Three core markers of Southern Seminary’s identity are rooted in an 1856 address delivered by James Petigru Boyce titled “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.” This address, delivered upon the occasion of Boyce having joined the faculty of Furman University, offered the following vision statements for what a great Baptist seminary ought to be. The institution must: (1) instruct an abundance of aspiring ministers for the benefit of Baptist churches; (2) produce scholars capable of speaking to the needs of the Baptist denomination and to the common cause of Christianity; and (3) adopt a declaration of doctrine to be required of all its professors. SBTS emeritus professor Thomas J. Nettles summarized them as “the need for an abundant ministry, a learned teaching ministry, and an orthodox ministry.”1
Title page for James P. Boyce’s “Three Changes in Theological Institutions”As indicated by the title of Boyce’s address, his three vision statements were changes to the course of theological education in America. Though other denominations could claim seminaries and theological schools of high caliber, Baptists did not view formal education as a prerequisite to ministerial qualifications. Adherence to local church autonomy establishes each congregation as divinely qualified to choose its own leaders on their spiritual merit. For that reason, Boyce’s openness to permit students and aspiring ministers to pursue graduate-level degrees without previous academic training was a bold new direction in American theological education. When Southern Seminary held its first classes in 1859, students had the option of pursuing a full theological degree without the requirement to study the Bible in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew. This unusual openness to educational accessibility in no way suggested a deficiency of dedication to offering theological education at the highest level of excellence for students who elected to take the more challenging courses. Boyce expected the seminary to perpetuate a culture of excellence in both spirituality and scholarship.
The occasion of the 125th anniversary of the seminary’s doctoral program gives special opportunity to reflect upon the importance of Boyce’s second change, namely, that a Baptist seminary ought to produce excellent scholars to serve both its own denomination and the cause of Christianity in general. Even before the implementation of the seminary’s doctoral program, it had proven itself well adept at training men for both church ministry and scholarship. The most outstanding student to graduate from the seminary in its earliest years was Crawford H. Toy, who soon joined the faculty as an Old Testament professor but ultimately became the first test of the institution’s Abstract of Principles, the culmination of the faculty doctrinal statement insisted upon by Boyce’s third change. Although Toy’s scholarly acumen and other talents distinguished him, his departure from an orthodox view of the Bible’s inspiration necessitated his resignation from the faculty in 1879.
Toy was a notable name among the great scholars who passed through the seminary in its fledging years, and a great number of them proved themselves as the capable Baptist scholars that Boyce envisioned. After the deaths of Boyce and Broadus, every successive president of Southern Seminary has been one of the institution’s own alumni. Furthermore, since the election of Duke K. McCall in 1951, each SBTS president has also been an alumnus of the institution’s doctoral program.
However, the alumnus who became arguably Southern’s most famous scholar, Archibald T. Robertson, never held the office of president. As a student, Robertson quickly distinguished himself as a prodigy with great work ethic in the biblical languages. His particular specialty was biblical Greek, and he joined the seminary faculty in 1888 as an assistant professor to John A. Broadus in Greek and Homiletics.
Robertson’s academic career was marked by high personal character, commitment to orthodox doctrine, and an evangelistic fervor that contributed to the seminary’s high reputation among local Baptist churches. His most significant academic publication was his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in 1914, a 1300-page magnum opus that set a new standard for the study of Biblical Greek in the 20th century and brought greater respect to Southern Seminary.2 Robertson persevered on the faculty as the preeminent authority on New Testament Greek for 46 years, dying unexpectedly on account of a stroke suffered shortly after lecturing his Greek class on September 24, 1934.
A. T. Robertson taking a brief respite in his office at
the seminary’s former downtown Louisville campus in March, 1912.The seminary inaugurated its formal doctoral studies program in the 1891–1892 academic year, and it granted its first degrees two years later. The first graduating class consisted of four students who submitted handwritten dissertations: Grant S. Housh, Weston Bruner, D. G. Whittinghill, and T. Polhill Stafford. Three of the students also served on the editorial board of the seminary’s first monthly magazine while pursuing their degrees. More than 100 Southern Seminary students who completed the rigorous dissertation writing process have also become professors at the institution, the first being William Owen Carver who joined the faculty in 1896 following his graduation.
Southern Seminary has been blessed not only to train great Baptist scholars but also great Baptist preachers. Among the many alumni who earned widespread reputation for their pulpit abilities, two notable graduates are W. A. Criswell and Herschel H. Hobbs. Contemporaries for much of their seminary education, Criswell and Hobbs earned their doctorate degrees in 1937 and 1938, respectively.W.A. Criswell addressing an SBTS class in the 1970’s.
Criswell’s concentration was in New Testament, with a dissertation titled “The Relation of the John the Baptist Movement to the Christian Movement,” in which he noted his appreciation for A. T. Robertson’s Chronological New Testament and other works.3 Criswell became pastor of the bustling First Baptist Dallas. Among all his sermons, his “Whether We Live or Die” address before the 1985 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference stands out as particularly memorable and influential. Delivered in the midst of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence, Criswell warned that liberal views of biblical inspiration would lead to the spiritual ruin of every Christian, institution, and denomination that refused to hold faithfully to the inerrancy of Scripture.In 1894, Grant S. Housh (#2), Weston Bruner (#38), D. G. Whittinghill (#113), and T. Polhill Stafford (#123) became the seminary’s first graduates of the doctoral program. These profile pictures originally appeared on the seminary’s 1891-1892 class composite.
Hobbs also focused in New Testament studies, writing his dissertation on the Gospel of John’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels. He became nationally known as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, and through his weekly radio broadcasts of “The Baptist Hour,” Hobbs earned the nickname “Mr. Southern Baptist.” Elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1961 and 1962, Hobbs chaired the committee that significantly revised the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963. Criswell and Hobbs were among the last generation of students to be taught by Southern’s historic luminaries like A. T. Robertson, W. O. Carver, and John R. Sampey. In his autobiography, Hobbs recalled Robertson’s explanation for why he was so strict in the instruction of his students: “They are going to be preaching the New Testament the rest of their lives. And I want them to know it!”4
Herschel H. Hobbs addressing an SBTS class in the 1970’s.In the doctoral program’s history, the seminary has granted both Th.D. (Doctorate in Theology) and Ph.D. (Doctorate in Philosophy) degrees to signify the highest graduate research degree in the discipline of theology, but the Ph.D. designation became standard in the 1974–1975 academic year.5 Southern Seminary alumni have left an indelible mark on the leadership of Southern Baptist Convention. Of the five other SBC seminaries, the inaugural presidents of New Orleans, Southeastern, Gateway, and Midwestern were Southern Seminary doctoral program alumni, earning Southern the reputation as the denomination’s “mother seminary.”6
At the May 2017 commencement, the 125th anniversary of the doctoral program, Southern Seminary surpassed the milestone mark of 2,000 graduates.7 More than 400 dissertations and theses completed at Southern over the past two decades are freely accessible online through the Boyce Digital Library, with new additions each semester. Southern Seminary has an unusual heritage of faithfulness and bold innovation, and it continues to be a leader in Christian education with a distinctive focus on serving the churches that entrust its students to train for gospel ministry.
