“At the end of the day when I kneel down and say my evening prayer, I know that no prayer of my own that I can offer to the heavenly Father is worthy of him or of power to avail with him, but all my prayer is made in the name of Jesus Christ alone as I rest in his vicarious prayer. It is then with utter peace and joy that I take into my mouth the Lord’s Prayer which I am invited to pray through Jesus Christ, with him and in him, to God the Father, for in that prayer my poor, faltering, sinful prayer is not allowed to fall to the ground but is gathered up and presented to the Father in holy and eternally prevailing form. At the same time, I recall that the Father has promised to send the Spirit of his Son, mediated through the name and vicarious humanity of Jesus, into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father; and I am assured that as I pray in the name of God’s beloved Son I am caught up with all my own infirmities within the inarticulate intercession of the eternal Spirit of the Father and of the Son from whose love nothing in heaven or earth, nothing in this world or in the world to come, can ever separate us.”
-Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”
-C. S. Lewis
I am ashamed to admit that there are too many classic literary works that I have never read in their entirety. Too many epic novels, histories, philosophies, and political treatises have gathered dust on the shelf. Sadly, the same is true for many classic works in my own field of systematic theology. I could blame my education or culture, but what good would that do? Better to take responsibility and get busy, right?
For several years now, I have poked around in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, especially the questions on the Incarnation in the Tertia Pars. Thomas has even made appearances in several things I have written. But there are large domains in Thomas’ magnum opus that I haven’t explored.
There may be other ways of scaling this Mt. Everest of Christian theology, but I’d like to read it all straight through (crazy, I know). So I put together a plan to read the Summa in two years. It involves reading one question each weekday, leaving the weekends open to catch up (or read ahead). Each question contains several articles and takes up about 5-10 double-columned pages in my copy. Given the density of Thomas’ thought, that’s a fairly heavy pace (for me anyway). But how else are you going to make it all the way through?
Here’s the plan:
I’d like to start this plan in the new year, and I’m looking for accountability! If you’re interested, let me know. I may blog on it from time to time in this space. In preparation for the two-year journey, I am reading Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering’s introduction to Thomas’ theology. I’ll likely read other secondary literature along the way as well.
So, who’s in?
File this under the hashtag #confessyourunpopulartheologicalopinion, but I think we sometimes overuse the word “gospel.” Think of all the hyphenated adjectives we have invented with the word “gospel” on the front end (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-saturated, etc.). Think of how many organizations and local church ministry initiatives have been framed by the word “gospel.” Think of how often we use the word in sermons and Sunday School lessons and small group meetings, often without taking care to define precisely what we mean by the term.
Obviously the Greek term euangelion (“good news”) and its cognates constitute an important theme in the biblical story of redemption. It is rooted in the Messianic promises of the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9, LXX). It is the title affixed to the climactic story of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It is used by Paul dozens of times to describe the core of his apostolic message. So I would never want to displace what Paul says is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). My concern is not so much with the concept itself but with how we employ the specific English word “gospel.”
As I see it, the word “gospel” exerts an outsized influence in our theological vocabulary. There are several potential weaknesses in the overuse of the word “gospel.”
- It is a derivation of an Old English word. The word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means “good news.” What if we just translated euangelion directly into modern English as “good news”? What would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having good-news-driven ministries? It seems that nothing would be lost and much would be gained by simply providing a gloss of the term when we use it.
- It can become cliche. This is actually true of any term. If you use a word often enough, without explaining its content, it becomes hackneyed. So maybe this point is not so much a knock on the word “gospel” per se as it is an encouragement for Christians to define carefully and consistently what we mean by it. Which brings me to a third potential weakness.
