend to be better neighbors, teachers, lawyer, governors, etc. As a result, we are able to have greater confidence in our pagan acquaintances, whether they be pagan gas station attendants, pagan grocers, pagan auto mechanics, pagan building contractors, or pagan governors. Most of us will even entrust our children to the care of pagan relatives, pagan doctors, pagan athletic coaches, and pagan teachers of various types. Reciprocally, when believers are on the giving end of these graces, it is easier to offer neighborliness, medical care, coaching, and other forms of instruction to children—Christian and pagan alike—without discrimination.

That is why I am a bit perplexed when I read parenting books that suggest we raise toddlers as though they were already Christians, viz., recipients of the special grace of God. In such a situation, we’re told, we must shepherd their little Christian hearts, paying attention, especially, to the avoidance of draconian rules that can never commend us to God and that tend rather to “moral paganism.” We should instead give them grace, cultivating authentic fruit in hearts grateful for God’s saving grace. One Presbyterian blogger went at length last week to assert that parenting is practically impossible if parents cannot regard their children as Christians from their infancy (by means of infant baptism), adding, “I wouldn’t actually know how to raise [my children—two of which he divulged to be just three years old] if I were not a Presbyterian.” He then expressed astonishment that Baptists could be good parents, imagining, apparently, that Baptist parents are left twiddling their thumbs nervously until Junior says the sinner’s prayer before the shepherding process can begin.

As a staunchly Calvinistic Credobaptist who would happily die before applying the label Christian or extending the waters of baptism to infants/toddlers, my response is very simple: until one’s children are demonstrably Christians, parents should be hard at work creating respectful, obedient, industrious, safe, and otherwise moral pagans.

At a basic level all parents do this. Irrespective of the faith commitments of parent or child, parents everywhere manage to teach their children to walk, talk, read, add/subtract, avoid common hazards, catch a ball, sing a song, and ride a bike without ever explaining the “why” of these disciplines to their little hearts—we simply tell them what to do and they do it. Of course when kids finally mature sufficiently to sustain discussions about the philosophical/theological basis and reasons for these skills and disciplines, faith commitments do emerge (I am deeply committed to presuppositional apologetics and the transcendental approach to gospel witness if any were wondering), but we do not ordinarily think of these as Christian skills per se; rather, we think of them as human/social/civic skills. Christian parents can cultivate these skills successfully in both pagan and Christian children, and pagan parents can cultivate these skills successfully in both pagan and Christian children. And that is because the family is, first and foremost, a civil institution created for mankind generally. And so we should treat it as other civil institutions.

For instance, if I am a Christian governor ruling pagans, my goal is to produce not a Christian society, but a “peaceful and quiet” society where the opportunities for the gospel abound and are unhindered (1 Tim 2:2). If I am a Christian mechanic fixing cars that belong to pagans, my immediate goal is not to convert my customers, but to “try to please them and not to steal from them, but show them that I can be fully trusted, so that in every way I will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:9–10). If I am a Christian wife married a pagan husband, I should be “submissive,” “pure,” “reverent,” and “beautiful,” in order to “win over my husband” (1 Pet 3:1ff). And if I am a Christian parent charged with the stewardship of a pagan child, I should cultivate in that child the kinds of discipline, obedience, and honor that anticipate, as much as it lies within the apologist, a respectful hearing of the Christian gospel.

I would argue further that this approach is strongly implied in the qualification lists for NT elders. Paul does not demand that elders be fathers of Christian children, but rather fathers of children who, so long as they are part of his household, are “respectful,” “submissive,” “obedient,” “faithful” (in their deportment), and “not accused of being wild or rebellious” (so 1 Tim 3:4; Titus 1:6). In other words, the minimum requirement for an elder is that his children be moral pagans. Of course we should yearn for the realization of the greater goal of producing Christians, but that is not the requirement for the children of elders. The biblical requirement is that an elder’s children exhibit morality vis-à-vis immorality—because that is the extent of a Christian father’s purview.

Moralism is under assault in Christian parenting literature today, and I sometimes wonder whether morality is under assault too. True, the most hopeful end for our children is not that they become moral pagans. But producing moral pagans is not, as is sometimes assumed, necessary evidence of parental failure. All Christian parents should both hope and pray earnestly for God to save their children, but if God chooses not to do this (a prerogative that he alone possesses), then the goal to which Christian parents should aspire is the production of moral pagans in whose hearts are faithfully planted the seeds of the saving grace of God.

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For to me, to live is Christ . . . ?

One of the best-known lines from St. Paul is found at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians where he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). I think this was my life verse for at least a few years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I put the reference under my name in a handful of my friends’ high-school yearbooks. The problem, however, is that it’s never been obvious to me exactly what this verse means. I’ve known, of course, that it has something to do with Paul’s commitment to Christ. I just haven’t been sure about much beyond this. After all, Christ isn’t an obvious pair with gain. We’d expect something more like “For to me, to live is loss and to die is gain” or “For to me, to live is pretty good; it’s not terrible. But, to die—to rest with Christ, that is gain indeed.” Why does Paul use Christ here? What’s he trying to say?

The key, it seems to me, is found in the five verses that follow, which suggest that were Paul to continue to live, his ongoing ministry would benefit the Philippians (vv. 24–25; cf. also “fruitful labor” in v. 22) and, as a result, would benefit Christ (v. 26)—in an even greater way than would his martyrdom (v. 20). They’d be strengthened in their faith and would, therefore, boast in Christ as a result of Paul’s renewed ministry (cf. 2 Cor 1:11 with Phil 1:1926). So we might restate what Paul says in v. 21 like this: For to me, to live is gain for you—and, thus for Christ—and, in at least one sense, loss for me (v. 23b), and to die is gain for me and loss for you—and, thus, in at least one sense, for Christ (cf. v. 20b with v. 26). Admittedly, stating it this way isn’t quite as elegant, but I think it captures what Paul is after.