Adam Garland Winters is the head archivist for Southern Seminary’s James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
1 Thomas J. Nettles, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman (P&R Publishing, 2009), 124.
2 Everett Gill, A. T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1943), 175.
3 Wallie Amos Criswell, Jr., “The John the Baptist Movement In Its Relation to the Christian Movement” (Ph.D. diss, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1937), v.
4 Herschel H. Hobbs, My Faith and Message: An Autobiography (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 67.
5 Duke K. McCall, “1973-74 Annual Report,” The Tie, December 1974, p. 6.
6 “Doctoral Program Celebrates 100 Years,” The Tie, Spring 1994, p. 23.
7 Andrew J. W. Smith, “Mohler to SBTS graduates: Celebrate divine calling as God’s messengers,” Southern News, 19 May 2017 [on-line], accessed 14 August 2017, http://news.sbts.edu/2017/05/19/mohler-sbts-graduates-celebrate-divine-calling-gods-messengers/
The primary Reformers — Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli — all lived during the same time period and were certainly aware of the Reformation movement. How did they view each other?
Luther’s antagonism toward Zwingli is quite well-known. At the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, the goal was to unite the Lutherans and the newer Zwinglians, the group that would become known as the Reformed tradition. Luther and Zwingli had been corresponding about the Lord’s Supper for about three years at that point, so they generally knew where each other stood. Luther ended up not even being willing to call Zwingli a brother in the faith. For Luther, he thought Zwingli was unwilling to take Scripture at face value — especially the words of Jesus: “This is my body; this is my blood.” Luther thought Zwingli was no different than the Catholics in this regard — who had been sitting in judgement over Scripture with their traditions and not, in Luther’s view, listening to the clear words of Scripture.
Zwingli seems to have been hurt by that interaction with Luther more than Luther was with Zwingli. It seems from the evidence that Zwingli was more willing than Luther was to move toward Luther theologically and try to come to an agreement. But Zwingli denied that he had ever been led to his Reformation understanding by Luther, he said his was an independent discovery from his own reading of Erasumus’ Greek New Testament.
Calvin was much younger than both of them, but he had great respect for Luther and considered him a father in the faith.
Did Calvin and Luther ever meet in person?
No, they did not. Luther (1483-1546) was older than Calvin (1509-1564). Thus, Luther was a first-generation Reformer and Calvin a second-generation leader. Calvin did meet with friends of Luther and he developed a good relationship with Philip Melanchthon, who was Luther’s younger, contemporary disciple and the one who led the development of Lutheranism after Luther’s death.
It was through Melanchthon that Calvin was connected relationally to Luther. Calvin met Melanchthon at the behest of Martin Bucer, the pastor of Strasbourg, who encouraged Calvin to attend colloquies between different groups — Protestant and Catholic.
We look back on this period as the capital-R Reformation, but these were real people experiencing a challenging, real-life situation. From their perspective, there was no cemented “Reformation” period, they were just trying to be faithful to Scripture. So how did Luther view the many forms this movement took after 1517?
To understand Luther, you have to understand that he was quite an anomaly. Luther loved paradoxes in theology, and I think Luther himself is paradoxical. By nature, he was incredibly conservative and did not want to change anything that did not absolutely have to be changed. We know that because he called the order of worship the Mass and kept the liturgy exactly the same as it had been received from Catholicism, except for changing a word here or there that he thought was essential to the gospel.
So, Luther did not set out to start a new movement, but was very much like a number of predecessors of his who wanted to reform the Catholic church. What he saw that was unique, of course, was that the church needed to be reformed not only in her morals, but also in her doctrine. He thought there were several who preceded him — especially Augustine — who had the faith at least generally right.
So, when Luther wrote the 95 Theses in 1517, he was not writing as a Protestant; he was writing as someone hoping to reform the church from within. Even in 1520, when he wrote his famous work The Freedom of the Christian, he was hopeful because he addressed Pope Leo X with a letter offering, basically, a final olive branch, hoping that the pope will agree to be reconciled. I don’t think Luther ever wanted to start a new movement. But, of course, when he was excommunicated by the papal bull Exsurge Domine and outlawed at the Diet of Worms because of his Protestantism, the die was cast.
As for his view of Protestantism, such as it was, Luther became frustrated with people like Andreas Karlstadt, Zwingli to a certain degree, and certainly the radical Reformers like the Anabaptists. Luther called them, in his language, the Schwärmer, these people who just swarmed around and caused problems, always talking and proclaiming their views but never willing to be taught.
For Luther, these people had too quickly turned away both from Scripture and the tradition of the church, which he feared would cause the laypeople (who did not have access to Scripture) all kinds of personal problems because of how different the Protestant church seemed from the Catholic church. You see Luther’s conservatism in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and baptism — where he is as close to being Catholic as you possibly could be without being Catholic.
We often look back on Luther as a loose cannon, an iconoclast, a “wild boar in the vineyard” who was trying to overturn the conventions of his time. But that’s not fully accurate, is it?
No, he is actually very conservative. The key for Luther was that he was troubled by his own conscience. That’s a theme running through all his writings. He was driven by an incessant need to be assured of his salvation, to know that on the last day he would be received by the Lord into heaven. That is where his conservatism was able to become progressive.
There were some who had come before him who said bits and pieces of what Luther said, but he was the one who put it together in a cogent way — arguing that one is justified not by works, but by faith in Christ, and that faith unites us with all the benefits of Christ. That’s where Luther was unable to be simply a conservative Catholic. He was unwilling to remain within the Catholic Church when the church refused to uphold this doctrine.
Much has been written about Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, which were employed (perhaps illegitimately) in Nazi propaganda before World War II. The situation is similar to Calvin’s Servetus controversy: a very prominent black mark on the character of a man revered by the Protestant church. What do we do with that part of Luther’s legacy?
First of all, history — especially church history — is not authoritative, because every person we can possibly study in the history of the church except our Lord is affected by sin. They therefore sin, just as we do, in ways of which they are unaware. One of the values of history is that we can see — perhaps in a clearer way than we can observe it in our contemporaries — the way that their culture, time, and thought forms affected their Christian living. Hopefully we can then turn the gaze upon ourselves and, if we are wise and humble and slow, be able to learn something from them.
At the beginning of Luther’s Reformation discovery, he apparently assumed that, now that the gospel had been clearly presented and the promised Messiah had been clearly proclaimed, there would be a massive influx of Jews converting to Christianity. Toward the end of his life, after that didn’t happen, I think Luther’s primary motivation for what he wrote about Jewish people was an eschatological one — he was frustrated that the clarion call of the gospel had not been accepted by the Jews. That’s when he makes some of his grievous statements.
