Gordon-Conwell Blog

A Surprising Dialogue

September 15, 2014

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

Try to envision the scene: A Christian named Timothy meets with a Muslim named Mahdi for two days of dialogue about their religions. The meeting is cordial, and to us, some of the arguments may be surprising.

Timothy says that Muhammad is worthy of all praise by all reasonable people. He argues that a true prophet is one who speaks of God, his Word and his Spirit, and that since Muhammad did so in the Qur’an, he walked in the path of the prophets. This assertion does not quite come to the point of saying that Muhammad was a true prophet, but it does imply clearly that much of what Muhammad said was in keeping with the message of the prophets. Timothy’s admission that there is truth in the Qur’an may surprise many of us, but the Qur’an does write of both the word of God and the spirit of God. Of course, the Qur’an conceives of word and spirit differently from the Christian Scriptures, and so Timothy’s mention of them leads naturally to a discussion of the Trinity.

Mahdi insists that if Timothy believes that Muhammad is worthy of respect, he should accept his words. Timothy asks which words he is to accept. Mahdi replies, unsurprisingly, with the central tenet of Islam, that there is no god but God (Allah). Timothy asserts that he affirms this, although he has learned it from the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, not from Muhammad. Then Mahdi claims, of course, that Timothy believes not in one God absolutely, but in one God in three. Timothy replies, “I do not deny that I believe in one God in three, and three in one, but not in three different Godheads, however, but in the persons of God’s Word and His Spirit. I believe that these three constitute one God, not in their person but in their nature.”

Mahdi greets this classic statement of Christian trinitarianism with the expected incredulity, and asks how three persons do not constitute three gods. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion of both the Bible and the Qur’an, in which each man tries to show that not only his own scriptures, but even the other’s scriptures, support his view of God. Timothy quotes famous passages in the Old Testament in which God speaks with plural pronouns (“let us make man…,” etc.), as well as passages in the Qur’an in which Allah speaks with the plural pronoun “we.” He insists that such plurality must be understood as an indication of the Trinity. Mahdi counters this argument by insisting that the plurals in both the Bible and the Qur’an indicate the marks of divine majesty and power, and do not imply that there is actually a distinction of persons in God. Here again is a surprise, because the Muslim is interpreting the plural pronouns in the Old Testament in the way that Christian Old Testament scholars normally do. The Christian, in contrast, insists that such plurals point to the Trinity—even when they are found in the Qur’an.

The conversation wanders on, as Mahdi insists that the Christian belief that God has a Son lowers him to the level of humanity, and even implies that he engaged in sexual relations. Timothy counters that fatherhood and sonship are different in the case of God than in the case of people. We beget sons in time through sexual relations, but God has always had an eternal Son, as incomprehensible as it is to us how that could be the case. Here Mahdi is asking a common question—one that Christians and Muslims alike may wonder about. Timothy responds with a classic Christian answer, one rooted not only in the Bible but in the church’s reflection about God in the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy.

The long dialogue provides not only interesting and surprising exegetical arguments, but also an example of a gracious and fruitful way for Christians to interact with Muslims. It reminds us that many Muslims, like Mahdi, know our Bible and hunger for truth, and that our patient interaction with them and their questions may help remove some of the barriers preventing them from embracing Christ. In a contemporary climate dominated by suspicion and even hatred between the two religions, this dialogue reads like a breath of much-needed fresh air.

So where did this dialogue take place? Chicago? New York? Maybe London? No. It took place in Baghdad. If that is not surprising enough, the even bigger surprise is when it took place. You might have thought it was recent, as a result of “modern” tolerance, the comparative study of religion, or global connectedness. No, the discussion took place in the year 781, one year after Timothy became patriarch of the East Syrian Church, whose patriarchal see was located in, of all places, Baghdad. Mahdi was the Abbasid Caliph headquartered in Baghdad, the leader of all the Arab Muslims in the Levant.

That such a dialogue took place there, and especially then, stands as a reminder that the world has not always been as we imagine it. Christians and Muslims have not always been geographically separate from each other, as we might have thought. They have not always had as little knowledge of each other as we might have imagined. Nor have Muslims always had as little sympathetic interest in Christianity as we might have believed. Come to think of it, it isn’t even true now that Muslims are all separate from us, know nothing of us, and have only hatred for us. Many of them are among us, and willing to talk to us about our God, and theirs. As we try to engage with them, we might do well to remember that Christians have done this before, and we might have much to learn from their past efforts.

Click here for the English translation of this dialogue. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.