What’s more, while Paul doesn’t quite say it, he gives the impression in vv. 24–26 that he’s chosen to live for the benefit of others rather than to die for his own benefit. This is, in any case, what he’s convinced God has decided. On this reading, then, Paul’s brief autobiographical reflection here plays a vital role in the letter, illustrating one of its central themes: Christians live worthy of the gospel when they, like Christ, put others’ interests before their own (2:4; vv. 5–11). The point of the reflection, then, is pretty clear, even if the logic of v. 21 is a bit compressed: Paul was willing to put others’ gain before his own. And the challenge for us, therefore, lies right on the surface: how can we, who are likewise called to imitate Christ’s selfless sacrifice—his loss, do anything less?

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Learning about the Past: Exploring Baptist History

In recent weeks, I’ve posted a few suggested reading lists in the field of church history. These lists have included broad overviews of church history, books on the history of Christian doctrine, and books that discuss church history in specific areas of the world. In this post, I want to narrow in on the Baptist denomination and recommend a few books related to Baptist history.

McBeth, Baptist HeritageThe standard Baptist history survey text and the one we currently use at DBTS is H. Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (1987). This fairly large book (850 pp.) is arranged by region within an overall chronological scheme. Although McBeth’s work is largely about Baptists in England and America, it doesn’t overlook the origin and growth of Baptists in places like Canada, Australia, and continental Europe. While not as geographically broad-sweeping as Robert Johnson’s A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (2010), McBeth’s Baptist Heritage is generally a better guide. One unusual strength of McBeth’s work is that the author has also written a companion volume titled A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990). This volume follows the same basic outline as its predecessor, but it consists of primary source documents (excerpts from books, letters, confessions of faith, etc.) that support and illustrate the narrative found in Baptist Heritage.

A more recent and very substantial work (743 pp.) is James Leo Garrett’s Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (2009). This book covers much of the same ground as McBeth with the twist that Garrett emphasizes Baptist theologians. One interesting feature of Garrett’s work is a chapter on “New Voices in Baptist Theology” (ch. 13). Here Garrett includes short discussions of contemporary Baptists such as John Piper, Tom Nettles, Wayne Grudem, and David Dockery, among others. Overall, Garrett’s book is a little more biographically and theologically oriented than McBeth.

Bebbington, Baptists through the CenturiesEven more recent than Garrett’s work is David Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (2010). This book is a very interesting read, and at fewer than 300 pp. of actual text, it is also a much quicker read than either McBeth or Garrett. Although described by the publisher as “a chronological survey” (back cover), Bebbington’s work is largely arranged in a topical format that can be be helpful though it also has the potential to be a bit disorienting at times. For example, I found it rather odd to read about William Carey almost 100 pages after Walter Rauschenbusch when Carey was born exactly 100 years before Rauschenbusch. Similarly, the book includes a chapter titled “Women in Baptist Life” (ch. 10). I wondered, why not just discuss key Baptist women at appropriate points in the historical narrative (e.g., in the first nine chapters)? I don’t see a compelling reason for making that topic a distinct chapter. A similar observation could be made about the chapter on religious liberty (ch. 12). On the other hand, if one wants to read an insightful chapter on these topics or on things like Baptists and the social gospel (ch. 8) or Baptists and race relations (ch. 9), Bebbington is a very good place to turn. Overall, Bebbington’s work is definitely helpful and well worth reading, but the potential reader should realize that Bebbington doesn’t tell the story of Baptist history in anything like a chronological narrative. So I’m recommending it with the caveat that if you like to read history in a generally chronological format, Bebbington may drive you crazy. But if you want to read about some key topics in Baptist history, this is a helpful book by a first rate historian.

The last book I’d like to recommend is rather different from the rest, and it isn’t really the kind of book that one is likely to read straight through. William Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith (first published in 1959, but updated by Bill Leonard in 2011) is a classic compilation of Baptist confessions. Chronologically, it ranges from the Anabaptist confessions of the 1500s up through the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message (2000). In terms of geography, while Lumpkin and Leonard certainly include the major confessions from Baptists in England and America, they also include confessions from Baptist groups in places such as France, Germany, Romania, Russia, and New Zealand. Even a few smaller Baptist institutional confessions from places like Hong Kong and the Middle East are included thanks to Leonard’s 2011 update. If you want to explore what Baptists have professed to believe through the centuries, Lumpkin’s work is the single best place to look.

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The New Coach: A Parody on Sanctification

“OK, men, everyone gather around, and let’s get this football season under way,” Coach Paul deTarsus bellowed out.

As the young recruits swaggered over, jostling each other manfully, Coach deTarsus continued gruffly, “This year the school steering committee has asked us to try a totally new approach to the game developed by a new assistant coach they’ve hired for me—Coach Terry Trzwijiasck. He wants you to call him Double T, so do it.” With that, the grizzled old coach turned to a young fellow standing nearby: “Double T,” he said, “They’re all yours.”

As one, the recruits turned to give their attention to Double T.

