My Master’s Degree: An Invitation to Rebel

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Two of my favorite professors – Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett

“As a faithful child of the Enlightenment, I must admit that just the thought of adopting a theological hermeneutic makes me nervous. However, perhaps it is time for me (and ultimately us – the Church) to embrace our rightful identities as children of promise. Children who once again let the word be near us, in our mouths, and in our hearts.”

I wrote these sentences as the conclusion to one of my first graduate school papers – a review of Richard Hays’ The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Little did I know that these words would be a strangely prophetic description of the theological formation that I would receive during my graduate education. I walked with a M.A. in Theological Studies from Houston Baptist University on May 19, 2014 and I could not be more thankful for my time there. I was blessed financially with various grants and with the Sharon E. Saunders Endowed Graduate Scholarship, I was fortunate to study under an amazing group of professors (such as Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett, picture above) that stretched, loved, challenged, and encouraged me, and I now recognize that I am a more faithful Christian thinker because of my studies.

As I reflect on the many ways in which my thinking has been transformed over the past few years, I continually return to the image of “rebellion.” That is to say, my graduate studies taught me to rebel against the Enlightenment and its strangle-hold over much of Christian thinking. The Enlightenment taught me to read Scripture scientifically, skeptically, surgically, and objectively. It also groomed me to reject tradition, look arrogantly at the past, and stand alone as an individual. Now, however, I find myself leaving my graduate studies as a “child of promise” – committed to reading theologically, embracing & exploring the heritage of the church, and living and learning as a distinctively Christian person.

A few of the lessons I learned:

[1] The Importance of the Church: The House that God Built

I once accepted the Enlightenment’s assumption that exegesis and theology could be (and sometimes were best) done outside of the church. I now accept the limitations of the pursuit of pure objectivity and even believe, like the Fathers, that only as a Spirit-filled Christian can I do proper and faithful exegetical and theological work. Before my graduate studies, I hoped to work in the academic world far away from the messiness of the church. Now, I’m enslaved to the conviction that Christian academics must be immersed in and useful to the local church. I entered my graduate studies knowing little about church history and caring even less. Who cared about how Origen translated a certain passage when I’ve got the best Hebrew & Greek tools in history available to me and am free of his cultural limitations? However, I now know how important church history is and indeed have found myself with a deep love for the study of patristics. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 and his use of the Adam-Christ Typology. If you told me that would be my topic as an exegetically-focused undergrad, I would have called you crazy. Now, I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than studying all the depths, contours, and messiness of the Church Fathers’ lives and works.

[2] The Beautiful Necessity of Theology: Working with Spirit-Filled Words

My undergrad major was in Biblical Languages – Hebrew and Greek. This meant that I largely focused on and valued biblical studies. Actually, I often thought theological studies were pointless – why make these big conclusions when there are so many debatable issues surrounding the exegetical decisions on which they rest? I thought that systematic theologies were good for nothing except misinterpreting biblical passages. I was focused on the trees (exegesis), finding so much ambiguity/excitement there that I couldn’t understand the need or ability to debate or expound upon theological ideas (the forest) which were often foreign to the biblical text. Now, I am immersed in theology. I think theologically, I pray theologically, and I even read the Bible theologically. (Go figure!) I think terms like “the hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” are hugely important to grasping the depth of the beauty of God and his work in Christ. Once again, the Spirit-given words of the Church have opened my eyes up to a bigger and better faith, as well as a better means of reading the Scripture.

[3] An Invitation to the Vocation of Scholarship: The Mind As A Means To Worship

My graduate studies continued to instill in me a lesson which began during my undergraduate work: the truth that loving God with all of your mind is an extremely important call to an incredibly difficult task. Too many in the Evangelical church (and even in seminaries) treat the pursuit of academic excellence with shallowness and immaturity. HBU does a fine job of exemplifying a commitment to Christian excellenc (see their 10 Pillars Vision). Not only was I deeply challenged to engage with the best thinkers of history and of our day, I was also encouraged to put my voice alongside them. Thus, through the help of professor Ben Blackwell, I submitted and presented my first paper at an SBL/AAR conference. This, and other opportunities like it, were only possible because of the standard of excellence required and the personal mentorship provided to ensure that I could meet it.

