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Posts Tagged ‘Theology’


If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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Reading a book on theology by a woman for women? Cavman, are you getting in touch with your feminine side? Well, the last time I tried that, it slapped me.

More seriously, our women’s ministry is considering The Gospel Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospel by Wendy Alsup for the summer and asked me to take a look at it. Wanting the women to get a healthy diet, I read the book. (It looks like this was self-published, but you can find her book Practical Theology for Woman: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in Our Daily Lives at WTS Books).

I’ve generally found that books written by women, particularly theology books, have a very different feel than those written by men. That is not good or bad, just different. I guess if you are a woman reading it, it is good. That is to say that I’m trying to evaluate it on its own merit, recognizing she won’t write like Sinclair Ferguson (for instance).

The subtitle is important here. She is writing about biblical womanhood, and is a complementarian. Some people miss the main point about complementarianism- it is not about who cooks, cleans or mows the lawn. It is not about who is smarter or wiser.

This is not a defense of complementarianism. It is rather assumed. He goal, the subtitle again, it to view this through the lens of the gospel. She wants women to understand who they are on account of the gospel, and how that fleshes itself out in daily life.

“It is the gospel alone that equips us to bridge the gap between God’s good plan for His daughters and the fallen reality in which we all live.”

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Systematic Theologies are not the most exciting reads.  Joshua Harris seeks to change that with his book Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths that Last. This is a systematic theology for the average person. Harris sticks to the essentials: doctrine of God, Christ, the Spirit, Scripture, Salvation, Sanctification and the Church.  For the most part he avoids controversial areas, though for some the essentials of the Christian faith can be controversial.

One thing that sets this apart from most (not all) books of this kind is that theology is not seen as abstract.  He begins with the notion, similar to John Frame, that truth is to be lived.  It is a foundation for our lives, providing stability in the storms of life (as Harris notes from the end of the Sermon on the Mount).

“Theology matters, because if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong.”

Another thing that sets this apart from just about every systematic theology I’ve read is the use of narrative to explain or illustrate the importance of particular doctrines.  It is similar to the work his friend Don Miller has done, but not nearly as funny.  He even has a few hand-drawn illustrations in his section on sanctification.  So this is far more interesting than Berkof or just about any systematic theology.

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The other day I was talking to a church planter and the topic of study leave came up.  He wasn’t sure how I approached study leave.  Some guys prepare for upcoming sermon series by reading a commentary or two.  I usually don’t approach it that way.  I use study leave, primarily, to do the things I often don’t have time to do in the regular rhythm of pastoral life.

I try to read a book in an area of interest or weakness.  Recently, while preparing a sermon, I noticed my library was lacking books specifically on the Trinity.  So on this study leave I read Fred Sanders’ book on the Trinity, The Deep Things of God.  We all have areas as pastors we have not studied deeply.  There are some issues (the doctrines of grace, spiritual gifts, leadership or eschatology) that pastors spend lots of time reading and thinking.  But there are many we neglect, and are neglected by authors.  The Trinity is just one of those.  I’d also include Christology, the atonement and the Sacraments (though baptism is popular, but not as part of understanding sacraments).

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Enemies of the Heart: Breaking Free from the Four Emotions that Control You by Andy Stanley is a pretty good book.  Andy is a great communicator.  That means, for the most part, the book is interesting, easy to read and potentially impactful.  It is an updated version of It Came from Within.

His premise is that most of us are controlled by guilt, anger, greed and jealousy.  I would agree that these sins- I have a hard time calling greed an emotion- make war on our souls and flow out of our hearts.  His theology, as a pastor he should have a theology, is fuzzy at times.  He’s a bit inconsistent as to whether they flow out of our sinful hearts or attacking our hearts.  It does matter.

Andy seems to be writing for unchurched or newly churched people.  This, it seems, is his niche.  He avoids theological terms, which is perfectly fine.  At times, however, it is shorter than it need be on theological concepts.  So, while it is far deeper than most self-help books, at times Andy doesn’t go far enough.

First he identifies each of the 4 in order.  Then he cycles through them 2 more times in how to confront them and how to put on new habits.  He is typically clear and practical in his orientation.  I found a fair amount of the book pertinent to my own life and struggle with sin.

