John Edwards (1637-1716): It is vain and senseless to confine the doctrine of predestination to schools and universities

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In 1622, King James I issued instructions to the English clergy under the title Directions Concerning Preachers through Archbishop George Abbot, in order to restrict preaching on controversial issues. One of these directions reads as follows:

“That no preacher of what title soever under the degree of a bishop, or dean at the least, do from henceforth presume to preach in any popular auditory the deep points of predestination, election, reprobation or of the universality, efficacy, resistibility or irresistibility of God’s grace; but leave those themes to be handled by learned men, and that moderately and modestly by way of use and application, rather than by way of positive doctrine, as being fitter for the schools and universities, than for simple auditories.”

The Church of England divine John Edwards (1637-1716), whose works are crammed with a Reformed Orthodox understanding of predestination, criticized the king’s instruction in vol. 2 of his work titled The Preacher (p. 131-136, spelling modernized in places):

1. I do not see how it can be presumption to preach of these points [of doctrine] in the pulpit, seeing the Holy Scripture so often mentions them. Surely it can be no fault to deliver those doctrines, even in a popular auditory, when the Holy Bible, which is put into the hands of the people, delivers these sacred truths to us. May we not hear the same things from the preacher’s lips which we have from the mouths and pens of the inspired prophets and apostles? I believe I shall never be convinced that a minister of the Gospel, who is to take the matter [i.e. content] of his sermons from the Scriptures, is to be blamed for handling those very doctrines which he finds there; and especially seeing they are represented there as necessary to be believed, and of the foundation of the Christian religion.

2. It is observable that these doctrines of predestination, election, reprobation, etc., were held to be Orthodox in those times (viz. at the close of King James the First’s reign) by our Church [i.e. the Church of England]. For we see here that no fault is found in them, yea, it is supposed that the things themselves are true, and according to Scripture, otherwise no persons would be allow’d to preach and handle them: but some are here allow’d and authorized to do it. Now seeing they are own’d to be Orthodox, it is very strange and unaccountable that they may not be preached by all the ministers and dispensers of the Gospel. Have any men power to cull and pick out of the Bible such and such particular doctrines for the pastors of the Church to discourse of, and to order that others shall be debarred the pulpit? If any warrant can be shewed for this, I shall be silent, but till then I must profess myself bound to believe that the whole will of God, that is, all doctrines in the Scriptures relating to salvation, are to be preach’d to the people by the faithful ambassadors of Christ. In the Form of ordering Priests in our Church, we find that the Bishop delivers to every one of them the Bible, saying, Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, but he doth not confine them to certain texts, and certain doctrines, and give them authority to preach only on them. No: the Bible in general is their storehouse, and they may furnish themselves with all sorts of divine truths, and communicate them to their hearers.

3. How vain and senseless is that, that a popular auditory must hear nothing of these doctrines of predestination, etc., but the schools and universities may ring of them? As if there were nothing but matter of dispute and controversy in these evangelical matters. This is a great mistake, for there is solid, undoubted and incontestable truth in them, abstract from all debates and disputes. And the vulgar and illiterate are as capable of this as the most learned, and therefore they ought not to be excluded from hearing these doctrines, yea, they are hugely concerned in them, because by means of these they have an occasion of improving their spiritual knowledge, of strengthening their faith, of heightening their love and affection towards the Holy Jesus, of admiring the sovereignty, and extolling the peculiar grace and bounty of God. Is there any reason then to confine these doctrines to the schools and universities?

4. That is very silly and weak that none but a bishop or dean must preach of predestination and election, and the like doctrines, that none but cathedral men must venture upon these points: as if the Gospel, which delivers these doctrines, had commission’d those persons, and none else, to treat of them. This is a palpable imposing on the Christian world, this is a plain lessening and debasing the commission of Christ’s ambassadors, this is an unwarrantable confining the ministers of the Gospel, and the Gospel itself. Besides that it is a foolish intimation that a title or a dignity makes a man an able minister of Christ Jesus. But I think no more need to be said to expose this folly.

There are those that look upon these doctrines as wholly indifferent, and therefore advise that nothing should be said of them in the pulpit. But these men that talk thus, have either read the Scripture, or they have not: if they have, they can’t but see that these doctrines are not of an indifferent nature; if they have not, it is to be presumed that they have little regard to those sacred writings, and look upon them as indifferent, as well as these points: and perhaps they reckon all as such, and think one persuasion as true as another. This sceptical sort of gentlemen, I hope, our clergy will have nothing to do with, and consequently will not listen to what they say of the foresaid doctrines.

Some others would have us believe that the doctrine of the decrees, and of divine concourse, and of the power of grace, etc., are philosophical speculations, and therefore are not fit for the people. And sometimes they call them philosophical disputes and philosophical hypotheses. At other times they are said to be scholastical notions, and therefore are not to be regarded: as one among us lately was against the applying the epithet idolatrous to the Church of Rome, because it was (he said) a Scholastick term.

