Archives For Christian Culture

Why I Went To Seminary

November 11, 2015 — 4 Comments

There should be a compelling reason anyone would opt to spend more money on a graduate education when in many cases a good undergraduate degree can get you started off in a promising career. This is especially true for someone like myself, who managed to graduate college with zero debt by never taking out a student loan. However, eight years later, I now find myself laden with size-able, but not outrageous student loans to pay off.

In addition to the financial concerns tied to a graduate education, there should be an even more compelling reason to pursue the particular degree I pursued. Unlike a typical Master of the Arts degree (around 45-60 credit hours), the Master of Theology is 120 hours plus an internship and a thesis. In other words, it was four more years of school at an even harder level than undergraduate studies.

So, why did I go to seminary?

The short answer is I went to seminary because I knew I needed to pursue a specific call to develop my mind theologically and use that to build up the church once I left. In a certain sense, I didn’t go to seminary to get a degree to get a job, but went because it was the next step in my development as a disciple of Christ. Similarly, as I’m thinking of pursuing a Ph.D in the coming years, I’m also not necessarily doing so in order to get a better job but because it is the next step in my fulfilling my calling to develop my mind theologically and serve the church better.

That’s the short answer. Now, for the longer reflections.

When deciding whether or not to go to seminary, it is important to think through whether you’re going for personal development or job credentials. I primarily went for the former, but wanted the latter in order to teach, but not necessarily be a pastor. I learned on the other side of seminary though that on the job experience tends to trump degrees in the current church market, especially if we’re talking Acts 29. Networking plays a bigger part than I anticipated, and if I had it to do over, I would have tried to work in a local church the entire time I was in seminary.

Qualifications can actually be a double-edged sword. A couple of years ago I was exploring job options outside of the classroom and interviewed at a few churches. In both cases, being seminary trained worked against me. In one case, the head pastor wasn’t seminary trained and didn’t feel like he could work with someone like me (as in, someone who he felt knew more and might be divisive with that knowledge). In the other, I had the experience working with youth, and could clearly teach the Bible to them, but wasn’t “goofy” enough to be a youth pastor and there was a sense in which I’d be over-qualified for working with teenagers.

I say all this to point out the counterintuitive nature of many churches today where being seminary trained can almost be a liability rather than an asset. I think some of this might be a pendulum swing in reaction to prioritizing hiring pastors who had seminary credentials, but not necessarily 1 Timothy 3 credentials in character. My impression within our neck of the woods in Acts 29 is that existential 1 Timothy 3 credentials are more important than having a degree from seminary. That may very well be true, but it would be better to prioritize both instead of privileging one over the other.

Having said all this, I think the best practice would be to go to seminary for reasons like I did (it’s the next step in your discipleship) but have a plan for vocational issues on the other side. Going to seminary might not terminate in getting a job at a church, but if you feel that God is calling you to develop yourself in that way, it’s the right choice to make. You are preparing yourself better for full-time ministry one way or the other. By that I mean, as a Christian, you’re called to full-time ministry in the sense that you’re always a disciple on mission. However, you may not be doing that full-time ministry as a job. Some people will participate in full-time ministry as a means of supporting their family. Some people will support their family by other means, and in the process, continue to be a disciple on mission in their workplace and beyond.  Seminary could prepare you well for either path, but it’s not as essential for those working outside the church or parachurch.

The trick then, is trying to figure out on the front end whether you’re ultimately pursuing vocational (paid) or non-vocational ministry. If it’s the latter, I would count the cost much more seriously. Or at the very least, it could be something you do by distance while continuing to work your full-time job. That brings us into a different question, “should I go to seminary?” which I’ll answer in the next post. I think I laid out well why I ended up going. And full disclosure, I don’t work at a church, and while I do teach, I didn’t need the Th.M to do so. It helps tremendously, but I would have been qualified to teach with just the bachelors degree that I have. There are some perks that come with being somewhat overprepared, but I’ll save that for a later post. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think through why you want to go to seminary, and see if it is more pragmatic (I need the degree to get the job I want) or existential (I need to do this because I want to grow theologically). They are both good reasons, but you should know which one is you as you count the cost.

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Since its inception, I’ve listened to Al Mohler’s daily news podcast The Briefing. Because of that, I felt like I heard much of the material before as I was reading his latest book We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, & the very meaning of right and wrong. Besides a long subtitle that pretty much tells you the focal points of the book, it is a well written defense of the classical Christian position on sex, marriage, and religious liberty in light of emerging trends in our culture. If you want to develop a basic understanding of what’s going on in various ethical revolutions in our culture, read this book. If you want to start developing a response, read it in tandem with Russell Moore’s Onward.

The opening chapter, like many opening chapters, is essentially an introduction that sets the stage for the narrative that follows. The narrative, in Mohler’s telling doesn’t start with same-sex marriage (chapter 2). Instead, he goes back to the roots of the homosexual movement (chapter 3). Then he brings us up into the present by way of the disintegration of traditional marriage values and understandings of sex (chapters 6 and 7) and the resulting transgender and same-sex marriage revolutions (chapters 4 and 5). Mohler takes a pit stop to discuss religious liberty (chapter 8) before pressing on to end with a chapter on how these revolutions challenge the church and a concluding chapter that answers 30 key questions related to the various topics.

Although I don’t often agree with Mohler’s take on everything, I have come to appreciate his voice in the midst of our shifting culture. Often, if I don’t particularly agree with Mohler on something, it has more to do with tone and his penchant for hyperbole. As one example, Mohler says:

Arguing that we should draw a clear distinction between who an individual wants to go to bed with and who an individual wants to go to bed as requires the dismantling of an entire thought structure and worldview (68-69).

