Seminary Ramblings

Updates from life at seminary

Providence in Unlikely Places: The Story of J.I. Packer

At some point this past summer I asked myself the question, “Who are my living personal heroes?” It’s much easier to name heroes from the past since they are distantly removed enough from us, removed enough that we tend to gloss over or forget about their faults. People still alive though are almost always an obvious mixed bag, just like we ourselves are. Well, I spent several weeks ruminating over the question and I came up with one man as the front runner for my answer: J.I. Packer.

After coming to that answer, I realized something: I didn’t actually know much of anything about J.I. Packer. I had read a few of his books, including the classic Knowing God, but truth be told, none of them had been favorite books of mine. Nor have I ever heard him speak (aside from the occasional youtube video) or had any other sort of contact with him. What put him to the top of my list was several things including his free-of-scandals life, his respect for the Great Tradition of Christian history, his willingness to speak across traditional boundary lines, and the fact that he rarely seems to have spoken impulsively but rather has always given gracious and reasoned answers to the pressing questions facing Christians in our times.

In my attempt to remedy my deficit in actual knowledge of Packer, several weeks ago I picked up Alister McGrath’s biography of him. While I did not have time to complete it, I did learn several things and want to relate one story here; a story of how God used a tragic incident in a young man’s life for his good and to shape him in ways that were likely unforeseeable at the time.

The story is this. When Packer was seven years old, another schoolboy was bullying him and gave him a forceful shove, launching Packer out into the street where he was promptly hit by a milk truck. Packer sustained fairly serious injuries to his head, coming out without apparent mental damage but with the result that he had to wear a metal plate over the wound in his forehead from ages 7 to 18. This plate protected the damaged region of his skull and was meant to help protect him from potential future damage.

As one can easily imagine, wearing a metal plate on your forehead is not the best aid in social situations. Already shy by nature, Packer’s reserved nature coupled with his head injury led to him being bullied more through his childhood years and drove him to become somewhat of a bookworm. All of the time that other kids would spend playing games with each other outside, Packer would spend reading books. So here we have result #1 of the accident: Packer the bookworm. Now for result #2.

In England in the 1930’s it was a big moment when a boy turned 11. Eleven was seen as a sort of coming of age, and the coveted present which every boy expected to receive from his parents on his birthday was a bicycle. Packer’s parents considered buying him one, but they feared that if he ever were to get in an accident or a crash that it could prove fatal due to the head injuries he had already incurred. Because of this, when J.I. Packer came downstairs on his 11th birthday what awaited him on the table was not a bicycle, but rather a typewriter.

Packer fell in love with the machine, taught himself to type, and was soon typing up all sorts of things on it. The remarkable thing is that all of the books that Packer would later go on to write in his long life (and there are many) were written on a typewriter. Packer fell in love with the typewriter at age 11, and even when computers, the internet, and all the rest came, Packer has continued to write all of his books by typewriter.

What’s remarkable is how very influential that fateful day with the milk truck was, when Packer was only seven years old. It was a day not only fateful for him, but indeed for evangelicalism in the West in the 20th century. What would J.I. Packer have become if not for that seeming tragedy? Would he have become the great theologian and the great writer who has been loved by so many millions? Would he have become the man who helped British evangelicalism navigate its own turbulent waters in the 1960’s, who led evangelicals through the ‘battle for the Bible’ of the 1970’s, who helped foster international missionary cooperation across continents in the 1980’s and 90’s? We of course will never know. What we do know is that while J.I. Packer’s schoolboy bully meant that shove for evil, God meant it for good. Romans 8:28 is not trite; it is true. God worked even that tragedy for the good; the good not only of J.I. Packer, but also of millions of others whom his life and writing has blessed.

The Reformers: Not Like Us

Today marks the 497th anniversary of what is often hailed as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the day when Martin Luther nailed a set of 95 theses for academic disputation to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. If you have looked at Christian blogs today, chances are you have seen something about this. Many have already chronicled the basic historical features of the Reformation and others have detailed its lasting relevance for today. Rather than repeating any of that myself, I want to take a slightly different tack.

In this post I want to mention several things that you may not already know about the Reformation. In particular, several of these things are intentionally intended to create a historical distance between “us” and “them.” The Reformers of the 16th century are not the same as the evangelical Protestants of the 21st century. To be historically accurate it is necessary that we recognize this and that we do so more often than is commonly acknowledged. What’s more, acknowledging this historical distance is crucial to learning anything of value from the reformers. So first, 4 theses on the distance of the reformers from us, then a 5th thesis on how this actually allows us to learn from them.

1. In the context of the 16th century, it wasn’t just “Luther and Calvin”
In most contemporary remembrance of the Reformation there are two names that are known, Martin Luther and John Calvin. These were “the great Reformers,” it is most often thought. There are several problems with this statement however. For one thing, it is more accurate to repeat the words of one senior Reformation historian of a past generation: The Reformation was Luther and Luther was the Reformation.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517 he was 34 years old and John Calvin was only 8. Calvin is properly a second generation Reformer while Luther is a first. Moreover, while Calvin through his writing became extremely influential for later generations, in the 16th century Martin Luther overshadowed every other Reformer, in popularity and in theological influence.

However, while Luther was so central, it is also crucial to recognize that there were in fact dozens of other Reformers, many of whom are largely forgotten today but who were also extremely influential in Europe at the time. The translations of eastern church fathers by Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, the Hebrew language and exegesis skills of Sebastian Munster, the institutional and liturgical reforms of Johannes Bugenhagen; all of these and more played huge parts in reforming not only religion, but the entire culture of 16th century Europe.

What’s the point? The Reformation was never the work of one man or woman, and neither can church work be today. In a day of celebrity preachers, we once again need networks not of a few, but of hundreds of pastors and church leaders if we wish to see true change across social, ethnic, geographical, and cultural divides.