- It is a disputed term. The gospel means many things to many people. It can be used as short-hand for individual salvation (God, man, Christ, response). It can be employed to speak of the overarching storyline of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). It can be used to describe the anti-imperial overtones of the church’s confession of the Lordship of Christ. It can be used to tease out the social and even political implications of the Christian message. It can expanded into a summary of the entire Christian worldview, as nearly everything important becomes a “gospel issue.” If we overuse the word “gospel” and under-explain it, we risk being misunderstood. We also risk becoming untethered from how the term is actually used in the New Testament. This point, like the last, may not be a direct criticism of the word “gospel” itself, since many important terms are disputed and in need of constant definition. But we can’t simply use the word and expect people to know what we mean by it.
- It can unintentionally displace God’s activity in redemption. We often use the word “gospel” when what we really mean is “Christ” or “the Holy Spirit” or “God’s grace.” The New Testament sometimes personifies the word euangelion and has it doing certain things (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17), but most often the NT writers speak of God’s agency in and through the gospel message. We don’t construct our theologies by simply counting verses, but it does seem instructive to compare the number of times Paul, for example, uses “Christ” (370x) versus “gospel” (~70x). Again, what would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having Christ-driven ministries? What if we strove to cultivate Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification? Don’t get me wrong. I still use the word “gospel,” and I am not on a campaign to have it retired. It is a beautiful word with a rich history in English-speaking Christianity. But I wonder sometimes if “the gospel” doesn’t sort of take on a life of its own that obscures the direct agency of the triune God in our salvation.
So what do you think? Do we overuse the word “gospel”? Do we do a sufficient job explaining in precise biblical terms what we mean by it? Do any of these potential weaknesses miss the mark?
I recently came across a convocation address from over twenty years ago that is just as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. It’s Philip Turner’s 1992 inaugural address as dean of Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School titled “To Students of Divinity.” Speaking from within mainline Protestantism, Turner points out the embarrassment that many experience even in the claim to study “divinity.”
The study of God (rather than religion) is not an occupation high on the list of priorities set forth in the development plans of most of our colleges and universities…We may, according to current wisdom, safely study the human phenomenon we call “religion.” That endeavor, after all, does not lie outside the parameters of scientific and humanistic study; however, the study of “divinity” is quite another matter. The actual study of God is a suspect undertaking.
Coupled with this embarrassment over the study of God is a hesitancy to emphasize the love of God. Indeed, Turner argues that even within the world of academic theology there is a tendency to invert the two great commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor.
Nevertheless, I believe that, from the time of the Enlightenment to the present, one can read the history of the study of divinity as one in which the second commandment, which is like the first but not the first, has increasingly been made into the first and then the only commandment. The study of divinity has become, in short, less and less the study of God and more and more the study of us….One might express the version of the summary of the law as actually understood by many representatives of modern Western theology as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely, thou shalt love God as thyself.”
So what it is needed in the present moment is a restoration of the biblical order of loves. Keeping the first commandment first does not entail a denigration of the second, but rather gives to the second its appropriate shape and context. But how can such a reversal take place? How do we go about recovering the study of divinity– the pursuit of the knowledge and love of God? Turner suggests three main answers.
“What God asks us to put first, rather than last, in the study of divinity, is worship.” Putting God in his proper place of adoration and service will enable us to overcome the “destructive division” that is often placed between our heads and our hearts.
Next, the restoration of the first commandment will demand a “mastery of the tradition through which the teaching of the Apostles has come down to us.” Turner maintains that the study of divinity requires us “not only to master the Holy Scriptures of the Christian people, but also the history of their interpretation through the ages.” Only by recovering this great tradition will the contemporary church be delivered from the “collective amnesia” that has rendered it speechless about who God is and what he requires.
Finally, Turner suggests that a recovery of divinity is dependent not only on worship and tradition but also on Christian practice. “We cannot divorce either worship or study from an attempt to learn a way of life.” The recovery of divinity requires more than reading and speaking; it also requires an earnest attempt to the imitation of God in Christ. “[A]part from the way of life that imitates the life of God, our words about him are more like gossip than truth. We may use them, but we will most certainly misuse them because we have no real knowledge of what they mean.”