While I can agree that this distinction is problematic given traditional understandings, I’m not sure it dismantles an entire worldview. At least if it does, it would need to be explained further than it is. This kind of overstatement, in my opinion, happens pretty regularly on The Briefing, and so in some sense, it is part of Mohler’s overall style of discourse. Since I’ve listened to him for so long (and met and talked with him at RTS not too long ago), I know that he is not speaking irrationally or like one of those talking head types trying to get attention. Instead, I think he is trying to wake up a culture of Christians who have fallen asleep at the wheel, and perhaps the hyperbole works rhetorically well to that end.

In one of the concluding chapters on how to respond, Mohler offers an apology that was both surprising and encouraging. In a larger section on how the church should respond to the sexual revolution, and within a smaller section on aberrant theology, he says,

We must also recognize that we have sinned against homosexuals by speaking carelessly about the true nature of their sin. I indict myself here. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, as a young theologian I was invited to speak at a conference of evangelical leaders and thinkers as the movement toward gay liberation was first taking organized shape. At that time, evangelicals were sure the element of choice was the central issue behind the sinfulness of homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle. Thus, we felt the moral and theological obligation to deny the notion of a homosexual “orientation” and to insist that homosexuality was, in every case, freely chosen without regard to any predisposition. For this, I must apologize to the homosexual community, including a host of Christians who have struggled to be biblically faithful even as they have struggled with same-sex orientation (140-141).

I was struck by Mohler’s willingness to admit he got something wrong. While you might not agree with where he is on an issue, that he would publish an apology like this implies that he is willing to reconsider his positions and is a careful thinker. And while I wouldn’t use this as hope that he’ll come around to agree with the progressives on any and everything, it does show a willingness to continual re-evaluate how he understands culture in light of Scripture. He models well how to be biblically faithful and culturally conversant.

Going off that, he offers some very sound insight in the closing answers to hard questions, and even admits not knowing for sure how to handle certain things (e.g. whether to counsel a fully transsexual person who becomes a Christian to undergo restorative sex reassignment surgery). But, he answers some pretty tough questions with candor and care and I think did a good job of picking questions we will all have to deal with in one way or another.

At the end of the day, I’d recommend picking up this book and digging in if you need a primer on what’s going in our sex-crazed culture. If you’ve listened to The Briefing as long as I have, you might not find much new material here, but it is nice to have it all in one place and in print. If you haven’t been keeping up with The Briefing, you probably ought to, and maybe this book is the place to start. The fact that it is getting positive coverage at The Atlantic shows that it is possible to be faithful to Scripture, yet nuanced in your approach to culture so that you can engage in further dialogue. I hope Mohler continues to be able to do so.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr., We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, & the very meaning of right and wrongNashville: Thomas Nelson, October 2015. 256 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy!

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Every now and then, my reading choices coincide on certain topics. Recently, thanks to three different publishers, I had review copies of books about pastors in the public square. The first was The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (thanks Zondervan!) 1 The authors makes the case that being a pastor is an intellectual calling that can alleviate the ecclesial anemia of the academy as well as the theological anemia of the church. In other words, the pastor theologian is able to bring local church concerns into the academic theological discussion while also boosting the theological literacy of the local church. As they say,

Our hope is that this book will serve as a clear call to an emerging generation of theologians to consider the pastorate as a viable vocational calling for serious theological leadership, by which we do not simply mean that pastors ought to take theology more seriously (as true as that may be). Rather, we mean that some pastors must take up the mantel of theologian by providing solid thought leadership to the church and its theologians, even as they tend the garden of their own congregations (15).

To help accomplish this, Hiestand and Wilson need to recover a holistic vision of the pastor as a theologian in his own right. After the introductory chapter, readers are taken on a historical survey showing that up until the mid 1700’s, most theologians were pastors in the local church. The following chapter takes the survey into the present, showing how the division between church and academy developed. The fourth and fifth chapters defend the idea of the academy being eccleisally anemic and the church being theological anemic. Then, the final two chapters offer a constructive proposal for pastors to be three different kinds of theologians: local, popular, or ecclesial.

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In very much related book, Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan write about The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (thanks Baker Academic!). 2 Unlike The Pastor Theologian, there is a clear division of labor with Vanhoozer authoring the introduction, chapters 3 and 4, and then offering 55 theses on pastors as public theologians. Strachan authored chapters 1 and 2, and then twelve pastor theologians (including Hiestand and Wilson) offer testimonies from everyday life in ministry supporting the vision that Vanhoozer and Strachan are articulating.

As far as the actual content goes, Strachan’s chapters offer first a biblical theology of the pastorate. Though not blatantly triperspectival, focusing on pastors as prophets, priests, and kings fits nicely into that framework. He then gives a brief history of the pastorate, somewhat overlapping with the first two chapters of The Pastor Theologian but not identical to them. I think because I had already read the other book, I didn’t find these chapters as helpful or insightful, although the first chapter does cover territory (biblical theology) that is not a focal point of The Pastor Theologian. In any case, I think the idea that a pastor should be prophet, priest, king and how that interfaces with being a theologian is something I already intuitively grasped.

Vanhoozer’s chapters focus on the purpose of being a pastor theologian and then what that actual practice looks like. I wouldn’t necessarily say these chapters overlap with Faith Speaking Understanding, but they do resonate in a similar key signature. At the very least, readers who have also read that book will find much of Vanhoozer says here to be a logical extension when applied to the pastorate. Also, since we are comparing, it extends the insights of Hiestand and Wilson’s work into a very practical direction (not that their work isn’t practical) and overlays signature Vanhoozerian harmonies to their tune. If you really to get more of a feel, take 10 minutes and watch these videos.

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A related book, both in terms of author and concept is Owen Strachan’s The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living With Faith in a Hostile World (thanks Thomas Nelson!). 3 It is one part biography and one part pathway of Christian cultural engagement. Since it has been written after Colson’s death, it offers a unique perspective on his later years that other works haven’t included. The thrust of Strachan’s brief biography is how we can learn from Colson’s approach to public square Christianity. In that sense, it fits nicely with the other books I’ve mentioned as far as helping pastors fulfill their calling as public intellectual.