I’ll end this post by saying thanks and offering some encouragement.
First: Thank you, Houston Baptist University. Thank you, as well, Dr. Ben Blackwell, Dr. Randy Hatchett, Dr. David Capes, Dr. Peter Davids, Dr. Joseph Blair, Dr. Felisi Sorgwe, Dr. Jamie Johns, and all of the many others who shared their passion and knowledge of the Scriptures and theology.
Second: No matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much time you have, & no matter how “smart” you think you are – avail yourself of the many resources all around you so that you might further learn how to think and live faithfully. Who knows, we might run into each other one day on the other side of the Enlightenment. :)

Receiving my diploma from HBU's Dr. Robert Sloan

Receiving my diploma from HBU’s Dr. Robert Sloan

Book Review: Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea

Robert F. Rea’s new work, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past, is a well-needed clarion call to all Christian traditions that have largely ignored the history of their faith. I have considered church history a vital part of Christian discipleship for many years and in this book Rea clearly spells out many reasons why this is so. In fact, I believe that both Christian churches and Christian schools should be careful to form their children in Church history as much as (if not more) than national history. Thus, I enjoyed Rea’s book and firmly believe that his message is an extremely important one for the Protestant church to hear.

The book is divided into three parts: 1 – How We Understand Tradition, 2 – Expanding Circles of Inquiry, and 3 – Tradition Serving the Church. Part one of Fea’s work explores the meaning of history and tradition and takes a special look at how various groups have understood and related to Christian tradition throughout Christian history. This serves as a helpful background to his discussion on how various Christians understand tradition today. Part two of the book serves to explore the many ways that our Christian identity is necessarily connected to the brothers and sisters who have come before us. He discusses how Christian tradition is actually a vibrant part of the Christian community, how historical Christians can serve as accountability partners, and how they can helpfully broaden our views and correct misunderstandings in our faith. Part three of Rea’s work explores how a proper understanding of Christian history helps the church both understand Scripture and minister more faithfully. Rea helpfully walks through the various strategies of exegesis that have been characteristic of different time periods in church history and gives practical examples of how these historical truths might inform responsible exegesis today.

For the most part, Rea’s book is plenty accessible to students and lay readers. There are times where he condenses a lot of information/names/theories in a few pages (such as when surveying the history of “tradition” from the early Church to the modern period or when detailing the history of exegesis from the early church to the modern period). This may seem overwhelming to novices or, alternatively, over-simplified to those with further education. Rea’s book reads as an apologetic for Christians to know their history and integrate it into their lives, faiths, and ministries appropriately. With this goal in mind, I found Part Two of his work to be the most engaging and practical portion of his book. Ultimately, I believe that an actual primary study of church history is the best way to open one’s eyes up to its incredible importance for today’s church. Thankfully, Rea ends his book with a list of recommended resources – personally, I recommend starting with Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity.

I’d Recommend This Book For:
– Those wanting to know “why” they should care about Church History
– Those looking for a brief overview of Church History
– Perhaps as a textbook for an introductory undergraduate class on Church History
– Perhaps a church small group unfamiliar with church history yet wishing to dig into it.

Why Church History MattersNote: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review. 

The Pauline Gospel

During the twist and turns of the past couple years of thesis research, I have collected lots of quotes that most likely will not make it into the final product. Some of the most fascinating are summaries of Paul’s gospel by different authors, and I thought I would share some of them periodical.  Occasionally, I will even ask a question that points toward an area I find to be a weakness in the summary (or larger proposal). Take note, for the most part I like these summaries but also enjoy asking questions.

What role does the past, the time from creation to Christ, play in either of these summaries?

The Pauline gospel announces a definitive, unsurpassable divine incursion into the world…that both establishes the new axis around which the entire world thereafter revolves and discloses the original meaning of the world as determined in the pretemporal counsel of God. So unlimited is the scope of this divine action that it comprehends not only the end but also the very beginnings – although it takes the highly particular form of an individual human life that reaches its goal not only in death but also in resurrection.

-Francis Watson

 

Nothing can be the same again. Both Paul and his fellow Christians are living in a new reality that, in a sense, only they can understand. In the light of this new reality they understand that Christ has rescued them from a tortured previous reality within which they were oppressed by evil powers. Christ and his followers are presently at war with that evil dominion, and to a degree the war extends through the middle of each Christian community and each Christian person in the form of an ongoing conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. Nevertheless, Christ has effected the decisive act of deliverance and victory. Christians are saved, and dramatically! They have been set free and must now resist the temptation to lapse back into the old, evil, but strangely comfortable reality from which they have been delivered.