The new coach smiled winsomely and began speaking. “I know that you’re used to working hard, striving to meet the team’s high standards, and knowing the rulebook and playbook from cover to cover. But this year, we’re trying a new approach,” he said. “And the key to the new approach is to remind yourselves over and again that your coaching staff accepts you no matter what. Win or lose, we accept you. Fumbles or first downs, we accept you. Turnovers or touchdowns, we accept you. And when you’re laying flat on your back after you’ve missed that game-saving tackle, don’t despair. Just remind yourself one more time that we accept you. Winning is fine, but when it’s all done, it’s not about what you do. All that matters is that we accept you. Any comments or questions?”

Puzzled, the players glanced at each other, not sure what to say. Coach deTarsus was a tough old bear, and they were not used to this kind of kid-glove treatment. Finally, Tim Wothe stepped forward. Tim was a senior linebacker and the obvious choice as defensive team captain, a position he had held for the past two seasons. “Yes, sir, Coach Double T, I do.”

The junior coach smiled and interrupted. “Just call me Double T,” he said, “and there’s no need to call me ‘sir.’” Then he leaned forward and added, “When I hear ‘sir’ I look around to see if my grandpa is in the room.” Everyone laughed tentatively.

“OK, D-double T,” Tim said, glancing over at Coach deTarsus to make sure he approved. deTarsus stared back with his gray eyes hard as flint, revealing nothing. Not sure what to make of his coach’s steely glare, but knowing he was the team leader, Tim turned to the new coach and asserted, “You got it, Double T. We’re with you 100%. So what’s the first step? Blocking? Tackling? Sprints? Ball Security? Let’s do this.”

“Let’s do this,” the upperclassmen echoed in a booming unison. They had been repeating this slogan for years now, and when they all said it together, it was very, very intimidating.

Double T held up his hand softly and wiggled his forefinger back and forth. “Uh-uh-uh,” he said. “Remember, it’s not about what we do. It’s all about getting used to what’s already done: we accept you. In fact, my first policy change—wait, check that: my first suggestion—is that we modify the slogan we use when we break huddle to those very words: ‘We accept you.’ And don’t say it with so much chest-beating bravado—say it…well…say it more authentically.

Then, deliberately brushing Tim aside, Double T touched a wiry freshman on the shoulder and beckoned him to step forward. “What’s your name, son?” he asked.

“My real name is Antino Mahan,” the boy replied with a thick accent. “But since my family were just declared citizens of this great country last week, I want to go by the name Liberty instead.”

“That’s wonderful, Liberty!” Double T said with great sincerity. “But have you ever tackled someone carrying a football?”

“Nope,” he replied. “They don’t have football where I come from. We played with switchblades and brass knuckles.”

“Oh my,” Double T said with mild surprise. “That’s OK. We accept you no matter what.”

Then, placing a football into the hands of great lumbering fellow with the name “Samson” on his jersey, Double T instructed the big fellow to run past Liberty to see whether Liberty could tackle him. Samson smirked, gave a bellow, and rumbled toward Liberty. But just as the team was closing their eyes to avoid seeing Liberty get a medical redshirt on his first day of practice, Liberty rammed his knee into Samson’s groin, stuck a rigid finger under Samson’s helmet directly into his left eye, grasped Samson’s faceguard firmly with his other hand, twisted hard, and in a moment Samson was moaning on the ground.

“Perfect!” Double T said, picking up the ball that Samson had dropped. “With moves like that, I think we’re ready to handle just about anything!” Hearing these words of approval, several of the freshmen squealed excitedly. They clearly liked Double T a lot.

Not able to handle his consternation any more, Tim burst out, “That’s not how it’s done! Coach deTarsus has told us over and over that we’ll never win unless we play according to the rules!”[1]

“Rules!” Double T ejaculated with a snort. “The sooner you stop thinking about rules, the better off this team will be. Now everyone pair off for some sharing time and think happy thoughts about your coaching staff.”

“No sir,” said Phil, gaining courage from Tim’s words. Phil was the senior starting quarterback and the team’s offensive leader. He had earned the respect of the whole team (including Coach deTarsus, who in his coaching career had kicked more players off the team than he had kept). “I’m very happy that you have confidence in us, Double T, but our team is not ready,” Phil said firmly, “and we’re surely not perfect. We’ve not yet lived up to the confidence that you’ve given us. We need to work hard and strive mightily if we’re going to win that state championship at the end of the season. I speak for all the seniors here, and that’s what needs to happen.”[2]

“That’s right,” chimed in a talented transfer player, who hadn’t yet played for Coach deTarsus, but who had obviously received some very good instruction from some other nameless coach. “We need to work off that weight we put on this summer and re-establish disciplined habits, do those wind sprints, and everything else that Coach says we need to do to perfect our skills for a long season.”[3]

“Yeah,” growled Big Thess, the starting tight end. “And whoever doesn’t work, doesn’t play.”

Just then, the school’s most famous alumnus, Abraham Fromur, stepped off the bleachers and walked up to the group. Abe had played for 13 years in the NFL, had played in three Pro Bowls, and wore a Superbowl ring on his right hand. But he always stopped by on opening day of football tryouts to inspire the young men. “Men, when I played years ago in this school, I started out as a skinny kid with no skills. But the fellow coaching here at the time accepted me onto the team like he did so many others. He called me one of his ‘project kids.’ I never figured out why he chose me and not some of the other, stronger fellows, but I didn’t sit around idly and think endlessly about that mystery. Instead, I worked hard to make him proud of me, and the more I worked, the more alike we became. And you know, I really think that this was my coach’s greatest joy in life—seeing his players following in his footsteps and forging friendships that have lasted to this very day.”[4]

Striding to the center of the circle, tramping hard on Double T’s toes and eliciting a yelp in the process, Abe gathered the young men around him and said, “It’s true that once your coach picks you for the team, you have his acceptance. But don’t ever imagine that his acceptance means that you’re ready for the game of football. You get ready for football by learning the rules and cultivating the disciplines that make you game ready. These disciplines will be hard, but if you persevere, your hard work will pay off. But if you don’t pursue those disciplines, then I guarantee you that none of you will ever see a state championship.”[5]

Then, looking straight into Coach deTarsus’s hard eyes that, try as he might, could not hide their appreciation, Abe barked out, “And now, let’s do this.”