Combined with the fact that toward the end of his life, Luther was pretty sick, some scholars have suggested that Luther’s ailments may have affected his outlook on life. He was also frustrated with the way he felt like the Lutheran churches had not grasped the teachings of the Protestant church. So, he was pretty disenchanted with a lot of groups. Of course, I would in no way want to defend what he said about any of those groups, but I think that gives us a little bit of understanding as to why he said those things.
As far as evaluating what he said, I would simply say: He was wrong! But I think he was wrong on a number of other things as well. Again — if we approach history with a humble desire to learn as opposed to looking only for heroes who will always be right, we will benefit more. History is not just those wearing white hats and black hats; there are a lot of gray hats. We have to apply biblical wisdom and humility as we seek to learn from those who have gone before us.
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Author of The Benedict Option and senior editor at The American Conservative
What is one argument you make in The Benedict Option that has been broadly misunderstood or misrepresented in media coverage?
Oh, this one is as easy as it is frustrating: People thinking that I’m calling for Christians to head for the hills and build compounds to hide out from the world. The book doesn’t say that at all, but you’d be surprised to see how many people criticize the book for saying that, even though they haven’t read the thing. It’s just forehead-slapping stuff.
What we believers today have to do is to live in this post-Christian world in such a way that we develop the inner strength to suffer anything before betraying God. That requires us to live with a certain distance from the mainstream. If we are going to be salt and light to the world, we cannot allow ourselves to be assimilated to its ways.
What was your favorite Louisville restaurant during your visit?
Jack Fry’s. Do they have any other restaurants in Louisville? None that I care to know about. Though I can’t miss the opportunity to say how much I enjoyed eating at the Louisville branch of the Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s.
Boyce College professor Denny Burk took me there for green chile enchiladas. They were hot as blazes, and delicious. I especially enjoyed how poor professor Burk had to order a glass of milk to cool off his burning mouth. Bless his heart, that old boy’s been out of south Louisiana too long.
You spent several years as a film critic for various publications, including the New York Post. What movie received the highest praise from you?
The one film that stands out in my mind today is Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers film. It’s a fairly violent drama — with elements of pitch-black comedy — about how a ratty little car salesman’s attempt to extort his wealthy father-in-law goes very, very wrong. I’ve seen the movie seven or eight times, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. Aside from being a compelling story, I have been fascinated all these years with what the story has to say about sin. There is something in that film about the mystery of iniquity, but also the heroism of ordinary decent people who just get up and do their jobs. Funny, but I still don’t know why Fargo, of all the movies I saw as a professional critic, has stuck with me.
Soon after Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses in 1517, he found a sympathetic ear in Desiderius Erasmus, perhaps the most notable scholar of the Renaissance who made a monumental contribution to biblical studies with his various publication of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus took the initiative in defending the validity of Luther’s position by advising others not to attempt to exterminate Luther, but to hear him out in a civilized manner. Although Luther and Erasmus never met face to face, the relationship between the two men became increasingly tense as the Reformation that Luther had set in motion threatened to divide all of Christendom and European nations. In the 1519 letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Erasmus wrote, “I was sorry that Luther’s books were published; and when some or other of his writings first came into view, I made every effort to prevent their publication, chiefly because I feared a disturbance might result from them.” 1
Luther, heavily influenced by the theology of Augustine, was disturbed by Erasmus’ apparent skepticism as to whether Romans 5:12 supported the doctrine of original sin. In a letter to Johann Lang in March of 1517, Luther’s expressed his distrust of Erasmus spirituality: “The human prevails more than the divine in him.”2 Their differences ultimately culminated in fierce literary combat when Luther endeavored to eviscerate Erasmus’s theological arguments for the doctrine of human free will in his definitive work The Bondage of the Will (1525). In his frustration with Erasmus, Luther famously declared, “Erasmus is an eel. Only Christ can grab him.”3
Nevertheless, Luther also benefited from the labors of Erasmus’s textual output. After the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther spent about three months translating the New Testament into German using Erasmus’s second edition of Greek New Testament as his basis.
Erasmus’s first edition of the Greek New Testament, titled Novum Instrumentum, saw publication in February of 1516, with the biblical text rendered in dual columns of both Greek and Latin. Some of his translation decisions were controversial for diverging from the Latin Vulgate, particularly the exclusion of a direct Trinitarian reference in 1 John 5:7-8 (commonly known as the Johannine Comma), the aforementioned rendering of Romans 5:12, and his paradigm-shifting verbal choice in Matthew 4:17 as “Repent” (rather than “Do penance.”4 The publication of the first edition of his Annotations on the New Testament came the following month, a justification for his translation that identified the errors in the Vulgate and appealed to multiple Church Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome. Erasmus prepared four more revised editions of the Greek New Testament, which were published under the altered title of Novum Testamentum in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535.5
Southern Seminary is privileged to own authentic copies of Erasmus’s 1522 Novum Testamentum (third edition) and the corresponding volume of his Annotations, both volumes having been previously owned by the seminary’s founder James Petigru Boyce. The 1522 edition is notable for Erasmus’s reinsertion of the Johannine Comma despite reservations as to its original authenticity. William Tyndale used this edition as the basis for translating the New Testament into English in 1526, and it subsequently guided the translations of both the Geneva Bible and the King James Version.
Eels are known for being slippery, but both 1522 Erasmus volumes are available for viewing upon request in the Archives and Special Collections on the second floor of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
1J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel (New York: Harper Perennial, 1960), 71; Erasmus, “Letter to Albert of Brandenburg,” in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, ed. John C. Olin (New York: Fordham University Press, 1975), 137.
2 Charles Trinkaus, “Introduction” to Collected Works of Erasmus: Controversies, Volume 76, ed. Charles Trinkaus, trans. Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1999), xxvi.
3 E. Gordon Rupp, “The Erasmian Enigma,” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 2.
4 Collected Works of Erasmus: Annotations on Romans, Volume 56, ed. Robert Sider, trans. John Payne (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1994), 137-163; Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 139; Collected Works of Erasmus: Paraphrase on Matthew, Volume 45, ed. Robert Sider, trans. Dean Simpson (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008), 79.
5 Albert Rabil, Jr., Erasmus and the New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1972), 92.
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Most of the time, when you hear about someone joining a college faculty, it’s a thoroughly happy occasion. For Melissa Tucker, though, it was mixed with tragedy.
Tucker’s mother died after battling cancer for several years. The loss of her mother brought her home. As Tucker prayed about moving, she said she “began asking God where I could go in Kentucky and teach from a biblical worldview, get into an elementary classroom, go on mission trips, and train teachers.” Boyce College was the answer to those prayers, she said.
