Tag Archives: Theology

Why Youth Ministers Need to Be Theologians

We expect a certain level of theological sophistication from our preaching pastors. They must at least know church history, systematic theology, and hopefully some Greek and Hebrew so they can properly interpret and apply the biblical text. We’re confident that when we approach them with questions about the canonization of Scripture, the implications of the incarnation, and the doctrine of the body and sexuality, their learning will aid us in responding faithfully to such pressing questions in our culture.

If anything the world bears down with even greater ferocity on the fledging faith of Christian youth. So why should we expect less theological rigor from our youth pastors who serve them through teaching, counseling, and more? Every youth minister needs to be a theologian, whether formally or informally equipped to handle God’s Word with integrity and care.

This new 10-minute video feature insights from David Plant, director of youth ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; Cameron Cole, director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama; and Liz Edrington, who is pursuing her master’s degree in counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. All three serve on the board of advisers for Rooted, which aims to transform student ministry by fostering grace-driven and cross-centered leaders through rich theological and contextual engagement.

This year’s Rooted conference on “Truth in a World of Mixed Messages” runs October 9 to 11 in New York City and features Andrew Wilson as the keynote speaker.



Global Theology in English: Promising or Problematic?

When it comes to fighting theological famine around the world many consider English resources to be only temporary tools. To be sure, there is no substitute for hearing the great things of God in one’s own heart language. So we often defend English resources by way of their availability and efficiency while waiting for translation projects to faze them out.

English-dictionariesHowever, the availability of English resources presents opportunity not often acknowledged. English resources enable two-way exchange in which Christians across the globe study common sources and offer their unique insights to the worldwide theological dialogue. English dominance complicates issues, of course. So we must proceed with sensitivity as we explore the precedents, problems, and possibilities of English as a common theological language.

Need for Global Dialogue

A global church demands dialogue that spans all cultures. However, in addressing this need, we must begin by setting a course that navigates between two extremes. On one end some deny the ways culture shapes their theology. On the other end some react harshly to anything that appears Western in its theological character. We might call the first problem didacticism and the second one diatribe. Neither is dialogue. However, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer provides us a helpful and hopeful middle path between these two poles. He writes:

Theology must not hearken to Western voices only. Nor should theologians attend to voices that come only from their century or social class. All cultural scenes are equally valid (and equally limited) in the drama of redemption. By contrast, theology should not be anti-Western either. The West has had a considerable head start when thinking about how to apply and contextualize the gospel. . . . Ideally, theologians in one culture will dialogue and learn from theologians in others. [1] 

Common language fosters such global dialogue. And theology is not the only discipline that benefits from widespread English usage. Understandably, many do not welcome this trend. For instance, a recent study investigated the perceptions of Spanish scientists toward the prevalence of English in scientific discourse. [2] Participants responded with resignation. As the researchers explain, “A surprisingly high proportion of subjects (83 percent) believe there is a need for one international language of science.” At the same time, 96 percent of participants said the current system privileges native English speakers.

Historically speaking, English is not the first language to function in this role as a common language that transcends borders and cultures. For instance, Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic have also done so in certain times and places. Likewise, much of the church developed and communicated its theology through Greek and Latin. And today’s theology students must study still more languages in their work, such as Hebrew, German, and French. In every case the language shaped the discourse in ways we cannot always comprehend.

English and Local Languages

Contrastive rhetoric has examined some effects of this interaction between language and culture, especially as it relates to reading and writing. In particular, Robert Kaplan’s pioneering research in this field, although initially overstated, demonstrated that different cultures operate with different “cultural thought patterns.”  For instance, English writing tends to favor linear organization, while other languages often take a less direct form. For example, Arabic favors a parallel structure, and many East Asian languages prefer spiral organization that gradually brings the reader from the general to the specific.

In practice, these patterns can significantly affect cross-cultural reading. Common English patterns may even offend certain readers. This perspective may sound like an exaggeration, but many around the world blush at the directness of English communication. They regard it as rude. Likewise, we in the English-speaking world tend to consider the writings of other cultures as “not to the point” and much too “flowery.”

These differences need not battle it out with each other for a kind of cultural supremacy. Kaplan stresses that contrastive rhetoric has always aimed at “contributing to the resources available for discourse-building among bilingual populations.” [3] Different patterns can be learned by different cultures without obliterating local norms. In fact, this process of adding patterns, as Kaplan indicates, supplies us with more resources for global dialogue. However, if English forms replace other cultural thought patterns, we confront a twofold danger. First, we limit the effectiveness of non-native English speakers in communicating theological truths in their local settings, and perhaps even in their own local languages. Second, we deprive the rest of the world of learning from their unique cultural perspectives.

What Is English?