“Let’s do this,” the young recruits roared back.

 

[1]2 Tim 2:5

[2]Phil 3:12–16.

[3]Heb 12:1ff.

[4]Rom 4:1ff with Jas 2:22–24.

[5]Heb 12:10–14.

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Two Things I Learned from John Stott

StottWho was John Stott? It’s been a couple of years since Stott died, and his legacy is still taking shape. I suspect that for many of us he’ll be remembered as the author of one or two books on our shelves—probably The Cross of Christ and/or Basic Christianity—or as the name we associate with the International Congress on World Evangelism(think Lausanne). One thing that he deserves to be remembered for was his life-long passion to see his native England and the world beyond won to Christ. Alister Chapman recently wrote about this in a book entitled Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. Chapman highlights Stott’s passion for evangelism and explores the tension between Stott’s desire to maximize his own gifts and influence for the sake of the gospel and the temptation he faced to do the same for self-promotion. I suspect that most of the seminarians reading this will resonate with Stott’s big dreams and this tension and, therefore, would benefit from reading Chapman’s account. I don’t want to spoil it all here with a dry, full-scale review. Rather, I simply want to pass along two things I learned from Stott thanks to Chapman’s book. The first is that Christians should beambitious. The second is that it’s possible to tell when ambition is godly and when it’s not.

First, Stott reminded me that Christians can be ambitious because ambition can be godly. Stott, in fact, would want to say that Christians mustbe ambitious and that our ambitions must be extravagant. As he put it, “[a]mbitions for God…if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God” (155). “They ha[ve] to be great because God [is] great” (156). What Stott meant by all this is that if God is worthy of honor and glory and if our gifts bring him these things, then we should “develop [our] gifts, widen [our] opportunities, extend [our] influence, and [seek] promotion in [our] work—not to boost [our] own ego or build [our] own empire, but rather through everything [we] do to bring glory to God” (8, also 157). Here Stott is simply echoing sentiments we find in the New Testament, not least those found in the parable of the bags of gold where Jesus tells his disciples that they must “improve their master’s assets” as they wait for his return (cf. Matt 25:14–30; for a similar reflection, see here).

Second, Stott’s life taught me that it’s possible to tell when ambition is godly and when it’s not. Two examples come immediately to mind. The first is the way Stott pursued his ambition on the parish level as Rector of All Souls Church. His church could have been much more successful than it was had Stott continued to focus on the demographic where the gospel was having the greatest success, namely in the well-heeled section of his parish. Stott, however, had a vision for All Souls that included more than filled-pews and, in fact, more than simply conversion growth. Stott wanted to see the power of the gospel displayed in every area of his parish and, as a result, gave persistent, prayerful, and creative attention to the working-class areas of his parish. As God would have it, Stott’s efforts here were constantly frustrated. But, it’s the effort and, indeed, frustration that lets us see that Stott’s ambition, his vision for success, was not simply a pious mask hiding a heart singularly-aimed at self-promotion. Had he wanted that, it seems, he would have cared more that his pews were filled and less about who filled them.

The second example is the way Stott used his post-retirement years. Stott could have eased up a bit in his latter years and enjoyed some of the fruit of his labors and influence. Instead, it was during these years that he became increasingly burdened for the plight of the evangelical cause worldwide. And, at the center of his concern was the plight of the majority-world church, particularly its need, as he saw it, for evangelical resources and for theologically-equipped clergy. Stott, therefore, started a trust that would provide for both, and funded it largely at his own expense. (In fact, several of my own international friends at TEDS sat side-by-side with me in class thanks to the vision and generosity of John Stott.) Once again, had Stott’s ambition been simply for his own advancement and the material benefits such advancement often brings, then his sacrificial commitment to the majority world makes little sense.

Who was John Stott? Well, like most of us, he was an imperfect Christian. I suspect he’d be the first to admit this. Still, Stott wasa powerful example of what it means to pursue God’s glory with every last ounce of energy we have and to develop our gifts and expand our influence in the service of this worthy, world-transforming pursuit. So, in a month, when we remember Stott’s life and reflect on his legacy, let’s take a few moments to thank God for his godly ambition and let’s ask God to put something similar deep within our hearts as well.

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Learning about the Past: The Church around the World

Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted a couple of suggested reading lists. These lists have included broad overviews of church history and books on the history of Christian doctrine. In this post, I’m going to recommend a number of books that focus on the history of the Christian church in specific geographic areas.

The Church in North America

Noll, History of ChristianityMy favorite book in this category is Mark Noll’s work, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Although the vast majority of this book is about the church in the United States, Noll includes an extended section (ch. 10) on the history of Christianity in Canada, and he includes other references to Canadian Christians throughout the book. Our neighbors to the north are often overlooked and understudied by church historians, and their inclusion in this work is, to me, a strength of this volume.

In addition to Noll, a few similar books are worth mentioning. Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt’s The Religious History of America is excellent. It’s a bit shorter and perhaps a little simpler than Noll’s work, but it’s definitely worth the read. If you are feeling ambitious, you may want to check out Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People. Including the bibliographies and index, Ahlstrom’s work is just a hair short of 1,200 pages, so it is not a “read on the airplane” kind of book. But if you want to consult one of the best and most detailed works in this area, Ahlstrom is the place to turn.

