The Other Side of the Boundary

I'm not purpose-driven™, but I listened to Rick Warren at an event a couple of months ago and had to repent of my bad attitude.

I'm not a Pentecostal, but I sat in a meeting with Pentecostals a couple of weeks ago and realized that they are far more passionate about evangelism than I am. The lecture I heard busted through a lot of the stereotypes I hold about Pentecostals. Again, I had to repent.

I'm not egalitarian, but I spent some time recently with some brothers an sisters who are. I count these brothers and sisters as friends, and I value them and their ministries very much.

In the past few weeks, I've been amazed at the richness and diversity of the Body of Christ. I've sat with people from vastly different denominational, theological, and racial backgrounds, and I can honestly say I've learned from all of them.

Years ago Tim Keller said:

We can't avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you're not doing it, then you're drawing a boundary by saying you're not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We're going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.

It's not like I'm giving up my boundaries. But I'm continuing to learn from brothers and sisters on the other side of these boundaries. I'm continually humbled by what I see every time I do so.

Sovereignty and Prayer

Theologians have tried to figure out how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility. How can God be sovereign over all things, and at the same time we have the ability to take meaningful action? It's fair to wrestle with this, and in the end to accept both at the same time.

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There is one important lesson. Bruce Waltke has observed that before John Calvin tackled the subject of election and God's sovereignty in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes a large section on prayer.

Some observations:

  • God's sovereignty encourages our praying. We come to a God who is able to answer prayer.
  • Prayer is for our benefit. Calvin writes that God's purpose in prayer was "not so much for God’s good, as it was for our good."
  • God loves it when we pray. He "offers all happiness for our misery, all abundance for our want, opening up the treasures of heaven to us, so that we may turn with full faith to his beloved Son, depend upon him with full expectation, rest in him, and cleave to him with full hope." Prayer is a way of depending on God for what only he can provide.

In God's wisdom, our prayers and His sovereignty work well together. Our job is to pray, and to trust that He will accomplish all of his purposes. So pray.

We Are All Theologians: An Interview with Stan Fowler

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If I made a list of the people who have influenced me most, there is no doubt that Stan Fowler would make the list. Stan is professor of theology at Heritage Seminary in Cambridge, and an elder at Grandview Church in Kitchener. He taught me theology over twenty years ago now, and he continues to serve me as a friend and mentor.

I appreciate Stan's willingness to answer some of my questions.

Systematic theology seems to take a lot of knocks these days. Why is systematic theology important?

As many of us have said, we are all theologians — perhaps good, perhaps bad, but we are all theologians. If I make a comment asserting something about the nature of God and his works, I am making a theological statement. Systematic theology is just the attempt to fit those assertions into a coherent framework that allows us to make sense out of the whole of God’s self-revelation. If systematic theology is done appropriately, then it must obviously be grounded in responsible biblical exegesis that lets all the parts of the Bible speak in their own idioms and categories. In other words, systematic theology grows out of biblical theology. But it works in the other direction also—the system of doctrine helps us think carefully about the meaning of particular biblical texts, and this is necessary, because sometimes the texts seem to point in contradictory directions. For example, I believe that Scripture implies the doctrine of final perseverance (i.e., that all who are presently regenerate will be saved in the end), but there are many biblical texts that seem to say otherwise. A properly stated system helps me make sense out of those texts. In the end, unless we are willing to accept a final contradiction between parts of the Bible, we are forced to do systematic theology and bring the parts into a coherent whole.

As a theologian, what encourages you about evangelicalism these days?

I’m encouraged by the growing number of evangelicals who are trying to think theologically and not just pragmatically about the church and the ministry of the gospel. I see it in the work of evangelical scholars at ETS meetings and in their publications (far too numerous for me to keep up). I see it in the work of The Gospel Coalition and similar initiatives. I see it in blogs too numerous to name. I read papers written by my students in which they thoughtfully relate theology to the real issues of life and ministry, and that gives me hope for the future of evangelical churches.

As a theologian, what discourages you about evangelicalism?

I’m an American-Canadian, so I have concerns on both sides of that border. When I look to the USA, I am discouraged by the tendency to equate biblical faith with a particular political ideology, whether of the right or the left. Our unity is found in Christ and the gospel, not in political parties, and good people with the same values can come to contradictory conclusions about the best way to work out those values.

