Tag Archives: Church History

The Gospel Coalition: Historical Anomaly?

Is The Gospel Coalition a historical anomaly? Not according to Ryan Kelly, TGC Council member and pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. He sat down with Mark Mellinger to discuss historical precedents for parachurch networks like TGC.

Kelly cites John Calvin’s 16th-century “company of pastors,” a network of sharpening friendships among ministers, and past “prophesying conferences” in England for preaching and prayer. From the Westminster Assembly’s interdenominational makeup to John Owen’s occasional synods, Christian history includes other examples similar to today’s networks. Consequently, he says, ”What we’re trying to do with TGC is not novel at all.”

Moreover, TGC isn’t just a website or a conference. Kelly is also part of a regional chapter made up of dozens of pastors who gather quarterly for fellowship, prayer, theological discussion, advice, encouragement, and more. The group plans to host its own regional conference in March.

Watch the full eight-minute video to hear Kelly discuss learning from our predecessors, conferences as self-indulgent vacations, “sheep tracking,” and more.

Is TGC a Historical Anomaly? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Why Bother with Lent?

Typically, evangelicals are shy about Lent. The 40 days prior to Easter—Sundays excepted—are known popularly as a season for giving up chocolate or other extras in order to show God how much we love him. With such impoverished notions, it is no wonder that Lent has fallen on hard times.

So should evangelicals bother with Lent?

Whatever the popular conceptions, the season can encourage gospel-centered piety. But, before considering Lent’s value, let’s briefly discuss the benefits of the church calendar, in general.

Some evangelical traditions reject the notion of the church calendar wholesale, believing that the Lord’s Day is the only God-given measure of time for the church. Some Puritans discarded all special holidays on this principle. But, no matter our efforts, we organize our lives according to some seasonal calendar that’s not prescribed by God (semesters, financial quarters, and months, for example).

Recognizing this, the church’s liturgical calendar seeks to order time around the major events of our redemption in Christ. During these seasons, we encourage certain theological emphases, spiritual practices, and corresponding emotions to instruct and train the church in godliness. Of course, the calendar does not limit the celebration of a truth or the experience of a particular emotion to one season or day. For instance, observing Easter Sunday as a joyous and festive holy day does not deny that every Lord’s Day celebrates Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, a joyous Easter Sunday anchors and gives shape to all other Sundays throughout the year. So it is with the liturgical calendar.

Five Benefits

That said, let’s explore five benefits to observing Lent.

1. Lent affords us the opportunity to search the depths of our sin and experience the heights of God’s love.

With Good Friday approaching, visions of Jesus’ gruesome death remind us of the dreadful reality of sin. Here, our individual and corporate brokenness is on display as the Lord of glory dies under the weight of our just judgment, inspiring personal introspection. Though self-examination can turn into narcissistic navel gazing, such abuses should not foreclose on a godly form of self-examination that encourages humility, repentance, and dependence on Christ.

But for such introspection to remain healthy, we must hold together two realities that converge at the cross—our corruption and God’s grace. If we divorce the two, then our hearts will either swell with pride and self-righteousness, losing touch with our sinfulness, or sink into anxious despair and uncertainty, failing to grapple with mercy.

Confident of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we are free to probe the inner recesses of our hearts, unearthing sin’s pollution. God’s grace liberates us to explore our soul, facing its filth, rather than suppressing or succumbing to its contents. With David, we are free to pray,

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23-24)

Searching us, God discovers nothing unknown to him (Ps 139:1-3), but discloses the secrets of our hearts, allowing us to know ourselves. Under his tender scrutiny, God exposes, not to shame, but to heal. Thus, turning inward, we are led upward to find consolation, hope, and transformation through Jesus Christ. Certainly, such piety isn’t the exclusive property of any church season, but Lent provides a unique setting for this self-examination.

2. Lent affords us an opportunity to probe the sincerity of our discipleship.

Jesus bore the cross for us, accomplishing our salvation, yet he also bestows a cross on us (Mt. 10:38-39; Lk. 9:23). Following him, Jesus guarantees unspeakable comforts and uncertainties (Jn. 16:32-33). Frequently, these uncertainties test the genuineness of our discipleship. Consider the following examples from Jesus’ ministry.

In Matthew 8:18-22, two people approach Jesus, proclaiming their desire to follow him. One, a scribe, offers his undying devotion saying, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds by instructing the scribe about the rigors of following him, explaining that foxes and birds enjoy more comfort than he does. Perceiving selfish ambition, Jesus reminds the scribe that following him is not a means for advancing in the world, but rather involves forsaking it. We don’t know how this scribe responded to the challenge, but Jesus leaves us with the question, “Will we follow him when it is inconvenient or only when comfortable and to our advantage?”