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Thank you for your suggestion, Mark. We will certainly take it into consideration.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 9:36AM 09/16/14
Very helpful post! Thanks! Would be good to link to a book or some other resources where one could continue learning about this exchange. Also, the blog name "office hours" should be reconsidered. Dr. Clark of Westminster California has run a very helpful audio interview format by the same name since 2009. In the small world of evangelical seminaries it would seem to be bad taste for us to take their name whether intentional or not. Learn more here: http://wscal.edu/resource-center/office-hours
Mark Denning 8:56PM 09/15/14

World Suicide Prevention Day: An Interview with Karen Mason

September 10, 2014

World Suicide Prevention Day is today, September 10, 2014. Gordon-Conwell’s Dr. Karen Mason, Associate Professor of Counseling and Psychology, shares her thoughts on ministering in the context of suicide and discusses her new book, Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors.

Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors was just published by InterVarsity Press. Why did you write the book?
I’m passionate about suicide prevention and while there are books written from a Christian perspective for suicide survivors (people who have lost someone they know to suicide), there are very few resources for clergy focused on the larger task of suicide prevention particularly from a Christian perspective.

Why should clergy get involved in suicide prevention? Isn’t that the province of health professionals?
When suicidal people come to clergy for help, they involve clergy in suicide prevention. In one large national survey, approximately 25% of respondents who had all types of mental health disorders contacted clergy for help. Suicidal thinking, plans or attempts were some of the significant predictors of making contact, and suicidal people who sought treatment were as likely to contact clergy as other providers. Many people view clergy as “first-line helpers” for most mental health problems including risk of self-harm. Clergy are also asked to conduct a memorial service following a suicide and to minister to grieving members of a faith community while preventing copycat suicides.

What can clergy do to prepare themselves for ministering in the context of suicide?
Clergy have said that they need to be prepared as gatekeepers, who recognize suicidal individuals. They need to be prepared for how to intervene in these situations. Clergy have said they need to be prepared to conduct funerals following a suicide. Clergy also need to know how to avoid suicide contagion while ministering to a suffering community. Clergy have also told us that they would prefer to have developed a theology of suicide before someone comes to their office and asks them if suicide damns a person to hell. Very often, clergy tell us that they would like gatekeeper training, training to help them recognize suicidality. There are several good resources for these kinds of trainings:

Who is most at risk for suicide?
Suicide is a serious problem across all ages and for both genders, though the genders and age groups experience suicidality differently. Suicide attempts are highest in adolescence and young adulthood. When we look at deaths, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 10–24 year-old age group and the second leading cause of death in the 25–34 year-old age group. But when we look at the actual numbers of people who die, people in the middle years of life are at highest risk and older adults have some of the highest suicide rates. Almost four times more men than women die by suicide each year though more women attempt suicide. What these numbers suggest is that anyone in any age group and of any gender could be at risk. Preventing Suicide suggests other ways of recognizing suicidality besides age and gender.

What can the church do to prevent suicide?
Think about suicide prevention as standing by a stream to prevent drowning. One type of suicide prevention is pulling people out of the stream; another type is going upstream and building a fence to prevent people falling into the stream. Upstream, there are many things clergy can do that build in place protections against suicide like giving people reasons for living and guidance about how to build lives worth living, teaching people how to manage suffering using their faith practices, offering people a community to which to belong and contribute, and providing people with moral objections to suicide.

Preventing Suicide makes the point that pastoral caregivers—like pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors—are uniquely prepared to build these protections into the lives of people through theologies of life, death, suicide, suffering and community. Further along the stream, clergy must recognize people who are in the stream and minister to a family and community following a suicide while being alert to the risks of suicide contagion.

In addition, anyone can extend friendship to suicidal people. Dr. Thomas Joiner has developed the prevailing theory on why people become suicidal. He believes that suicidal people’s human needs to belong and to feel effective have been thwarted. He believes that suicidal people feel isolated from others and feel like they are a burden. Clergy and lay people can reach out to suicidal people in person, by phone, or even by sending a note. They can pray for them and help them get connected to mental health treatment.

What should youth pastors be aware of?
Upstream, youth pastors can help young people develop reasons to live and assemble their reasons to live in a Hope Kit, which can be a shoebox or a memo in a phone. Youth pastors should be aware that about half of youth suicides involve alcohol intoxication and that suicidality in young people is often related to relationship difficulties. Problems with parents play an important role in suicidal behavior in younger adolescents and romantic difficulties among older adolescents. So helping young people build stable relationships is important.