There are others of our order that refuse to discourse to the people on any of these points, because they carry some difficulty with them, and they pretend that they are loth to perplex their hearers’ minds. But this is a mere pretence, for on the same account some of the articles of our religion, which they themselves own necessary to be taught, are to be laid aside, as the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, etc. Therefore it is evident that the eternal decrees and the other truths so often mentioned ought to be preached, tho’ they be difficult. This must not deter us from delivering what is truth, and what is adjusted to the Word of God. And yet here this ought to be inserted, that about the way and manner of handling these points there is caution and prudence to be observed. The mere disputative part should not be undertaken ordinarily in our sermons. The abstruse speculations that may arise from these doctrines are not to be the subject of our discourses to the people: but the substantial part of them must be. For this being plainly and expressly contained in the Scriptures, we are obliged to discourse of it, as well as of other truths contained in that Holy Volume. And let me tell you, if this were commonly treated of, with judgment and care, and with shewing what are the useful inferences that naturally flow from it, it would be easily apprehended, and readily embraced, and our auditors would call for frequent instructions and applications relating to these divine subjects.

Well then, be persuaded of the necessity of acquainting your flock with these truths. We have Philistines that stop up these walls, but do you open them, and let your people have free admission to them. Nay, account it no other than sacrilege to rob the Church of these holy doctrines, which are her right and due. They being part of the Word of God (as I said before), take heed that as you do not add to it, so you do not diminish ought from it, Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18.

The Davenant Latin Institute’s Advanced Early Modern Latin Course: a review and commendation

Davenant Latin Institute

 

Five years ago, my one professor told me: “If you really want to study theology, you’ll have to read what has been written in the past, which means consulting the primary sources. And in order to consult the sources, you’ll need to know Latin.” On another occasion, in relation to historical theology, he similarly said: “If you want to know what happened, consult the sources. The rest is hearsay.”

Consulting the primary sources (particularly Reformed sources of the 16th to early 18th centuries) is exactly what I desired to do, and so the following year I heeded his advice and started studying Latin with this particular end in mind. However, the first three years of my Latin training was entirely in the classics. As delightful and helpful as reading Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Juvenal, Tacitus, and other classical Roman writers may be, this Latin (particularly the poetry) was not quite the same as that which is found in the texts which I desired to read, and for which I started studying Latin in the first place. So for quite a few years I desired a course which would focus specifically on ecclesiastical or theological Latin, and preferably on theological Latin of the early modern era.

By God’s good providence, a friend on social media shared a link to exactly such a course early last year – the Davenant Latin Institute’s (est. 2015) Advanced Early Modern Latin course – about which I was extremely excited. At the time I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew there and then that I simply had to enrol for this course, which today I finally completed. Allow me to share with you about this course, and heartily commend it to anyone who may be interested in it. The Davenant Latin Institute also has other courses, catering for everyone from beginners to advanced students, but due to my experience being limited to the Advanced Early Modern Latin course, I will restrict my discussion to this course, providing a brief overview of its format and what to expect.

Firstly, the course is entirely online, so you can be based anywhere in the world as long as you have internet access. Also, the workload, though substantial, is nevertheless such that it is manageable in conjunction with other studies or work (i.e. its demand is not full-time); our whole class were doing the course while also busy with other studies or endeavours. Consisting of two semesters, the course’s weekly schedule is as follows:

At the beginning of each week, students watch a pre-recorded lecture. These lectures are on a broad array of topics and individual authors. These topics include, but are not limited to, humanism and scholasticism, early modern rhetoric, Ramism and Aristotelianism, translation theory, early modern biblical commentaries, the rise of loci communes, as well as polemical and philosophical writings. The authors read are generally, but not exclusively, Reformed theologians from the period of early orthodoxy (late 16th and early 17th centuries). After watching the weekly pre-recorded lecture, the students have to submit a translation of the week’s selected text by the middle of the week, before attending live online interactive classes every Thursday. The week’s schedule ends with a vocabulary (scholastic theological terms) and grammar test each Friday. There are also two exams each semester, a mid-term and final exam.

One thing which I particularly enjoyed was that they allowed the students to select their own texts (e.g. one which you are working on or have to read for another project) to translate in addition to the prescribed texts during the second semester. This allowed me to translate excerpts from John Brown of Wamphray, Johannes à Marck, and Melchior Leydekker for other things I was busy with, thereby killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Another thing is that, beyond the Latin, students get exposed to many insights into early modern Reformed (in particular) theology in addition to what is prescribed in the course, through interaction with lecturers and classmates in the live classes. Together with the content of the source material, this means that the course does not only teach the students early modern Latin per se, but many of the theological and broader historical-intellectual developments behind the texts being read.

One thing is certain: during the two semesters that I spent in the Davenant Latin Institute’s Advanced Early Modern Latin course, not only has my grasp of Latin vastly improved, but also my knowledge of early modern theology and the historical context in which these authors wrote.