Although Colson wasn’t a pastor, he took apologetics and theology very seriously. Strachan tells the narrative of his life and conversion well, taking didactic asides along the way. To me, those were the weaker spots of the book and ultimately why this might not be the best book to check out on the subject. In a short space, Strachan is trying to tell Colson’s story and use that as a means to articulate a way of approaching Christian cultural engagement. The asides explaining cultural engagement feel preachy and make the book seem like it should have just focused on developing those ideas and using Colson as an example here and there. But, because Strachan tells Colson’s story better than he explains cultural engagement, the book would have been better as just a biography. A better choice for cultural engagement (and an approach not necessarily at odds with Strachan) is Russell Moore’s Onward.

That criticism aside, reading The Colson Way in tandem with the other two books I’ve mentioned gave it some depth it might not have had on its own. At the very least, I was reading an example of a lay person being a public theologian with the idea of pastors being public theologians in the back of mind. It helped to prove that point that the other authors were making because if someone like Colson, with everything he juggled, was able to be a stable public theologian/intellectual, so can the average local church pastor. Colson never went to seminary and it is common today for many church planting pastors to not do that either. The vision that the other books recover more or less requires that kind of training, but Colson’s story shows that one can faithfully follow that calling without necessarily going to seminary, so long as one is committed to being a life-long learner.

At the end of the day, I think this is highly important topic and fully support the idea of pastors as public theologians. Being a pastor is an intellectual calling and knowing how to do that well in the public square and in the local church is a necessary knowledge to obtain. Hopefully seminaries will train pastors to fit this vision, but reading books like these will also go a long way. That latter point is supported well by Strachan’s book, which also helps to show that other leaders within the church can take on some of the roles that the solo lead pastor used to have and help build up the body together.

Notes:

  1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, June 2015. 192 pp. Paperback, $18.99. Visit the publisher’s page.
  2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, August 2015. 240 pp. Hardcover, $19.99. Visit the publisher’s page.
  3. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, July 2015. 240 pp. Hardcover, $22.99. Visit the publisher’s page.

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If you look closely at the background of the book cover, you can see all seven intellectual virtues. I’ve already talked about carefulness and intend to hit on all of them. After the last post, a friend corresponded with me offline about how it might not have been as clear as it could be. Specifically, I don’t think I laid out how to distinguish well between intellectual carefulness and intellectual honesty. Or, on the flipside, intellectual carelessness and intellectual dishonesty. Since I was strongly critiquing assumptions made on a lack of information, it could look as if I’m suggesting dishonesty on Carl Trueman’s part.

First, it might help to clarify what intellectual honesty looks like. Philip Dow makes an important distinction in the way intellectual honesty relates to the other virtues:

Unlike the other intellectual character traits, intellectual honesty is not primarily about the process of getting knowledge but rather about how we choose to use or present the knowledge we already have. In that sense, intellectual honesty is the link between the rest of our thinking and our actions (61).

He then describes the intellectually honest person this way:

[T]he aim of intellectually honest people is to communicate what they know with integrity. Because their main objective is to help others get at the truth, they are consistently careful not to use information taken out of context, to distort the truth by describing it with loaded language or to otherwise mislead through the manipulation of statistics or any other type of supporting evidence (61).

Dow adds an additional point about intellectually honest people citing their sources so as to not take credit for ideas not their own. From this, we could then say that intellectual dishonesty would come down to:

  • Intentionally taking information out of context in order to exaggerate or distort
  • Intentionally using information in a biased way
  • Intentionally taking credit for evidence or ideas not your own

The key word in the list is “intentionally.” In the Trueman situation, I’d have to know for sure that he knew all the relevant information related to the situation and then chose to only use the information that was helpful to the point he was trying to make. Suggesting he over-looked accessible information is pointing to a lack of carefulness. Suggesting he intentionally ignored information he already had would be pointing to a lack of honesty. While the latter is possible, I doubt that’s the case, and if it were, I don’t think I’d be able to know.

I realize looking at it now that my post could be read as suggesting that Trueman was being biased in the way he approached the situation. He does have a history of criticism when it comes to Tchividjian, so that is entirely possible. However, I specifically focused on his overlook of available evidence rather than misuse of the evidence he had. He made a judgment about the situation on an improper basis. One could still argue that it was unwise to hire Tchividjian, but not necessarily for the reasons Trueman cited. Rather than suggesting Trueman went about things in a biased manner and took things out of context, I just want to suggest he rushed to judgment and did a lot of assuming instead of researching. After the research, I imagine he’d come to similar conclusions, but at least they would be well grounded at that point.

In this light, to suggest that assuming a lack of carefulness when someone gets their facts wrong is giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is a way of practicing a charitable interpretation of their mistake. To directly suggest that they misused evidence is to charge them with dishonesty and in most cases goes beyond what you can know. In a culture that encourages a hermeneutics of suspicion it may be hard to go against the grain. I don’t always find it easy to do myself (see the comments on the last post). But learning to practice charity in interpreting other people’s mistakes is a discipline worth investing in.

As a recent example, I was listening to a sermon where the pastor made three pretty elementary mistakes in setting up the background of the passage he was going to preach. It would have been easy for me to mentally assume rather negative things and to discount or tune out the rest of the sermon. I fought against it and tried to just assume that in this instance, the pastor didn’t have enough time to study the passage well and so made some assumptions that were entirely reasonable, but factually inaccurate. He was either hasty or lazy, and I chose to assume the former since the latter is going beyond what I could actually know for sure. I assumed he overlooked the available correct information about the passage, or overlooked the correct information in his notes while he was speaking. Had he been more careful, he wouldn’t have made the mistake.