Downstream, it’s important to understand that suicide is a life-and-death issue and life-and-death issues supersede any promises to confidentiality. Following a suicide, suicide contagion ought to be a concern. Contagion can result in copycat suicides, which occur most often among vulnerable people, like adolescents and young adults (because they tend to gather in small, intense social networks), or among others who may be already inclined toward suicide or are suggestible. What is most important in preventing suicide contagion is being attentive to how suicide is being talked about. Preventing Suicide provides a number of recommendations for how to talk about suicide including not describing location or method while monitoring vulnerable people closely following a suicide.

What resources exist for suicidal people?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) is one of the most important resources. Veterans, Spanish speakers, indeed anyone can call this number 24/7 to get help. Another very important resource is mental health treatment. Most people become suicidal in the context of a mental health problem like borderline personality disorder, anorexia, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or a substance abuse disorder to name a few. Helping a suicidal person get treatment for the mental health problem is a very important part of ministering to a suicidal person.

Where can a person go to find more information on suicide prevention?
In addition to Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors, I would recommend several good survey books about suicide: Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide (New York, NY: Vingage, 1999) and Thomas Joiner’s Why People Die by Suicide (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Some excellent books from a Christian perspective include Lloyd (B.D. ’65) and Gwen Carr’s Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2004), David Biebel (MTS ’73, D.Min. ’86) and Suzanne Foster’s Finding Your Way After the Suicide of Someone You Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), Al Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002) and Kathryn Green-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006).

Several good websites include the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Dr. Karen Mason’s new book Preventing Suicide A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors is featured at Patheos.

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A Tale of Three Battles | Faculty Blogger

May 01, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

Dr. Fairbairn authors a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here; Part 15 here.

It is often said—correctly—that the Battle of Tours in 732 changed the course of history. It took place exactly a century after Muhammad’s death, during the great wave of Arab expansion that re-drew the political and religious map of the world. Arab Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and then over the Pyrenees into France. Had they been able to continue their advance, they would likely have overrun all of Europe, but they were defeated by Merovingian forces from northern Europe under the command of Charles Martel and forced back into Spain. Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would go on to solidify his control over the region and start a great renaissance of learning in the ninth century, and Western Europe would begin its slow rise to world prominence.

As we tell that familiar story, we often forget that another, equally fateful battle took place at about the same time. In 717–18 in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his forces narrowly defeated Arab invaders, forcing them back into what is today Turkey. The close call led to an enormous amount of social and theological soul-searching in Byzantium (among other things, the Iconoclastic Controversy arose out of the ideological battle with the Muslims), but it would be more than seven centuries before Muslims (Turks, not Arabs) would conquer Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople in 717–18 could easily lay claim to having “saved” Europe just as much as the Battle of Tours fifteen years later.

But not long after the Arabs failed to take Europe from either the West or the East, a third, far greater clash took place halfway around the known world. For we need to remember that the two great powers in the world in the eighth century were the Arabs and the Chinese, and the Arabs were much more interested in expanding eastward along the Silk Road than westward or northward. (In fact, it is likely that part of the reason they failed to take Europe was because they devoted much more energy to taking Asia.) After the resolution of an internal conflict brought unity to the Arab forces, they squared off with the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the Battle of Talas, in what is today Kirghizstan. The Arabs were victorious, and China began its slow decline from world power to isolationist kingdom. The Arabs solidified their hold on most of Central Asia, and the region became solidly Muslim.

These THREE almost contemporary battles—not just the one we Westerners are familiar with—changed the course of history. But what about CHURCH history? The picture is varied and complicated, but it may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the churches in most parts of the world at that time were too closely tied to the local kingdoms. In Western Europe, the church rode the coattails of the victorious Merovingian kingdom to increase its stature and prominence. At the same time, it is surely fair to say that the church adopted too many of the traits of the worldly kingdom, leading to an increasingly militant form of Christianity that would ultimately produce the Crusades. In China (yes, there WAS a church in China then), the church was equally tied to the local kingdom and suffered greatly as the kingdom became more isolationist and xenophobic in the ninth and tenth centuries. By the year 1000, Christianity had disappeared from China.