In sum, I strongly commend this course (together with their other courses, as suits the prospective student) to anyone who is interested in reading and studying theological texts from the early modern era, but particularly those who plan to do graduate studies in historical theology.

Melchior Leydekker (1642-1721) on the means by which to pursue theology

Melchior Leydekker

 

In chapter 1 of his Synopsis Theologiae Christianae, Melchior Leydekker (1642-1721) briefly comments on the means which one should in the pursuit of theology. He lists five (p. 11):

  1. The pious and painstaking reading, meditation, and comparison of Holy Scripture [in the sense of interpreting Scripture by Scripture] (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 3:15).

  2. Faithful and effective prayer (Js. 1:5; Ps. 119:18).

  3. Humble reverence and pious practice toward God (Ps. 111:10; Jn. 5:42, 44; 7:17).

  4. The legitimate use of the writings of ecclesiastics.

  5. The study of the oriental languages, true and solid philosophy, history, etc.

Although he doesn’t elaborate, it seems natural to me that by “the writings of ecclesiastics” he would not only include official church documents such as creeds, confessions, and synodical decrees, but also the books which have been deposited in the church by individual theologians throughout its history. By “oriental” languages, no doubt, Leydekker has in mind the biblical languages (including Greek, of course), not only those which we would refer to as “oriental,” such as Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.

Just a few comments on the first four of these points.

Firstly, as Leydekker points out a few pages before, the external principle (principium externum) of all our theology is Holy Scripture, and the internal principle (principium internum) is the grace of the Holy Spirit, “internally teaching, instructing, and certifying the divinity and true sense of Holy Scripture.”  Hence the preeminence he gives to Scripture here.

Secondly, regarding prayer, notice his citation of James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Students of theology should not depend on their unaided reason, but should constantly look to God in prayer to enlighten their minds as they study.

Thirdly, theology is not merely an intellectual (i.e. theoretical) exercise. Reformed Orthodox theologians emphasised the practical nature of theology, and Leydekker is no exception. He says a few pages earlier that “the whole of theology is practical, inasmuch as it refers, directs, and leads every divine truth perceived by the intellect to practice.” After all, the very name of this blog, taken from Petrus van Mastricht, points to this: theology is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ; that is, doctrine (theoretica) is a means to an end, namely living (practica) unto God through Christ.

Finally, regarding the legitimate use of tradition (i.e. reading the ecclesiastics), see these posts from Richard A. Muller and Carl Trueman.

John Calvin (1509-1564) on the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

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Tonight in our Bible study/prayer group, as part of a series on prayer, we discussed Christ’s Parable of the Persistent Widow, also known as the Parable of the Unjust Judge. I was eager when I got home to read the comments of John Calvin (1509-1564) on this passage, and found them very edifying. Below is the biblical text (taken from the KJV), followed by Calvin’s comments:

Luke 18:1-8

1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; 2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: 3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. 4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; 5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. 6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. 7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? 8 I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

Calvin comments:

“We know that perseverance in prayer is a rare and difficult attainment; and it is a manifestation of our unbelief that, when our first prayers are not successful, we immediately throw away not only hope, but all the ardor of prayer. But it is an undoubted evidence of our Faith, if we are disappointed of our wish, and yet do not lose courage. Most properly, therefore, does Christ recommend to his disciples to persevere in praying.

The parable which he employs, though apparently harsh, was admirably fitted to instruct his disciples, that they ought to be importunate in their prayers to God the Father, till they at length draw from him what He would otherwise appear to be unwilling to give. Not that by our prayers we gain a victory over God, and bend him slowly and reluctantly to compassion, but because the actual facts do not all at once make it evident that he graciously listens to our prayers. In the parable Christ describes to us a widow, who obtained what she wanted from an unjust and cruel judge, because she did not cease to make earnest demands. The leading truth conveyed is, that God does not all at once grant assistance to his people, because he chooses to be, as it were, wearied out by prayers; and that, however wretched and despicable may be the condition of those who pray to him, yet if they do not desist from the uninterrupted exercise of prayer, he will at length regard them and relieve their necessities.

The parties between whom the comparison is drawn are, indeed, by no means equal; for there is a wide difference between a wicked and cruel man and God, who is naturally inclined to mercy. But Christ intended to assure believers that they have no reason to fear lest their persevering entreaties to the Father of mercy should be refused, since by importunate supplication they prevail on men who are given to cruelty. The wicked and iron-hearted judge could not avoid yielding at length, though reluctantly, to the earnest solicitations of the widow: how then shall the prayers of believers, when perseveringly maintained, be without effect? If exhaustion and weakness are felt by us when we give way after a slight exertion, or if the ardor of prayer languishes because God appears to lend a deaf ear, let us rest assured of our ultimate success, though it may not be immediately apparent. Entertaining this conviction, let us contend against our impatience, so that the long delay may not induce us to discontinue our prayers.