2. Was there a Reformation?
While there was in one sense a large movement of church reform that was sparked by Luther, this reform was certainly not monolithic and by no means was there a simple, shared, Protestant vs. Catholic consensus. Rather, almost from the get go there was a wide array of theological beliefs, strategies for implementing reforms, and the like following Luther’s 95 theses. Not only are there the common groupings that are usually spoken of, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are also many more subgroups within each of these wider categories. It’s for this reason that most modern scholarship speaks of “Reformations” in the plural rather than of a singular “Reformation.” What’s most, this division was not only the “fault” of the reformers, but was also certainly the case theologically, if not institutionally, in the Catholic church at the beginning of the 16th century.

What’s the point? The point is that just as there is no single “Christianity” today in terms of an absolutely shared set of doctrinal beliefs or practices, so there was also not one in the 16th century. Then, as now, competing interpretations of the Bible and competing visions for who the church was and how it should function were widespread.

3. The Reformation was in once sense necessary; in another sense a tragedy
When Luther posted the 95 Theses, he was not out to create a new church. He did not want to be a part of any church except the one under the authority of the bishop of Rome. While Luther did later come to repudiate papal authority in the strongest terms, and while he did believe his reform was necessary, Luther himself never stepped outside the established church. Rather, in 1521 he was excommunicated from it.

If it were not for Luther’s excommunication by the pope, Luther would have in all likelihood have continued in his attempt to reform the church from within. Indeed, even in later life he often saw papal authority as a secondary issue that he would have been willing to live with if the pope would have done his duty properly as a shepherd of the church and if he were to cease from obscuring the gospel.

What’s the point? The point is that Luther had a more serious sense of the catholicity (read ‘universality’) of the church than most of us do today. While Protestants often see no problem with a lack of church unity, Luther believed in Jesus’ prayer, that we all may be one, even as Christ and the Father are one (John 17:21-23). Luther was not willing that this unity should come at the cost of core doctrinal disagreement, as some who use him name are today, but he nevertheless ardently hoped and longed for a united church.

4. Martin Luther was thoroughly medieval
One of the things that makes the Reformation era interesting to study is that is does in a real sense stand as a bridge between two worlds, the medieval and the modern world. While many Reformers were humanists, lovers of classical Greece and Roman and avid students of classical literature and languages, Luther was much more medieval in both his education and in his worldview.

I recently heard one historian quip that if you ever want to understand Luther you need to be able to think yourself into a worldview where devils and fairies are real things. That is, they are real, physical beings that are out there in the woods and that might lurk in the shadows of your cellar. Now for those of us who want to draw a straight line from the 16th century to our own, this kind of thing presents a real challenge and a real problem. Nevertheless, it is true. Martin Luther had a thoroughly medieval worldview, filled with real supernatural and corporeal forces, and filled with apocalyptic expectation.

What’s the point? The point is that the past is a strange place, they do things differently there. If we want to learn from the past we must first acknowledge its utter strangeness.

5. These men and women of yesterday still have much to teach us today
The previous four points have hopefully worked to establish a historical distance between us today and the reformers of the 16th century. I have worked to do this not because I believe the reformers no longer have anything to teach us, but precisely because I believe they do. However, if we would learn from them we must first be willing to recognize their utter difference from us.

Oftentimes in popular evangelical history-telling we paint sanitized pictures of the reformers, where they appear as so thoroughly like us, such thoroughly modern and evangelical Christians that they are used more as props for our own pre-established beliefs or as pillars to support our own historical edifices. Aside from the historical inaccuracies and the naivete of this approach, the practical downside is that it prevents us from actually listening to what they have to say. As long as we continue to imagine that we are just like these reformers then we will never have ears to hear them.

I am often struck when reading Luther by the fact that if he were to come back today I think he would prove to be just as much of a nuisance to the evangelical Christian church of the 21st century as he was to the Roman Catholic church of the 16th. Yet evangelicals so want to hold these Reformers as their direct historical precursors that we are unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which they are quite unlike us.

The Protestant Reformation(s) of the 16th century still holds many lessons for the church today. This was a time of unparalleled quality of biblical exegesis, a time of intense searching of foundational issues of religion, meaning, and purpose, and it was a time of deep piety and deep religious convictions. In all of this we have much to learn. But in order to learn, we must first recognize our ignorance and allow ourselves to be taught.

Bible Reading Strategy: Read Long

I’ve never taken a sociology course but one of the things that sociologists are helpful for is in pointing out the distinctive practices of groups. This is helpful because if you’re a member of a particular group, you often assume your own practices and rituals (your ‘praxis’) and are therefore generally unreflective about them. This is the case with the “group” called evangelical Christianity no less so than it is the case with any other group. Our own culture, set of narratives, and praxis all form the way in which we perceive both ourselves and the world. And inside this story that we inhabit we are often unable to critically assess ourselves.

One area where this has come home to me is in the area of personal Bible reading or what is usually referred to as personal devotions. This is a core practice of evangelical Christianity because we see it as a core spiritual discipline and an integral part of what it means to know Jesus and to spend time with him. This is wonderful and is at least one means of responding to Jesus’ prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:5)

However, precisely because the practice of personal Bible is so very good, I think that we as evangelicals are often unreflective in the way we go about it. Today I want to ask just one reflective question regarding our habits of Bible reading that I have been asking myself for quite some time. The question is this: Why does our personal BIble reading most often consist of short chunks of Scripture?

What I am not going to now is answer that question. Disappointed? I know. I’m sure that you’re really really let down. Now that we’ve got that over with, let’s move on to what I do want to do, which is this: I want to mention one way in which the way I read Scripture has changed drastically over the past three years.