The Church outside North America

Looking to our south, Justo González and his niece Ondina González have recently written a book titled Christianity in Latin America: A History. In just over 300 pages, this is currently the best overview of church history in Latin America.

Bays, New History of Christianity in ChinaWith regard to Christianity in Asia, Catholic historian Jean-Pierre Charbonnier has written a fairly robust history of Christianity in China titled Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. Beginning with the spread of Syrian Christianity eastward, Charbonnier discusses the arrival of Christianity in the Far East and the condition of the church in China during various time periods up to the present. A shorter, more readable, and more Protestant-focused work is Daniel Bays’s A New History of Christianity in China. Bays’s book isn’t very long (just over 200 pp. of text), but it’s probably the best place to begin reading about Christianity in China. And then one of the more broad sweeping works on the history of Christianity in Asia is Samuel Moffett’s 2-volume A History of Christianity in Asia (vol. 1; vol. 2). Moffett focuses largely on western missions in Asia, not Asian Christianity as such, but since the author is the son of Presbyterian missionaries to Korea, perhaps this is not too surprising. Overall, Moffett provides a remarkably full study of Christianity’s spread and growth throughout the continent of Asia.

Bremer, Cross and the KremlinIn recent months, I’ve read a couple of works related to the history of Russia and the former Soviet Union. One of the books I’m currently working through is Thomas Bremer’s Cross and the Kremlin: A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in Russia. This book is generally more topical than chronological, but it’s a good overview of major themes in the history of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. And for a helpful summary of the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as an introduction to its major beliefs and practices, one could hardly do better than Timothy Ware’s standard work, The Orthodox Church.

Concerning the church in Africa, two of the best works currently in print are Elizabeth Isichei’s A History of Christianity in Africa and Adrian Hastings’s The Church in Africa, 1450–1950. Hastings’s work is the longer of the two. Admittedly, both works are somewhat challenging for readers with limited familiarity with African history and geography, but both books are indexed and well-outlined.

In compiling the list above, I haven’t attempted to be geographically comprehensive, but if you are looking to read about the history of the church in one of these regions, these are some of the best books to check out.

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A Perfectly Good Father

USMC-120617-M-3042W-958Father’s Day is this Sunday (just in case you’ve forgotten.) It’s a day set aside for us to show our gratitude to the men who have provided, cared for, and guided us throughout our lives. Unfortunately, too many have never experienced the joy of having a father. Some were deprived by death, while many others were deprived by the bad choices their fathers made. One of the greatest problems we face today is the failure of men to be good fathers. It is a terrible thing when a child cannot look up to his/her father and want to be like him.

I am truly grateful that the Lord has given me a godly, loving father. I could not begin to recount all the ways in which my dad has influenced me for good and helped me to grow in the Lord. I can confidently say that I both admire and want to be like my dad in many ways.

Yet, my father isn’t perfect. In fact, none of our fathers are perfect. In reality, all of our fathers are evil, which is exactly what Christ said. Jesus, while encouraging His disciples to pray to their Father in heaven, made an interesting assertion.

Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  (Matt 7:9–11).

Did you notice how he described earthly fathers? They are evil! Every person on earth, no matter how “good” they are, is by nature evil. But the wickedness of earthly fathers stands in stark contrast to the goodness of God, the Father of believers. Because our heavenly Father is good, He will surely give us good things if we ask Him.

This Father’s Day, you may not be able to celebrate your earthly father. But if you have trusted in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can rejoice in your perfectly good heavenly Father. If God is not your Father, then this Father’s Day would be an excellent time to become His child.

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Give Them Common Grace Too

Father And Son Working On MachineryWhen I was a boy I grew up in a traditional American home. My father taught me the value of hard work, integrity, courtesy, and the disciplines of standing alone for right, offering a firm handshake, and looking people square in the eye. He had learned these things from his father, he from his father before him, and so on for many generations of my family. The Snoeberger name was a good one, I was told, and I knew early on that it was my duty to represent that name well. I reflect fondly on this bit of personal history as Father’s Day approaches.

My father also introduced me to the Gospel. Not every father in the Snoeberger clan did this. While I can’t bring to mind a Snoeberger who was not a good citizen and a hard worker, I regret to say that not all were genuine followers of Christ. Some lived, it seemed to me, as though their reputation for industry, integrity, and benevolence were sufficient ends unto themselves, and, as a result, they put little stock in the work of Christ, except perhaps to follow his ethical example. By God’s grace my father knew better, and so he taught me not only that I should be a good student, citizen, and worker, but also that success in these areas could never save. Only Christ could save, and that quite entirely apart from the virtues I might cultivate before or after I submitted to Christ.

I did not submit to the saving grace of Christ’s Gospel until my late teens. My father told me regularly about God’s saving grace, but I refused it. This refusal did not, however, bring his parenting efforts to a grinding halt. And that is because he also had common grace to offer. He taught me how to drive a nail straight and true, how to mow the lawn and shovel the drive swiftly and in tidy rows, how to read both books and people, and in summary, how to be a disciplined, careful, and contributing member of human society. Even though I was not growing in favor with God, he knew, I could and should be growing in favor with men (cf. Luke 2:52). He was troubled, no doubt, by the absence of God’s regenerating work, but he did not think it dangerous or sub-Christian to teach me how to live according to the received standards of moral integrity. And in this way he prepared me, as best he could, both for the inevitability of life in the civic sphere and also for the hope of a life in the ecclesiastical sphere.

