John Frame has spent over 40 years in ministry teaching in various seminaries. Having actually gotten the chance to read about his life and to meet with him in person, I can say he is the real deal when it comes to living what you teach.
The following comes from an interview titled “Reflections of a Lifetime Theologian” in Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame. Reflecting back on his career in teaching and his life of ministry, he offers off the cuff in an interview 30 nuggets of advice. You may disagree with some, but I think just from observing those around me, many of these need to be taken to heart, myself included.
I’ll start here with the first 10, and then give the rest in two more posts.
Here you go:
#1: Consider that you might not really be called to theological work. James 3:1 tells us that not many of us should become teachers and that teachers will be judged more strictly. To whom much (biblical knowledge) is given, of them shall much be required.
#2: Value your relationship with Christ, your family, and the church above your career ambitions. You will influence more people by your life than by your theology. And deficiencies in your life will negate the influence of your ideas, even if those ideas are true.
#3: Remember that the fundamental work of theology is to understand the Bible, God’s Word, and apply it to the needs of people. Everything else – historical and linguistic expertise, exegetical acuteness and subtlety, knowledge of contemporary culture, and philosophical sophistication – must be subordinated to that fundamental goal. If is it not, you may be acclaimed as a historian, linguist, philosopher, or critic of culture, but you will not be a theologian.
#4: In doing that work of theology, you have an obligation to make a case for what you advocate. That should be obvious, but most theologians today haven’t a clue as to how to do it. Theology is an argumentative discipline, and you need to know enough about logic and persuasion to construct arguments that are valid, sound, and persuasive. In theology, it’s not enough to display knowledge of history, culture, or some other knowledge. Nor is it enough to quote people you agree with and reprobate people you don’t agree with. You actually have to make a theological case for what you say.
#5: Learn to write and speak clearly and cogently. The best theologians are able to take profound ideas and present them in simply language. Don’t try to persuade people of your expertise by writing in opaque prose.
#6: Cultivate and intense devotional life and ignore people who criticize this as pietistic. Pray without ceasing. Read the Bible, not just as an academic text. Treasure opportunities to worship in chapel services and prayer meetings, as well as on Sunday. Give attention to your “spiritual formation,” however you understand that.
#7: A theologian is essentially a preacher, though he typically deals with more arcane subjects than preachers do. But be a good preacher. Find some way to make your theology speak to the hearts of people. Find a way to present your teaching so that people hear God’s voice in it.
#8: Be generous with your resources. Spend time talking to students, prospective students, and inquirers. Give away books and articles. Don’t be tightfisted when it comes to copyrighted materials; grant copy permission to anybody who asks for it. Ministry first, money second.
#9: In criticizing other theologians, traditions, or movements, follow biblical ethics. Don’t say somebody is a heretic unless you have a very good case. Don’t throw around terms like “another gospel.” (People who teach another gospel are under God’s curse.) Don’t destroy people’s reputations by misquoting them, quoting them out of context, or taking their words in the worst possible sense. Be gentle and gracious unless you have irrefutable reasons for being harsh.
#10: When there is a controversy, don’t get on one side right away. Do some analytical work first, on both positions. Consider these possibilities: (a) that the two parties may be looking at the same issue from different perspectives, so they don’t really contradict; (b) that both parties are overlooking something that could have brought them together; (c) that they are talking past one another because they use terms in different ways; (d) that there is a third alternative that is better than either of the opposing views and that might bring them together; (e) that their difference, though genuine, ought both to be tolerated in the church, like the differences between vegetarians and meat-eaters in Romans 14.