If a common language frames worldwide dialogue, the culture of origin for that language will enjoy a privileged status. Maybe English isn’t such a bad fit, with its varied origin and habit of sampling vocabulary from languages the world over. But what exactly is English anyway? Does it refer to British English or American English? And if so, which regional dialect? And what about Australian, Indian, or Singaporean English? International English curriculums often look to Received Pronunciation, the prescribed British dialect, as the proper form. But if we judge media prevalence to be the deciding factor, American English tends to be the standard. Ultimately, English has no “pure” form.

As a result we now see many World Englishes. As different cultural groups use English to express their unique social settings, they infuse English with aspects of their local languages. For example, if two theologians from different East Asian countries interact, they will most likely communicate in English, even if their cultures have more in common with each other than either does with British or American culture. Yet they will use English in an “East Asian” way.

This trend challenges the assumption that English aims only to connect other cultures to us. And World Englishes grant non-native English speakers a voice in the continued development of English as a truly international language. This voice helps preserve the diversity of cultural thought patterns even as it adds lushness to English expression that only a choir of culturally varied voices could provide. As one Southeast Asian student writes of her English graduate school experience in Australia:

I have now realised more consciously how useful and valuable writing in two tongues is to my creation and choice making. If the English norms give me the privilege to assert myself with the use of constant “I” and spell out my intentions in “maps,” then [my local language] norms legitimise my employment of poetic language and create a subtle flow in writing. As the English norms require me to explain everything explicitly, why do I have to hide my emotional feelings as well as show my engagement with the topic? [4]

Though not originating in a theological context, this quotation speaks volumes about the possibilities of English in global theological dialogue. Theology articulates the deepest truths of our being, the most foundational truths of our entire worldview. This reality demands a church that reaches across all cultures in effort to understand and thereby worship God more fully.

As the ancient Augustine amazes us with his elated eloquence and penchant for sudden doxologies, so might the Western church need its rhetorical standards stirred by brothers and sisters of more exuberant, and maybe even exultant, expression. There are certainly dangers in English as a common theological language, but the dialogue it enables will ensure that theological famine relief is a two-way exchange. [5]

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox Press: 2005), 323.

[2] G. Ferguson, C. Pérez-Llantada, C., and Plo, R. “English as an International Language of Scientific Publication: A Study of Attitudes.” World Englishes 30, no. 1 (2011), 41-59.

[3] “Foreword: What in the World is Contrastive Rhetoric?” In Contrastive Rhetoric Revisited and RedefinedEdited by Clayann Gilliam Panetta, vii-xx. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), xv.

[4] R. Viete and P.  Ha, “The Growth of Voice: Expanding Possibilities for Representing Self in Research Writing.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 6, no. 2 (2007), 50-51.

[5] For further exploration of this topic see Cheri Pierson and Will Bankston, “English for Bible and Theology: Understanding and Communicating Theology Across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers.” Teaching Theology and Religion 16, no. 1 (2013), 33-49.

Mortifying the Fear of Academic Books

Academic books filled with silver-dollar words can come across as literary bullies, taunting you, sitting there perched on your desk, nightstand, and bookshelves. These books wear a costume, posing in the same square form as your favorite reads—the novels, the uplifting devotionals, the Pulitzer biographies. They share the outward look and texture as a can’t-put-it-down story, but they are not the same. If some books are a stroll in the park wrapped in a summery cool breeze, academic treatises can be a ponderous trudge through a bog, uphill, at night, in the rain, alone.

divinity-libraryBut the trudge is an illusion, a feeling, an attitude, and a state of mind. You created it, and you can exercise a surprising amount of control over it in the long run. The skills that built and stacked internal walls meant to protect your own ego against the barrage of heavy, theological terms are the same skills that can sack those walls and command those technical terms for your spiritual benefit.

Tackle the Tomes

It takes a fresh look at theology and an intentional shift in your reading style to tackle thick tomes. For the shift to be effective, you’ll need to put your favorite novels on Mars and your academic, theological books on Venus. They’re not the same thing, though their similar appearance tries to tell you otherwise.

Stories are meant to be read at page one and continued until you see “THE END,” followed by tears, laughs, or a sigh. (Tears, laughs, and sighs can also accompany academic works, but for different reasons.) There are plot points, irony, foreshadowing, and other things you learned in high school English class. Academic works, on the other hand, are meant to be used and abused. Don’t worry about hurting the author’s feelings. He used and abused other books when he was researching, because he had a goal to achieve, namely, this book you are now attempting to crack.

Your Choice

Most of us are under no official orders to read. Reading is voluntary, chosen with either helpful motives or less-than-helpful motives. Picking up a book because you think you should won’t fill up your motivation tank. Duty alone rarely spurs us on. At times dutiful reading is necessary, but for non-students the choice of which book to pick up is yours and yours alone. You can opt in any time and opt out just as quickly, and a big part of your mind knows this as you sit—judge, jury, and at times executioner for your current read.