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Reading Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith was fairly frustrating.  Some of it was the book, and some of it was me.  I’ll lay my cards on the table.  I’m a conservative, “confessional” Presbyterian who believes in cultural engagement.  That means that I think doctrinally and am interested in engaging culture.  When I read a book, I usually expect the author to either advocate or assess a position.  He or she is either an adherent or a critic.  It was this expectation, in part, that made this a persistently frustrating read.

That is because Gabe, as something of a pollster and think tank guy, is writing more like a sociologist.  He is describing something- not necessarily assessing this new movement.  He never even lays out his own place in the hodgepodge of evangelicalism.  At the least he is a “previous” Christian.

“I’ve seen many of the next Christians get the order correct.  When they do, and when we do, consider what’s possible.”

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Don't let the picture fool you

The Gospel Coalition asked some prominent leaders how they would change the seminary process.  Here is one of my professors’ response:

What’s the one thing I would change about seminary education? If I were king and could wave my magical scepter, I would radically change the basic agenda of seminary.
After 22 years of teaching in a seminary, I slowly began to realize something. We were not preparing the kinds of leaders that evangelical churches in North America need. Let’s face it; evangelicalism has seen better days. God is at work in many places and in many ways, but on the whole, the news is not good. Our numbers are dwindling; our theology is unraveling; our zeal for Christ is dissipating. Now more than ever, we need seminaries to give the church leaders who are empowered by the Spirit for radical, sacrificial devotion to Christ and his Kingdom. And they’d better do it quickly.
I was recently in China, talking with the president of a house church network of over one million people. He asked me for advice on preparing the next generation of pastors. I looked at him and said, “The only thing I know is what you should not do.” He smiled and asked, “What’s that?” My reply surprised him. “You should not do what we have done in the West. The results of that approach have become clear.”
The agenda of evangelical seminaries are set primarily by scholars. Professors decide how students will spend their time; they determine students’ priorities; they set the pace. And guess what. Scholars’ agenda seldom match the needs of the church.
Can you imagine what kind of soldiers our nation would have if basic training amounted to reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers and taking exams? We’d have dead soldiers. The first time a bullet wizzed past their heads on the battlefield, they’d panic. The first explosion they saw would send them running. So, what is basic training for the military? Recruits learn the information they need to know, but this is a relatively small part of their preparation. Most of basic training is devoted to supervised battle simulation. Recruits are put through harrowing emotional and physical stress. They crawl under live bullet fire. They practice hand to hand combat.
If I could wave a magic scepter and change seminary today, I’d turn it into a grueling physical and spiritual experience. I’d find ways to reach academic goals more quickly and effectively and then devote most of the curriculum to supervised battle simulation. I’d put students through endless hours of hands-on service to the sick and dying, physically dangerous evangelism, frequent preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and days on end of fasting and prayer. Seminary would either make them or break them.
Do you know what would happen? Very few young men would want to attend. Only those who had been called by God would subject themselves to this kind of seminary. Yet, they would be recruits for Kingdom service, not mere students. They would be ready for the battle of gospel ministry.
Dr. Richard Pratt President, Third Millennium Ministries

I would agree that we spent far too much time in classrooms, and not enough doing field work.  I remember reading Iain Murray’s biography on Jonathan Edwards.  At times he actually lived with a pastor who was his tutor in theology/languages.  He would also follow the pastor.  There was much learning “on the job” under the wing of a more experienced man.

In seminary I had an internship.  Since I was still in transition from Calvinistic baptist to Presbyterian I didn’t really fit anywhere.  I did my internship at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I got to preach far more than most seminary students (apparently I needed the practice more than they did), often with no notice.  I did plenty of counseling.  I had to go make sure someone was dead and call the police.  I held the arms of a man who attempted suicide with a broken light bulb until the EMTs arrived.  I had to help people after seizures.

Thankfully I was also able to teach SS.  I was worshiping at a church that didn’t seem to want to use me.  One of the Associates would offer me opportunities, but the Sr. pastor largely shut me out.  I’m grateful for my time at the Rescue Mission.  I guess it didn’t prepare me to deal with widows, power brokers and the well-dressed.  But I dealt with many things my peers did not.

But churches didn’t see it that way.  They thought I had “no experience”.

I think we need to do plenty of reading- but Pratt is right.  We need to spend far more time sweating, serving, praying and evangelizing.  I think we could even do away with degrees.  The point is competency: in knowledge and ability.  Both can be gained without a formal education.  Perhaps we should shift back to the old days- an experienced pastor assigning work in theology and languages, and overseeing their development of skills “on the job”.

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