Coming into seminary, I most often read the Bible like most of us I suspect do. I would read it in little chunks, perhaps a chapter or two at a time, or in the times when I was trying to do a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan in chunks of perhaps three to four chapters a day. Then during one class my professor stipulated that the students all had to read Ezra-Nehemiah (one book originally) five times before the next week, and that each reading had to be completed in one, uninterrupted sitting. Now with Ezra’s 10 chapters and Nehemiah’s 13, that’s 23 chapters in a single sitting. Up to that point I don’t believe I’d ever read that much of the Bible in a single sitting before.

You know what the incredible part was? As I recall, it took about an hour and fifteen minutes or maybe an hour and a half to do. 1.5 hours for 23 chapters. Not bad, huh? Later the same professor would force me to read Exodus five times, each time in one sitting. That’s 40 solid chapters in one sitting. And this “forcing” has changed the way I read the Bible. It has changed it forever.

While reading the Bible in large chunks is not mandated and while it is certainly not the only way to do it, let me offer three reasons why this is an amazing spiritual practice.

1.  This is how the Bible was meant to be read.
Most books of the Old Testament were written to be read out loud in one sitting (there are exceptions like Proverbs or Psalms). For example, Deuteronomy as one extended sermon certainly was. The same is true in the New Testament. The gospel writers envisioned their works as a single story, and often there are thematic connections between the beginnings and endings of the gospel accounts that presuppose the reader is hearing/reading it all in one sitting. Paul’s letters were read out loud in their entirety to 1st century congregations. The epistle of Hebrews is possibly an early Christian sermon. Ezra read the Law out loud to the Israelites for hours upon hours (see Nehemiah 8)!

2. The stories in the Bible will once again become what they were meant to be, stories.
That is to say, the life of Abraham in Genesis 12-25 is one extended story. It’s meant to be seen, not as disconnected units where he gets called out of Ur in ch. 12, a covenant given in ch. 15, another covenant in ch. 17, etc. etc. but rather as a single narrative of one man’s life with God. The chapter divisions in our Bible which didn’t appear until late in the 12th century, while helpful for referencing, do us a disservice here. It is striking when you read the Church Fathers, for example, how much of Scripture they know and often how very inexact their quotations of it are. That’s because they’re often quoting it from memory! But they read the extended stories in the Bible for what they are, extended stories; not bite-size photos.

3. It really isn’t as intense as it sounds.
Given, we all have various levels of busy in our lives and at different times in our lives. But how many of us can remember staying up all night to finish a new Harry Potter when it would come out? We would read Harry Potter for 10 or 12 hours straight. And yet the idea of reading the Bible for 1 hour straight has become almost a totally foreign concept.

So there are three reasons to hopefully encourage you to try this out sometime. If you’ve never done this, take a spare hour (maybe even set your phone on an hour timer) and give it a shot. I think you’ll be surprised at the results.

In short: read the Bible in small portions, but not only in small portions. Just like eating, at times you need snacks and at times you need full size meals, even feasts. Try a feast sized portion of the Bible sometime. One of my personal goals for the near future (which I still haven’t done) is to read Isaiah (66 chapters) in one sitting. I’ve done the first 39 in one sitting, but never all 66. Hopefully someday soon!

By God’s grace, let’s make it happen. He will bless us in the reading.

The Wisdom of an Elder

I’ve been writing about history a lot lately (at least a lot for me), but I have a confession to make. While it may have all sounded academic, formal, and the like, my reflections have really all been more personal than I’ve let on. That is, one of the reasons why I’ve been writing about the “value” of history in the academy is to justify it for myself and in part to justify this year of my existence which I’m spending getting an extra masters in history.

For the past six months or so, I’ve been in a sort of minor existential crisis over history and over studying church history in general. The crisis has simply been, “Is it worth it? Does learning history really carry great value and even if it does, is studying church history the most useful thing a hopeful future pastor/teacher could be doing with his time?” I’ve also struggled with history from a slightly different angle, as I’ve considered (for the Nth time) the idea of trying to pursue PhD studies in the field in the future. Is devoting 3-7(or 8?) years of your life to studying dead people really worth it?

To help me sort through these questions I’ve talked to friends, I’ve conversed with mentors, and I’ve done plenty of soul-searching myself. This past Tuesday, however, I went and spent the dinner hour in the office of a soon-retiring professor, a man who is a great historian, a warm Christian, and who has been teaching church history in the academy for over fifty years. I’m thankful to God that I have such a gold mine to pull from when I want, and my finally getting up the resolve to go and have this conversation proved worthwhile. What happened went something like this.

I came into my professor’s office, after having informed him via a vague email that I had “a few things I wanted to ask him about.” Immediately I jumped to it. “Why, in your opinion, is studying church history worth it?” I asked. “Of all the things that one could do, what makes studying church history worth a lifetime of dedication?”

While he told me many things over the next forty five minutes, only one of them has really stuck with me. And it was simple, so simple. What he told (or rather, reminded me of) is that God has made all of us with different gifts and with different interests. He then made the simple suggestion that perhaps the right thing to do is really just to follow those interests that God has placed there. While I’ve been spending several months agonizing over the time I put into studying history, this simple thought had never really occurred to me. It struck straight at the overly-pious thought I realized I’d been having: “I probably shouldn’t do what I actually want to do.” In his career, he said, he had never quite been sure that in taking big steps he was following “exactly” the will of God. Rather, he said that he simply followed the desires he had, all the while figuring that if God wanted to put a big roadblock in his way then he was more than capable of doing so.

