Finishing up the PhD

Here is a quick note to update everyone on the completion of my PhD degree at Cambridge. Though I finished the formality of the PhD last year, I decided to delay the conferment of my degree until my family and I were able to fly back to England for a graduation ceremony. The fact that no one in Australia was going to call me Dr Wisley anyway made the delay not that big of a deal. 

I’m glad that I waited and was able to go through the ceremony. It was great to be back at my college Hughes Hall and to see and celebrate with many friends, especially my Doktormutter, Katharine Dell. We also had an opportunity to go up to Edinburgh for a few days which was also great. 

Here are a few pictures from the trip.

Life with God

 

milk way

Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.

But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?

The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.

The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.

Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.

But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).

So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).

A Brief Post on Self-Doubt

We live in an age of self-confidence, self-assertion, and, indeed, self-worship. Social media, polarized political discourse, and online posturing feed these trends. But it’s my contention that self-doubt is actually where true virtue lies. Political pundits and religious polemicists thus prove themselves often to be more vicious than virtuous.

It actually requires all of the cardinal virtues to admit that you may be wrong or misguided: prudence for discernment, courage to risk ridicule, temperance to avoid self-indulgent pride, and justice to own that you may be unfairly misjudging things.

And it requires the Christian virtues to show where your true trust lies: faith in God’s judgments alone, hope in the ultimate righting of all things, and love for your fellow man who is on the same quest for truth.

But self-doubting does not mean truth-doubting. Chesterton is worth quoting on this score:

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Christians must lead the way in recovering a sense of our own limitations. It isn’t a matter of some kind of radical postmodern skepticism about the Truth, but an honest assessment of our own limitations and weaknesses. From this kind of posture, when we do speak with bold confidence about the Divine Reason, we may just offer a more winsome presentation of God’s truth.

An Amplified Lord’s Prayer

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord's_Prayer_(Le_Pater_Noster)_-_James_Tissot

Tissot’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” Public Domain

There is a special power that accompanies praying the words of Scripture. It’s not matter of magic or superstition. It’s simply a matter of praying in accord with God’s revealed will—praying God’s inspired words back to him. The Psalter is given to the people of God for this very reason. And the Scriptures provide many other prayers to this same end as well, including the prayers of Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and more.

This is also one reason why I think all Christians should pray the very words of the Lord’s Prayer every day, preferably several times a day, and why I think the Lord’s Prayer should have a central place in the corporate worship of the people of God on the Lord’s Day. Praying in unison the model prayer that our Lord gave to us is a moving experience of the church’s spiritual unity. The Lord’s Prayer is almost hymnic in its meter, giving us good reason to believe that this prayer was memorized in the earliest layers of Christian tradition. And it quite obviously has served as a formula for prayer down through the centuries of Christian history.

But the Lord’s Prayer also sets the agenda for the priorities of Christian prayer. It’s not a matter of either recitation or a pattern of priorities to be followed, but both/and. Still, the “Our Father” can be amplified in our personal prayers to great spiritual benefit. Here is one way that the Lord’s Prayer might be utilized in this way:

Our Father, the one who in your great love has sent forth your only begotten Son in the fullness of time to redeem us, and the one who has sent your Spirit into our hearts, leading us to cry out to you as our Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-6),

Our Father, the one who has not saved us as isolated individuals, but who has incorporated us into the body of Christ,

Our Father in heaven, the one who transcends space and time as the almighty maker and sustainer and Lord of all that exists,

May your name be hallowed, sanctified; may you vindicate the holiness of your great name, despite the ways that we have dishonored it among the nations (Ezek. 36:23),

May your kingdom come; may your saving reign and rule in your Son, Jesus Christ, come in my life and in my family’s life and in the life of the church and among all the peoples of earth,

May your will be done, your saving, end-times will to redeem a people for yourself and to sanctify them for your service (1 Thess. 4:3),

May all of these things be done so that a taste of heaven might be brought down to earth.

Give us this day our daily bread; principally give us anew the Bread of Life, the life of the world, your Son, Jesus Christ (John 6:33); give us also what we need materially, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically in order to do your will this very day.

Forgive us our debts, our great sins and transgressions against you, and form us into the kind of people who willingly extend forgiveness to those who have sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation, guard us from ourselves and from the indwelling sin that pulls us away from you.

But if we are to enter into temptation, into a time of testing, deliver us from the Evil One and from all of our spiritual enemies.