7. And shall not God avenge his elect?That judge, whom Christ has described to us as altogether desperate, as not only hardened against the contemplation of God, but so entirely devoid of shame, that he had no anxiety about his reputation, at length opened his eyes to the distresses of the widow. We have no reason to doubt that believers will derive, at least, equal advantage from their prayers, provided they do not cease to plead earnestly with God. Yet it must be observed that, while Christ applies the parable to his subject, he does not make God to resemble a wicked and cruel judge, but points out a very different reason why those who believe in him are kept long in suspense, and why he does not actually and at once stretch out his hand to them: it is because he forbears. If at any time God winks at the injuries done to us longer than we would wish, let us know that this is done with a fatherly intention—to train us to patience. A temporary overlooking of crimes is very different from allowing them to remain for ever unpunished. The promise which he makes, that God will speedily avenge them, must be referred to his providence; for our hasty tempers and carnal apprehension lead us to conclude that he does not come quickly enough to grant relief. But if we could penetrate into his design, we would learn that his assistance is always ready and seasonable, as the case demands, and is not delayed for a single moment, but comes at the exact time.

But it is asked, How does Christ instruct his disciples to seek vengeance, while he exhorts them on another occasion, pray for those who injure and persecute you, (Matthew 5:44). I reply: what Christ says here about vengeance does not at all interfere with his former doctrine. God declares that he will avenge believers, not for the purpose of giving a loose rein to their carnal affections, but in order to convince them that their salvation is dear and precious in his sight, and in this manner to induce them to rely on his protection. If, laying aside hatred, pure and free from every wicked desire of revenge, and influenced by proper and well-regulated dispositions, they implore divine assistance, it will be a lawful and holy wish, and God himself will listen to it. But as nothing is more difficult than to divest ourselves of sinful affections, if we would offer pure and sincere prayers, we must ask the Lord to guide and direct our hearts by his Spirit. Then shall we lawfully call on God to be our avenger, and he will answer our prayers.

8. When the Son of man shall come.By these words Christ informs us that there will be no reason to wonder if men shall afterwards sink under their calamities: it will be because they neglect the true remedy. He intended to obviate an offense which we are daily apt to take, when we see all things in shameful confusion. Treachery, cruelty, imposture, deceit, and violence, abound on every hand; there is no regard to justice, and no shame; the poor groan under their oppressors; the innocent are abused or insulted; while God appears to be asleep in heaven. This is the reason why the flesh imagines that the government of fortune is blind. But Christ here reminds us that men are justly deprived of heavenly aid, on which they have neither knowledge nor inclination to place reliance. They who do nothing but murmur against the Lord in their hearts, and who allow no place for his providence, cannot reasonably expect that the Lord will assist them.

Shall he find faith on the earth? Christ expressly foretells that, from his ascension to heaven till his return, unbelievers will abound; meaning by these words that, if the Redeemer does not so speedily appear, the blame of the delay will attach to men, because there will be almost none to look for him. Would that we did not behold so manifest a fulfilment of this prediction! But experience proves that though the world is oppressed and overwhelmed by a huge mass of calamities, there are few indeed in whom the least spark of faith can be discerned. Others understand the word faith to denote uprightness, but the former meaning is more agreeable to the context.”

20 points of advice to prospective students of theology

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By Jake Griesel

For the past 4 years, I have been blessed to be able to partake in and reflect on theological studies at university level. I have learnt a great deal in that time, and have often thought about what advice I would give to prospective students of theology – advice I wish had been given to me when I started my own theological studies. Now that I am busy with my M.Th in Historical Theology, I have made a list of 20 points of advice I would give to prospective students of theology who consider starting a Bachelor’s degree, whether to later serve in the ministry or in the academy. These are arranged in no particular order, and are by no means exhaustive:

1. A verse to be engraved in every theologian’s mind

Remember that all-important reminder for theologians: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1. Consider your calling, and especially the One by whom you are called, and know that it is a calling of great weight – one might even say a burden – which is not to be taken lightly.

2. Do not let academic work and ambitions come in the way of your personal devotional life.

We have a saying in Afrikaans “moenie so besig raak met die dinge van die Here dat jy vergeet van die Here van die dinge nie” (lit. “Do not become so busy with the things of the Lord that you forget about the Lord of the things”). Also do not neglect your relationship with your family and friends – the key is to strike a balance. Pray without ceasing. Especially keep your knowledge of Scripture sharp. This will not only be of great value to your devotional life, but will offer a firm platform for discernment when you are confronted with not-so-kosher matters in your studies, such as theological liberalism, heresies, postmodernism, and the latest fads.

3. You are first and foremost called to be a theologian

During your theological studies, you will gain much knowledge and learn many skills. All such accumulated knowledge and skills are of course very useful and necessary, but are to be subservient to the main task of a theologian: the understanding and application of God’s Word. Your skills as a historian, linguist, philosopher or cultural critic must all be secondary to and subservient to your primary calling as a theologian.