This proved liberating to me on two levels. First, it reminded me that the interests I have are not inherently bad (this is not “I’m really interested in getting rich quick and hoarding all my wealth”) and that it is ok to follow them. Second, it cut away at the need I feel to try and do everything and to be the best at everything. For me, the main competitor with studying church history has always been to engage in the field of biblical studies. After all, I reasoned, what does the church need more than proper interpretation of the Bible? And while I still believe that to be true, I am now beginning to be ok with the fact that maybe I don’t have to be the guy to deliver that. God gifts people in different ways, and maybe he has called me to serve in a role of secondary importance, studying not his clear revelation in his word but rather how his people have lived and understood his word over the ages. I do love biblical studies too, but now the question for me has changed from “What can I do to be of the absolutely most maximum ‘usefulness’ to the church?” to “What interests has God uniquely placed in me that can serve his church?”

All of that to say, I don’t know if I’ll ever pursue a PhD in church history and I also don’t even really know what I’m most interested in. What I do know is that I do not need to be able to do everything and that God doesn’t need me to accomplish his work. Rather, he has invited me into it and given me specific gifts and interests, which can be used as my small thank offering unto him, to the praise of his glorious grace.

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

My friend Sonia challenged me to make this list, and because we all like to talk about ourselves and because hopefully a few people will find it interesting, here’s it is. Only two caveats.

1. The Bible, while it would top the list, is not included. I needed space for ten other books and thus the Bible should just be assumed.

2. These ten are not in any order of importance. As you’ll see, these books range from novels to academic monographs. I have included such a wide diversity because all of these books have affected me tremendously, yet in different ways. Some have simply delighted me, others have shaped the way I think, and others have shaped me more as a Christian or as a minister.

Here we go.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I simply love this book, which is not to be confused with loving the very different movie (which is not a personal favorite). I love this book for several reasons. First, I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Second, and more importantly, I’m a sucker for the main character, Edmond Dantes, and the moral ambiguity that pervades his character. Is Dantes good or bad? It’s hard to say. He is an innocent hero, betrayed, cast into exile, and he returns to exact vengeance on his enemies, all the while being portrayed in near demi-god like fashion where the reader suspects that if they judge his actions they are judging more than a mere mortal. The moral complexity coupled with romance, adventure, and history which pervade this work get me again and again.

2. Holiness by J.C. Ryle

J.C. Ryle (“Bishop Ryle”), is one of my favorite churchmen and this is the first work of his that I ever read. A classic on the nature of sanctification, this book portrays Ryle at his best, as he hits the reader again and again with short, punchy sentences that leave you thinking and praying.

3. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull and William Russell

This collection of writings spans Luther’s career and was my first introduction to the man. After reading it I felt like it was my first true introduction to Protestantism. Luther makes me wince, he makes me laugh, he makes me ponder, and he makes me worship. This work is an excellent collection from his vast corpus and I suspect most people who have not read Luther would be surprised at his accessibility and his continued relevance.

4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This book deserves a place on my list because it dominated my high school years. I literally used to be able to recite large portions of chapter 2, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” from memory almost verbatim. While I now find much of Thoreau’s philosophy on life to be almost silly, I still love his writing for its mastery of the English language and I remain gripped by the sense of moral earnestness that pervades his work. In fact, I love Thoreau’s writing so much that I think he deserves a quote (where he slyly insults the Westminster Confession).

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

5. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics by Stephen Westerholm

Apologies for the more technical works that are on this list, but they remain the works that have shaped me. This book helped solidify me in a “Reformational” understanding of Paul vis a vis some current debates. Westerholm exemplifies the best of biblical scholarship in this book as he writes with flair, with exegetical sensitivity, and with firsthand historical awareness of the tradition that precedes him.

6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read this trilogy more times than I can remember while I was growing up and I still love it and reread it to this day. Tolkien gave me my love for fantasy and transported me into another world that I have never stopped finding fascinating.

7. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment

If the title didn’t already put you to sleep, the reason I love this book is because of how very fascinating it ended up being. Ozment’s book was probably the single most influential factor in pushing me to do a second masters degree in Church History. His 50 or so odd pages on scholastic theology opened up new worlds of thought to me and transformed the middle ages from a regrettable “dark age” to a vibrant world filled with intellectual sophistication, imagination, and deep wrestling with questions that we still ponder today.

8. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

This is Twain’s last completed novel; decried by critics and yet believed by the author to be his finest work. I personally love Twain and this book, while very different from almost everything else he ever wrote, won me over with its romanticized vision of Joan and of her world, with its charming and disarming mentions of fairies and dragons, and with the sheer force of personality with which Joan is portrayed. Read this book and you will want to be Joan of Arc.

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.  -Twain

9. The Harvest of Medieval Theology by Heiko Oberman

My last (and most) academic work on this list. I include it because Oberman has become the most influential historian for how I conceive of history as a discipline and because this book opened up new thought worlds to me. This is one of the most technically difficult books I have ever read, but it challenged me intellectually at a time when I needed that and showed me how historical persons should be studied on their own terms, not on the terms and values of a later era imposed upon them. This in turn opened up the history of the pre-Reformation church to me, as it taught me how to appreciate historical persons even though I might strongly disagree with them.

10. Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper

This book was huge for me as a new believer, simply in the message of its title. While I haven’t read it since then, God used Piper’s intensity to challenge me to not live a halfhearted Christian life.

So there are my 10! I have no one else to challenge (perhaps a sign that I’m a self-centered blogger?), but I hope you found that interesting!

When a Narrow Focus Works, and When it Doesn’t

Several posts back I wrote on the irrelevancy of the academy and in particular lamented the fact that humanities professors feel the need to create “sexy” new course offerings in order to generate student interest. What is more, these courses are often very narrow, focusing on a felt-interest that currently resonates with popular culture, such as pirates, gender-issues, and the like. My friend Sonia commented and asked a very helpful question to which I’d like to respond. She wrote:

It sounds like you’re asserting that the humanities have made themselves irrelevant by failing to be accessible. But then, isn’t offering a course on just one aspect of a discipline creating an inroad to the entire study?…….I guess what I’m wondering is, is there a way to make it work with these more trendy spins on classic disciplines?