There are simply too many “underlineable” sentences in this this brief piece to mention here. You need to read the whole thing. If American Christianity in its various manifestations is indeed experiencing decline, then Turner’s prescriptions, it seems to me, would go a long way in helping to stop the slide.
“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13
Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:
It is biblical.
When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).
It is historical.
So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:
And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)
In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.
It is instructive.
Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.
Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.
And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.
Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.
I ran across this interesting quote detailing the instructions Pope Gregory I gave to Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo) as he prepared to embark on his mission to England:
Your brotherhood is familiar with the usage of the Roman Church since you have very pleasant memories of being raised and nurtured in that usage. But it seems to me that you should carefully select for the English Church, which is still new to the faith and developing as a distinct community, whatever can best please Almighty God, whether you discover it in the Roman Church, or among the Gauls, or anywhere else. For customs are not to be revered for their place of origin; rather those places are to be respected for the good customs they produce. From each individual church, therefore, choose whatever is holy, whatever is awe-inspiring, whatever is right; then arrange what you have collected as if in a little bouquet according to the English disposition and thus establish them as custom.
There is much to appreciate here. A couple of things stand out to me. First, Gregory carefully avoids imposing an artificial uniformity in worship practices. Augustine was given the freedom to be discerning, even eclectic, in adapting Christian worship to an English context. And second, Gregory also provides several helpful tests for weighing the merits of various worship practices. Are they respectable and good? Are they holy, awe-inspiring, and right? And, most importantly, are they pleasing to God?
In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:
It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.
Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life. “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,
When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.
Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?
Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.
First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking and choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.
What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.
Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds. Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.
Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be. We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.
In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.
P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.
*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.
Two tools that you should have in your hermeneutical toolbox are the notions of intertextuality and intratextuality. The former looks for textual connections between books of the Bible and the latter for textual connections within a single book of the Bible. These tools are especially relevant for the study of the fourfold Gospel. These verbal and thematic links help us to discern the theology of the evangelists.
In his helpful book, Studies in Matthew, Dale Allison lays out the intratextual links between Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration and his account of the Crucifixion of Christ. Check them out (pp. 228-29):
So it seems fairly obvious that Matthew wants us to read these two stories together. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ transfigured glory with his humiliating death functions to highlight a major Christological theme for Matthew. Jesus is both the Danielic Son of Man and the Isaianic Suffering Servant. He is both the Lord of glory and the one who is crucified for the sake of his people. We can’t read either story without the other. We need both in order to understand the full theological significance of Christ’s identity and mission. If the dogma is the drama, as Dorothy Sayers concluded, then we could say something similar here: the grammar is the theology. We get at Matthew’s Christology precisely by attending to these kinds of verbal and thematic parallels.
Here’s a helpful reminder of the objectivity of the gospel from James Torrance. The good news of the gospel is not, in the first instance, what God does in and through us but what he has done outside of us and for us in the work of Jesus Christ.
Karl Barth tells the story of an old lady who once went to the evangelist Kohlebrügge and asked him, ‘Tell me, sir, when you were converted?’ The evangelist, knowing well that she was interested in the details of his Christian experience, replied, ‘Madam, I was converted nineteen hundred years ago when Jesus Christ died on a cross for my sins and rose again.’ He was concerned to point away from himself and his own faith to Jesus Christ. The decisive point for him was not primarily anything in his own experience, important as that may be, but that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried…the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven.’ It was as though he said, ‘When Christ died long ago for me, I died, and when Christ rose again for me from the dead in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, I rose again. When Christ ascended for me into heaven, I ascended with him and now my life is hid with Christ in God.’ That is the true testimony of faith, the inner witness of the Spirit. In the words of the apostle, ‘We judge that if one died for all, then all died.’ Christ for us is prior to Christ in us.
I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year. I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life. We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.
In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year. Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively. But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).
A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:
In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.
You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.
Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.
It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.
Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:
- Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
- Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
- If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?