The decision to read or not to read creates a sense of freedom, which is a good thing, but eventually you’ll need to land on a particular book. Reading heavy theology calls for a purpose if it is to last, a map of sorts before making the intellectual climb. Maybe your pastor mentioned swirling debates over which books of the Bible should be included in the canon, and you want to follow the conversation. Pick up Canon Revisited by Michael Kruger. Maybe someone at work threw a leading scientist’s resume’ at you, championing his atheism. Check out Redeeming Science (for free here) by Vern Poythress. What if your college Bible study is studying Ephesians, and within the first five verses of the first chapter when “predestined” is mentioned, someone says, “I don’t believe in predestination”? (This happened to me.) Travel back a few centuries and pick up John Owen’s The Gospel Defended. Or a dozen other works I could mention for each of these scenarios. The immediate goal is a reasonable, working knowledge of a topic you want to know more about, and the ultimate goal is simply to know more about the God you worship and his world.

Wet Blankets?

There is a persistent, parasitic myth buzzing around that academic theological books are wet blankets for your devotional life, or your relationship with Jesus, or something. The source of these myths is typically those who out of principle do not lift books that require cerebral weight training. You won’t hear the same anti-theology myth coming from someone who has popped out on the other side of a dense library. If I’m looking for advice on whether a particular mountain is worth the climb, I’ll ask someone who has already been there, not someone who has never packed for the hike, whose opinion rests on hearsay and speculation. The same principle applies to just about anything that requires effort, including dense theological works.

If you can clear the fog of fear and hesitation hovering over academic books, you might find an unexpected depth and richness between the pages. Heavy theological reading will never take the place of a heart-gripping novel or a devotional full of soaring words of worship. But a rich read can often add color, dimension, and vibrancy to your Christian walk and give those devotionals a few more volts.

5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance

If you asked me to name my theological pet peeves, right near the top would be what I call pendulum-swing theology. This process usually occurs when you grow up hearing one particular view of something, get sick of it, and then swing to the opposite extreme. For example, you grow up a hyper-Calvinist, something happens, and you swing to open theism. You see this swing a lot in atonement theology, too. Sometimes, when evangelicals who’ve grown up on a steady diet of penal substitutionary atonement discover Jesus actually did some other things, too—like defeat the powers, demonstrate God’s love, and so forth—they end up chucking penal substitution altogether instead of carefully integrating each truth into a holistic doctrine of reconciliation. Martin Luther described the history of theology as a drunk man getting on his horse only to fall off the other side—and then repeating the process. This problem irks me.

So finding evenhanded treatments of just about any subject is one of my greatest delights. A sense for balance is one of the highest virtues a theologian can possess, while a lack of balance is a serious vice. In trinitarian theology, for example, focusing on God’s oneness over his threeness, or vice versa, leads to either modalism or tritheism—neither of which works with the gospel. In fact, they both destroy it. In Christology, too, the Chalcedonian definition keeps us from tipping into an overemphasis on the Son’s divinity or humanity to the exclusion and distortion of the other. Again, lose your balance, you lose the gospel. God is both immanent and transcendent; tip one way or the other and you end up with either a soggy pantheism or a cold deism—neither of which works well with the gospel. You see how this works?

That said, it’s important to be balanced even with our love for balance in theology. Bruce Ware explains this point in his foreword to Rob Lister’s excellent, balanced book on the doctrine of impassibility:

Theological balance, like physical balance, is normally a sign of health and well-being. The reason such balance is “normally” but not exclusively best is simply that, in some situations, imbalance is clearly required. So physically, balancing equally on both legs with sustained upright posture is normally best, yet if one wishes to dive into a swimming pool, one must embrace the imbalance of leaning altogether forward—a position that if done “normally” would result in endless bloody noses and skull fractures. (16)

In all sorts of areas, balance is good, but sometimes there’s no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas. Christ is not one among many mediators, or else he isn’t Savior. We aren’t saved by God’s grace and our merit. It can’t be God’s glory and ours. And, of course, as soon as we elevate other authorities alongside Scripture, we begin to lose sight of biblical proportion.

Indeed, there are times when balance is no virtue, but a gospel-destroying vice. The gospel requires a few headlong plunges. In other words, a true sense of balance will recognize that there are times for both/ands along with times for either/ors. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial to avoiding heresy and preserving the gospel.

Finding your theological balance indeed can be difficult, so here are five tips for those of us still in process.

1. Read your Bible like crazy.

You can’t know the Scriptures too well. And by “knowing the Scriptures” I don’t just mean the canon-within-a-canon you’ve chosen for yourself out of three Pauline epistles and a Gospel, or from the books of Matthew and James. Get a few prophets, Old Testament narratives, and even some Torah in there. God gave us 66 books to reveal himself, so ignoring bits will inevitably leave you off-balance. Get this one wrong and the rest won’t matter.

2. Read more than one theologian.

Focusing on that one pastor or thinker to the exclusion of others is a recipe for imbalance. As a limited, fallible human, your hero will be myopic somewhere. Expand your horizons. Read outside your tradition a bit. Wander outside your century. Who knows what gems you’ll find?