Before she started kindergarten, Melissa Tucker knew she wanted to work in a classroom someday. She grew up in Pulaski County, Kentucky, and attended Nancy Elementary School. From first to fourth grade, Tucker learned from several teachers who influenced and encouraged her dream of teaching.
Today, with more than 15 years of teaching experience, Tucker enjoys spending time in both the college and elementary school classroom, investing in students’ minds and hearts.
“I love it when they ask a question and I don’t know the answer and we have to figure it out together. I think those make the best teaching moments,” she said in a recent interview.
Throughout high school, Tucker’s dream to teach never waned. She graduated and moved to Virginia to attend Liberty University. After three and a half years of college, Tucker moved back to Pulaski County to complete her student teaching at Nancy Elementary. While working in the Pulaski County school system, she developed a systematic writing curriculum for schools to implement in classrooms, providing a new opportunity for students to learn how to write both creatively but also with structure and guidelines, something the school system had never done before.
In addition to teaching, Tucker knew she wanted to spend time serving overseas, so she began praying about opportunities to travel and serve. While teaching at Nancy Elementary, a friend called her to ask about her interest in moving to Podolsk, Russia, because they needed a teacher to join their team. Tucker approached her superintendent about the opportunity to leave Nancy Elementary for the year, and what her job would look like when she returned. The superintendent gave her leave, committing to hold her job for when she returned to Kentucky.
Once in Podolsk, Tucker worked with a small church, starting a women’s ministry, children’s ministry, and watched as the church grew from less than five families to more than 60. In addition to working with the church, Tucker found opportunities to teach within the school system in Podolsk. During this time, village priests interviewed potential teachers for their local primary schools before they allowed Americans into classrooms. When she interviewed with the priest, he told Tucker to come teach, but also told her that the village school did not provide their own books.
Because she moved with a missions team, Tucker stored more than 30 Bibles in her apartment. She told the priest she had books to use to teach students English, and took children’s Bibles into the local school and taught 11th and 12th grade students English.
After her year in the local school, though, the priest asked Tucker not to return because her methods of teaching included Scripture and sharing the gospel with students, and at that point her team returned to the United States. Tucker returned to Pulaski County to teach for another year, but spent most of her time trying to figure out how to return to Russia. Around the end of the school year, Hinkson Christian Academy called Tucker about a teaching position in a fourth grade classroom – her favorite grade. Hinkson Christian Academy is an English-language primary and secondary school in Moscow, Russia. Tucker interviewed for the job over the phone, accepted it, and went another time to talk with her superintendent, who granted her another year in Russia while keeping her teaching position at Nancy Elementary. This allowed Tucker to move to Russia again with the security of a job when she returned a year later.
“I can see how the Lord has used every step of the way to lead me to this place,” she said.
Tucker believes her training in the classroom, on the mission field, and as a professor prepared her to join the Boyce College faculty in a pivotal time for the Teacher Education Program. Teachers need to love teaching, she said, and “The best teachers in higher education for education are teachers who really want to be back in the classroom. That’s my heart’s desire,” she said. “But I can do that here and I can do that in a larger fashion than I could before.”
Teaching at Boyce allows Tucker to combine her passion for teaching, missions, and training teachers into one job that she loves.
“It’s a job that everyday I sit back and think, ‘I can’t believe I get to be in this place at this time doing this work,’” she said. “And everyday God reminds me that as long as I lean on him, he’s going to allow me to keep doing the things that are my heart’s desire.”
Greek For Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek (Baker Academic 2017, $19.99) by Robert L. Plummer and Benjamin L. Merkle
In seminary culture, most students are intimidated at the task of mastering the biblical languages. It takes hours of memorizing vocabulary, paradigms, and the exceptions to the rules. However, for a Christian, the goal of learning Greek and Hebrew is to be able to read Scripture in its original language without needing to rely on outside commentaries or dictionaries. Greek For Life has this goal in mind and provides readers with practical tools to, as its title says, help someone “learn, retain, and revive” their New Testament Greek.
“The study of Greek is not an end in itself,” the authors write. “The goal of learning Greek is first and foremost born out of a desire to behold unhindered the grandest sight: God himself.”
From the first page the authors set up the goal of learning Greek as “to know the God who has revealed himself through his Word.” One could argue that is the same goal of their book: To point readers to have a greater passion and understanding of God. Secondary goals are to encourage readers to be faithful in their ministries and to recognize the privilege of learning Greek. Each chapter is filled with testimonials and quotes from students and historical figures in order to act as cheerleaders and encouragers for readers not sure if working on their Greek is worth it.
Studying Greek takes discipline and commitment. This book combines teaching experience and research about habits and tips for better studying methods. While it is practical in nature, it provides support through facts and experiences. Plummer and Merkle recommend a self-assessment for each reader — including tracking habits and internet use.
“Perhaps one of the benefits of assessing our time is to cause us to face up to what we really love,” the authors write. “We say we wish we had more time to read the Bible and pray, but it is what we actually do that shows what we want to do.”
In a culture of instant gratification and information overload, it is easy to blame our distraction on outside forces, but each reader makes a choice about how to use each minute of each day. With this in mind, readers are encouraged to take specific steps to battle distraction including “unfollowing persons or feeds” that do not discuss matters of eternal value and “install a software program or smartphone app” that allows you to control and monitor your internet use. Such apps include Moment, Freedom (for iPhone), and Checky, Quality Time, and Focus Lock (for Android).
In addition to fighting distractions, the book also provides tips for better review strategies. Among them includes the advice to use as many senses as possible while review. This includes our eyesight as we read, our hearing as we speak and listen to vocab words, our hands as we write, and even singing.
A major help for those retaining and reviving their Greek is to have a community to study with, challenge them, and to hold them accountable in setting attainable goals and working toward them.
“God created us to live in community. How foolish we are to attempt life or ministry alone, or to think that we can persevere in Greek by ourselves,” they write.
For readers seeking to “revive” their Greek, the authors point them back to understanding why they should work to recover their Greek. This vision casting points back to the main goal of learning Greek: to know God.
“Shame and regret do not provide lasting motivation, so take those emotions to the Lord in prayer,” they write. “Be infected with a burning passion to be as close as possible to the Spirit-inspired words of the apostles.”
Book Reviews: ‘Living Life Backward’; ‘Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church’; ‘Only a Holy God’; ‘Luther: A Spiritual Biography’
Living Life Backward by David Gibson (Crossway 2017, $17.99)
Review by Sean Corser
What do you get when you blend commentary of one of Scripture’s most complex books (Ecclesiastes) with practical and biblical applications for everyday living? Living Life Backward by David Gibson.
Gibson begins each chapter with the passage of Ecclesiastes to be examined, then follows with the message of the chapter, and concludes with a set of questions to be examined. Gibson writes that the message of Ecclesiastes should not only understood, but applied.