This is a great question and one to which I’ll respond, though I don’t pretend to have all the answers (I’m just a punk grad student after all). First, the idea that offering a course on one aspect of a discipline can create and inroad to the entire field of study. In short, I totally agree with this sentiment. Some topics (perhaps most topics) are so broad, so vast, that having a more narrow inroad into them can help reduce the risk of being completely overwhelmed. A narrower focus can provide a helpful lens through which to see things and a vantage point from which to view the wider field.

For example (I apologize that all of my examples are history related, but that’s just the field I know!), suppose one wished to study the history of the Middle Ages in Western civilization. If we place an arbitrary time limit on our period, it might cover all the way from 500-1500. That’s 1000 years of history. There’s no easy way to understand that. Understanding the past week is hard enough! Thus, it could certainly prove helpful to focus more narrowly than just “the history of the middle ages.” Rather, one could use, for example, the more narrow lens of the changing institution of the papacy in order to understand this period. This allows for a more narrow subject matter but nevertheless deals with one which is deeply embedded in the history of this entire period. Understanding the shifts from a more monastically-oriented model of the papal office from Gregory the Great in the 6th century until the first half of the 12th century, to a more legal, canon-law oriented focus of the papacy from the mid 12th-century onward invariably ties into wider political, economic, and social changes that were going on in this period of Europe’s history.

Now for the inevitable downsides. What I have issues with is not focusing on narrow topics per se, but when this focus is done in such a way as to exclude all else from the wider field of vision. Thus, if a student were to take a course on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy but learned nothing about the papacy, nothing about the Renaissance and humanism, and so on, this would be tragic. However, because immense specialization is seen as “true scholarship” and because drawing wide historical connections is inevitably harder to defend and seen with suspicion in a postmodern context which is suspicious of all meta-narrative, this is often the case. Thus, professors are often reticent to tie in their more narrow focus with the subject matter more broadly.

Hans Hillerbrand, one of the great scholars of the history of Christianity in our time, writes about the problems of this narrow focus in an address entitled “Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline,” given to the American Society of Church History in 2001.

A third characteristic of our current enterprise is a tendency toward marginalization. This is a complicated matter, where one can be easily misunderstood. If you survey some of the most impressive work done in recent years, it becomes obvious that a goodly portion has dealt with aspects of Christian marginality, such as popular Fundamentalism, ethnic Catholics, or Native American Christianity. Carlo Ginzburg wrote a splendid exemplar of such micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. No doubt,we have been immensely enriched by some of these studies, especially when they were accompanied, as was the case in Ginzburg’s book, by methodological reflections on how such micro-history is to be placed into a larger context. Still, notwithstanding the protestation that what seems to be marginality is, in fact, addressing major issues, I would suggest that precisely because some of these studies have been so good, our appreciation of addressing larger issues of the Christian past has diminished. The telltale question would seem to be rather simple: has our understanding of sixteenth century popular religion been really enhanced by Ginzburg’s book?

There is the question in summary form: does the narrow focus really enhance our understanding of the broader issues?

Now on to Sonia’s second point, about whether or not there is a way to make trendy spins on classic disciplines work. While I’ve been playing the curmudgeon, in short I believe there is. What I’m against is the market-driven attitude that leads to these courses, but they are not in and of themselves necessarily bad. They are bad when 1. They exclude from their vision the wider field of study, and 2. They so pander to a “relevant” felt-need that they ignore the information and connections that may actually be more significant (like if a student studied the history of animals in WWI and comes out knowing all about how many horses were shipped across the Atlantic but couldn’t give basic details about the life of Kaiser Wilhelm II or the Treaty of Versailles).

Even with that last example which I’m overusing, I am not necessarily opposed to it. I’m only opposed to it at the undergraduate GE level and at the level where students do not actually have the broader knowledge of context into which to place specific pieces of information (and I believe this knowledge of broader context is often assumed to exist where it in fact does not). A history of animals in WWI might make a great topic for a graduate seminar, just not for an undergrad GE.

Alright, before I talk myself in way over my head, we’re going to end this current post. In the next post I’ll offer what I think are some of the ways in which humanities professors can teach their disciplines in a way that galvanizes student interest without necessarily altering their curriculum. I’m also going to (at Sonia’s) request, post a list of the top 10 books that have stayed with me. Be prepared for a disparate group of books!

You Don’t Have to be “Hip” to be Relevant

“Much like the Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms, revered, yet rarely used, so humanities departments are revered, but as far as society is concerned, ever farther from the center of things.”
-Hans Hillerbrand, Professor Emeritus, Duke University

In my last post I bit off a fairly massive topic; we’ll see if it is too much for me to chew. The main focus of the post was hopefully on how the humanities academy has often made itself irrelevant for the broader university and for society at large by its increasing specialization. I then discussed how this specialization has made its way into the undergraduate classroom, along with the related but distinct issue of creating courses that are “hip” or “sexy” in an attempt to fix the problem of irrelevance and to generate student interest. It is this latter notion that I want to deal with in particular in this post.

So the problem we are dealing with in this post remains the seeming irrelevance of the humanities. In particular, we are dealing with one of the solutions offered for this irrelevance, the “solution” of redesigning the educational curriculum and creating courses that are “interesting” or “relevant” to students (such as the “History of Piracy”). What I want to do in this post is to simply argue against such an idea; to say that the way to make the humanities relevant again is not by making them relevant to whatever a college freshman already feels is relevant.