3. Read the key irenic, broadly focused theologians.

Every theologian has hobby-horses and pet issues, but some are well known for their controversies and others for their broad, even-keeled treatments of issues. Look for those theologians who are widely consulted even across traditional boundaries. If there’s a Methodist or Catholic being quoted by a Reformed theologian, like Thomas Oden, go ahead and pick him up.

4. Read the key polemical theologians.

I’ve recently set myself the task of reading some key theologians in the early church controversies: Ireneaus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Cyril against the Nestorians, Augustine against the Pelagians, and so forth. These teachers demonstrated an ability to defend or preserve some necessary tension—some holy imbalance—in the faith. The ability to defend one issue clearly is often a sign of a good grasp on the whole.

5. Read about more than one subject.

This one should be obvious, but if you fixate on one issue, no matter how central it is, you’ll have balance issues. It’s okay to give sustained attention to interesting or key subjects, but if I’ve only ever read about the cross and never the resurrection or the ascension, I’ll have a skewed view of Christ’s person and work. What’s more, narrow reading usually obscures a fuller understanding of the couple of subjects I do study since every doctrine is only meaningful within the framework of the whole.

I could easily list more, but the point is, don’t be that drunk guy falling off his horse. Study widely, read deeply, and constantly check yourself against the whole of Scripture. Do that, and you may just begin to find your balance.

Creative Orthodoxy

What is the place of creativity or innovation in theology? This question has nagged me for years. How can one innovate while both remaining inside of, and even bolstering the case for, orthodoxy? The idea seemed conceptually possible, but I had always lacked a metaphor to explain how. Though I didn’t realize it until recently, there happens to be an entire craft that illustrates this dilemma and suggests its solution: typography.

In his recent bestseller Just My Type, Simon Garfield introduces us to Matthew Carter, a man The New Yorker once profiled as the “most read man in the world.”

He is the creator, notably, of Verdana, whose adoption by Microsoft and Google has given it huge reach; of Georgia, the most legible and adaptable screen font of Bell Centennial, designed for the AT&T phonebook; of Tahoma, which is sometimes used by IKEA in place of its regular font . . . Verdana; and of over twenty more typefaces. . . . His work is on almost every computer in the world, and on perhaps half the western world’s advertising.

Carter’s work prompts a question that ought to interest innovation-minded theologians everywhere: what was this man able to do with an A, a B, and a C that no one else had done in the past 500 years? How did he create vehicles for presenting the exact same content in two dozen faithful but fresh ways?

Typographers labor under the challenge of developing something that freshly presents familiar forms, and this aptly summarizes the challenge to creative theologians as well. We are bent on preserving the essential forms of the kerygmatic alphabet but also on presenting them in a compelling way. One need only glance over the Periodic Table of the Typefaces to get a sense for the kind of solidarity the church’s doctors ought to feel with the printed page’s doctors.

Potential Trap

There’s a potential trap in this whole metaphor, of course. In a recent discussion, an acquaintance mentioned in passing that he thought typography had essentially become an amateur’s game. His rationale: “Anyone can download a program with which to design their own fonts.” And here we notice the subtle fallacy that plagues both typographers and theologians alike: there’s a difference between making a single letter and making an entire typeface.

Christian publishing often thrives on books that make this mistake. Such books radically rework one aspect of the biblical narrative—one letter, if you will—without regard for the way their reworked version throws the rest of the story into disharmony. This problem highlights the challenge theologians and typographers share: we have to design small components that serve the greater whole, and that work seamlessly within an already established, delineated form. In one section of Just My Type, Garfield describes the way one typographer attempted to address this challenge in his discipline:

Like most designers, he had a way of relaxing his eyes so that he could concentrate on the white paper behind the letters, gauging the space between the characters, the space between lines of text and their “weight”—how light or bold they were, how much ink they used on a page, how many pixels they occupied on a screen.

The mistake of beginning typographers, we might say, is also the mistake of beginning theologians: they attempt to formulate individual letters without forethought for the way they will fit with other letters, in the individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of what already exists. The whole must be kept in mind as every letter’s counter, stem, and bowl are designed. And this hints at one possible final parallel between these two disciplines.

Invisible Art

Beatrice Warde, a famous speaker in mid-20th century typographic circles, thought “the best type existed merely to communicate an idea. It was not there to be noticed, much less admired. The more a reader becomes aware of a typeface or a layout, the worse that typography is.” We may think this perspective is slightly too severe, but she makes a point every serious reader can appreciate. Theology, like typography, predisposes us to become connoisseurs of certain systems, to fixate on those systems, and to make debate about minutiae and our own personal syntheses a favorite past-time. But the greatest practitioners of both trades have not seen their roles in offering something noticeable. Rather, they offer something transparent, something that serves a greater end than itself.