The second, a disciple, requests to attend his father’s funeral before going on with Jesus. Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal the disciple’s heart, unveiling his ultimate affections. He says, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Remember, Jesus warns us that we cannot love father and mother, or anything else, above him (Mt. 10:37). Obviously, Jesus does not forbid loving our parents or attending their funerals, but he does insist on being first in our hearts. Jesus is not a commitment among other commitments, but rather the commitment of our lives. Therefore, as Augustine points out, we must take care to order our loves properly, ensuring that our affections are set on Christ and not another.

In this way, Lent provides opportunity to question and examine ourselves, exploring the integrity of our discipleship.

3. Lent provides us an opportunity to reflect on our mortality.

Pursuing eternal youth, our culture seems to live in the denial of death. But ignoring death does not erase its impartiality—everyone who draws a first breath will take a last one. It is a certainty we can’t escape (Heb. 9:27). Fortunately, death is not the last word. For all who belong to Christ, there is a promise stronger than death—we will die, but Jesus will return to raise our bodies, wiping the tears from our eyes and making all things new (1 Cor. 15:12-28; Rev. 21:1-8).

The most difficult moment I face each year, as an Anglican pastor, is to apply the ashes, in the sign of a cross, to the foreheads of my wife and children on Ash Wednesday. It is an intimate and haunting moment. Echoing the words of Genesis 3:19, I say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is jarring. Every year, I cry.

Yet the ashes are applied in the shape of Jesus’ cross—the only means for escaping the dust of death. When God raised Jesus, he raided death, destroying its power. Jesus’ resurrection marks the death of death and welcomes us into a living hope (1 Pt. 1:3). This is our consolation and joy in the midst of our mortality.

Lent provides an unmistakable opportunity for disciplined reflection on this neglected certainty and God’s radical solution.

4. Lent gives us the opportunity to move towards our neighbor in charity.

Long misunderstood as a form of works-righteousness, Lenten fasting is not about scoring points with God, but rather emphasizes simplicity for the sake of others. By temporarily carving away some comforts or conveniences, good gifts from God himself, we hope to de-clutter our hectic lives, allowing us to focus. Simple living allows us to reserve time for others while also serving to curb our expenses. It is fitting to allocate these savings, along with other gifts, for charitable purposes, especially directing those funds to the poor and marginalized.

So search your heart and go simple. Consider fasting from types of food, technology, and/or sources of entertainment. Live frugally, and do so for the sake of charity. Find a cause, or better yet a person, and give sacrificially. And, in so doing, may you know the joy of Jesus who gave himself fully to us.

5. Lent prepares us to celebrate the wonder and promise of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Here, Jesus trampled down sin and death, defeating the Devil (Heb. 2:14-15). After a season of depravation, highlighting the grim reality of our broken creation, Jesus’ resurrection floods our grief with life and light. In other words, Lent prepares us to join the disciples in their joy and bewilderment on that strange morning long ago (Mt. 28:8; Mk. 16:8; Lk. 24:12). Our Easter worship is a dress rehearsal for our Lord Jesus’ return when he comes to unite heaven and earth, making all things new (Eph. 1:10; Rev. 21:1-8).

And so, I invite you to a holy Lent. Take up the opportunity to dwell upon the grief of our broken world, the sin within your heart, and the deep love of God that exceeds these realities. Reflecting on the hospitality of God, consider the needs of your neighbor, especially those without life’s basic needs. And, most importantly, in the gritty details of Lent, don’t forget—Easter is coming!

Deliver Us from 21st-Century Blindspots

More than once, my friends and colleagues have raised a question mark over the study of history or historical background of the Bible. They appreciate the “apologetic” dimensions of history—demonstrating the credibility of the Gospels, and so on. But their concern is the use of history to help us interpret the Bible in a normal expository setting. “All we need is the Bible,” they say. How does a Reformed evangelical argue with that!? The simple answer is: what we actually need is the Bible understood in the way the original authors intended. And as soon as we say that, we need a whole bunch of tools—linguistic and theological, as well as historical—to help us cling to Scripture alone.

In other words, we need a bit of good history to read the Bible well, just as we need some linguistic knowledge to look at the squiggles on a page in the first place and recognize their meaning as words and sentences.

Value of Background

The main value of “historical background”—an expression I dislike—is that it provides us with another set of lens that keeps us from reading the text, focused only on the thought-forms, assumptions, and questions of our particular culture. Good history is medicine for the ailment of cultural “citizenization.” Let me explain.