If I had assumed some level dishonesty on his part, it would have cast a long shadow over the rest of the sermon. It is particularly easy to think that if I can’t trust someone to get basic background details right, that I shouldn’t trust them with the rest of what they have to say. On the one hand, that can be reasonable. But on the other, it could be an assumption of dishonesty coming into play. At the very least, you may doubt that they are using the information reliably even they are not intentionally trying to deceive. Or, you could assume that in getting some background details wrong early in the sermon, that means more time was spent crafting and developing the latter part, which was the case in my recent experience. Those early background details could have gone unmentioned and it wouldn’t have affected the remainder of the sermon. In fact, for me, it would have strengthened it.

At the end of the day, there is much overlap in the virtues as well as the vices. It can seem that charging someone with intellectual hastiness may also suggest dishonesty, or even laziness. In some cases, they may coalesce. In the previous case I discussed, I think it just simply a matter of hastiness to pass judgment on the matter. That is someone a result of the age we live in and the culture the internet encourages. But, it is much better to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger as someone once said. And like all things, that is easier said than done.

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In terms of a theology of the Christian life, I’m not particularly a fan of Tullian Tchividjian. I don’t think he articulates well how grace and obedience relate under the new covenant and wouldn’t recommend his books as resources. I don’t think he’s a heretic, or that he teaches full blown antinomianism. I am however a fan of his preaching, and after he preached one weekend when we were at The Village, I completely understand why he has such a following.

I am going to assume you’re loosely familiar with the ways he has made the news in the last few months. He resigned from Coral Ridge because of adultery, both on his and his wife’s part, the sequence of events not being relevant (for what I’m writing about). Then you probably saw a few weeks back that he is getting divorced. There is much more to the whole story, especially when you throw Paul Tripp’s involvement into the mix. But again, details are not relevant for the point I’d like to make.

I’m more interested in the response to Tchividjian being hired by Willow Creek PCA. This happens to be a local church for us (in good old Winter Springs), and we have friends that go there. I know the associate pastor (via Starbucks) and even applied for a youth pastor position there a while back. It’s a decent sized church. Not a mega church by American standards, but not necessarily a small church either.

Somewhat predictably, within the Reformed evangelical neck of the woods there was not a positive response to Tchividjian’s hiring. As a representative sample, consider the posts at Mortification of Spin by Todd Pruitt and my favorite, by Carl Trueman. Tullian has been a favorite whipping boy of Carl’s for a while, so like I said, I could almost guess the response before reading it.

While there is wisdom in warning against restoring a pastor to ministry too soon, there are also a clear lack of intellectual carefulness in assessing the situation and then passing judgment. I think I noticed this because of teaching a new class I’m teaching at school called Creative Problem Solving. Really, it’s a class on critical thinking and as part of our foundational section, we’ve been covering the intellectual virtues. I’ve found Philip Dow’s book Virtuous Minds to be particularly helpful. There, he defines intellectual carefulness as follows:

Those who are intellectually careful earnestly want to know the truth and so consistently make sure not to rush to hasty conclusions based on limited evidence. They are patient and diligent in their thinking, careful that they do not overlook important details (34).

Given this definition, the opposing vice would be intellectual hastiness. Returning back to Trueman, here is the first part of his final paragraph:

No one begrudges a man the chance to earn a living.  Further, I doubt that WillowCreek PCA has done anything wrong at a technical level with regard to the PCA’s Book of Church Order.  Tchividjian has been defrocked and has not been restored to ordained office.  Morally, however, the situation is this: a man deemed unfit to hold teaching office just three weeks ago is now occupying a position of teaching influence in the same denomination.  Maybe not illegal, but certainly irresponsible towards both him and those he will influence.  At the very minimum it is also most discourteous towards the Presbytery which acted to remove him and whose informed judgment in the matter has been for all practical purposes rejected.

His points here would be valid, if his underlying information were accurate. However, it’s not.

For one, he does not now hold a position of teaching influence within the PCA. One might guess that’s what his job entails simply from the title on the church’s website, but then again, that’s just guessing. The title “Director of Ministry Development” is ambiguous for sure, but an intellectual careful response wouldn’t assume what the job description is in absence of more details. If you were curious what exactly this job title entailed, you might do well to ask the pastor of the church.

In addition, Trueman presumes to know that this hiring was either circumventing the South Florida Presbytery’s censure, or directly flaunting it. Rather, it seems that there was a clear transfer of Tchividjian’s care at work (see previous link). Trueman might be assuming, based on his previous erroneous assumption of the nature of the job, that a church couldn’t possibly hire Tchividjian without rejecting the South Florida Prebytery’s decision. But then again, that is the lack of carefulness compounding itself.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen people have either directly lament Tchividjian being restored to ministry too soon, or indirectly pointing out how unwise such a thing would be. However, this rests on the wrong assumption that this constitutes restoration to ministry. Likewise, it may be assuming that this hiring is celebrity driven. It overlooks the fact that this was Tchividjian’s old church home during his time at RTS Orlando and that he has had an on-going relationship with members there during his pastorate at Coral Ridge. It also confuses a church staff position with being a minister, and again, assumes too much about what the job entails (again, see previous link).

Speaking too soon and too authoritatively without enough information also fails to display intellectual humility. Many people don’t really need to comment on this situation one way or the other. Many people also aren’t making much of an effort to understand all the information. Many people do not have intellectual virtues when it comes to how they analyze a situation like this, and so once again, we have a lot of sound and noise on Twitter, but most of it signifying nothing.

In the past, I’ve certainly been guilty of contributing to the noise. But, as I’m studying the intellectual virtues more, I’m finding myself drawn to recommitting myself to not only thinking critically, but thinking carefully. It’s easy to rush to judgment. It’s much harder to hold a tentative opinion until you’ve gather the necessary facts to draw sound conclusions. I’d like to pursue more growth in this area myself and I hope you’re interested in doing the same.