We ask all of this in faith and confidence knowing that to you alone belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory, both now and forever. Amen.

Do an Abundance of English Translations make the need for knowledge of the biblical languages unnecessary?

One of my pleasures as a faculty member at BCSA is working with my friend, Chris Fresch (of Greek Verb Fame). Chris and I frequently discuss the biblical languages. Most of the time our discussion are on matters of exegesis that the biblical languages highlight. And at times we lament that many pastors and students believe (or are being told) that knowledge of the biblical languages is unnecessary for faithful pastoral ministry and therefore do not pursue to learn them.

I don’t think that a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are absolutely necessary for faithful ministry, or that it is the only skill needed for Christian ministry. To believe that would be naive of the heavy burden of pastoral ministry. But I’m concerned by the number of pastors and students who determine them unnecessary and seek to find ways to avoid them in theological college. 

One excuse for not valuing the languages in ministry is because we possess an abundance of English translations of the Scriptures. But is it true that an abundance of English translations mean that the need for learning the languages are obsolete? Dennis Johnson from Westminster California argues that the abundance of English translations actually makes the mastery of the biblical languages more necessary. He writes:

“The abundance of English translations of the Bible available to our churches may appear to make knowledge of the original languages less necessary. Actually, they make it more essential. I have participated in home Bible studies in which we had around the circle the Living Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Versions, and others. At many points, naturally we had different wording; and at certain points our versions came up with significant variations in meaning! What do we do? Vote? Happily, we had somebody there who could look at the original, suggest why the versions diverged, and tell the rest why one translation was more accurate than the other. God’s people need the confidence that their own shepherds can guide them through the labyrinth of modern translations.”1

I think we all can relate to Johnson’s experience. The abundance of translations with different text-critical decisions and different translational goals can create quite the confusion for a group. The answer isn’t to look toward another translation, but the need for someone the capacity to explain why translations diverged and explain why one translation was better over another. This sort of knowledge and explanation is more than the ability to look up parsing information and glosses in a software program like Accordance or Logos. It requires someone who has laboured over the Scriptures in order to gain a deep knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Let us continue to do the hard work because we love and treasure the Scriptures in order to serve God’s church. 

  1. Johnson, Dennis “The Perils of Pastors without the Biblical Languages” in Presbyterian Journal, September 1986 

Receivers of the Word

 

What is crucial is that we recognize that we do not define the situation into which God is allowed to speak, and we do not set limits on what God is allowed to say. Instead, we come to realize our true situation only as we actually read the Scriptures and believe the Word of God. We are hearers, which places us in a subordinate position ready to receive what is given as gift.

Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2018, pp. 34–35.

Harassed and Helpless

sheep-agriculture-animals-countryside-87081I’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and one of the things that has stood out to me on this reading is Jesus’ compassion for people oppressed by sin. We often think about sin only in terms of our agency, that is, sin is something we do and are responsible for. Jesus certainly doesn’t diminish that understanding of sin and its consequences. He consistently calls people to repent of their sin and self-absorption and to believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus also sees sin as a power that exerts itself over us and renders us helpless to rescue ourselves from its vice grip. He sees the crowds and has compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). He has compassion on those living with the painful consequences of a fallen world by healing their diseases (14:14). He has compassion not only on Israel but also on those living in Gentile territory, feeding their hungry bodies and souls (15:32).

His exorcisms also demonstrate that he knows the demonic powers have their hooks in us. He describes his Satan-plundering work as one who binds the strongman (Satan) and takes his property from him (12:29). It is not so much that sin is either something we do or something that has a power over us. It is both.

This same idea is also communicated in the Old Testament. When God reveals his glory to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he also reveals the depths of his compassionate character:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

God is just and will punish the wicked. But he is also gracious and merciful and desires to pardon and deliver us from sin’s power.

The Psalms express the same truth. Consider just one passage that demonstrates the compassion of God for weak and helpless sinners. Psalm 103:8-14,

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God’s mercy is not permissiveness. He doesn’t suspend his justice in order to extend forgiveness (that’s why the cross was necessary for salvation, Rom. 3:25-26). But God knows our weakness. He “knows our frame” and “remembers that we are dust.” God is not surprised that we stumble and fall, many times in the face of the same temptations. He is like a compassionate father, who sees his children struggling. He knows. He remembers. And he extends compassion and mercy.