To a great extent we are all citizens of our time and place. I don’t mean citizens in a national or ethnic sense—though this plays a part. I mean that the way we look at the world is shaped decisively by the key social influences in our lives, our family, education, income level, the friends we mix with, the suburb live in, the media we absorb, the Christian tribe we align with, and so on.

The process of “citizenization” is so subtle, yet so complete, that is difficult, if not impossible, for any of us to think objectively about our way of seeing reality—to discern which parts of our culture are true and good and which parts are accepted simply because we are accustomed to them.

One of the slightly disturbing things about being a student of history is coming across aspects of previous cultures that are shocking and horrible (by my standards) but which went virtually unnoticed at the time. In the first-century Roman world, we could think of slavery, infanticide, pederasty, and torture. I’m not primarily disturbed that first-century Romans failed to see this evil as evil; I’m concerned that my culture perhaps does equally horrible things that, because of my “citizenization,” I cannot view clearly as sin.

If I were born in 19th-century Australia, would I really have thought twice about the fact that women and Aborigines were denied the vote? I like to think so, but I doubt it. Or if were brought up in 18th-century Britain, would I have seen anything wrong with the economically crucial trade in human lives? I fear not.

If we ponder this problem long enough, we are left with one of two conclusions about our contemporary culture. Either we have evolved to a point of cultural purity, where we have removed all blemishes of human society, or there are disturbing elements in our society that, because of our cultural position, we cannot see—elements that future generations will look back on the way I look back on 19th-century Australia, 18th-century, Britain or 1st-century Rome.

Protecting Us from Us

Here, then, is one of the main benefits of history for the reader of the Bible: Studying history protects us from reading God’s Word only through the lens of the present century.

You don’t need to buy into the whole postmodern perspective to admit that we all read the Bible as “citizens” of our particular time and place. I am not suggesting there is no meaning in the text other than the meaning we bring to it. But nor can we imagine that we are completely objective when we read the text. Africans spot things in the Bible that the Chinese don’t immediately see; the Chinese see things that we in the West don’t immediately recognize; and, of course, we in the West perceive things that African and Asian Christians overlook. The questions of one culture are different from the questions of another culture, and none of us can avoid bringing those questions to the text—nor should we.

Here is the broader value of studying history: it gives voice to the questions and perspectives of times and places other than our own. This is my defense of history when people ask, Why bother studying the past? Studying history is an act of “democracy.” I’m listening to the many voices of the past rather than to the few voices of this “blip” we call the 21st-century Western world.

Second Pair

Every Bible reader comes to the text with a set of lenses, whether African Pentecostals, Sydney Anglicans, or American evangelicals. Knowing some biblical history gives you a second pair of lenses. To be sure, God’s Spirit speaks truly and clearly to us from the pages of Scripture. He does so, however, through what the Westminster Confession calls the “ordinary means.” I think most of us would understand “ordinary means” to include some knowledge of biblical language, theology, and history.

In my view, New Testament specialists ought to have a grasp of Greek language, first-century history, and systematic theology. Equally, they should use these tools to shed light on Scripture, never to avoid its meaning. The lens of history, properly employed, does not obscure the text; instead, it gives us sharper vision to see what is really there—what we perhaps have overlooked because of our cultural lenses.

Aquinas: A Shaky Foundation

Monday, January 17, 1994, 4:31 a.m., will be forever etched in my mind. I had arrived in Los Angeles at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, January 16. A room was reserved for me near downtown Los Angeles in a nice hotel, tenth floor. I preached in a nearby church later that morning and went to bed early that evening, with a full schedule for the rest of the week. I was awakened at 4:31 a.m. by the Northridge earthquake. My hotel was only 10 miles from the epicenter. I had never felt such a massive and towering building being twisted and shaken like it was built of papier-māché. As a few thousand people scurried down to the lobby for further instructions, it was clear to everyone that no place was safe. Aftershocks continued, and the best one could hope for was that the building would not come down on top of us.

What became clear to me throughout the day, as electricity was restored and reports poured in about death and destruction, was that no matter how nice and opulent the room I was in, once the ground gives way, all of the nice trappings of the room, the building, the entire neighborhood, were nothing more than weapons of destruction. If the ground fell in, so would everything else, bringing certain death and devastation.

Thomas Aquinas is among the top philosophical theologians in the history of the church. His genius cannot be doubted. His significant influence extends, not simply to the Roman Catholic Church, but into many aspects of the Reformation as well. Like so many in church history, Thomas wears neither a black hat nor a white hat, but a grey hat. How dark or light the grey is depends on a complex multitude of factors.