Similar to the style of Ecclesiastes, Gibson uses many illustrations and metaphors to further drive home the message of the preacher. He writes: “There is a wonderful richness to the poetry that is worth lingering over.”
Gibson, using a firm understanding of the Preacher and the intention of his writing, unfolds the story of Ecclesiastes in a short yet compelling manner. But, as with the Preacher, Gibson intends for Living Life Backwards to be read with the hope of answering the question “How then should we live?”
Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty (B&H 2017, $12.99)
Review By Miles Morrison
Keith and Kristyn Getty’s Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family and Church is part theological primer and part practical guidebook for the fundamental role of singing in the life of the believer. The Gettys start with the biblical foundation for singing and then work toward giving applicable advice for how to lead our churches and homes to do this well. Their hope is that “as you wake each day, and as you walk through your day, we pray that the lyrics and melodies of your faith will ring around the spaces where you live your life.”
The Gettys point to God’s design in creation as an emphasis for the important place of singing in our lives, “when we sing God’s praise, we join with the tune of the cosmos.” Singing even has an embedding effect on our hearts, so that our songs “reach the inner corridors of our soul in a way that other things cannot.” Ultimately, the Gettys’ primary aim is “that you would sing truth and sing it as though it is true” and it’s this narrowed focus that sets Sing! apart from other similar worship leadership books. “God has formed our hearts to be moved with depth of feeling and a whole range of emotion as the melody-carried truths of who God is and whose we are sink in,” they write.
Only a Holy God by City Alight (City Alight Music, $9.90 on iTunes)
Review by Matt Damico
Last December, Australian group City Alight released their album, “Only a Holy God.” The group has a sound that may remind listeners of another, larger Australian church known for its music, but that should not be cause for pause. These songs are theologically rich, poetically satisfying, and musically enjoyable and accessible.
Some highlights include “Christ Is Mine Forevermore,” a beautiful modern hymn that searches the idea of pain and suffering in the Christian life with a simple melody and a soaring refrain at the end. The album’s title track – with a question-and-answer structure akin to Sovereign Grace’s “Behold Our God” – is the most anthemic song of the bunch, with a melody both singable and climactic.
“Only a Holy God” is an excellent and well-executed collection of congregational songs. For churches looking for music that combines a contemporary sound with robust, trustworthy lyrics, this album has a number of songs to offer.
Luther: A Spiritual Biography by Herman Selderhuis (Crossway 2017, $30.00)
Review by Gabriel Reyes-Ordeix
“Luther was a problem.” These are the first words to the new spiritual biography of the German reformer by Herman Selderhuis. A contemporary reformer said of him, “This is how God gave him to us, and this is how we will have to use him.” Luther’s work in the gospel and his legacy of Protestantism were never separated from his unique persona, lack of self control and obstinate drive at times, but they by no means got in the way of God’s plan for the church through the reformer’s ministry.
Selderhuis’s work presents the life of Luther divided in 10 chronological stages—from a “soul snatching Devil”-fearing childhood to a monastic life prompted by St. Anna’s help; from a Romans-heavy tenure in Wittenberg to becoming the embodiment of a disputation against the Catholic Church in the very same place years later; and from a German Bible-translation pioneer to getting married to a former nun.
After the 95 Theses, in a threatening situation between the Catholic Church and those who identified with the reformer, his response was that “People should stop using my name, and instead of calling themselves Lutheran, they should be willing to be called Christian. What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. And I have not been crucified for anybody. … How could I, a bag full of maggots, come to the point that people, the children of Christ, call themselves after my unwholesome name?”
In spite of his temperament, frequent lack of humility and quick exasperation, it is the common opinion that Luther is to be thanked for the church’s return to the Word. John Calvin, in agreement with this, wrote,“We must, and we will take him the way he is, because it was Luther who gave the gospel back to us.” Furthermore, he says that if everyone were to call Luther a devil, even then he would have honored him as a unique servant of God.
Luther was convinced that he had not sought the role of reformer. Rather, he presented himself as “Without being aware of it, God pushed me into working with the gospel. … The wisdom of God is greater than that of people. He simply blinded me as you would put blinders on a horse who must run on a racetrack. … I told him in my little cell that if he wanted to play a game with me, he should do that for himself. … He has powerfully heard this prayer.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Robert L. Plummer, professor of New Testament interpretation, talks with Towers writer Annie Corser about his new book, Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek.
AC: How did this book come about?
RP: This book, like most books I’ve written, was not necessarily planned. My good friend Ben Merkle who started the Ph.D. program here with me in 1997, asked me specifically, “Would you like to co-write this book with me?” So it’s not something I really had on the radar, but we both love teaching Greek. We started teaching Greek together in 1997 as Ph.D. students. We love seeing students ignited with the passion for learning Greek. We like to make it fun. So it just seems like whenever Ben asks me to do something with him, it’s hard to turn down. So we did it, and it’s a little different from other books I’ve written. It’s very conversational. It very much reads more like a magazine or a newspaper. My most recent description of it to try to explain it to people quickly is it’s like your life coach for the Greek language. So you may be taking a class, you may be studying Greek on your own with a textbook, but you sort of need someone to come in, your wingman, your life coach, who’s going to say, “Okay, this is how you can learn this quickly, these are the things that are going to distract you. Here’s how you stay in it for life. Don’t forget this is important. Here’s a devotional. Knowing Greek really matters. Here’s an inspiring quote from John Calvin. Here’s what John Piper has to say. Here’s from a student five years ago.” We also included a chapter for those who have left Greek and have abandoned it. It includes inspiring stories of Dan Wallace and how he got encephalitis and forgot all of his Greek and had to relearn Greek from his own textbook as he was teaching it. A lot of pastors I run into are ashamed that they got so busy that some of their knowledge of Greek or much of it has slipped, and they don’t want that to be the case, but they don’t really know how to get back. So this book is intended for the beginning student to really learn how to learn it and keep it. It’s intended for the current student because we even have a chapter on what to do in your summer and winter breaks to make sure you don’t lose it and you progress. It is for the graduate who either wants to stay in it and is at a good place now, or (more frequently) has moved away and is trying to bring it back.
AC: You said pastors you talked to are ashamed of losing their Greek, how do you see that shame affect them?
RP: I’m a Greek professor, so when I meet our graduates 10 years later, I’ll sometimes say kindly, “Are you staying in the Greek text?” or something like that. Or people, through the Daily Dose of Greek, people I’ve never met will email me and say, “I graduated from seminary and I took Greek, but I got so busy in pastoral ministry I let it slide and I didn’t know how to get it back. But I found this and I just do a little every day and I’ve been doing it two or three years, and I can read Greek. I’m so excited. It wasn’t a waste!” I think part of it is when people first go into pastoral ministry, they’re often overwhelmed by the new lifestyle, preparing weekly messages and getting to know the people. So the tyranny of the urgent takes over and if they haven’t developed good habits, they sometimes lose what they really value. We live in a distracted society, and the book speaks about how our brains are wired to respond to new information, so with people there’s this sort of self-reinforcing neurological loop, where people get into checking Facebook and looking at Instagram or these kinds of things and really wasting a lot of time that they don’t realize. Part of the book is looking at some of this research and thinking about how to bring structure into your life to choose to do the things you value most for the long haul.