4. Acquaint yourself with apologetics from the start

1 Peter 3:15 says we must always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” I have seen many students who are able to give a clear account of their faith to fellow believers, but crumble when they have to do the same before unbelievers. And at university there are many who challenge and oppose the faith. While most standard bachelor’s courses would include at least one module on apologetics, this is simply not enough. A great (and recent) source for equipping yourself with a knowledge of apologetics is Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). Get it and read it.

5. Be an active member of your local congregation

There is a self-sufficient spirit in our day in which many Christians prefer to stay at home and watch sermons on TV (most of which are utterly heretical) or their favourite preachers on the internet or on mp3. Many students of theology have done the same. Do not become like this. There is no place for neglecting the communion of saints in a theologian’s life. Furthermore, it is highly advisable to get involved in some form of ministry early on. Get involved in outreaches, evangelism, youth work, charity, or serve as a deacon in your congregation – whatever it is you do, do not leave the ministry only for when your studies are done. Not only will this provide you with valuable experience for when you eventually enter the ministry or work with students in future, but it will allow you to put theory into practice. And on top of this, it is obedience to the Great Commission. Get involved!

6. Submit yourself to the preaching of the Word and church authority

Students of theology are prone to sit in church on Sundays and critique whatever is being preached from the pulpit. While of course we must be like the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see whether “these things are so” (Acts 17:11), I believe some take their critiques too far and practically sit in judgment on the preached Word every Sunday. I have been guilty of this myself. Do not be like this. In humility submit yourself to the preached Word. The pastoral epistles of Paul give us ample reasons to do this. The Reformers understood the central importance of sitting under the preached Word, and we ought not to place ourselves over it. It is an issue of sinful pride. Humbly submit yourself to the God-ordained authorities, including the elders, regardless if you may have more theoretical knowledge than them. Doing otherwise, simply put, is rebellion against the revealed will of God.

7. Learn to write and speak clearly, cogently, and succinctly

Verbosity is to be avoided. While eloquence isn’t the sine qua non of a theologian, it is nonetheless a highly valuable skill, especially when preaching, writing assignments, or doing research papers. Learn to express your thoughts clearly and succinctly. I have seen many students with good thoughts and ideas struggle to express themselves and clearly articulate their thoughts, with the impact and meaning of what they were trying to say thereby going astray. If you are not a natural public speaker, joining a club such as Toastmasters International may be very helpful.

8. Tolle, lege! Take up and read!

I couldn’t emphasize this enough. Tolle, lege! We are not the first people to study the Scriptures or theology. Many brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) men have written before us, whether long ago or recently, and by reading we engage with these great theologians of the past and present. Not only is reading the primary method for acquiring knowledge, but it also offers us a platform for discernment. Start collecting books from the start and build a personal library, whether printed or digital ones (the latter which are ever-increasingly becoming readily available). I myself have greatly benefited from retiring pastors who were giving away their books (something I can’t imagine doing before I die) – look out for such opportunities or spend less money on trivial things (which good books certainly don’t qualify as) so that you may be able to buy decent books for your collection. Building such a library is not only an investment for the future, but may also come in handy when doing assignments. I can’t describe the number of times my own collection has helped me with assignments – sometimes even more than the university library! Start collecting today. On top of this, do not only read the prescribed curricular material. Read beyond that. Especially if the faculty or seminary where you study often exposes you to liberal theology, balance such readings with more conservative texts. And a last comment here: memorize the names of prominent and authoritative authors/works in the different disciplines, it will come in handy as your studies progress.

9. Try to discover your favourite discipline/subject early on

Later in your studies when it comes to research papers or dissertations, this will be important. I’ve seen many students uncertain about what discipline they want to focus on for their dissertations. I was fortunate enough to discover my two passions early on: Church history/historical theology on the one hand, and systematic theology/dogmatics on the other, with the former always being my favourite subject. Once you’ve discovered the discipline that most interests you, you can start exploring it in your own time and collecting sources, so that by the time you come to your later studies, you will already be well-acquainted with the subject.

10. Read on non-theological subjects as well, and regularly converse with non-theological students

As much as your studies in theology will naturally have the preeminence over other subjects, it is of great interest to the edification and well-being of a theology student to also stay in touch with other subjects. As depressing as some news headlines may be (especially in South Africa), try to at least keep one eye on contemporary issues and events. Acquaint yourself with history, the great classics of literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, agriculture, sports, or whatever other subjects there may be. In doing so it will also allow you to discover the gifts God has given to people in other fields, as well as the value of such fields. Theology cannot be done in a vacuum, and other subjects will give you greater perspective, offer you the chance to bring such subjects into theological light, and also provide more common ground with your future audience.