The trend in Christian parenting these days is to favor “grace-based” over and against discipline-heavy parenting. I laud the emphasis on grace, but reject the insinuation sometimes communicated that discipline is the enemy of grace. Christian parents should not, of course, have the goal of raising “moral pagans,” but in view of the fact that parents really don’t have the final say (or any say, for that matter) in whether or not their kids turn out to be “pagans,” it seems to me that we should be working pretty hard at the “moral” part. My hope and prayer is ultimately that I will raise two morally informed Christians, but if in God’s inscrutable wisdom he has appointed me to raise a pagan, then I certainly hope to raise a moral pagan and not an immoral one!

I think my dad got it right. Thanks, Dad, for giving me grace—of both varieties.

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The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.—Colossians 2:17

Colossians 2:17 gives us another important insight into how the earliest Christians put their Bibles together. But, the NIV here nicely obscures some of the difficulties of this verse, which literally reads: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body of Christ.” Here I simply want to surface Paul’s biblical theology by untangling his compressed logic.

Three observations.

OT & CrossAn uncommon metaphor. Paul uses an uncommon metaphorical word pair when he contrasts shadow with body. Let me tease this out with five observations on the use of this sort of metaphor and word-pair in Paul’s day. (a) Literal objects cast shadows. (b) One of the objects that casts a shadow is a body. For a quick example, see Philo, Confusion 190. (c) This literal phenomenon generated various metaphors. For the classic example of this, see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave here. (d) When this sort of metaphor was used, the reality casting the shadow was most often a “thing” (Heb 10:1) or a “model” (Philo, Alleg. Interp. 3.96) and only occasionally a “body.” One clear example of the latter is found in Herod Antipas’s accusation against his brother Archelaus, whom he insisted “desire[d] the shadow of…royal authority, whose substance [“body,” σῶμα] he had already seized to himself” (Jos., J.W. 2.28). (e) Paul, therefore, uses the less-common metaphorical word-pair “shadow-body” in Col 2:17 likely because of the prominence of the latter word (“body”) in the letter. See Col 1:18, 22, 24; 2:11, 19, 23; 3:15 (cf. also 2:9).

Mosaic law. The “shadow” in Col 2:17 is the Mosaic law. This is confirmed by four observations. (a) The “shadow” in  Col 2:17a is cast by “the things that were to come.” And these “things…to come” are related in Col 2:17b to the messianic era, since the “body”—“reality”—casting the “shadow” is related to Christ or messiah: literally, “the reality of Christ/messiah.” What else, besides pre-Christian Judaism and, more specifically, its law, could be described as the preparatory “shadow” of the messianic era? (b) The items in Col 2:16 called a “shadow” in verse 17 are all Jewish practices, rooted in the Mosaic law. This is seen, above all, in the mention of “Sabbath” observance. For the association of “eat[ing] and drink[ing]” with the law, take a look at the Letter of Aristeas, 128, 142 and 158 (see here, 129, 143 and 158) and Heb 9:10. (c) This understanding of the Mosaic law—that it’s a shadow of the messianic era—would correspond with early Christian thought found elsewhere (see Heb 8:5; 10:1). (d) And, in fact, this understanding would correspond with Jewish thought found elsewhere. For example, the Jewish commentary on Genesis, Genesis Rabbah, notes, “There are three antitypes: the antitype of death is sleep, the antitype of prophecy is dream, the antitype of the age to come is the Sabbath” (17:5; for this translation, see here).

Ellipse. The trickiest part of Col 2:17 is the ellipse in the second half of the verse. The Greek simply reads “but the reality of Christ.” Translators, therefore, have to infer the phrase’s logic, since it’s incomplete as it stands. Thus, the NIV reads “the reality, however, is found in Christ” and the ESV and NASB both have “But the substance belongs to Christ.” The verse would have read quite a bit smoother had Paul exchanged “not” for “but” (NIV’s “however”) and repeated “of the things that were to come” instead of inserting “of Christ”:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come not the reality of the things that were to come.

Paul, however, wanted to say more than this. He wanted to say not only that the Mosaic law is a shadow and not the reality that is to come; he also wanted to identify what the reality that is to come is and show that it had come. (After all, if what was to come is still to come, Paul’s argument would have lost its steam. His opponents might simply have insisted on the shadows “in the meantime.”) Paul, in fact, wanted to do this—to identify the reality and show that it had come—and he wanted to make a word play. What Paul says here then is this: “these practices are the-things-that-were-to-come’s-shadow, but [...] the body of Christ” and what he means is this:

These practices are the-things-that-were-to-come’s shadow, but the-things-that-were-to-come’s reality belongs to Christ.

What is left implied, therefore, (the ellipse) is “of the things that were to come.” Moreover, the genitive “of Christ,” like the genitive “of the things that were to come,” signals something like possession, which explains my insertion of “belongs to” (as in the ESV and NASB) and the apostrophe in the (admittedly-clunky) “the-things-that-were-to-come.” Thus, Paul identifies the things that were to come with Christ, which indicates the coming things had indeed come—the opponents, after all, were ready to admit messiah had come—and, Paul’s ellipse preserves the word play, which literally reads, “body of Christ.” In other words, had he repeated “the things that were to come,” this would have muted the word play, giving us instead (and, once more, quite literally): “but the body of the things that were to come of Christ.” That this sort of word play explains Paul’s ellipse here is suggested by the uncommon metaphorical word-pair (noted above) of “shadow-body” and by the familiarity of the Pauline idiom it preserves: “body of Christ.” For other occurrences of this phrase, see Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 10:16; 12:27; Eph 4:12 and here. (Compare the similar idioms found in 1 Cor 6:15; 11:24, 27; Eph 1:23; 5:30 and Col 1:22, 24.)