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I have a fairly long interest in apologetics. I’m not actually sure when it started, but the skeleton was taking shape by the time I left Bible school and was put to the test while I worked at Starbucks. The bones got meat put on them while I was in seminary, and I would eventually win the apologetics award for my Th.M thesis. All during this time I was reading books on the subject, either content or method. But, in all that reading I never really came across a book quite like this one.

I’ve read a few Os Guinness books in the past, one at the direct recommendation of Chuck Swindoll when I talked to him after chapel (he enthusiastically told me to read The Call). Neither was directly about apologetics though. This book, is not directly about it either, at least in the sense that most people would think of a book being about apologetics. There is a chapter explain why we shouldn’t be after the latest and greatest techniques (chapter 2), but that’s often a feature of works on apologetics. There is no extended presentation of the viable evidence for Christianity, yet that doesn’t mean arguments aren’t made for its validity. And while technique is eschewed, there are two chapters on general approaches to persuasively interacting with nonbelievers (chapters 6 and 7).

In a word, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion re-frames the motive and aims of the apologist slash evangelist. In an age where most everyone says “I post, therefore I am” (15) Guinness seeks to remedy “a central and serious shortcoming in Christian communication today” (16). Specifically, “we have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it” (17). “Persuasion” in this sense being “the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say” (18).

This leads to the heart of the problem, which Guinness explains as a problem of the heart (18): “The fact is that much contemporary advocacy ignores the deeper understandings of the spiritual and philosophical ways in which people think through their faiths, change their faiths, and the impact of their cultures and their ways of life on their thinking and beliefs” (18). We won’t understand unbelief and so have difficulty persuasively explaining our beliefs. We also mistakenly assume people are open to what we have to say when increasingly that is not the case.

In the first two chapters, Guinness makes a case for creativity in our persuasion while also avoiding a reliance on techniques. In regards to the former, Guinness argues that our discourse must be cross-centered and cross-shaped. For the latter, Guinness suggests that “Technique is the devil’s bait for the Christian persuader today” (30). Because there is no such thing as “McApologetics” (32) we mustn’t offer a one-size fits all approach to our persuasion. Ultimately, persuasion is an art, not a science and in its creative form “is the art of truth, the art that truth inspires” (34). We need more cross talk than clever talk (39). Because creative presentation is spiritual and moral, in addition to being intellectual (43), we must avoid simple reliance on technique which is never neutral and “essentially soulless” (44).

Chapters 3 and 4 make a case for defending our faith and being willing to be seen as foolish in doing so. In this regard, Guinness states,

Apologetics (from apologia in Greek) is a “word back,” a reasoned defense mounted on behalf of the one we love who is innocent but has been falsely and unfairly accused. Faith desires to let God be God. Sin has framed God, whether by the ultimate insults that he, the creator of all things, does not exist, or that he, the white-hot holy One, is responsible for the evil and suffering that humans have introduced into his good creation. So God’s name must be cleared and his existence and character brought to the fore beyond question (54-55, emphasis original).

Because of this, “so long as sin frames God, those who love God have a job to do in the world” (55). In the course of making our defense, we may appear foolish, but this is the way of the “third fool.” There are fools proper (see Proverbs) and fools for Christ (see 1 Corinthians). Then there are fool-makers, those willing to be seen as foolish in order to “bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor that he has no clothes” (72).

Chapter 5 presents an erudite explanation of unbelief. In biblical perspective, “the central core of the anatomy of unbelief stems from its willful abuse of truth” (85). It does this through suppression, exploitation, inversion, and ultimately self-deception (86-89). This all leads to a tension that will not quite go away. Because the truth is, well, the truth, a worldview that reacts the way unbelief does will always sit uneasily in a person’s conscience. Guinness explains this the “dilemma pole” and the “diversion pole”:

The dilemma pole expresses the logic of the fact that the more consistent people are to their own view of reality, the less close they are to God’s reality and the more likely they are to feel their dilemma. The diversion pole expresses the fact that the less consistent people are to their own view of reality, the closer they are to God’s reality so the more they must find a diversion. Neither pole is necessarily closer to God, because unbelief as unbelief will not bow to God either way, but the people at either pole are relating to God and to their own claims to truth in entirely different ways (96, emphasis original).

In our culture, people more often gravitate toward the diversion pole as a our technological society proliferates. However, the dilemma pole is more consistent and leads to biblical themes like becoming like what your worship and reaping what you sow (98).

Given this understanding of unbelief, Guinness offers two strategies for persuasion in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. The former discusses “turning the tables,” which is more suited to those near the dilemma pole while the latter discusses “triggering the signals,” which is more suited to the diversion pole. For those more consistent in rejecting God (dilemma), the tables being turned pushes their own argument back against them in a variety of ways. For those less consistent, but just as disinterested (diversion), the signals triggered point to something beyond their current belief system that can only make sense in God’s reality. It is a way of sometimes waking our conservation partner from their agnostic slumbers.

In the final chapters, touches on using questions well in conversation and other ways to spring load our persuasion (chapter 8). He also discusses how to not shy away but embrace the accusation of hypocrisy (chapter 10), while not claiming to always be right (chapter 9). He closes chapter about those in the church who have left and how they become formidable challengers to the Christian faith because of their inside perspective (chapter 11), and a general overview of the apologist’s journey (chapter 12).