In short, I believe this desire of professors and departments to be “hip” and “relevant”  is not increasing interest in the humanities (which is what it is intended to do), but is paradoxically actually killing that very interest by pandering to the whims of the moment. Allow me to illustrate with Brad Gregory, previously a professor of history of Stanford University who now teaches at Notre Dame. Gregory is a specialist in Early Modern religious history and wrote a dissertation on religious martyrdom in the 16th century. During his second year in teaching at Stanford (which was also his second year of teaching ever), Gregory won the university’s highest teaching award. His classes have had consistently high enrollment and he is generally liked by students at large. Why is this? Allow me to venture a few thoughts.

In a talk he was asked to give to Stanford faculty entitled “Some Tricks of the Trade: Connecting With Your Students” (available for free on iTunes U), Gregory offerings the following thought:

“Far from going out of my way to design a curriculum or a course that I think is really going to appeal to students per se, I think the challenge of teaching is: on the basis of your energy, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, to show students not what they want to hear, but that something they might never have thought of is interesting, is purposeful, and that it matters. That they should learn about something besides what they simply care about coming into the course. So, I am strongly against a market-driven approach to education.”

Read that whole quote twice. It’s gold.

So Gregory is against a market-driven approach to education (which is what many humanities departments are succumbing to in hopes of generating student interest). Indeed, he makes a point of telling students on the first day of class that trying to understand people who lived and died hundreds of years ago is hard work, and that the student’s varied opinions about their lives, their values, what they did and didn’t do, is an entirely separate issue that will play no part in the course whatsoever. In effect he tells them that their own feelings and opinions are irrelevant to the course. This has the paradoxical effect of taking off a burden (the burden of “what do I think about this”) and allowing students to focus on the matter at hand. How’s that for relevance? And yet Gregory’s courses have always been popular.

Or take another professor, Michael Sandel at Harvard, whose undergraduate course entitled “Justice” has become one of Harvard’s most popular classes and the online version of which has become one of the most popular online courses ever. I doubt many students come into that class with an especially high interest in Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism or with a particularly high regard for Aristotle’s views on teleology. And yet what Sandel manages to do, rather than designing a course that feels relevant, is show students how these old ideas do in fact matter, how they are intellectually challenging, viable, and how they continue to shape our modern world. By the end of that class everyone is interested in what Aristotle has to say.

So what am I really saying? I’m simply saying that the best way to show the importance of the humanities and to restore them to the place they deserve is not to pander to the whims of our present moment. The best method is not to attempt to be relevant, when relevance is defined by our present historical moment.

If all of this is what we should not do, then what, positively, should we do in order to show that the humanities are in fact relevant? What are Gregory, Sandel, and other professors like them doing that works, if what they are not doing is seeking to be relevant? That is another post for another time.

On the Irrelevancy of the Academy

Today, pragmatism is in and therefore the humanities are out. “Where are the immediate benefits?” “What is the payoff?” Questions like these have seemingly assigned the humanities to irrelevance or rather uselessness while the STEM disciplines can come in to take over, with their promise of quick returns and obvious, tangible benefits. While I lament this state of affairs, what I want to do here is not to lament the lack of interest in the humanities. Rather, I want to propose that one reason the humanities currently seem irrelevant is because the field has made itself irrelevant. The very people who should be promoting the humanities, university English and History professors, for example, are most often the very ones who have assigned their disciplines to irrelevance for the public at large. Article after article, book after book, and lecture after lecture, they have quietly written themselves into they obscurity they now currently enjoy.

Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is that as these disciplines have become increasingly specialized (by no means a bad thing at the dissertation level), they have begun to ignore the wider currents that are accessible to the thinking public at large and have therefore assigned themselves to irrelevance. Let’s take history for example.

This morning I received an email from Boston University, which, among other things, carried with it news that enrollment in history courses has been steadily declining at BU for years. To combat this, professors were encouraged to offer “sexy” new course offerings such as the “History of Piracy” (as in pirates; not internet piracy). This apparently helped as that particular course had high enrollment. The article then continued on by praising a new post-graduate researcher who is teaching a class on the “History of Animals” and how we write the history of animals. That particular researcher wrote a dissertation on how animals were used during World War I, and is now taking many of those findings to the undergraduate level. And this, all of this, is precisely the problem.

First, the history of piracy. While the topic might be in itself a fine one (and good perhaps for a graduate seminar), is this the type of course that should be taught about at the undergraduate survey level where students are taking the course to meet general education requirements? How will the life of a biomedical engineering major be substantially enhanced by knowing more about the history of piracy? Perhaps he will have a better historical sensibility about him the next time he goes to see a new Pirates of the Caribbean film, but aside from that, the course seems ill-suited to impact  his day to day life and thought. The course is simply too narrow, too specialized, and therefore, too irrelevant for anyone but the academic historian.

Or take the History of Animals, which is simply a more severe case of the same thing. Here specialization has again crept its way into the undergraduate level in a way that is perfectly suited to kill any and all interest in history. Rather than spending a whole semester discussing the use of animals in WWI, why don’t we rather spend the semester talking about WWI in general; its causes, its major turning points, its subsequent affect on the history of the 20th century? Sure, we were all supposed to learn the basics of world history at the high school level, but let’s be honest; how many of us really did? Taking a broad topic like WWI (or perhaps wars of the 20th century in general) and learning its major contours is a subject that has potential to be deeply impactful for any student if well taught and if the students are given ample space to think for themselves.