In short, what Paul says here in Col 2:17 is this: the regulations of the Mosaic law and, thus, the law itself foreshadowed the Christian era. “Why let anyone judge you by the shadow, when the reality has come?” Finally, this understanding of the role of the law is of a piece with what Paul says elsewhere. The law served a specific purpose and that purpose has expired (see, for example, Gal 3:10–4:7 and 2 Cor 3:7–18, on which, see here).

Posted in Biblical Theology, Exposition | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Learning about the Past: What Has the Church Believed?

About two weeks ago I began a recommended reading list for those who wish to brush up on the history of the church. My initial suggestions included a couple of church history survey texts. In this post, I’m going to mention a few titles that focus on the development of Christian doctrine over the past 2,000 years or so. The earlier list was comprised of books that emphasize key people and events (the story); these books emphasize the development of theology (the ideas).

In the summer of 1998, I took my first course as a test drive student at DBTS. The course I chose was History of Christian Doctrine, which was then taught by Dr. Gerald Priest. Our textbook for that class was Louis Berkhof’s classic work, The History of Christian Doctrines. I thoroughly enjoyed both the lectures and the reading. Berkhof’s work (first published in 1937) is now somewhat dated, but it remains a fine place to begin reading about the history of Christian doctrine. In fewer than 300 pp., Berkhof discusses the historical development of theology under headings such as prolegomena, the Trinity, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrines of sin and grace, and the doctrine of last things.

Hannah, Our LegacyAnother work that is slightly longer and much more recent is John Hannah’s book Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (2001). Whereas Berkhof was no friend of dispensationalism, Hannah is a dispensationalist and a long-time professor of historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Like Berkhof, Hannah discusses the historical development of major theological ideas within chapters that focus on topics such as authority, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, end times, etc. Both Berkhof and Hannah are excellent “read through” type volumes.
In addition to the volumes by Berkhof and Hannah, there are a couple of very good longer works that one may want to dip into. In an earlier post, I mentioned Justo González’s Story of Christianity. González has also written a three-volume work titled A History of Christian Thought (rev. ed., 1987). Weighing in at something over 1,100 pages, most people probably won’t want to read straight Gonzalez, History of Christian Thoughtthrough this set, but it is a helpful companion to the Story of Christianity volumes. Unlike Berkhof and Hannah, this set is more chronological in nature, with volume one covering the early church, volume two the medieval church, and volume three the Protestant Reformation up through the mid-twentieth century. In keeping with this layout, volume one includes chapters on the theology of the apostolic fathers, western theology in the third century, the theology of Athanasius, and Trinitarian doctrine in the West, among others. Chapters in the second volume discuss topics such as the theology of Augustine, western theology after Augustine, and eastern theology up to the fall of Constantinople (i.e., 1453). And chapters in the third volume cover topics like the theology of Luther, the theology of Calvin, Reformed theology after Calvin, and theology in the twentieth century.

Allison, Historical TheologyAnother even more recent work in this field is Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology (2011). Intended as a companion volume to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, this volume largely follows the topical arrangement of Grudem’s book. Like the three-volume set by González, most folks probably won’t choose to read this work cover-to-cover, but this is a great volume to consult when one wants to read about the historical development of a specific doctrine. This book contains 33 chapters in a little over 700 pp. A few of the more interesting chapters focus on topics such as the canon of Scripture, the interpretation of Scripture, creation, providence, the atonement, justification, church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Christ’s return and the Millennium. Within most chapters, Allison discusses what the church believed about a particular doctrine and how that doctrine developed during four different time periods: (1) the early church, (2) the Middle Ages, (3) the Reformation and post-Reformation era, and (4) the modern period.

All four of these works provide a good overview of how the church has developed theologically over the course of its history. The volumes by Berkhof and Hannah can be read through pretty quickly; the volumes by González and Allison are reference works that lend themselves more to perusal and “spot” reading.

Posted in Book Review, Church History, Historical Theology | 1 Comment

A Century-Old Answer to Tchividjianism: Studies in Perfection by B. B. Warfield

Normally when book reviews appear on this website, they’re for new books: cutting edge books that add some new piece of information or fresh analysis to our ever-growing bank of theological information. But we also need to reflect on historical gems—classic treatments that inform the present far more thoroughly and penetratingly than any one week’s worth of web chatter can possibly hope to do.

So for my contribution to the Tchividjian controversy, rather than manufacture some spectacular new twist, I’d instead like to commend to our readers B. B. Warfield’s out-of-print work Studies in Perfectionism, a condensation of his larger block of material on sanctification that appears as vols. 7 & 8 of his Collected Works (still available for sale today). Those familiar with this work will recognize it as perhaps the most devastating critique of Keswick theology ever written. But it is more than that. It is a critique of a recurring error that has erupted perhaps dozens of times in the history of the church—an error that stands opposite that of Legalism/Pharisaism and has earned labels like “Antinomianism,” “Libertinism,” or in Warfield’s tome, “Perfectionism.”

If legalism errs by leaking a deadly sort of synergism back into the doctrine of justification, granting works an inordinate role in earning divine favor and assaulting the doctrine of solus Christus, perfectionism errs by projecting a deadly form of monergism forward so as to subsume sanctification in its scope. Frustrated by dead orthodoxies where individuals work very hard to earn favor with God, perfectionists seek ways to grow in grace authentically, without expending any effort at all, relying wholly upon Christ to unilaterally accomplish for me the Christian growth that I once thought was accomplished through obedience (or to use a more sinister word, “law-keeping”). This all-I-have-is-Christ approach to sanctification occurs almost magically: all I need to do is to “reckon” on my standing in Christ (that’s the Keswick version) or preach the Gospel to myself (that’s the Tchividjian version), and I will grow—almost without even trying and free from the frustrations experienced by those wicked folks who are “striving” to be more like Christ.