We do not often think of transparency as the defining characteristic of great theology, and that might in fact underlie some of the church’s interpretive difficulties over the centuries. Our insider speak inclines us to seek meaning in the shapes of the letters, or the alignments of the paragraphs, and not in the meaning of the sentences.

Both great typographers and also great theologians strive to make their work an “invisible art.” They facilitate a process by which ideas are conveyed (in the case of typography) from one person to another or (in the case of theology) from God to his creations, without causing a distraction or drawing attention to themselves. No metaphor is perfect, but I believe the discipline of typography can serve as a great conversational partner for the discipline of creative theology. It offers many lessons learned in the way of “goals” and gives us a humbling perspective on what would make any theology great in the first place: its ability to facilitate worship while going unnoticed itself.

Telling the Story from the Bible

Children’s story bibles are not Bibles and, it turns out, neither are they for children.[1] My previous article explores the truth of the first statement.[2] Story bibles are illustrated, abridged, expanded, paraphrased, and fallible versions of the infallible book whose name they bear. They are not Bibles. But nor are they for children, at least, they are not just for children. Several pastors and reviewers recommend both The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible for use among adults.[3]

One reviewer of the latter in Christianity Today says, “I’m hoping to invite my adult friends over for an evening with the Story. It will help some of us (well, me) to retool our theology a bit. We’ll pass The Jesus Storybook Bible around and read it aloud, taking time to look at the pictures.”[4] Tim Keller goes further: “I would urge not just families with young children to get this book, but every Christian—from pew warmers, to ministry leaders, seminarians and even theologians!”[5] Others make similar claims for The Big Picture Story Bible, which one blog-commenter suggests adding to a list of “Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College.”[6]

This is a relatively new situation. Prior to these story bibles, it is hard to find any such enthusiastic endorsements. What are we to make of this? On the one hand it could highlight the extent of biblical illiteracy and theological immaturity among Christian adults and, more alarmingly, among seminary students. On the other hand, or perhaps in addition to this, it could speak of the quality of these books, although the lack of any sustained critical engagement with them means that claims of their value are largely untested.

That testing, therefore, is the focus of this article. Although several story bibles have appeared in recent years, the widespread popularity of these two justifies limiting our attention to them.[7] My previous article demonstrates that it is neither an easy nor a quick task to evaluate a story bible. Drawing on the methodology my preceding article develops, this article considers these two popular story bibles with reference to four key relationships:

  1. story bible text and Scripture
  2. story bible images and Scripture
  3. text and image within the story bible
  4. the story bible and the child

Not every review of a story bible need follow this sequence, or do so at such length, but I hope in what follows to build on the previous article in two ways: (1) underline the significance and multifaceted nature of these relationships and (2) demonstrate their usefulness as a framework by which to evaluate story bibles.

1. The Big Picture Story Bible

The Big Picture Story Bible (hereafter BPSB), first published in 2004 by Crossway, now includes a companion audio CD (2010) and an eBook edition (2011), reflecting both the book’s success and technological advances within publishing.[8] Intended for ages 2-7, it is divided into 26 chapters, 11 covering the OT (201 pages), 15 the NT (225 pages).

1.1. The Relationship between BPSB Text and Scripture

There are four sides to the relationship between the text of a story bible and Scripture: omission, addition, reformulation, and transposition.[9] In other words, we ask, “What has the author left out, added, changed, or rearranged?”

Continue reading at Themeliosan international evangelical theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith. It is published three times per year by The Gospel Coalition.


[1] To avoid ambiguity, this article refers to children’s bibles as “story bibles,” “children’s bibles,” or “bibles” (lowercase) and the Christian Scriptures as “the Bible” (uppercase) or “Scripture.”

[2] David A. Shaw, “Telling the Story from the Bible? How Story Bibles Work,” Them 37 (2012): 211-48.

[3] David R. Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (illustrated by Gail Schoonmaker; Wheaton: Crossway, 2004); Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (illustrated by Jago; Grand Rapids: Zonderkidz, 2007).

[4] Ben Patterson, “A Very Grown-up Children’s Bible.” March 3, 2008. (cited November 1, 2012).

[5] Quoted in Justin Taylor, “The Jesus Storybook Bible,” Between Two Worlds, February 22, 2007,  (cited November 1, 2012). Tullian Tchividjian gives a similar endorsement: “The Jesus Storybook Bible is, in my opinion, one of the best resources available to help both children and adults see the Jesus-centered story line of the Bible.” “What the Bible is Not,” The Gospel Coalition Blog, December 28, 2009,  (cited November 1, 2012).

[6] The suggestion appears in the comments after this post by Michael F. Bird: “Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College,” Euangelion, September 14, 2012.