One positive aspect of studying at a public university as opposed to a seminary is that you are frequently in contact with students from other fields of study. Two years ago I shared a house with a final-year medical student and a final-year architecture student. The conversations I’ve had with them about things I knew nothing about, such as medical ethics, what medical students do in a hospital, how architecture has changed over the past 50 years, and many other things, have left a lasting impression on me, and though I am admittedly utterly ignorant in these fields, I at least understand the world of medical and architecture students to a slightly better degree than I did before. Just do it. Make friends with non-theological students.

11. Put in the effort with languages

Looking back, I wish I had put in more effort during my two years of Hebrew and Greek. Though I never struggled with these languages and did alright, I was lazy at the time and was one of those “open a book the night before exam” students. Two years later, though I can still help myself with these languages when doing exegesis with the aid of Bibleworks and lexicons, I wish I had put in the hard yards back then to gain a firmer foundation in Hebrew and Greek. Especially future pastors who will be exegeting texts on a weekly basis for their sermons, do not make the same mistake I did. Put in the effort and make sure your foundation in Hebrew and Greek is solid.

On top of this, if possible, consider taking Latin, German, and French as well – especially if you intend to do extensive postgraduate research. Latin is especially important if you intend to study church history or historical theology, that you may have access to the primary sources. The same goes for German and French. There are oceans of sources on all theological disciplines written in German and French, both old and new, which are only accessible if one is literate in these languages. Many theological terms and phrases are also fixed expressions in Latin, German or French, which are generally left untranslated in scholarly works. While I am thankful to be busy with third-year Latin, I only started German and French this year and wish I had somehow started earlier. Do not waste time. Start early so that by the time you get to postgraduate studies you are already familiar with these languages.

12. Exegesis is extremely important

In line with the previous point, I reckon one of the aspects of your theological training that deserves most attention is exegesis. If there is one aspect of your studies in which you must strive for excellence, it is this. Especially if you are going to preach the Word on a weekly basis, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15b) deserves the utmost attention.

13. Be humble and listen carefully

Zeal can be a very good thing, but it can also be dangerous. Many young theologians, out of sinful pride, start their studies with the know-it-all idea that they’re “going to prove the world wrong,” and then go out to seek quarrels and debates just for the sake of showing others how wrong they are. Such was I, to my shame. As surprising as it may come to some: no, we are not inherently right on all things and others are not inherently wrong on all things. Listen carefully to others and what they have to say, do not just wait for them to stop talking so that you can say what you have to say. By this I am not suggesting that we let go of our firm convictions, but rather that we would be humble enough to acknowledge our own flaws and limitations, and humble enough to recognize and acknowledge truth when others speak it, especially when it means we have to confess and rectify our own errors. Pride is to be eliminated, and we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15a).

14. Know your own tradition, treat it critically, and learn from other traditions discernfully

One of the most discouraging things I’ve experienced in my studies is the ignorance of the Reformed tradition among Dutch Reformed theology students. When I began my studies, I came with the idea that all the other students would be zealous for Reformed theology, our history and tradition, as well as our Reformed confessions (the Three Forms of Unity). Much to my disappointment, I found that, with a few exceptions, the students were utterly ignorant of many of these things, nor did many of them acquire a love for these things during their studies. Such are the future pastors of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and I find it a great concern. Get to know and understand your tradition. By that I do not mean follow it blindly; we should also be critical of our own traditions and continually examine whether any reform is necessary according to biblical teachings (ecclesia semper reformanda est), but only by understanding our own traditions will we be able to be in a position to reform and to critique other traditions. Besides, the Reformers didn’t mean by the term sola scriptura the abandoning of all tradition as fraudulent and useless (which is impossible anyway – we all stand in some form of tradition), but rather that tradition should be critiqued by Scripture, which holds the preeminent authority. Tradition which accords with Scripture is very useful, and ties us with the 2000 years of Christianity which came before us.

While I am highly critical of the ecumenical “let’s all hold hands and pretend we don’t differ significantly in doctrine and praxis” movement, I would nonetheless suggest that there is much to be learned from traditions other than our own if we do so discerningly. This includes noticing positive aspects or contributions of other traditions which, if warranted by Scripture, may complement our own traditions, as well as discerning errors in other traditions that are to be shunned. In any case, familiarity with other traditions helps us to better understand our own, and enhances our discernment. Do not go around calling everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every point heretics if you can’t make a solid case from Scripture for their heterodoxy. That is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of errors, but it is to say that we should be able to offer a well-grounded articulation of why the positions of others are to be considered heterodox, and not childishly resort to unfounded labeling and blacklisting.

15. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics

As a student of theology, you will most likely be confronted at some stage and to a greater or lesser degree (depending on where you study) to liberal theology, liberal literary theories, and all kinds of streams and fads which rage against Christian orthodoxy. Many of these things will seem to make a great deal of sense, and may shatter many of the beliefs and positions you currently hold as indisputable. Demythologizing, deconstruction, form criticism, Historical Jesus research, postmodernism, religious pluralism, process theology/panentheism, radical feminist theology and liberation theology are just some of the things you likely will be confronted with. My advice is to critique these things as much as they critique the Bible and traditional Christianity. Many books by respected scholars have been written to counter the claims and positions taken by these theories and streams. Again, do not only read the prescribed curricular material – read beyond that and seek alternative views made by other scholars. These things have led many students of theology astray, has led to the emptying of churches in Europe, America and elsewhere, and have been the cause of many students dropping out or even abandoning the faith altogether. Some students have accepted liberal theological positions purely for the sake of gaining the favour of their professors or for the sake of furthering their academic careers. Do not lose the integrity of your confession for the sake of academic gain, it just isn’t worth it. Beware of fads and trends – they come and go like the wind. In our day there is a widespread appetite for novelty, and in academic circles this appetite has led to many falling into a strong current, sweeping them out to the depths of the sea of doubt and uncertainty, some never to return again. By contrast, the last thing the Reformers of the 16th century sought was to be novel or original, and therefore went to great pains to support what they were saying by citing Scripture, the early church fathers, and medieval doctors. Be vigilant. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics.

16. Make good friends with your classmates

These are the people who are on the same journey with you, sit in the same classes as you, and probably have similar goals, dreams, and callings to you. Not only will making good friends with your class mates give you peers to discuss the work with, but these are also the people who will best understand what you’re going through when you have troubles in the ministry one day, facing problems with your studies, or battling with spiritual and personal issues. On top of this, they may become lifelong bosom friends. I have been fortunate to be part of a class where we all get on very well and have even went on road-trips and outings together several times. Do not let your relationship with your classmates be limited to the academic realm.

17. Remain physically active

It is easy to slip into physical idleness during your studies. Do not fall into this trap. Join a gym, play squash or tennis, jog, swim, play other sports, or do any other wholesome activities that will keep you active. Not only will this keep you in relatively good physical shape and healthy, but it will also serve as a profitable breakaway from studies and increase your concentration.

18. Get out into nature

As often as is possible, escape from the city and get out into nature. Go hiking, fishing, visit a nature reserve, just get out for a bit. Not only will this provide you with opportunities to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, but it will also allow you to interpret God’s general revelation in light of his special revelation in his Word. Even if you can’t escape from the city regularly, perhaps you could go to a park or botanical garden in the city, or at least notice the singing of the birds, the wonder of bees busy collecting nectar, or spiders spinning their intricate webs. You will be all the more happy for it, and it will complement and enhance your studies.

19. Don’t overestimate your worth or knowledge

Many students start their studies thinking that they will be the next reformer, revivalist, or great “winner of souls.” Again, pride is the issue. Let’s be frank, you’re not the new Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or Spurgeon. As wonderfully as God may use you and your ministry in future to further his kingdom, you are not indispensable, nor does God need any of us to accomplish his ends. I myself, having entered my theological studies full of sinful pride, had to learn this the hard way. What is called for here is the humility to simply be grateful for the amazing privilege of having been called by God to play a tiny role as instrument in his work in the world. If there is any measure of “success” in your ministry (and quite frankly, you will never see the full fruits of your labours), it is after all to be attributed to the grace of God. All those “heroes of the faith” we read about were what they were and achieved what they did by the grace of God. A thorough impression of the magnitude of this calling – a calling by the eternal triune God of majesty – should suffice to eradicate the foolishness of overestimating our worth, or any such manner of thinking. Also, let your desire be to teach, and not to be a teacher. In other words, you are called to preach, teach, and draw attention to a message, not to draw attention to yourself. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:6b-8). And for that very reason, let the focus be on the Word, not on you.

Furthermore, do not overestimate your knowledge. It doesn’t matter how many Wikipedia articles you’ve read, how many mp3 sermons you’ve listened to, or even if you’ve progressed much in your studies. The key to humility is to not look at how much knowledge you have acquired, but how much there is you yet don’t know. Expose yourself to the works of top scholars, see the research they have done, look at their vast bibliographies, consider the contributions they have made – some of these guys are walking libraries! And then realize that even these top scholars do not nearly know everything there is to know, even in their own narrowly demarcated fields of inquiry. How much more, then, is the ignorance of a novice? That is not to say that the knowledge we do have is unprofitable, but it does call for humility and proper perspective. I started my studies as a know-it-all. By this time I am well aware of my own ignorance, and the vast reservoirs of knowledge out there that I have never even encountered, let alone mastered. Knowledge of our own ignorance should therefore give us reason for humility, as well as a strong impetus to explore and do research, not being content with the little we know.

20. Be open to learn from the wisdom of ordinary Christians

Don’t ever place yourself on a theological high ground over “ordinary” Christians. There is much to be learnt from them. They too have acquired wisdom and knowledge in their walk with the Lord, they too have their stories, they too have vocations they pursue to the glory of God. God has revealed himself to them in his Word, and they may even have a better knowledge of God and what it means to walk with him than us, despite our learning. Regardless of how learned you may become in theology, always be humble enough to be able to learn from others. A small child may sometimes teach a professor profound things.