To be fair, many perfectionists defy their own theology and actively live holy lives, so we must be careful not to overstate the perfectionist error. But it is an error, and it is not new. Just as Romanism (the premier expression of legalism) found its pendular opposite in Lutheranism, Scholasticism in Holiness Theology, and Modernism in Keswick Theology, so also the excesses of Fundamentalism have produced Tchividjianism. I can only wish that Warfield were here today to write an appendix to his most excellent book.

Tolle Lege.

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Are Women More Easily Deceived Than Men?

And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became sinner.—1 Timothy 2:14

Does 1 Tim 2:14 suggest women are more easily deceived than men? Here I want to answer this question by saying something (1) about the function of 1 Tim 2:14 and, then, saying something (2) about its meaning.

Function. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim 2:14 is one of two explanations Paul gives for his prohibition in 1 Tim 2:11–12. (We’ll leave off presently what Paul prohibits in these verses and simply refer throughout this post to “what Paul prohibits in vv. 11–12” or something like that. Not exactly elegant, but it’ll help keep our focus.) 1 Tim 2:13 begins with “for” and v. 14 begins with “and.” Thus, Paul says, “women shouldn’t do [vv. 11–12] because [“for”] v. 13 “and” v. 14.

Meaning. The first reason Paul gives for his prohibitions in vv. 11–12 is creation order (v. 13). Adam was created first; Eve was created second. Therefore, women cannot do the activities in vv. 11–12 because this would reverse and, thus, violate creation order. The second reason Paul gives has been understood in a number of ways in Christian history; here I’ll focus on two of the more common. Some have understood v. 14 as a separate reason. Others that it illustrates the first reason.

A separate reason. Some suggest that 1 Tim 2:14 grounds the prohibition in vv. 11–12 in an ontological difference between men and women. Women cannot do vv. 11–12 because they are more susceptible to deception than men are. After all, Paul says, “Adam wasn’t deceived; Eve [was].” This way of reading Paul finds all sorts of support in Church history (see Doriani’s essay here). This reading also would help flesh out Paul’s first point in v. 13. That is, if all we had were v. 13, then the only reason women couldn’t do the activities in vv. 11–12 would be divine fiat, raw sovereignty; they were created second. Since it’s Scripture, this would, of course, be enough. But most of us would like more. Enter v. 14. Women can’t do the activities of vv. 11–12 not simply because they were created second, but also because they were created with an inferior capacity for spiritual and intellectual discernment. Thus, to Peter’s note about women’s physique (1 Pet 3:7), Paul adds a note about their psyche. Finally, this reading also has the advantage of being offensive to modern sensibilities, which can be—though isn’t always—a useful hermeneutical consideration. After all, doesn’t the Bible talk about the world’s hostility toward God and Holy Scripture? Doesn’t it suggest this hostility will only get worse?

An illustration. Others argue that 1 Tim 2:14 does not ground the prohibition of vv. 11–12 in any ontological difference between men and women. Rather, v. 14 grounds the prohibition by showing what happens when God’s created order is reversed. What Paul’s second reason for his prohibition does, then, is explain why creation order must not be violated, which is to say, why vv. 11–12 must be obeyed. Paul explains by giving an illustration: the very first instance of role reversal and its consequences. Satan deliberately violated creation order and approached the one God created second. “Adam was not approached and deceived by the serpent, but woman [was]” (see Schreiner’s essay here). Satan prosecuted his case with the one created second. And this one took an initiative which, Paul implies, was not hers to take. This reading places the emphasis on Satan—the actor behind v. 14’s passive verbs—and on woman—the second-created human, who acted in a capacity out of step with God’s order. This reading has the advantage of more easily harmonizing with what Paul says about women elsewhere in his letters. That is, if v. 14 suggests that women can’t do the activities in vv. 11–12 because they are fundamentally more open to deception, one wonders what mitigates this susceptibility sufficiently to allow for the sorts of activities described in 1 Cor 14:26 (prophesying), Titus 2:3–4 and 2 Tim 3:15 (teaching; cf. Acts 18:26), and 1 Cor 11:5, 13 (public prayer), among others (see, e.g., Rom 16:1, 3, 7; also 1 Cor 5:4). If, however, the prohibitions in vv. 11–12 are grounded in creation order in both v. 13 (principle) and v. 14 (illustration), this more easily explains why women can have certain ministries and not others. Some ministries violate creation order; others do not. Related, if v. 14 grounds the prohibition of vv. 11–12 in ontology—women are more easily deceived than men—one wonders why this sort of susceptibility is more problematic for one doing the activities of vv. 11–12 than a susceptibility to sinning with eyes-wide-open as (arguably) Adam did. Does Adam’s sin mitigate his ability to do vv. 11–12 less than Eve’s? Finally, this reading also has the advantage of preserving Paul from saying something that many in our day would find really offensive: women are less able to spot deception than men. Caution is necessary here, of course, considering the other things people find offensive in Christianity (see 1 Cor 1:23 or 1 Tim 2:13!). Still, there’s no special prize for taking away the salt when we don’t have to.

On balance, the second reading is preferred. Granted, it does not answer all the questions it raises. But, in this case, I tend to think that’s a virtue and not a vice. It goes just as far as Scripture requires and then puts its hand over its mouth and refuses to say any more.

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