If we use the analogy of the Northridge earthquake to think about the structure of Thomas’s philosophical theology, we can, perhaps, present a few general points worthy of consideration. First, Richard Muller makes the following important observation with respect to Reformed prolegomena:

These early Reformed statements concerning theological presuppositions focus, virtually without exception, on the problem of the knowledge of God given the fact not only of human finitude but also of human sin. The critique leveled by the Reformation at medieval theological presuppositions added a soteriological dimension to the epistemological problem. Whereas the medieval doctors had assumed that the fall affected primarily the will and its affections and not the reason, the Reformers assumed also the fallenness of the rational faculty: a generalized or “pagan” natural theology, according to the Reformers, was not merely limited to nonsaving knowledge of God—it was also bound in idolatry. This view of the problem of knowledge is the single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox Protestantism. Indeed, it is the doctrinal issue that most forcibly presses the Protestant scholastics toward the modification of the medieval models for theological prolegomena (Muller, PRRD, 1.108, my emphasis).

Muller is saying not simply that the Reformation took more seriously the biblical teaching on the effects of sin; much more is entailed. Because of a weak view of sin’s effects on us, there were some central and significant foundational (i.e., epistemological) issues that came out of the medieval period and needed substantial revision during the time of the Reformation. Radical (i.e., root) modification was needed if issues of the doctrine of revelation (and other doctrines) were going to be “re-formed.”

Applying this to our analogy (and assuming the “medieval models” of which Muller speaks include Thomas), the ground upon which the Thomistic structure was built was shaky, at best. Whatever was adopted and adapted from the medieval models by those in the Reformed tradition had to be removed from the sand on which they were built, cleansed of their sandy residue, and placed on a solid foundation.

New Foundation

This is no mean critique, and it is a dangerous and potentially destructive task to move through a philosophical-theological system and attempt to bring over whatever is conducive to the newly revised and erected foundation of Reformed prolegomena. As with the earthquake, the rooms in the hotel were all finely appointed, richly furnished, and meticulously decorated. The only problem was, if the foundation gave way, those rooms were unable to carry out their intended function, no matter how appealing they might look on the surface.

Suppose, however, that one was able to move through the hotel, pick out a few of the best rooms, and move them from their weak and fallen foundation to one that would support them. Would the rooms themselves look that different? Perhaps not. They might look, for the most part, just as they did when they were on shaky ground. However, once moved, the question would have to be asked as to how, and to what extent, those rooms could be supported by their new foundation. It might be possible, for example, that the material used to furnish the rooms would be too heavy for its now-new foundation. It might be that the foundation would, even if subtly, alter the basic framework of each of the rooms so that they would need to be re-structured. Whatever the case, changing the foundation of the rooms, no matter how it might look on the surface, is, by definition, a fundamental change.

There are a host of things Aquinas wrote and produced that are worthy of much consideration and thought for any Christian interested in such things. The sheer volume of what he was able to do, given its depth and theological concerns, will undoubtedly serve the Christian church in a variety of ways. However, in the almost superhuman proliferation of such material, there will, almost inevitably and in hindsight, be need of careful and perhaps substantial revision. The “rooms” that Thomas built may look exquisite, but, since the foundation is sinking sand, they can only be transferred to a solid foundation carefully, and with a view toward possible structural and material transformation. Anyone who would attempt, for example, simply to accept certain “rooms” without noticing or transforming the foundation on which all of the rooms are built, will be floating along in rooms that are either ungrounded or on shaky ground, and thus will be in danger of such rooms caving in and bringing the whole edifice to ruin.

Firmly Set

There is so much that could be said about this that anything said in an article of this length will not do the genius of Thomas justice. But to move from an earthquake analogy to real content, we must recognize that one of the central principia of the Reformation—the doctrine of revelation—required that everything brought over from medieval philosophical theology, if it were going to be coherent, had to be re-tooled. (As an aside, I happen to believe as well that the other principium of the Reformation—the doctrine of God—was itself not sufficiently re-tooled in light of Reformed theology, but that’s an article for another time.)

So the challenge is this: from a Protestant and Reformed perspective, whatever one seeks to adopt and adapt from Thomas and medieval philosophical theology, those tenets and notions must be thoroughly cleansed of their sandy foundation if they are to be placed on theological solid ground. There must be a clear and acute awareness of the methodological and foundational presuppositions entailed in those tenets and notions if such are going to be removed and relocated. This kind of work is anything but simple, and it requires a firm, unwavering commitment to the two Protestant principia as well as a good bit of historical distance. The danger is that the latter is easier to apply than the former.

* * * * *

For another perspective on Aquinas, read “Aquinas: How He Might Help Evangelicals” by Gerald R. McDermott.