All of this to say, the academy is a self-perpetuating piece of machinery. New academics need to write new dissertations on previously under-researched subjects, then they need to write additional narrowly focused monographs in the “publish or perish” mentality needed to gain tenure. Whatever the relative merits of such a machine, my point is simply that the sort of narrow specialization with which academics are trained to think (as it is necessary for groundbreaking research) is not something that should be brought into the undergraduate classroom. What we need is not more classes on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy or on the rhetoric of dissent in Tudor England, rather undergraduate general education level courses need to focus on the broad strokes, helping students to learn how to read primary sources discerningly and to think for themselves, all the while being guided by the professor to think through the implications of what they are learning for today. Until this happens again, humanities professors are simply asking to be relegated to the margins of the modern academy.

In my next post I’ll look at a professor who has bucked the current trend of narrowed, specialized topics, and has thereby seen huge classroom success. And all of this without needing to tailor any “sexy” new courses to the latest whims of Hollywood.

The Helpfulness of a Footnote

It was around 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon and there were still two long hours of class to go when my professor exclaimed, “Don’t you just love reading a good footnote!?” Judging by the blank stares he got from those around the table, it seemed that not too many of us did. I think most of us were rather more excited to get out of class and eat some dinner than we were to revel in the glories of the footnote. But while footnotes in most books may strike 99% of readers as boring, those in the Bible, while they can also be boring, can on occasion also be extremely helpful.

Continuing this series of posts on Bible reading and translation, I want to explore a footnote that is in several English versions of Romans 6:6. In taking this seemingly mundane expedition, I’ll hopefully be able to give you a taste both of the usefulness of footnotes in the Bible and also of how you can see things in a more literal translation that a more dynamic translation may hide from view.

Romans 6:6, a case of a good footnote

We’re more than a third of the way through his letter and Paul has just finishing a heady exposition of world history as the history of two humans, Adam and Jesus Christ (Rom 5:12-21). Now he has turned in 6:1 to counter the objection that God’s free grace means we should continue to live in sin. Then in 6:5-6 he writes the following (ESV translation):

For if we have been united with him [Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

Now in both the ESV and NASB there is a curious footnote to the word  “self” in verse 6. The ESV note reads, “Greek man“. In other words, the Greek literally reads, “We know that our old man was crucified with him….”

“So what?” you may say. This is a seemingly small detail, yet does it carry any importance? Well, let’s review what Paul has said up to this point. As I noted, in the immediately preceding context, Paul has drawn parallels between Adam and Christ, specifically between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience. Note the language he has used in doing this though:

“There, just as sin came into the world through one man…” (5:12)

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (5:17)

“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinner,s so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (5:19)

In fact, in 5:12-21 I count Paul using the term “one man” 9 times, not to mention several more uses of the plural “men.” What’s more, each of these usages is either of Adam or Jesus. While it might make sense to designate Adam, the first human being, as the “one man”, isn’t it striking (even strange) that in 5:17 above Paul goes out of his way to say “the one man Jesus Christ.” He could have just as easily said, “…reign in life through Jesus Christ” without adding “one man” in there.

But Paul is emphasizing the parallels here! He is emphasizing two humans in history and the historical acts of disobedience (by Adam) and obedience (by Christ), and the results that followed from these acts. All of which gives us some very helpful context when we get to 6:6.

As a reminder, here in 6:6 Paul says “We know that our old man was crucified with him [Jesus]…” Is not possible, even probable, given that Paul has been repeatedly using the words “one man” and making an argument explicitly based in history, that when he talks about the “old man” in 6:6 he is continuing to talk about the “old Adam”? If so, this is somewhat different than the “old self”, especially as we usually understand the term “self” today. What’s more, it’s all in a footnote!

So what?

For most readers, I suspect we would see Romans 6:6 and say that Paul is telling us that our old sinful nature, our old way of life, our old bad habits, were crucified with Christ. These kinds of conclusions are the natural interpretation since we most often use the word “self” in phrases like self-discipline, self-esteem, self-improvement, and self-acceptance. Our old “self” has died, now we get to have a new way of life, a “new self”. But if our idea about the “old Adam” is correct, then what Paul is saying is both more historical and more radical than this. What Paul is saying in Romans 6:6 is that in Christ and in his crucifixion, the entirety of us which lived “in Adam” was crucified. Doug Moo is quite helpful on this in his commentary:

Many popular discussions of Paul’s doctrine of the Christian life argue, or assume, that Paul distinguishes with these phrase between two parts or “natures” of a person. With this interpretation as the premise, it is then debated whether the “old nature” is replaced with the “new nature” at conversion, or whether the “new nature” is added to the “old nature.” But the assumption that “old man” and “new man” refer to parts, or natures, of a person is incorrect. Rather they designate the person as a whole, considered in relation to the corporate structure to which he or she belongs…the “old man” is what we were “in Adam”–the “man” of the old age, who lives under the tyranny of sin and death (Romans, pg. 373).

The upshot of all this is twofold. First, as John Stott put it, “what was crucified with Christ was not a part of me called my old nature, but the whole of me as I was before I was converted.” In other words, conversion is not cleaning up our old act or continuing on with life but bringing God into it. Rather it is something much more radical. It is the entirety of our ourselves dying and being resurrected. It is the whole of our old man who lived “in Adam” being crucified, and then an entirely new man who lives “in Christ” being resurrected. Conversion is not an inner reformation to a now “religious” life, but a crucifixion and a resurrection.