While I could probably continue on for another 500-1000 words about how excellent this book is, I think you get the idea. Guinness helps readers go a long way toward recovering the art of persuasion which often fails to be on many would be apologist’s radar. He takes elements from many schools of thought and threads them together in a way that will help readers integrate the best insights those schools have to offer. What might have been helpful is to chart some of this more clearly in the endnotes (which are unfortunately not footnotes). Having read widely in apologetics, I’m aware when he is being presuppositional, but that’s not always clear. The target audience might be why this kind of conceptual architecture wasn’t laid bare. It seems geared toward a general audience (this isn’t IVP Academic), but it is a very sophisticated read, and so may shoot over many lay reader’s heads. Needless to say, this all points to the challenge involved in writing this sort of book. At the end of the day, I think Guinness did a fine job and you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of this book.


Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian PersuasionDowners Grove, IL: IVP Books, July 2015. 270 pp. Hardcover, $22.00.

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Thanks to IVP Books for the review copy!

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about how Carl Trueman changed my mind about Martin Luther. It is only fitting since he was partially responsible for my original disinterest in Luther. Although I might have been aware before I read Histories and Fallacies, that was the first extended discussion I came across related to Luther’s anti-Semitism.

For those that aren’t aware, the key writing is Luther’s 1543 treatise, On The Jews and Their Lies. There, he says things like this:

God has struck [the Jews] with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming…. (in Luther’s Works, vol. 47, ed. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 267).

When he mentions “the blood of the children they have shed,” he is referencing the so called “blood libel.” Trueman explains, that, “This was the claim that Jews kidnapped Christian children and offered them in ritual sacrifice, and it is clearly part of a culture that treated Jews with deep suspicion and fear” (Histories and Fallacies, 133). As Trueman goes on to explain Luther’s anti-Semitism, it clearly emerges that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that Luther hated the Jews. That was fairly common in medieval Europe.

What is more interesting is the reason why the Jews were so hated. We tend to infer, based in large part on the Holocaust, that the motivations were primarily racial. Trueman says not so fast, and explains that our categories of race applied to the medieval context are anachronistic. If we remember that this was the height of Christendom, you can see how the Jews would be ostracized for primarily religious reasons rather than racial ones. So long as the Jews remained outside the church, they would arouse suspicion and fear. 1

While this was the case for most people, it was surprisingly not Luther’s original position. The historically remarkable thing is not that Luther hated the Jews. Rather, it’s that in 1523 he would write a book called Jesus Was Born A Jew and say things like this:

If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either (from vol. 45 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962, 229).

Go back and read the first quote again. Granted, these quotes are 20 years apart, but one could hardly imagine a more complete 180. As Trueman explains in Histories and Fallacies, and I think reinforces indirectly in Luther on The Christian Life, the reason Luther changed his mind about the Jews is because they didn’t convert like he expected them to. As he points out,

Luther thinks that the Reformation will carry all before it; and, like many Christian before and since, he thinks he is living at the end of time where the return of Christ will be heralded by a mass conversion of the Jews. Indeed, there can be no doubt that Luther desired to see the Jews converted to Christianity because he was convinced that he was living at the end of time when the eschatological conversion was imminent” (Histories and Fallacies, 136).

In a similar way, Luther would eventually realize that you couldn’t just preach the gospel and call it a day. When there wasn’t a mass influx of Jews in the wake of the Reformation, Luther not only resorted to traditional anti-Semitic writing, he kicked it up a notch. The reception and use of his writings by later Germans would prove disastrous to say the least. This is the Luther that no one wants to be. We might want to emulate his commitment to the gospel in the face of rivals, but wouldn’t admire his condemnation of the Jews when they didn’t come to Christ.

Though not exact, I see a parallel with those today who are ministering in, with, and to the gay community. It is perhaps tempting to think that all one needs to do is preach the gospel and the converts will come. Or, to think that once converted, one can simply “pray the gay away.” In reality, neither of these things are guaranteed. This is not to say neither happens, but unrealized expectation can lead one to re-think the viability of the power of God to change lives. Or, cause one to categorize a group of people as hostile to the gospel in a way that forecloses future ministry. I would imagine that some of the animosity from Christians toward the gay community could be traced to attempts at ministry that didn’t go so well. That’s not true in each and every case, but it is easy to write off and stereotype a group of people when representatives of that group aren’t responsive.

When our involvement in Christian ministry doesn’t lead to the results we were expecting, it is certainly frustrating. But, that frustration can quickly turn dangerous and in Luther’s case proved deadly. What we say and do in the wake of our frustrations can have a lasting impact. And while we want to have a lasting impact if we’re involved in ministry in the first place, this isn’t the kind we’d want to be remembered for. Luther helps serve as a reminder to be faithful to our calling over the long haul even if doesn’t prove to be as fruitful as we might have liked.

Notes:

  1. Here’s the quote from Trueman: “For Luther, the problem with Jews is a fundamentally religious one, as it was for all western European societies during the late Middle Ages. Luther had no real concept of race in the way that we do today. His world was one of religious categories, not biological or pseudo-biological ones. For him the problem was thus one of ideological commitment, connected to the issue of social assimilation. To put it bluntly: how does a society where the state and the church are essentially two sides of the same coin assimilate those who, by their very definition, are not members of the latter? The answer is simple: either it does not assimilate them and instead persecutes them, or it tries to convert them (either by persuasion or by force) and thus make them part of the church. Once converted, the problem ceases because it is an issue of religious conviction, not one of race. A Jew who becomes a Christian is easy to fit into a society, all good members of which are baptized and respect the church” (Histories and Fallacies, 136).

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On the surface, this might seem like a post about Tullian Tchividjian’s recent resignation from his pastorate at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. In reality, it was motivated by a pastor in our network of churches (CrossPointe) that was disqualified from ministry a couple of months ago. He had been the pastoral apprentice at our congregation the second year we were there before planting his own church in another part of the city. I am tempted to say I knew him well, but we basically talked here and there on Sundays and had coffee once or twice. My brother in law knew him better since he was part of the core group that planted the other congregation. Although he was no longer at that congregation, it still hit very close to home.