In between Europe and China, though, something different began to happen. In the Middle East and Egypt, the churches learned to adapt to a lack of power, to a second-class status in society, and for the most part, those churches have endured and maintained their witness during the long centuries of Islamic governmental control. They suffered through the vicious Islamic backlash against Christians in response to the Crusades and the even more vicious Islamic purges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those churches have accumulated many problems in their checkered history, and they are far from perfect. But they have also learned something about what it means to bear witness to the gospel through suffering. As Christians in the West face the reality of our declining influence on an increasingly post-Christian society, perhaps we will find that the churches that have stood their ground in hostile territory for over a millennium have something to teach us today. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.





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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 15

April 08, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here.

It is often claimed that “history is written by the victors,” that those who won the battles (whether military, political, or theological) got to dictate the way those battles were described subsequently. And it is certainly true that the story of the great theological battles over Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church have—for most of Christian history—been described from the point of view of the belief that came to predominate.

Accordingly, more recent scholars have argued that we need to look at the same controversies without prejudice toward the “losers,” and over the last 200 years a new history of the great theological controversies has been written from perspectives sympathetic to the poor “heretics” who had been maligned by earlier historians. These heretics, the new history alleges, were not actually “wrong.” They were just on the wrong side of the political power plays that dominated the early church. Their only crime was that they lost the war, and they were painted falsely by the victors as malevolent souls intent on destroying the church.

In some ways, the new history does give us a more complete view of the past. It tends to focus on political and social issues more than theological ones, and as such it reminds us that there is always more than theology going on in theological controversies. The new history also reminds us that the victors—the “orthodox”—sometimes twisted the words of the “heretics” or took them out of context to make the losers seem worse than they were. Even more important, the new history reminds us correctly that the heretics did not SET OUT to destroy the faith. No serious Christian tries to ruin the church on purpose.

At the same time, the new history is beset with serious problems of its own, problems that are rarely acknowledged. First and most important, this new history is ALSO being written by the victors. If the traditional history was written by the ANCIENT victors, this new one is being written by TODAY’S victors—the scholars who represent the assumptions and perspectives that are in the ascendancy today. Those assumptions are generally naturalistic (discounting the action of God in history and understanding all events solely in terms of human actions) and relativistic (discounting the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” and therefore discounting the church’s long-standing insistence that it MATTERED whether, for example, Jesus was fully divine as Athanasius said, or semi-divine as Arius implied).

Put simply, the view that is “winning” today has no place for theological truth at all, and so it sees “Christian orthodoxy” as an arbitrary construct developed for political reasons and imposed on the church by force. This view is scarcely able even to conceive of a world in which people’s salvation actually depends on whether Christ is like this instead of like that. Scholars who hold to this new relativistic view see nothing earth shattering about the great debates of the church, so they assume that Christian leaders were just being mean when they suppressed the writings of those who disagreed with them.

Another serious problem with this new view of history is that it purports to be objective. Scholars consistently give the impression that by treating the “heretics” sympathetically, they are removing the biases of the ancient victors who dictated the first writing of history. But rarely do those scholars acknowledge that in the process of doing that, they are also introducing biases equally great. To assume that it matters not at all whether Jesus is fully God or semi-divine is CERTAINLY NOT to be objective. Rather, it is to make an extreme value judgment, exactly the opposite of the value judgment the early church made when it declared that it makes all the difference to people’s eternal salvation whether Jesus is fully God or less than God. Indeed, NO ONE in the early church—least of all Arius himself—would have agreed with the judgment that it makes no difference whether Jesus was like this or like that. The new history calls itself objective, yet at the most basic level it carries an assumption with which no one at the time—and indeed no real Christian at any time period—could agree. It is a sad kind of logic indeed that enables one to operate from a fundamentally ANTI-Christian perspective while still claiming to be unbiased and objective.

“History is written by the victors.” True enough, but history is also RE-written by TODAY’S victors. And those of us who think the great truths of theology actually matter—indeed that the salvation of the world hinges on them—need to be very careful about the way we read and utilize the version of history that today’s scholars present to us. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.





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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 14

March 13, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here.

One of the words that tend to rub contemporary evangelicals the wrong way is “mysticism.” When we hear stories of people who went out to the Egyptian desert in order to fight demons (St. Anthony the Great in the early fourth century), spent decades perched atop pillars in Syria (St. Simeon the Stylite in the fifth century), or spent their lives gazing at their navels while reciting the Jesus prayer (the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos in Greece, in the late first and early second millennium A.D.), we tend to think that the mystics were the class-A kooks of Christian history. And some of the mystics certainly were kooks, although none of the examples just above were actually as odd as we make them out to be.