AC: Do you notice current students also battle that same guilt and shame?
RP: It’s less common because they have the assistance of external structures. They have the structure of classes and the structure of curriculum that often is guiding them through, but you do sometimes find students who allow the demands of other classes crowd out their Greek and Hebrew habits, and I tell students it really doesn’t take that much. Honestly, if you’re in Greek five or 10 minutes a day, you can maintain a really good working knowledge. But for the same reason people can’t floss their teeth regularly or exercise regularly, I think quite honestly a lot of this has more to do with habit and distraction than knowledge of Greek, so that’s why much of the book deals with how to develop habits, how to avoid distractions, and how to think critically about how we’re spending our time. With the limited time we have, how do we use that effectively?
AC: How important are communities of accountability and how can students pursue that?
RP: I think that’s very important. Obviously, the model we are given in Scripture is that we should not forsake assembling of ourselves together. The author of Hebrews says we should join together regularly in fellowship, and Jesus founded the church through his apostles. The vision we have for the Christian life is a vision of community, and I think that’s true academically as well. We need other people. We help pull each other along. This is why people pay a lot of money for personal trainers: They can’t exercise like they want on their own. They need someone to help them. Why do people join exercise classes? Why do people find Bible studies so beneficial? Not only for the accountability but also for the insights from other people. It’s never been easier to have these communities digitally, electronically, remotely. There are Facebook groups mentioned in the book. There’s Daily Dose of Greek. There are other means of remaining in fellowship with people even if you’re on the other side of the world where you’re kept in Greek together, you’re journeying together, but obviously here on campus, there are student reading groups. I think few people can succeed in the long run of staying in their Greek and Hebrew unless they have some way of journeying with others through that.
AC: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
RP: I hope the book helps people, ignites them with a passion for lifelong reading of the Greek New Testament. That includes increased skills, ease in learning, inspiring stories, vision for where they want to go and how to get there, so again, like a personal trainer for an exercise program, this is your personal trainer for Greek. You may know, “Well, I’d like to be in shape, I’d like to go to the gym. Why don’t I do it?” So this is a book that says, “Hey, let’s get you where you need to be with Greek for the trajectory of the rest of your ministry.”
AC: What is the purpose of the quotes?
RP: In my own study of Greek, I’ve always found quotes from historical figures, and not only for Greek but almost anything, to be enduring in my memory. So when Martin Luther talks about the value of the languages, or Calvin, or Wesley, there’s a richness and a depth to their perspective. So for years I’ve collected these, and I know other people who have collected these quotes. We got a big file from Peter Gentry that he had collected and some from other friends. I asked former students to give feedback on what was helpful, so you’ll see a few of them in there. So I think it’s just surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We also included devotionals at the end of each chapter where there’s a text and the purpose of that is to say, “Hey, knowing the Greek and studying the text really makes a difference.” It’s a constant reminder that this is worth doing, because you can’t engage in theological questions at the deepest level until you’re looking at the original text.
In the late 1880s, the church historian Philip Schaff (1819–1893) noted that the “Reformation was a republication of primitive Christianity, and the inauguration of modern Christianity. This makes it, next to the Apostolic age, the most important and interesting portion of church history.”1 And central to the Reformation in its beginnings is its pathfinder, namely, Martin Luther (1483–1546). One might well ask why Luther, in particular, is seen as the central figure of the Reformation when there are other good choices available — Huldreich Zwingli, for example, or John Calvin. It was Luther’ rediscovery of a central doctrine of the New Testament, justification by faith alone, that sparked the Reformation. Although this doctrine had not been totally lost in the Middle Ages — French pre-Reformer Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455–1536) was preaching it before Luther — it was Luther’s experience that gripped the hearts and minds of a generation. Luther rightly viewed the obscurity into which this key doctrine had fallen in the Middle Ages as having had detrimental effects on the health of the church of his day. For Luther, justification by faith alone is “the principal doctrine of Christianity” and its opposite — the idea that one can be approved by God on the basis of one’s faith and good works — is the “fundamental principle” of the world and the devil.2 “Whoever departs from the article of justification,” Luther plainly said, “does not know God.”3 And as he concluded more than 20 years after this experience of rediscovering the truth of justification by faith alone: “if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands, if it falls, the church falls.”4‘Walled around with the terror and horror of sudden death’: Luther’s early experience
There were various voices raised in protest at the spiritual darkness caused by the loss of the doctrine of justification by faith alone — John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384) and the Lollards, for example, or Jan Hus (d.1415) and the Hussites — but a lasting Reformation did not occur until Martin Luther was raised up as a pathfinder of reform in the second decade of the 16th century.
Luther was born in Saxony in 1483, the eldest son of a fairly successful businessman, Hans Luther, who was the owner of several mine shafts and copper smelts. Hans wanted a better life for his son than he had. So he sent him, when he was of age, to Erfurt University, where Martin graduated with a M.A. in 1505. His father encouraged him to go on to get a master’s degree in law, but on July 2, 1505, Martin had an experience that changed the entire course of not only his own personal story, but also the history of the Church. He had been home for the summer and was returning to Erfurt on foot, when, about half a mile from the city gates of Erfurt a storm broke. In the words of John M. Todd:
Thunder clouds had built up, and suddenly the lightning flashed, a bolt striking right beside Martin who was knocked to the ground, though unhurt, in terror he shouted out: “Beloved St Anne! I will become a monk.” St. Anne was the patron saint of miners; Martin had heard prayers to her throughout his childhood perhaps more than to any other saint. …In later years he described himself at the moment when the lightning struck as “walled around with the terror and horror of sudden death.”5
Twelve days later, on July 17, 1505, Luther knocked at the gate of the Augustinian order in Erfurt and asked to be accepted into their monastic ranks. When he later told his father Hans of his decision, his father was quite angry that his son was not continuing with his studies.
He asked Martin, “Do you not know that it is commanded to honour father and mother?” Luther’s response was that his terror in the thunderstorm and St. Anne’s saving him from death had led him to become a monk. “I hope it was not the devil!” his father replied.6
And so Luther became a monk, a member of the Order of Augustinian Eremites, one of the strictest monastic orders in Europe. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt to find spiritual peace and salvation. But for nearly 10 years genuine peace eluded Luther. He feared God might have predestined him to destruction. He often imagined Christ sitting in judgement over him at the Last Day. In fact, at Wittenberg, where Luther was now studying, there was a stone carving of Christ as Judge with two swords coming out of his mouth. Because of its terrible severity, Luther could not bear to look at this image, and would hurry past it on his way to daily prayer shielding his eyes with his hand.