Conclusion

There are many other possible points of advice that can be given, but I believe these 20 points should suffice for young prospective students of theology.

I conclude with this quote by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), which was spoken at his inaugural address as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam in 1902:

“Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigation. That must be the pulsebeat of the science. A theologian is a person who makes bold to speak about God because he speaks out of God and through God. To profess theology is to do holy work. It is a priestly ministration in the house of the Lord. It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart to the honour of His name.”

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662): Human society is founded on mutual deceit

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I’ve always held Pensées by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) in very high esteem. I read it for the first time in my late teenage years while still unconverted, but after my conversion I appreciated it much more, since I started to better comprehend many of the things Pascal addresses in this famous and delightful book. As I was reading through the book again tonight, I came across the excerpt below, which I’ve read a number of times before but it struck me again, and deeply convicted me, as I hope it will do for you. Pascal here offers what I believe to be a very accurate description of human falsehood and hypocrisy, and perhaps a call for introspection:

“‑‑100. Self-love. — The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.

‑‑Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion. We do not like others to deceive us; we do not think it fair that they should be held in higher esteem by us than they deserve; it is not, then, fair that we should deceive them and should wish them to esteem us more highly than we deserve.

‑‑Thus, when they discover only the imperfections and vices which we really have, it is plain they do us no wrong, since it is not they who cause them; they rather do us good, since they help us to free ourselves from an evil, namely, the ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be angry at their knowing our faults and despising us; it is but right that they should know us for what we are and should despise us, if we are contemptible.

‑‑Such are the feelings that would arise in a heart full of equity and justice. What must we say then of our own heart, when we see it in a wholly different disposition? For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder. The Catholic religion does not bind us to confess our sins indiscriminately to everybody; it allows them to remain hidden from all other men save one, to whom she bids us reveal the innermost recesses of our heart and show ourselves as we are. There is only this one man in the world whom she orders us to undeceive, and she binds him to an inviolable secrecy, which makes this knowledge to him as if it were not. Can we imagine anything more charitable and pleasant? And yet the corruption of man is such that he finds even this law harsh; and it is one of the main reasons which has caused a great part of Europe to rebel against the Church.

‑‑How unjust and unreasonable is the heart of man, which feels it disagreeable to be obliged to do in regard to one man what in some measure it were right to do to all men! For is it right that we should deceive men?

‑‑There are different degrees in this aversion to truth; but all may perhaps be said to have it in some degree, because it is inseparable from self-love. It is this false delicacy which makes those who are under the necessity of reproving others choose so many windings and middle courses to avoid offence. They must lessen our faults, appear to excuse them, intersperse praises and evidence of love and esteem. Despite all this, the medicine does not cease to be bitter to self-love. It takes as little as it can, always with disgust, and often with a secret spite against those who administer it.

‑‑Hence it happens that, if any have some interest in being loved by us, they are averse to render us a service which they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.

‑‑So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

‑‑This evil is no doubt greater and more common among the higher classes; but the lower are not exempt from it, since there is always some advantage in making men love us. Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion.

‑‑ Man is, then, only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.”

– Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Pensées, 100

The Titus 2:1 Award given to Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum

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Titus 2:1 says, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

Riley Fraas, pastor of Hope Congregational Church in Bethune, Colorado, USA, is the man behind the High Plains Parson blog and has passed on the Titus 2:1 Award to my blog, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum. A hearty word of thanks goes out to Riley, and I would also recommend his blog to my readers. In order to celebrate, he has asked me to answer the following questions:

1. If you could have dinner with any historical Christian figure, who would it be and why?

There are numerous historical Christian figures I would love to have dinner with – ranging from early church figures to medieval and Reformation theologians and later. My initial answer would’ve been John Calvin, but at this particular moment I reckon I’d like to have dinner with William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536). I would love to sit down with him and hear all about his battles in bringing the Bible to the English people in the vernacular. I own a copy of Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament and I’d love him to read a piece of his own translation to me. Tyndale is definitely one of my heroes.

2. What one burning question would you ask?

I’d ask him, in retrospect, what he would’ve done differently, and why.

3. Where and what would you eat?

Meat. Plenty of it. Perhaps something like smoked ham, with some ale in a tavern in one of the towns/cities he stayed at while he was in continental Europe, such as Wittenberg in Germany. 

4. What was the last Bible verse you read?

Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD.”

Now it’s time for me to pass the award on to another blogger – a gentleman whose insights and wisdom I greatly admire. Subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity and thoroughly Reformed in his thought, he is well-versed in theology, knows his church history, and is overall just simply a rather amiable person. I have often profited from his blog (especially the more polemical posts – this guy is potent), and so I pass the Titus 2:1 award on to Andy Underhile at Contra Mundum.