It also seems to be a trend here in Florida. Though the pastor closest to us didn’t make the news, another pastor from last year, who subsequently committed suicide, did. In that case, I didn’t know him, but my wife did since she grew up in his dad’s church and he was a big reason she started taking her faith seriously and wanted to go into ministry. There was another high profile case as well at a mega church in south Florida. And now Tullian.

I realize in some sense that each case is unique. I also realize that the first impulse shouldn’t be analysis, which is why I felt like I should preface this as analysis unrelated to Tchividjian. My initial response when I heard about the pastor at our sister church was to examine my own heart. The areas in which he was disqualified were the same areas you would guess if I told you to think stereotypically. I know things like that don’t happen overnight, so I wanted to know what led him to where he ended up and see if any of those trajectories are present in my own life.

Very similar to suicide, you always feel like you should have known a moral failing was imminent after it happens. In the case of a pastor’s moral failing, this is even more acute because they are still around to help you see what you were missing. Predicatably, there is usually a lack of accountability. But saying that a pastor’s fall could have been prevented by more accountability isn’t necessarily true. Any guy who has been in an accountability group because of porn consumption knows this is true. Accountability doesn’t solve problems in and of itself. If that were the case, I’m in pretty good shape since I meet with a couple of older men regularly who will ask me difficult questions.

As I was wrestling through how to process this pastor’s fall, my hunch was that there seeds of his destruction in his everyday rhythms and habits and accountability may or may not have uncovered them. It seemed likely that these seeds could easily be there without setting off any accountability checkpoints. I hadn’t really come to a complete explanation other than to note that I was not immune to a similar fate.

Then last week, I started reading Tim Keller’s latest book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. While it might seem unrelated to the topic at hand, that’s the beauty of Keller’s books. In the final chapter, which I read first, Keller discusses “Preaching and The Spirit.” Early on, he makes a distinction between gifts and graces:

Gifts are things we do, but spiritual fruit or graces are things we are.

Gifts and talents can operate when the speaker is spiritually immature or even when the preacher’s heart is far from God. If you have a gift of teaching, for example, the classroom situation draws out your gift, and you may be very effective. But that can happen in the absence of a strong walk with God. (194)

Having experienced this first hand a couple of years ago, I can confirm this is dead-on. From here, Keller, drawing on Edwards, expounds the difference between gift operation and grace operations:

Gifts will usually be mistaken for spiritual maturity, not just by the audience but even by the speaker. If you find people attending eagerly to your address, you will take this as evidence that God is pleased with your heart and your level of intimacy with him – when he may not be at all. If anything, we Christians living today are in greater danger of this misperception than at any other time in history, for our era has been called the “age of technique.” No civilized society has put more emphasis on results, skills, and charisma – or less emphasis on character, reflection, and depth. This is a major reason why so many of the most successful ministers have a moral failure or lapse. Their prodigious gifts have masked the lack of grace operations at work in their lives (195-196).

This is both humbling and helpful. Humbling in that it means the only difference between a faithful and failed pastor is grace. That means when I see any pastor with a moral failure, my first response should be, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” On the other hand, it is helpful because it actually explains what I can and can’t do in order to avoid a similar tragedy in my own life. These “grace operations” can come through a variety of means, but chiefly it means having a vital devotional life that is centered on the Word and dependent on God in prayer. Coupling this with accountability and you’re in good hands. Remove both, and you have the pattern for disaster.

To be clear, I can’t just approach either as something to check off a list, but I need to check the status of my heart in the process. It means that I also need to be attentive to pursuing holiness and godliness and close enough with other people that they can attest to fruit in my life that isn’t the result of giftings. That is certainly much harder to do, but to stay faithful for the long haul requires it.

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Earlier this year, The Gospel Coalition ran a series with “Advice to Young Pastors.” The answers given by these pastors and leaders is in response to this question:

In addition to knowing Scripture and sound doctrine, what should young pastors today be studying? Is your answer any different from what you would’ve recommended 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago?

I found the answers illuminating and also noticed a pattern emerge. Keep in mind that these answers are offered with the assumption that pastors know the Scriptures and sound doctrine well. Without realizing that, you might come to the assumption study Scripture isn’t all that important since none of these guys seem to think so. If that’s not where you’re at, you should start there. But if you’re growing in that and are pursuing or already in pastoral ministry, this is some good advice. See if you spot the two things that come up the most frequently:

Conrad Mbewe

  • Study church history (particularly through biographies)

Ligon Duncan

  • Study church history
  • Read up on Islam
  • Read cultural analysis

Ken Jones

  • Learn how to do Christ-centered preaching well
  • Learn different models of Christian cultural engagement

R. C. Sproul

  • Study prayer.
  • Study the lives of great preachers and Christian leaders.
  • Study the Old Testament law and its relevance to New Testament saints.
  • Study the history of sacred music and its effect on the church.
  • Study especially the doctrines of Christology and justification.

Tom Schreiner

  • Read Christian classics

Carlos Contreras

  • Read objective theological truth that helps your devotion to God
  • Read in areas of current social/political concern
  • Read literary classics

Bryan Chapell

  • Understand the thought processes of a generation whose worldview is primarily informed by media impressions
  • Understand the differences in the ways North Americans over 50 and those under 40 understand the obligations of Christians in society
  • Prepare to be a multi-ethnic church
  • Help church members perceive themselves a vital members of a global Christian community that is interdependent for its mission and moral status
  • Help each member understand the gospel’s application to everyday decisions, occupations, and ethics
  • Help a younger generation of preachers address each of the previously mentioned concerns from a compulsion of grace, rather than a theology of doing better than other generations, traditions, or churches.

Miguel Núñez

  • Read, study, and meditate on topics related to morality, ethical and bioethical dilemmas, the nature of truth, worldviews, and biblical wisdom and discernment.