To find peace with God, Luther zealously confessed every sin he could think of. He would confess every day, sometimes up to six hours a day. Luther had been taught that the moment the priest whispered in the confessional “I now absolve thee,” all of his sins were forgiven. But Luther was never certain that he had been fully forgiven. Always present was the fear: Have I confessed every sin? Then came a discovery even more distressing to Luther—there are sins which people commit that are not even known to them. But how could these be confessed if they were not known? Luther re-doubled his efforts and threw himself into all-night vigils, great bouts of fasting — all to find forgiveness and peace with God. As he once said:
I was indeed a pious monk and kept the rules of my order so strictly that I can say: If ever a monk gained heaven through monkery, it should have been I. All my monastic brethren who knew me will testify to this. I would have martyred myself to death with fasting, praying, reading, and other good works had I remained a monk much longer.7
Luther sought to find peace with God through such works, but he was troubled
by an overpowering fear of God’s judgement:
…My conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said: “You have not done this correctly. You were not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession.” Therefore the longer I tried to heal my uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak, and troubled I continually made it.8
In plainer language Luther later stated: “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”9‘A passive righteousness’: Luther’s discovery of a merciful God
By 1514, Luther obtained a doctorate and had been installed as professor of biblical theology at the relatively young University of Wittenberg. During that year, the academic year 1514–1515,10 he was teaching a course on the Psalms. In his lectures and studies he came to Psalm 71, and was struck by the psalmist’s cry in verse two, “Deliver me in your righteousness, and cause me to escape.” Now, for Luther, the righteousness of God spoke of God’s awesome holiness and his judgment of sinners, not deliverance. Mystified by the psalmist’s language, Luther decided to study what the Scriptures have to say about this phrase, “the righteousness of God.” He was led, in God’s providence, to Romans 1:16–17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” Here is Luther’s testimony:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I turned to… the following words: “In it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live through a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel, is a passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.11
Now what was Luther’s discovery? Namely this: The righteousness of God mentioned in Romans 1:16–17 is not an attribute of God, but that righteousness, namely the righteousness of Christ that he achieved in totally fulfilling the law of God, which God imputes to the person who puts his or her trust (fiducia) in Christ. And it is on this basis of this imputed righteousness that God declares such a person to be righteous. In other words, the decisive discovery of the Reformation was “Christ our righteousness.”12 Prior to this experience Luther knew that he could never obtain the righteousness that God demanded in his law, and that one day he would be bound to face the withering wrath of God. By this experience, though, Luther realized that salvation was not at all a matter of his attaining the perfect standard of righteousness which God demanded, but simply, by faith, relying upon Christ’s righteousness. Christ alone among men and women has never sinned; he alone has lived a life of perfect righteousness, and he alone has perfectly fulfilled the law and its righteous demands.13
What makes this discovery so powerful is that 500 years later, in a very different world culturally, politically, and technologically, we find ourselves needing the same saving grace, for we, like, Luther, are sinners in need of a merciful God.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Repr. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), VII, Preface.
2 Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 4.
3 Cited R. C. Sproul, “Introduction” to Francis Turretin, Justification, trans. George Musgrave Giger and ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (P&R Publishing, 2004), viii.
4 Cited Philip H. Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by faith alone in the light of recent thought (Day One Publications, 1996), 174.
5 John M. Todd, Luther. A Life (Hamish Hamilton, 1982), 25–26.
6 Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation. A narrative history related by contemporary observers and participants (Repr. Baker Book House, 1978), 24.
7 Hillerbrand, Reformation, 24.
8 Cited Westerholm, Israel’s Law and Church’s Faith, 7.
9 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (Doubleday, 1992), 315.
10 There are some scholars who date this discovery a few years later.
11 Cited Todd, Luther, 77–78.
12 Alan Torrance, “Justification” in Adrian Hastings, The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford University Press, 2000), 363.
13 See, for instance, 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Fifteen years ago in Paris, I had a conversation with a young existentialist who said something as unflattering as it was memorable: “Whatever the world does the church does ten years later and worse.” My new friend was talking about Christian music, describing a decade lag factor, a slowness to recognize and adapt to cultural changes that, in his estimation, rendered the church musically irrelevant ...
Students who have taken my Christian Home class are familiar with a diagram I draw on the board each semester. In this diagram, I visually depict the difference between polygamy and polyamory—two marriage arrangements that contrast monogamy. I then tell my students that such arrangements will most likely be legal in the United States in just a matter of years and that the church will need to be prepared to address them.
The time frame for normalization of these alternative marriages may have accelerated in recent months, as a series of articles have been published touting the advantages of various forms of multiple marriage. It is important for us to understand what these are and to critique them from a biblical perspective.
The Marriage Alternatives
Until the last couple of years, laws in the United States only recognized marriage to be between one man and one woman. The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges opened the door to same-sex marriage. Now we see a push for different types of marriage that infringe upon monogamy.
Polygamy is a marriage arrangement where one individual is married to multiple partners. Historically, this is primarily a man married to multiple women. This form of marriage is the one most clearly set up for legalization through the Obergefell decision.
Polyamory literally means “many loves” and describes “consensually non-monogamous relationships [where] there is an open agreement that one, both, or all individuals involved in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners.” Polyamory differs from polygamy because all partners can be in multiple marriage-like relationships. While a recent Christian blogger has stated that polyamory is not about sex, the basic premise of this type of relationship is that the various partners are in multiple intimate, romantic, sexual relationships.
Open marriage is the third alternative in the marriage battleground. This arrangement involves couples in the marriage being open to romantic, sexual relationships outside the context of their own marriage. In some respects, this is similar to polyamory, although the outside relationships may not be formalized as marriage. Proponents of open marriage argue that as long as both spouses are in agreement with the arrangement then it does not break the fidelity of the marriage bond.
The Battle Ahead
Are these marriage alternatives really going to become mainstream? Numerous articles have appeared over the last year promoting these different marriage arrangements. New York published an article promoting consensual nonmonogamy. The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed philosopher Carrie Jenkins about her new book What Love Is and What It Could Be in which she promotes polyamory. NPR even ran a story about the cultural moment for polyamory stating, “Lately, I’m seeing ‘polyamory’ everywhere. It’s not a new word or concept of course, but it seems to be having a cultural moment.” Polygamy is popularized on the television shows Sister Wives and Polygamy USA.
From a Christian perspective, progressive Christian blogger Chuck McKnight is currently publishing a series of blog posts promoting polyamory and open marriage based on a “love-based ethic” in which our ethical actions are judged by only the question of whether they are loving. McKnight believes that polyamory can be loving and therefore not biblically prohibited.
The Christian Response
In response to the cultural push for acceptance of these marriage alternatives, Scripture gives us a couple of clear ideas about marriage.