The second implication lies in how this crucifixion and resurrection takes effect in our lives by faith and by conscious effort, and is not something known by “experience.” We see this several verses later. After expounding on our death and resurrection with Christ for a few more verses, Paul goes on in 6:11 to say, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, while he has taught us in v. 6 that our old man actually did die, along with its propensity to sin, now he says in v. 11 that we must consider (or “reckon” or “impute”) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. In other words, our old life is actually gone. But from our perspective we may not always feel it is gone; we must realize its ‘gone-ness’ in our own lives by considering or thinking of ourselves in this way. We must say, “Sin, you feel pleasurable right now, but I am dead to you. I am not who I once was. I am a new person in Christ Jesus and live to God now. I will make every effort to consider myself as God has already declared to me to in fact be.” As Doug Moo says, “what we were ‘in Adam’ is no more; but, until heaven, the temptation to live in Adam always remains” (pg. 375)

I’ll leave you with a glorious statement by Martyn Lloyd-Jones on what it looks like in practice to act out the implications of Romans 6:6 and 6:11. While we often base our entire spiritual lives on our experience or how we feel God to be, Paul’s teaching about “considering/reckoning” in Romans 6:11 points in an entirely different direction. Here is Lloyd-Jones.

We are told to realize, and to hold before ourselves and in our consciousness constantly, something that is already true of our position or status. It is not an exhortation to us to do anything with regard to sin, but to realize what has already been done for us with respect to our relationship to sin. It is an exhortation to us to remember what is already true of us; it urges us to realize what has already happened to us as Christians, those of us who are joined to the Lord Jesus Christ. And what is true of us is that we are already in an entirely new position and standing with respect to sin.

This is something which we have to believe solely because the Word of God teaches it. You do not ‘experience’ your position, you are told about it and you believe it. That is what justification by faith alone means. We have this Word of God which tells us that this is God’s way of salvation; and we have nothing but the Word of God. As we have seen, we have all got to do what Abraham did, as the Apostle has already reminded us in chapter 4. We must just take the bare Word of God, believe it, submit to it, and act upon it. That is what we have to do with this statement.

Bible Translations: Which One and Why?

I promised in a previous post that I would write something about Bible translations and translating, and this is that post.

Let’s start with an obvious fact. Nowadays we have an absolutely huge number of Bible translations available in the English language. Off the top of my I can think of the NIV, ESV, NRSV, RSV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, CEV, HCSB, and…….you get the point. What I’d like to reflect on for a moment is how the contemporary proliferation of Bible translations may be affecting our approach to the biblical text itself. In particular, does the sheer quantity of different translations encourage us to pick and choose the one that’s our favorite (not necessarily a bad thing), with little regard to its accuracy (a bad thing).

Bible Translation Theory: A Few Basics

First off, if you’re unfamiliar let me briefly explain the basics of Bible translation theory. Most often, Bible translations are spoken of as falling somewhere along a spectrum of formal to dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is a more “word for word” equivalence with the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament, while dynamic equivalence is usually defined as “thought for thought” equivalence. Thus formal equivalence tends to a more literal rendering, while dynamic equivalence tends toward a more interpretive rendering.

What needs to be recognized up front, however, is that no translation is, strictly speaking, entirely “literal.” This is because, as anyone who speaks or reads more than one language can attest, it is often impossible to translate from one language into another strictly literally. What takes three words to say in English may take one to say in Chinese,and what Greek may express by means of an idiom would make little to no sense if rendered literally into English. Therefore both pure adulation and pure disdain of translations is a futile exercise. All translations are relatively more or less literal, but none is or ever can be perfect.

Translations: A Few Considerations

With these qualifications in place, I do believe that we can speak of the relative merits of one or another translation in relation to each other. In doing this, the point I want to draw out is that the more dynamic the translation, the more interpretive decisions are being made for the reader (and which the reader is usually unaware are even being made). Let me take one example of a term that many are familiar with. If you read an NIV printed before 2011 (when there was a translation update), in the New Testament the term “sinful nature” shows up relatively frequently in Paul’s letters. For example, Galatians 5:13 reads “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” However, what the NIV (prior to 2011) renders “the sinful nature” is in fact a translation of the Greek word sarx“, which literally means “flesh.” So Paul more literally says, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh….”

I point this out as an example of where a more dynamic rendering has made rather large decisions for the reader that they are then not free to make themselves. The decision is simply this, when Paul uses the word sarx (“flesh”), what he means by it is “the sinful nature.” Now, in general I love the NIV, but I simply point this out as what is seen by many (myself included) to be one of the more infamous missteps of a contemporary translation. While sarx may mean something like “sinful nature” in some places, this is certainly open to debate, and rather than allowing the reader the deserved confusion over the word “flesh” (preserved in the ESV and NASB for example), decisions are made in advance for the reader.

Now you may be thinking, “I never would have wondered at the use of the word ‘flesh’ or been able to figure what it meant even if I did.” And that’s ok; in fact that may even be precisely the point. The Bible is not easy to read and I don’t think we do ourselves a service by relying on extremely dynamic translations for the majority of our Bible reading (here I am thinking more of translations like the CEV, some parts of the NLT, or a paraphrase like The Message). While we may have trouble understanding what the Bible is saying, that is what good Bible teaching is for, not what translation is for. In other words, it’s best to learn how to understand the Bible by pastors and elders “teaching the word” as is their specific duty (1 Tim 3:2), rather than having translations do the interpreting for us.

Let me sum up: all translation is interpretation to some degree, as one language never cleanly passes over 100% into a different language. For our Bible reading though, it is best to not rely too much on translations that do lots of interpreting for you, because they are less translations and more interpretations and in places can very arguably obscure the sense of a text (as the old NIV arguably did with “sinful nature”).

Bringing it back to where we started, my concern is that the wide availability of numerous translations makes us never even consider these things, but rather just pick a translation whose English we like or which is “easy to read.” We should, however, give some thought to what degree the translation is reading is faithful to the biblical text. To that end, here is a chart giving the relative “literalness” of most major Bible translations:


translations(Note: I think the KJV and NKJV should probably be to the left and not the right of the ESV. But the general picture is alright.)

In my next post I’ll give a test case of how very good many Bible translations are, and point out in particular how helpful those pesky little footnotes in your Bible can be.

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