But according to the definition of the word, a “mystic” is one who is not satisfied with mere association with the church or with knowledge about God, but who instead longs for a deep, direct, intimate experience of God. By that definition, evangelicals are mystics too, or at least we should be, because we of all people should long for direct experience of God. And if some of the practices of the ancient and Medieval mystics in their efforts to grow closer to God seem weird to us, we have to admit that evangelicalism has also produced some strange practices as well, from tent meetings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing. When we assess a phenomenon like mysticism on the basis of whether it is bizarre, we should recognize that bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, and what seems bizarre to us may seem normal to others.

A better way to assess mysticism—in all its expressions—might be to ask the fundamental question of whether mystical practice constitutes an attempt to establish contact with God, or whether it is an attempt to deepen a relationship with God that one has already been given. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, the best of Christian mysticism follows the latter pattern.

One of the great names in Christian mysticism, and I think one of the best examples of mysticism at its best, is the fourth/fifth century monk John Cassian. He spent over a decade among the Egyptian desert fathers and then founded two monasteries in southern France around the year 410 A.D. Cassian wrote a long work (the Institutes) on monastic practices and a massive work (the Conferences) of alleged conversations between two neophyte monks and various Egyptian monastic fathers. Through these works, Cassian exerted a major influence on Benedict in the sixth century, who in turn shaped all of Medieval Western monasticism.

Cassian’s thought has been variously interpreted, but in my opinion, the foundation of that thought is that we are united to God as a gift through adoption and that our mystical practices constitute an effort to deepen that previously-established salvation. (See chapter 5 of my book Grace and Christology in the Early Church for my explanation of this foundation.) If I am right about this, Cassian presents us with a model for the Christian experience of God that is somewhat similar to that of evangelicalism—God acts first to establish the relationship, but he then calls us to foster that relationship through our spiritual disciplines. Cassian and other mystics like him may thus be valuable resources for us as we seek to know more fully the God who has brought us to himself. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.





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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 13

February 18, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here.

There is a famous passage in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in which the (unnamed) communist police lieutenant expresses incredulity at the possibility that he might have a soul. The main character, the (also unnamed) “whiskey priest” corrects him, saying, “No, you are a soul; you have a body, temporarily.” With these words, the priest encapsulates what has been a common belief throughout Christian history—the soul is permanent and ultimately all that is important; the body is temporary and inconsequential. Perhaps no mistaken attitude has had more staying power, or been more dangerous to the faith, than this relegation of matter and the body to second-class status. From the second-century Gnostics who denigrated the entire physical world to modern scholars who re-interpret “resurrection” to mean merely the soul’s survival after death, these ideas have had a long history and currency.

It should not surprise us, then, that the task of affirming the importance and redeemability of the body was job one for the early church, and among the church fathers who most insistently argued this point was the North African Tertullian at the end of the second century. He may have overdone it when he famously asserted that even the human soul is corporeal, but be that as it may, his arguments for the importance of the body in the Christian scheme of redemption are worth our attention. Among them are the following: 

  • He points out that in Genesis 2, the man starts out as clay and then becomes a living soul when God breathes into him. The physical component comes first and is indispensable. Human beings are meant to be bodies and souls, not souls that merely possess bodies temporarily (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, par. 5).
  • He argues that as God created man, he had in mind the form that he would give to his Son at the incarnation. The goodness of the body implied in the incarnation is anticipated in the original creation of humanity as bodily (par. 6).
  • He argues that no soul can receive salvation unless it believes while it is in the flesh. Thus, bodily existence is the very condition on which the soul’s salvation hinges (par. 8).
  • If one’s soul were really the only part to be saved (as the Gnostics alleged), then one could not even regard the person as saved. Only half of a person would be saved, and the other half condemned. The Bible could not even speak of the salvation of a human person in that case (par. 34).
  • If Paul’s references to “resurrection” in Acts 17 had meant only the continuation of the soul after death, then the Athenians would hardly have noticed. Their philosophers had been saying that for centuries (par. 39).
  • Paul could not have asked us to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12) if our bodies were ultimately going to perish, or holy sacrifices if our bodies were soiled beyond redemption, or acceptable and pleasing to God if God had peremptorily condemned the body.

These arguments and others like them remind us just how unique a message the Christian faith offers to the world. History has been full of philosophies that exalted the soul at the expense of the body, and even more full of religions (and non-religions!) that glorified the body to the detriment of the soul. Christianity, the church fathers correctly recognized, is almost alone in affirming that we are meant to be both material and immaterial, that God is concerned about us as whole persons, and indeed that we will spend eternity with him not as disembodied spirits, but as persons on this (reconstituted) earth. These most fundamental of Christian truths have wide-ranging implications for all aspects of life on this planet, yet for much of Christian history, we have obscured them with a popular theology that has exalted the spiritual to the detriment of the physical. We would do well to take a page from Tertullian’s writings and to recognize anew the importance of being in the flesh.


Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.





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Being Small | D.Min. Guest Blogger

December 19, 2013

Cory Hartman

Cory Hartman is a Doctor of Ministry student in the Revival and Reform track. Read his previous guest post on renewal and revival here.

Two astounding, must-read books from my D.Min. program have newly illuminated how small I am.

The first is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter adroitly demonstrates how quantity and even quality of cultural output does not shape a culture, nor does the size of the consumer base. Rather, the culture is shaped by the few institutions, locations, and social circles that all, including those who resent them, tacitly agree are more prestigious than the rest.

I am small and far from these high points. I am not close to the center of my denomination’s culture. I am unimportant to the evangelical subculture—you won’t see my mug on conference junk mail anytime soon. I live in an ignored part of the country. Almost no one in any of my subcultures has the regard of elites in Hollywood, Harvard Yard, and Midtown Manhattan.

I am small in another direction too, as revealed by Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. As Christianity drains out of Europe, it is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, partly because of the fecund demographics of those regions but also through a burgeoning wave of conversions. Christianity in the United States is holding steady because of help from immigration from those continents as the faith resumes its ancient position as one of the great Eastern religions. The awakening and the miraculous seem to be going on almost everywhere but here, and I can’t read Jenkins’ statistics about 10 million of this and a hundred million of that for long before feeling very small again.

I don’t call myself small out of self-pity—well, I hope I don’t—but from a healthy dose of reality for the sake of humility. I need that. But this is not the whole story.


No matter whom I am small by comparison to, I am big to someone else. My town, a modestly affluent county seat, gets more undeserved attention than any other in my region. I’m an evangelical nobody, but unlike many I actually know a few somebodies, and they know even better-known somebodies. And wherever I live in the United States, to the Mexican believer peering around our southern wall I’m at the center of it all.


More importantly, no matter how small I am in my profession because I see only 50 people on a Sunday, I am huge to those 50 people. My significance is enormous to the sick for whom I pray, the weary to whom I speak the gospel of hope, and the children who call me pastor. And to my own children and to my wife, I’m colossal—to them, whether or not I exist is the whole world.

Finally, and most importantly, I am staggeringly valuable to the infinitely large God. As David observed, his thoughts about me are beyond comprehension—not only their number and their content but his desire to think about me at all.

At the beginning of Matthew 2, men come from a foreign power to find the king of the Jews, whose birth alarms Jerusalem’s elite and triggers a state crisis. At the end of the chapter he is called a Nazarene, a no-name denizen of a backwater town.

The paradox of Jesus’ incarnation is not only metaphysical—the union of complete and unadulterated deity and humanity in one person. It is a cultural paradox too: the one who is the center of all things lives simultaneously at the extreme margin; he really bears the name above every name while he really is a no-name. This both-and image is the one that God is conforming me to—I shrink while I expand, plunging lower, rising higher.


Cory Hartman grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, New York, and serves as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg in the Pennsylvania county where his family has lived for generations. (Go Orange. Go Bucs. Go Steelers.) He is an M.Div. alumnus (’03), a current D.Min. student, and the author of On Freedom and Destiny: How God’s Will and Yours Intersect. Cory and his wife, Kelly, notch National Park sites visited with their four children.




Tags: D.Min. Guest Post , equipping leaders for the church and society , thoughtfully evangelical

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At the End of the Day | Seminary Student Blogger

December 17, 2013

Amy Gannett

There are moments like these, coming at the end of an academic day, that make all the world seem to halt. I've had Hebrew and flipped flashcards and read books and articles and syllabi. The whirr of academics is constant and becomes merely background noise, going almost unnoticed as the semester takes is shape and pace.

I've been reading here all day, and took in words of Your wonder and majesty from the pens of saints long ago—mothers and fathers of our faith who knew the same You and wrote of the very same You in a setting anything but the same. I've translated the Text and furrowed my brow at the philosophical theologians of modernity and tried to wrap my head around the complexities of spiritual formation.

And then I looked up and looked out the window. A storm is rolling in. Thick and rich clouds are churning above make me feel all so very small.