Darrell Bock

  • Study what drives culture
  • Exegete the culture

Sam Storms

  • Make every effort to read every book that will deepen your delight in the Lord

Wayne Grudem

  • Learn how to teach biblical ethics well

David Wells

  • Learn to walk with God through life
  • Study the Word more deeply and reflect on the world more seriously

Don Carson

  • Know more of God
  • Do broad reading (church history, missions, evangelism, Bible studies)
  • Read up in area of particular problem in your ministry context

Danny Akin

  • Read the great hymns of the faith.
  • Read missionary biographies.
  • Read books on marriage and family
  • Read books on preaching and hone your skills.
  • Read books on evangelism.

Scotty Smith

  • Get equipped in conflict management (conflict is inevitable, but healthy conflict is all too rare)
  • Understand family systems theory
  • Understand emotional intelligence
  • Develop servant leadership
  • Understand transition theory and planning
  • Grapple with suffering, depression, and loss
  • Learn fly-fishing, photography, hang-gliding, rock guitar playing . . . whatever will put a huge smile on your face and joy in your heart

David Powlison

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Talk with people—“the human documents”—so that you are studying primary sources. Listen, notice, ask questions, ponder, interact, remember.
  • Read histories and biographies. People are so different from each other, yet so alike. You need to learn how these realities intertwine.
  • Listen to the music and watch the films that capture hearts and minds.
  • Read good novels and poetry.
  • Read the daily newspaper and some thoughtful commentary—The Economist or The Atlantic, perhaps.
  • And, of course, read your Bible. Let your eye for what people are like and for what people experience be just as keen as your eye for what God is like.

David Dockery

  • Seek to be as technologically savvy as possible in order to communicate well and effectively in this brave new world
  • Recognize that the needs of people are not dissimilar from previous generations
  • Reading well-written biographies of influential Christian leaders can also be inspirational, informative, and genuinely helpful
  • Learn to take truths that have been taught or the ministry models that have been practiced and then adapt them with insight and great sensitivity in light of the shifting cultural dynamics and demographics

Tim Keller

  • Study up on cultural analysis
  • Study up on leadership

Paul Tripp

  • Commit yourself to be a student and accurate exegete of Scripture
  • Commit yourself to be a constant student of and accurate exegete of people

John Frame

  • Learn how to show godly love to people—in evangelism, counseling, church administration
  • Study logic

John Yates

  • Read commentaries
  • Read church history (both biographies and sociological accounts)
  • Read leadership books
  • Read Christian fiction
  • Read news sources
  • Read Tim Keller
  • Read other biographies
  • Read the Bible thoughtfully, carefully, and prayerfully every day

In triperspectival terms, there is a big emphasis on the situational aspect. I think we could sum it up as cultural engagement with three emphases: (1) the past culture of church history, (2) the present culture of our world, (3) the interior culture of our hearts and those we minister to. This goes back to my review from yesterday emphasizing the importance of context. In this case though, it is a wide variety of contexts and the careful pastor will endeavor to understand each of them with more diligence. For the first context, there are numerous resources on church history and great biographies you could pick up. For the second, I’d recommend thoughtful sociological writing, but also thoughtful writing on pop culture like we do at Christ and Pop Culture. For the last, I would try to read more wise pastoral counselors, some of whom show up in the above list.

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Once upon a time, I started reviewing books on this blog. After doing several reviews, I stumbled upon the ability to receive free books in exchange for my thoughts and pursued transactions of this type in earnest. As reviews began piling up, e-mails soon followed containing requests to review books. More often than not, these were less than enticing, so I eventually created the one-chapter challenge as used to be outlined on my contact page:

If, for some reason, you think the book that you are promoting is so amazing that it will dissuade me from sticking to my current policy, you are free to send it to me at my school address (4800 Howell Branch Rd, Winter Park, FL, 32792). In the event that I receive and unsolicited book in this way, I will give it a one chapter challenge. That is, if I’m not convinced within the first chapter (and my initial perusal of the book) to keep reading, then your book will not get any review considerations. If I do read the entire book, I will comment on it on the blog. I may not necessarily give it a full review, but I will at least devote a post to it. If I don’t read past the first chapter, then nothing will come of you sending the book my way.

A while back, I received an e-mail that itself was the best review inquiry I ever received. The opening line was “MY EBOOK WILL DESTROY YOUR ONE CHAPTER CHALLENGE LIKE IT IS A DEMON IN A CARMAN MUSIC VIDEO.” I knew I had a winner.

The book pitched, Homeschool Sex Machine is by Matthew Pierce. The title may seem a little risque, but if you were as homeschooled as I was, you’d know what it really entails. Pierce was equally homeschooled, a little earlier in the 90’s than me, but with a fairly similar experience. His commentary on that subculture is hilarious. I would expect you’ll find it equally as funny if you a) were homeschool in the South, or b) were part of a conservative Baptist youth group in the mid to late 90’s. There are other options, but those were both of my experiences so it was like reading someone else make jokes about my own memories.

His follow up, JV Superstar continues this witty social commentary, but on his experience at Bryan College. My only regret is that there were no stories about trips to Knoxville, but Chattanooga makes due. From the sound of it, I had again, a pretty similar experience, only 600 miles south at Word of Life for two years. If you went to a conservative Christian college in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, you’ll probably appreciate the humor that Pierce brings to the table in reflecting on his odyssey.

I suppose I could write a more thorough review, but you should just go get both of Pierce’s books and read them instead of my commentary on them. I would say I’ll give you $5 if you don’t like them, but that’s socially irresponsible of me. I feel confident to promise that, but just don’t feel like risking it (or getting scammed). So what I’m saying is, it’s summer, you’ve got time on your hands and you could probably use a good laugh. I know I could.