-Douglas Campbell (summarizing J. Louis Martyn’s interpretation)

 

Book Review: Shaping the Prayers of the People by Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher

ResizeImageHandler.ashxSamuel Wells and Abigail Kocher have given the church an important gift with their recent work Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intersession. This book is a richly theological and immensely practical exploration of intercessory prayer in public worship. It is a short, yet highly engaging, read – 77 pages of exposition (chapters 1-5) followed by approximately 76 pages of example prayers. As the lead pastor of a Protestant church, I found my liturgical imagination ignited in a new way as I was led to think through the intentions behind our practice of corporate worship. This work will be more accessible to those from a liturgical tradition, but perhaps is even more important of a read for those who come from a tradition that lacks this intentional liturgical shape.

I found the book’s theology to be highly satisfying and informing. For instance, the authors give a reasoned exploration of the theology behind prayer. They especially explore the function of intercessory prayer in light of the Trinity:

“Prayer is a conversation between the Son and the Father in which the Holy Spirit invites the believer to participate.”
. . . . “The ministry of the Holy Spirit is, as it has always been, to make Jesus and all that God has given us in Jesus (sometimes called “his benefits”) present to us; and to make us, in all our humble and naked folly and need, but also in our faith and longing, present to Jesus.”
. . . . “Perhaps the deepest mystery is what takes place between the Son and the Father… There is a sense in which the Son who pleads with the Father on our behalf is always the Jesus we see on the cross. Because every petition is, on closer scrutiny, a plea for salvation – for safety, for healing, for reconciliation, for communion, for blessing – for all the things that Christ won on the cross. So every time we pray in the power of the Spirit – every time the Holy Spirit carries our prayer to Jesus and Jesus intercedes to the Father for us, the question for the Father is the same: “How much of your ultimate glory are you going to reveal and bestow at this present moment, and how much are you going to withhold until the last day?” (page 2-3)

The book is also bursting at the seams with practical insight for ecclesial leaders. Beyond the authors’ analysis of the shape, content, and form of intercessory prayers, I found the discussion on the “social location” of the prayer to be very helpful. They state, “The most dangerous word in liturgy, especially informal, spontaneous liturgy, is ‘we.'” (39) This is something equality true for preachers as for prayers, speakers must always mean the global Christian community with their “we” and not “our country, our troops, our children, etc.” This is a common and easy way that church leaders sometimes exclude portions of God’s people from our petitions and worship. Equally enlightening was the discussion on prayer (specifically intercessory prayer) as not being an alternative sermon. As the authors state, “How can one tell that intercessions are turning into a sermon? When the speaker drifts away from talking to God and starts talking to the congregation” (7-8) or begins to stop using the word “you” to address God and instead referring to him in the third person, as “God.” This is something I commonly see when folks are given the task to pray in public and one that ultimately leads to a confused prayer.

As mentioned, the book contains an abundance of example intercessory prayers. Most of these examples come with an identification of the season/place/intention behind the prayer. The book also ends with a masterfully condensed “checklist for preparing the prayers of the people.” (157-158)

As a church leader, Shaping the Prayers of the People is easily one of the best books I have read this year. I highly recommend it to all who are tasked with leading or participating in public worship services or those who simply wish to take a deeper look at intercessory prayer. I will be giving a copy to all of the pastoral and lay leaders at my church and am looking forward to working through it in community.

Note: I received this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an unbiased review. 

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, my Lord and God,
let your saving plan be fulfilled in us all.
You drew God down from heaven and into the Virgin’s womb;
You are the love that moved God to become one with our own flesh.
You built for God’s Son a home in his mother:
built it on seven pillars, your seven gifts.
From the root of Jesse a shoot has sprung:
on it you would one day come to rest.

God, we have heard with our very own ears;
our fathers have told us
the work that you did
when you came in flame-tongues from your throne in the Godhead
to make earth a heaven and all of us gods.
From that moment on, as children adopted, scattered throughout all the earth,
through you we keep crying Abba, our Father! to God.
How great are your mercies, oh Spirit, oh Lord!
They revive me in hope; through them I entreat you.

Faith’s seal, of believers the counselor-helper,
light, fire, and wellspring of light,
oh, listen to us who call you, and come!
If you will but guide us
our Father’s face we’ll see, and also the face of his Son,
and know you too, who flow from them both,
life’s fountain and river of peace.

[The Prayer to the Holy Spirit by Rupert of Deutz]