And I'm reminded again that Your ways are mysterious and wonderful. They can be written about, but there are not books enough to hold them. They can be preached about, but not human language can encapsulate them. Arguments can be formed and persuasions can be attempted, but this day has no lesson better than sitting beneath Your threatening sky. 

Hi, friend. I'm Amy. Mostly, I’m just another twenty-something trying to figure out the stuff of life. I am a nerdy seminary student who loves the smell of old books and early mornings in the library. I am an artist wanabee, a liberal to the conservative and conservative to the liberal, guilty social justice groupie, and a recovering Bible know-it-all with the unreal ability to put my foot in my mouth an astonishing number of times each day. I am a sister to eight of the most hysterical creatures ever created. Good theology, used book stores, and autumn make me giddy. I preach passionately, think deeply, and ask too many questions. I write prayers, poetry and prose. I write about preaching bad and good, gender roles in the Church, the sacraments, stupid things we do on Sunday, politics, and almost everything else that you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. I also blog at oneyellowbird.blogspot.com. Welcome to the journey.


Tags: Author: Amy Gilbaugh , student blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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I found your post to be entertaining and enlightening. It is funny how the little things are what He uses to to teach us about His ways.
Wilbur Byrd 1:19AM 12/22/13

Comparison, Christmas and Crimson | Seminary Student Blogger

December 12, 2013

Melissa Zaldivar

It’s Christmastime—which means that we get to spend time celebrating Advent, attending church services and singing carols. It also means that we dress up in wintery colors and make our way from the chilly weather into warm homes to trim trees and eat together. We don our Christmas sweaters and drink eggnog and Instagram things too much.

There is something spectacular that happens when we enjoy one another’s company over food. We are fed physically, but also relationally. I’ve always adored the idea of dinner parties and the chance to spend the season of Advent with people that I care for.

I arrived in Cambridge right on time, which meant that I was the first one there (fashionably late would have, perhaps, served me better socially in this scenario) and made my way inside. Beautifully and festively decorated, I found it to be something very familiar to me. The house of a host at Christmas.

What was different about this house was that it was the house of my professor who serves as the Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was a gathering for the students in the class that I took this semester called, “Peasants and Proletarians: Black Religions and the Social Sciences in the 20th Century.”

As a part of the Boston Theological Institute, Gordon-Conwell students have the opportunity to take classes through other grad schools and seminaries in the Boston area. My friend from Gordon-Conwell and I decided to take one at Harvard Divinity School. While I will admit that much of the allure was the promise of Ivy League education, I soon found that the education I had the chance of experiencing was something new that would change the way that I learn completely.

When other people (especially outside the Gordon-Conwell community) hear that I’m taking a class at Harvard, they assume a few things. First, that I’m unrealistically brilliant; second, that I’m somehow more intellectually worth something for gaining a “legitimate academic experience.”

This view of BTI is harmful because it degrades the seminary and it glorifies one college experience (based, I’m sure, on movies like “Legally Blonde” and “The Social Network”) over another. It divides us into groups of “them” and “us.”

I had that mindset going into this class. I was intimidated and overwhelmed by something different and during the break on my very first day, I called my brother-in-law. A seminary graduate himself, he reassured me as I blurted out, “These people are brilliant! And I don’t know what on earth I am doing here. I know nothing about black sociology and I feel like I can’t do it.”

He lovingly said, “If you are in this class, you can do it.”

He was right. These students, while more well-versed in the topic of the class, were still fellow students. They were still learning and eager to do so. I swallowed my pride and continued on with my class.

It became clear to me that what was keeping me from fully pouring into the BTI experience was a division between academia and humanity. These were students with more intellectual experience than I, but they have parents and histories and passions and dreams and personalities. As weeks went on, we learned to understand one another better and from a different perspective than that of Gordon-Conwell and I believe that it made me a better person. And isn’t that the point of education?

C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I realized that I was robbing myself of truly connecting with other pilgrims by acting like I was a Gordon-Conwell student who was sitting in on a class at Harvard Divinity School. Instead, I needed to fully invest myself into being a part of that class as a peer and fellow traveler.

More guests arrived at the house and I felt myself relax a little more with every familiar face that entered into conversation. I asked if I could capture a few images and felt a little mom-ish asking everyone to get together for one group photo, but I am so glad that I did. It reminds me that the people we once knew nothing about can become peers, daresay friends. It reminds me that there is a great deal of unnecessary pressure that we can put on ourselves when we see things through a lens of stereotypes and ignorance. And it reminds me that one a cold night in December, I celebrated the holidays and the pursuit of knowledge in true holiday fashion.