[7] Other story bibles published in the last few years that would merit further reviews include Starr Meade, Mighty Acts of God: A Family Bible Story Book (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); Doug Mauss, ed., The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010); Marty Machowski, The Gospel Story Bible: Discovering Jesus in the Old and New Testaments (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011); The Story for Kids: Discover the Bible from Beginning to End (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); Champ Thornton, God’s Love: A Bible Storybook (Whitakers, NC: PositiveAction, 2012).

[8] For more information see http://www.crossway.org/blog/2011/07/the-big-picture-story-bible-ebook-with-read-aloud.

[9] These terms derive from Ruth Bottigheimer, “An Alternative Eve in Johann Hübner’s Children’s Bible,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16 (1991): 75.

Confessions of a Woman Who Didn’t Like Theology

A couple of years ago, we were sitting in our living room as I confessed to another young Reformed couple, “I don’t like theology.” We all observed a moment of embarrassed silence in honor of my ignorance.

I recently reflected on that moment as I sat in an enthusiastically Reformed conference. When I say “enthusiastically Reformed,” I mean the sort of zeal you find in that first-semester seminary student who’s just discovered the doctrines of grace and can’t seem to speak of much else. He manages to foist TULIP into an impressive array of situations, from a discussion of biblical texts to a tour of the art museum.

While I’ve grown immensely in my understanding of the importance of biblical truth, the stubborn fact remains: love for theology and doctrine doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s an acquired taste.

But why should you care? Perhaps I lost you at “I don’t like theology.” Nevertheless, I’m convinced you should care, and here’s why: I represent members of your church. Maybe a large segment, maybe a smaller one, but I guarantee they’re out there. With this reality in mind, l’d like to offer three insights from an unnatural theology lover.

1. Even when learning doesn’t come naturally, we can love theology and doctrine if it’s served consistently with a big helping of gentleness and grace.  

Be careful not to characterize us as illiterate, uneducated doofuses who haven’t read the Bible. I get where that perception comes from, I do. But it’s not true of all of us, and theology-loving believers should be careful and gentle in their approach. By all means teach, rebuke, and correct us. But please do so gently and graciously. Consider the example of Priscilla and Aquila when they found Apollos full of zeal but lacking in knowledge (Acts 18:18-28; cf. Rom. 10:2; Prov. 19:2). The text tells us the couple took him into their home and unfolded in greater fullness the gospel of Christ (Acts 18:26). Gently and graciously, Priscilla and Aquilla led Apollos to a knowledge of the truth.

2. Sometimes you will need to connect the dots for us.

We need your help. But be willing to help us in humility, without getting exasperated. I’m a creative, non-linear thinker who often absorbs theology more effectively when I trace the application back to the doctrine. I understand why you scorn sermons full of application but lacking meat. But you also need to understand that my way of processing isn’t necessarily inferior; it’s just different. Connect the dots, take me to the truth, and watch the fruit unfold.

3. Don’t give up on us.

For all the creative, feeling-oriented folks in your church, pray and don’t give up. One day, the theology you treasure will strike us in the heart like Cupid’s arrow—and we’ll be hooked. Probably when life trips us up and we need help connecting those dots. And we’ll get it. Finally, we’ll get it. God will accomplish this in us—and perhaps even faster as you use gentleness, understanding, and grace to minister to us. Or, as the apostle put it, as you labor with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Then, friends, watch out! No eye has seen and no ear has heard the ways we’ll advance the kingdom with our newfound grasp of—and love for—deep truth.

The Image of God and the Dignity of Work

The number one fear of the millennial generation is living a meaningless life.

In a recent informal survey of undergraduate students at Regent University, 27 percent of students asked expressed anxiety when considering their vocation. “Scared,” “uneasy,” “unsure,” “confused,” and “apprehensive” were common words in describing the way they felt about their future vocation.

But college students aren’t the only ones struggling with their calling. Many adults fail to discover their calling in life, too. Why is it so hard to find this thing we call our “vocation”?

When I use the words “calling” and “vocation,” I am referring to what Os Guinness calls our secondary calling. As Guinness points out, along with Luther, Calvin, and many other Reformers, our primary calling is the call to faith in Christ. Several secondary callings flow from this primary calling, including the call to work.

Every person is created in the image of God, full of dignity, with unique talents and gifts to use for the glory of God in their work. Many Christians fail to discover their vocation because they don’t fully understand what it means to be made in the image of God.

Imago Dei

Christians have heard theologians and pastors say over and over again that we’re all made in the image of God, but what does this mean? It’s a complex idea.

The image of God is a foundational concept for understanding our significance and purpose in life. Understanding how we are made in God’s image helps us understand our inherent dignity as a human being created by our heavenly Father.

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that human beings are made in the image of God:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

From these verses, we understand that our worth is connected to our Creator. If God is of great and inestimable worth, then human beings made in his image must have immense value too.

The image of God in us survives our fall into sin. For example, in Genesis 9:6, God reminds Noah that man is made in God’s image:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

In other words, this verse tells us, “To attack a person is to attack God through his image bearer.” Though mankind is tainted by sin, sin does not eradicate the doctrine of the Imago Dei.