Scripture communicates a consistent message about the monogamous nature of marriage. Beginning in Genesis, we see that God’s design for marriage is a comprehensive, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman. Genesis 2:24 provides this divine commentary on the nature of marriage:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
God designed that the man (singular) would be joined to his wife (singular) in marriage. All subsequent descriptions of marriage relate the ideal of monogamy. While there are examples of polygamists in the Old Testament (for example, Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon), their polygamy is not depicted as ideal. In fact, their polygamy is the source of great strife and conflict in their homes. Despite the presence of such polygamy, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture points to monogamy as the standard. Both Jesus and Paul affirm the monogamous standard. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 and then describes two becoming one flesh. He never inserts a third or fourth individual into the marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Paul clearly communicates the idea of monogamous marriage here. The message is consistent throughout Scripture.
Any departure from monogamous marriage is a form of sexual immorality. Scripture consistently condemns adultery, but two specific passages come to mind in response to the current challenges to marriage. In Romans 7:3 we read, “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress….” Paul describes a standard monogamous marriage (a wife with one husband) and equates any union with another man as adultery. In addition, the author of Hebrews tells us, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).
If Scripture depicts God’s design for marriage to be monogamous, and if any departure from monogamous marriage is equated with adultery, then the various alternative marriage arrangements—polygamy, polyamory, and open marriage—are all forms of adultery that are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, Christians should not endorse these forms of “marriage,” nor should they tolerate them within their midst. Just as Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for tolerating the man who had married his father’s wife, we too should rebuke those who promote and tolerate such distortions of God’s design for marriage.
Rhonda N. Balzarini, et al., “Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory,” PLoS ONE 12 (2017).
Chuck McKnight, “What Polyamory Is Not,” Hippie Heretic (September 11, 2017).
Drake Baer, “Maybe Monogamy Isn’t the Only Way to Love,” New York (March 6, 2017).
Moira Weigel, “‘I Have Multiple Loves’: Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 3, 2017). Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is and What It Could Be (New York: Basic Books, 2017).
Barbara J. King, “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” NPR (March 23, 2017).
I will never forget the time as a teenager when I first told my parents that I felt called to missions. Their response was both encouraging and measured. They expressed initial happiness but also cautioned with the words, “Let’s wait and see.”
Years later, now as a former missionary, people will occasionally share with me their own desire to serve overseas. They sense that God is calling them into ministry and wonder what they should do next. In many ways, I want to respond like my parents, affirming such a wonderful calling while also tempering their excitement. I also want to give some practical advice.
What follows is my general counsel for prospective missionaries. More could be said, to be sure, with specificity depending on the situation. But these suggested first steps represent a broad perspective, with a clarity that comes from both mistakes made and lessons learned.1. Take your time
Missionaries are passionate people. They are often Type-A go-getters who don’t like delay. From the moment they’re called they are ready to storm the gates of hell. But, in such cases, perhaps the greatest need for them is to tap the brakes. Take your time. Slow down. Breathe. There is incredible urgency in the world, but you must also sense the urgency which is within. You must realize the need to clarify ahead of time theological convictions and ministry priorities. You must be aware of your potential to do incredible harm to yourself, your hearers, and even the gospel if you are not well-prepared. Many a missionary has made shipwreck of his family or his ministry in the name of haste. So, please, take your time. Jesus and the Apostle Paul didn’t start right away. Chances are, neither should you.2. Master the Scriptures
A large component of your preparation should be theological. Again, those in a hurry to reach the lost may want to bypass traditional theological education. They think it takes too much time. But if you are to be a minister of the gospel you need to master the scriptures. There is no shortcut here. The mission field is strewn with shallow missionaries and, almost by default, shallow churches. False teaching and a lack of theological clarity are the blight of the global church. How are you going to address that need with a thimble full of a Bible knowledge? And what will be your ballast when swirling around you are the winds of methodological innovation? What we need now more than ever are missionaries who are grounded in the word of God and who can rightly handle it in any context.3. Become more relational
It would be easy to say that is enough. But acquiring a body of knowledge never qualified anyone for ministry. Knowledge without love is nothing. What that means for most Westerners is that we will need to learn how to love. More specifically, we need to learn how to communicate love in other cultures. Typically, Eastern and Southern cultures around the world are far more relational. They expect impromptu visits. They enjoy chatting with neighbors and strangers. They want to talk about everything and about nothing. Meanwhile, we in the West are often task-oriented and time-conscious. We have lost the art of conversation in our tech-driven society. But if you are going to serve people, you need to have certain relational and conversational acumen. You should, beginning now, seek experience meeting with people for extended periods of time, even people very different than you. You need to learn how to ask questions, how to draw out their desires or their pains. You need the kind of demeanor that turns a preacher into a pastor. In short, you need the compassion of Christ.4. Learn a marketable skill
What skills and experience do you have? I cannot count the number of times I was asked that question as a missionary candidate. And I rarely had a good answer. But such ignorance and ambivalence will get you almost nowhere. If you want to serve as a missionary, secular expertise is critical. More and more countries in the world (even traditionally-open countries) are closing their borders or tightening immigration. Fears of global terrorism and the swell of nationalism are combining to squeeze out opportunities for religious worker visas. Which means, if your heart is to go to the unreached nations of the world, a Bible college degree will not likely suffice. In fact, it may be more of a scarlet letter. So I would encourage anyone considering overseas missions to pursue or enhance their current marketability. Learn a trade. Earn a degree. At the very least, become certified as an English teacher. Do anything. But whatever you do, do something to enhance your access to the nations.5. Serve where you are
Professional development, however, is not enough. You should be taking advantage of this time to gain vocational experience as well. By that I mean you need ministry experience. You need to be serving right where you are, finding opportunities to meet needs in your current context. You should be evangelizing the lost, now. You should be pursuing relationships with internationals, now. You should be volunteering in your church, now. Don’t wait until you reach the field. Train yourself in the art of witnessing. Grow in your ability to serve others with hospitality. Gain experience teaching the Bible—even if that’s to Kindergarteners. So often I’ve seen prospective missionaries living for what’s next and missing what is now. But flourishing where God has you in the present is key to future fruitfulness.6. Depend on your local church
Missionaries are also notorious for going it alone. But they, perhaps more than anyone else, need the local church—and not just for financial support. Early on in the process they need guidance from the elders and confirmation in their calling. They will likely need help selecting a sending agency or a field of service. While on the field they will benefit from regular encouragement and prayer from the body. Times may come when they need specific direction or even correction. But it’s almost impossible to create those relationships and paths for communication after landing on the field. Far better for you to develop meaningful and deep connections before departure. You’ll be glad you did.
For the past three years I have been helping my father update his classic book Evidence that Demands a Verdict. There is no doubt that the evidence for Christianity has grown substantially since the book first released in 1972 ...
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