The apostle Paul also sees sin not only as a choice we make (it is certainly that) but also as a force or power that has been unleashed on the human race, abetted by the demonic principalities and powers. Unbelievers are those who have been blinded by Satan, “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul conceives of the cross of Christ not only cancelling our sin debt but also disarming the demonic rulers and authorities by triumphing over them (Col. 2:14).

To highlight sin as a power over us is not to obviate our responsibility or guilt—far from it. It is to highlight the depth of God’s mercy in Christ, who understands that sin, though our own doing, is not something we can free ourselves from. He stoops all the way into our darkness, taking on the powers himself, in order to lift us up into the light and liberate us from sin’s bondage. One of the key terms for salvation in the Scriptures is, after all, redemption—a concept rooted in the Exodus, when God bought back his people from slavery.

We need to apply this truth both to ourselves and to others. We need to know that God has this kind of mercy and compassion for us in our struggles with sin. God is not a slave master, waiting for us to mess up so that he can bring down his hand of vengeance. He is a Father, recall, who has compassion on his children and knows our weakness. But we also need to be the conduits of this kind of mercy to others. Rather than seeing those who offend us or those in rebellion against God as our enemies, we become children of our heavenly Father when we too remember and when we too know that humans are dust. They are weak. They are oppressed. They are blinded by Satan. They are like sheep without a shepherd. May we become the kind of people who bear witness to this merciful Good Shepherd, not by being moral scolds, but by being willing to bear with people in their helplessness and to show them the path to true liberation.

Doctrinal Charity

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

A sermon of Matt Chandler’s has sparked a small fire in one corner of social media. In it, Chandler gives some examples of how the gift of prophecy might still operate today. Of course, his message assumes a continuationist position on gifts, a position that many American evangelicals view with suspicion. My concern in this post isn’t to argue for or against continuationism or Chandler’s application of it, but to address the negative reaction to it, a reaction that is, for me, emblematic of a larger problem within American evangelicalism – a lack of doctrinal charity toward those with whom we disagree.

In the last few days I’ve seen Chandler equated false teaching and false prophecy, and called a host of other unsavory things that I won’t repeat. Not to mention the potshots at his polity. The stated reason for these slanderous words is that Chandler is a continuationist and not a cessationist.

This kind of rhetoric reminds me of a few months ago when some Christians on social media essentially “farewelled” other Christians who voiced concerns about racial reconciliation in the Church. And that, in turn, reminds of the rhetoric used against Christians who feel that psychology and psychiatry can be used responsibly, even if subserviently, in Christian counseling as those who functionally deny the sufficiency of Scripture or who subvert biblical authority with secular authority. And all that reminds me of my Calvinist friends in seminary who were ready and willing to call Arminius a heretic, or my Arminian friends in seminary who were ready and willing to say that Calvin and the Calvinists believe in a different God because they affirm a particular view of election.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Christ. This is not in accordance with Paul’s description of love for one another in 1 Corinthians 13, whether in the verses quoted at the beginning or in v. 7 – “ Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Doctrinal clarity is important, but so are doctrinal charity and doctrinal humility. I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.

  1. We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
  2. We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
  3. We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
  4. We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
  5. Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.

Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hendrikus Berkhof on the Old Testament as a Source of Christian Theology

By recognizing this book as  a source of revelation, the Christian church professes its belief that God pursues a unique course through history, and that the appearance of Jesus Christ was not an isolated epiphany but a decisive phase on a way which had begun ages ago, a way which took the shape of an electing, guiding, judging, and saving concern with one special people” (p. 221)

Hendrikus Berkhof. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1979.

Qohelet’s Advice on How Not to Hate Your Work as an Old Testament Scholar

Eric Ortlund:

As a seminary professor with an incurably bookish bent, I personally find it deeply liberating to disconnect the value of my teaching and writing from visible results. It is a relief to me to admit that I cannot produce the results I want in my students; that is God’s work. With regard to publishing, it has been my observation that paradigms in OT studies last around 50 years; articles published in the 1960s and 1970s are already beginning to look like antiques. Soon my work will be an antique as well. If I set my hopes on making a visible impact on the state of professional biblical studies, I may very well become so frustrated that I start to hate the work. This is true even if I succeed, for (if I am honest) I will have to admit that my influence will fade quickly. Qohelet liberates me from that despair to enjoy each day of teaching, simply and as nothing else than a gift. And God’s word becomes rich and sharp in a way it never would if my only goal were to be an influential professional scholar.>

Ortlund, Eric. “Pastoral Pensees: Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes” Themelios 39.2