We are also told again in the New Testament that human beings are made in God’s image. James 3:9 says,

With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

So how we treat people indicates how we value God.

One of my favorite quotes from C. S. Lewis appears in his book The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.” The people you see every day, even the ones to whom you give little regard, will live forever either under salvation or judgment. Even the most obscure person is not ordinary in God’s eyes.

In light of this truth, how do we affirm the dignity of the people around us?

Fallen, Yet Redeemed

Today, some Christians focus on our dignity and self-worth without much mention of our sinfulness. Others emphasize our utter unworthiness and sinfulness without much reminder of our dignity or God’s grace.

We should not focus on our sin for long without also noting God’s grace and our God-given dignity. For the apostle Paul, the depth of sin leads to rejoicing in God’s grace: “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle. . . . But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 5:9-10).  

In 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners but also notes that he received mercy for this reason, that “Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience.” 

We can say the same. No matter what we have done, God’s grace works in us. To deny or fail to acknowledge this truth is to say that God’s grace is in vain. Certainly it is right to take time for self-examination, confession, and repentance. But we should eventually come back to God’s grace and our own dignity from being made in the image of God.

The Restored Image of God Looks Like Christ

While the image of God remains after the Fall, it is certainly marred and defaced. As we are redeemed, what will we look like when the process is completed?

As God restores us, our unique design in the image of God will shine even more brightly, and our gifts will reach their full potential. We will also look like Christ. Romans 8:29 reminds us that we are being “conformed to the image of his Son.” Jesus is the perfect representative of the image of God, and we are being made like him.

Being made in the image of God provides the basis for our work and vocation. If we are made in the image of God, we share his characteristics. For example, because God is creative, we can be creative in our work. Knowing the basis for our dignity and worth helps us understand we have gifts and talents to employ. I have conducted hundreds of vocational profiles with people who hadn’t discovered their calling because they didn’t think they had anything to offer. Often, traumatic events from their past have defined their identity and kept them from recognizing their dignity, worth, and God-given creativity.

Yet when they realized the implications of being made in God’s image, their outlook changed. I could see the change in their lives, as this truth—rather than their pasts—became the basis for their identities. As they understood what it means to be made in the image of God, these people began to believe they were unique and talented. They realized how God had gifted them, and used this knowledge to find their vocations.

Being made in the image of God is a powerful concept for finding our vocations and living a purposeful life.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Gospel Coalition has a vision for churches that equip people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. That’s why we’ve invited leaders from the church and marketplace to come together for an afternoon to discuss a variety of issues related to the Christian faith and its role in our work and vacation. This free Faith at Work event will take place from 1:30 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10, following The Gospel Coalition National Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida. Tim Keller, author of the recently published book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, headlines the post-conference.


Ancient Answers for Modern Questions

Why would a guy born in the 1970s lead a church born in the 1740s to adopt a confession of faith born in 2010?

There can be little doubt about the value of corporate confessions. One might argue that believers have “no creed but the Bible.” But the very nature of the Bible demands that we summarize its truth as clearly and comprehensively as possible. Otherwise when someone asks what the Bible teaches, no other option is available except a weeks-long study of the question from one end of the Bible to the other. Not only is such a method impractical, the data overwhelm us like the toys scattered around my daughters’ bedroom, begging for someone to collect and organize them for ease of access—not to mention sanity.

No wonder, then, that the Scriptures themselves employ confessions of faith. Paul writes to Timothy, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen of angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, received up to glory” (1 Tim. 3:15). Here is the life of Jesus worked into six pithy, portable sayings. This confession does not include every detail of his life, but it offers a framework for everything that is true about Christ while countering false notions that had arisen.

Church history is replete with confessions that organize biblical truth and ward off heresy. When our congregation incorporated as the First Baptist Church in the City of New York in 1762, our founders adopted the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Since then our church has completely rewritten its articles of faith twice and significantly revised the statement once.

One might wonder why a church like ours would change its doctrinal statement. Could it be a desire to make Christianity more palatable to the world? Certainly! But given the consistent fidelity to the Scriptures evident in each of our confessions, one must conclude that other factors were in play.

1. New challenges to the faith require fresh statements of biblical truth for contemporary audiences.

Such was certainly the case in 1935 when our church adopted our current confession. The preceding statement assumed but did not assert Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The modernist denial of the supernatural necessitated a clear statement on the point.

2. A church may change its thinking about secondary theological matters.

A case in point is the application of Old Testament Sabbath principles to New Testament believers. So also is the “manner of receiving persons” into the church’s fellowship, a point detailed in our 1839 confession but deleted in a revision two years later.

3. A church recognizes the need to clarify its theological stance.

The oversight of Christ’s resurrection in our 1841 statement exemplifies the point, as does Francis Beckwith’s persuasive argument that the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society leaves room for Roman Catholics to join.