When I look within Canada, I’m concerned that Canadian evangelicalism seems to be less gospel-driven and theologically robust than is true in the USA. I’m also concerned that Canadian evangelicals may have lost confidence in the power of the gospel and retreated into a fortress mentality in the face of an aggressively secular culture. I suppose I could go on, but I’m too optimistic to focus on the negatives. God is still alive and well!

Some argue that Ephesians 4:11 teaches a fivefold ministry framework (APEPT). I know you're not convinced that this is what Paul is saying. Can you explain why?

The APEPT idea is that Paul’s purpose in that text is to say that the risen Christ has bestowed gifts on all believers in such a way that every believer is oriented to be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, or a teacher. The underlying desire is to promote every-member ministry and to recognize that the church needs people with diverse orientations, e.g., “apostles” to initiate new ministries and “prophets” to speak with special insight into diverse situations. Although I agree with this desire, this way of reading Ephesians 4.11 is both novel and indefensible, in my opinion. The emphasis on 5 forms of ministry is doubtful from the start, because in the structure of the Greek sentence, Paul does not divide between pastors and teachers. So it looks like 4 forms, the final one being pastor-teacher (two tasks of elders as seen in other NT texts). But the greater problem is that this approach demands that “apostles” and “prophets” mean something very different from what they mean in 2.20 and 3.5 in the same epistle. The natural sense of the text is that among the gifts bestowed on the church, there are some crucial ones that are focused on the ministry of the Word, and the goal of these ministries is to bring the church to increased unity in the truth and to Christian maturity more generally. Verses 7 and 16 give adequate support for the idea of the valuable ministry of all believers, but that just isn’t what verse 11 is talking about. So I think the APEPT idea is a bad argument in support of a good point.

What advice would you give to pastors who would like to continue developing as pastors and theologians?

I was a full-time preaching pastor for 13 years before I moved into academia full-time, so I understand the challenge. At the heart of my answer is a plea that we not drive a wedge between concern for truth and concern for people, or between teaching and leadership. When I read 2 Timothy, for example, I see in Paul a concern both for faithfully passing on the deposit of faith and a concern for relating the faith to real people in a loving and patient way. Given those twin concerns, then, I would suggest to pastors that they read both Don Carson and Bill Hybels, and that they attend conferences led by both John Piper and Rick Warren (just to pick some obvious examples). Reading selected blogs of diverse types is a quick way to stay fresh and stimulate growth, although I should say that the blogosphere can easily chew up ones’ life—so be disciplined. The bottom line, of course, is to read this blog! Seriously, Darryl, I am very appreciative of your attempt to grow and stimulate others to grow.

Thanks, Stan.

Five-Star Mental Food

I don't get to eat out at many fancy restaurants, but when I do, the same thing happens. I enjoy flavors that I forgot existed. I eat less than I do at most other meals. I leave the meal completely satisfied, and swearing that I will never eat at a fast food restaurant again.

There is no comparison between eating the best of food and eating what passes for food at many so-called restaurants.

This week I'm sitting under the ministry of Bruce Waltke and Haddon Robinson as they work through the Psalms. It's like eating at a five-star restaurant. The richness of the biblical text has nourished us, and I find myself not wanting to feed myself with anything less than what we're getting here.

Here's the thing: the quality of study that we're experiencing this week is everywhere. The problem is, it's lost in the avalanche of tweets, posts, and flavor-of-the-month books that will never see a second printing.

It's time to prioritize what's best. There are good books on the shelf begging to be read. There are works of literature and theology that will be far more nourishing than what you'll read if you're not intentional.

Say no to mental and spiritual junk food. You can't afford to eat at a five-star restaurant every night, but you can't afford not to read the best books and theological material out there. A lot of it is free if you look for it. Free, but priceless.

Theology and Worship

I appreciate these words from Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:

We Should Study Systematic Theology With Rejoicing and Praise. The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God, and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately! We must love all that God is, all that he says and all that he does.

Grudem captures it well: "Doctrine is to be felt at the emotional level as well as understood at the intellectual level."