For these reasons I am leading our congregation to consider replacing our articles of faith. While some friends suggest that we return to a historic confession of our past, my recommendation is to adopt (with minor revision) The Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement. This confession has the following advantages:

1. Contemporary. TGC’s Confessional Statement addresses issues with which the church today wrestles. For example, its authors address the challenge of open theism in the first article, postmodern deconstructionism in the second, and homosexuality in the third. The confession tacitly refers to contemporary challenges by explicitly articulating biblical truth.

2. Evangelical. Since The Gospel Coalition represents a wide swath of Protestantism, the Confessional Statement avoids some of the denominational cul-de-sacs that often receive the heaviest treatment in narrower confessions. The focus here is on the “deep and broad consensus [that] exists regarding the truths of the gospel,” as the Preamble states. While individuals and churches certainly believe more, the statement keeps the gospel as the functional center of our lives and churches without succumbing to an unthinking ecumenism that erases biblically drawn lines in the name of a gospel-less unity.

3. Affably complementarian. The third article treats the creation and design of humanity in greater detail than most confessions of faith, developing the equality that women and men enjoy before God, the unique blessing (and consequent non-interchangeability) of the sexes, and so on. On each point the Confessional Statement reflects a complementarian understanding of Scripture. But complementarians often present biblical teaching in terms of what is disallowed rather than celebrate the diversity of the sexes and the God who brings glory to himself through both men and women.

4. Biblical-theological. The confession quotes the Bible freely and uses Scriptural phraseology wherever possible. Furthermore, its theological method makes room for matters given significant biblical treatment but often left untreated in confessions. In this respect most notable is Article 10 on the kingdom of God. Central to Jesus’ teaching, this topic has enormous ramifications for our ecclesiology, eschatology, and indeed our soteriology.

5. Doxological. Some otherwise orthodox confessions read like the conclusions of a detached, analytical scientist, rather than the warm-hearted, God-glorifying devotion that such truth ought to stir. How much better would it be for us to theologize coram deo, that the product might redound to his glory. Here again the Confessional Statement is exemplary. Regularly recurring through the statement is the phrase from Ephesians 1, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” The one true God has done all things for our joy and his glory, so our theology  should always result in doxology.

The Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement is not a perfect document, and within a hundred years (or sooner!) another generation of believers will opt for something different to help them understand the Scriptures and face their world. Nevertheless this statement is a helpful guide to biblical truth and will, I hope, be an instrument by which the Lord keeps his people faithful to him until the next generation arises.

The Counterintuitive Calvin

So what did I do last summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin’s Instituteshis four-volume, 1,500-or-so-page systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith—in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold, and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and, while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

True Work of Literature

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don’t agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as “theology” or “doctrine” is almost misleading—it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers’ guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God’s love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart are changed.

So in Institutes I.3.1 he argues that, while you may know a lot about God you don’t truly know God until “reverence [is] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. . . . Unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” In other words, you don’t have true saving knowledge of God until you long to obey him, out of a desire to please and delight him because you are pleased and delighted with him for his grace. Calvin adds that in a Christian soul “this restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and reveres God as Father. . . . Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him.” (I.3.2 )

When Calvin comes to his three chapters on what it means to live a Christian life (III.6-7), again grace is at the forefront. He taught that the briefest statement of the Christian life is this—“You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Because you were saved by sheer grace (“you were bought with a price”), now your new principle of life is “you are not your own.” You no longer live for yourself, but for God and for your neighbor. All of the Christian life is the working out of that verse, that grace, and that new principle of joyful self-donation.

When Calvin applies this principle of gracious self-donation to our relationships with other people, he argues that we should treat even those who deserve nothing but disdain as if they were the Lord himself.

Say [about the stranger before you] that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself. . . . You will say, “He has deserved something far different from me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? . . . Remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.” (III.7.6)

When Calvin comes to his well-known doctrine of predestination, it is important to see where he places it. He does not deal with the doctrine under Book 1 where he treats God, or even Book 2 where he addresses sin and Christ. He waits until Book 3, which is about “How We Receive the Grace of Christ” through the Holy Spirit. Calvin insists that the opposite of the doctrine of predestination is not the idea of free will but the teaching that we are saved by our good works. He argues forcefully that, unless you see your saving faith is a gift from God to you, not from you to him—you have not yet grasped how free his grace is. You will ever so slightly believe that you are a Christian because you were more humble, open, and repentant than those who have not believed. But, Calvin reasoned, if you see your salvation is 100 percent by grace you will embrace and be both humbled and comforted by the truth of predestination.

Astonishing Doxology

Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin’s writings are astonishingly “doxological.” We might be tempted to say “inspirational” or “devotional” or “spiritual,” but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn’t do them justice. Calvin’s writings don’t read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man’s meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.

Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God’s love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought.” (III.2.36)

To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report.