We laughed and we engaged in good conversation and we ate food. We took pictures and we trimmed the tree. And while some of these souls are the most brilliant I may have encountered, the great honor of knowing them does not come from their GPA’s or their aspirations. The honor comes from the realization that we learn best when we learn from one another.

Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.



Tags: Author: Melissa Zaldivar , biblically-grounded , current students , student blogger

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Target Practice | Seminary Student Blogger

December 10, 2013

Kate Hightower

We had 25 people at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. Seventeen of my Kentucky relatives converged on Ocala, Florida, and packed the place with the bustle of the holidays that I know too well. Rich southern drawls echoed the halls of my childhood, guitar jam sessions on the porch, and food for days stretched the extent of the weekend. One night, after a day of the merriment, I was laying in my bed, almost asleep, when my eyes fell on my longbow hanging on the wall beside my bed. My mind started to race with the glisten of fascination that had been lying dormant for so many years. I love archery. Before I went off to college, I spent hours in a hunting shop that housed a full-blown archery range and tore their targets to pieces.

I never hunted anything. For me, the gold was never in the kill, but in the art of the process. Archery always seemed really straightforward to me. But it wasn’t until I really got into it, that I discovered that it’s a pretty complex and takes a boat-load of practice to master. The primal, earthy wonder of it seemed even deeper than that. So the next day, I decided to wake my longbow from its slumber and see if I could put words to it.

My family spends the day after Thanksgiving as far away from the Black Friday melee as humanly possible. We do some fishing. We make sugar cane syrup. The men go hunting. I slipped off on my own for a little while and set up my target. The early morning quiet was a welcome to my ringing ears as the only noise seemed to be far off-voices and the dew’s soft brush against my boots. I laced up my finger guards and set an arrow to the string on my longbow. I pulled back slowly and took aim. I was pleased to feel the muscle memory spill through my arms as I took my first shot. The seductive pang of the string sent the arrow soaring smoothly through the air and thwacked just off center on my target.

I set another arrow and took aim. It was then in the seconds before I’d release the string that I discovered it: the magic of this sport that touched me so deeply.

Balancing your grip on the bow and the pull of the string is a lot to ask of your arms, so taking aim can’t be a long process or you’ll sacrifice the accuracy of the shot. In that moment when the string is back, there are still so many things that could go wrong. One last-second pull on the bow upon release could destroy the aim you worked so hard for. Any subtle motion, or quick glance elsewhere could make you lose your line of sight and send the arrow off course. For success, you must ask your entire body to focus in silence and stillness. There’s an unspeakable vulnerability here, one that, through a few stormy years of my life, shelved something I loved because it asked for just that.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the middle of my life, even at its most chaotic points, and cried out to God with little hope that He’d answer. I almost grew defensive with the idea that I would need to make any steps toward Him. That He could actually bother to ask me to do something in order to get to Him, like read His word or pray. My aim didn’t go any further than the length of my own nose. I wanted God to satisfy what I needed for what I wanted without surrendering myself to Him or His will at all. And since I knew He could do it, I’d get mad when He didn’t. He wasn’t my target. I was my target. And it was pulling me further and further away from Him.

It wasn’t long before He took me down. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my face before His transcendence. That transcendence only furthered by the glory of what it means to have Him as my focus. Because it’s in that moment, when the arrow is set and the string is back, it’s not MY strength or the soundness of MY aim that I’m leaning into.
It’s His. And He never misses.

Kate Hightower is writing to you from the middle of her Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Thought pursuit at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, where she is also a Byington Scholar. She’s an avid Bob Dylan fan, and can always be counted upon for decadent French cooking. And she’s madly in love with her giant, brilliant golden retriever, Stella.

Tags: Author: Kate Hightower , current students , student blogger

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 12

December 03, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here.

Facts don’t normally make for reading that is as interesting as stories, but sometimes facts are the best way to tell a story. Or perhaps, facts are the best way to expose the need to change the way we tell a familiar story. Such is the case with our understanding of the early church. Even though we know that Christianity arose in what is today the Middle East, we tend to think that the early church was primarily a European phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon limited to the Roman Empire. Some pertinent facts (or at least likely facts—there is controversy about some of them) quickly show the problem with that version of the early Christian story:

  • There was a significant Christian presence in Egypt in the first century and in what is today Iraq in the second. In most parts of the “Muslim” Middle East and North Africa, there have been substantial Christian minorities for the entire history of the church, and these Christian populations began to decline only in the last 100 years or so.
  • There was certainly a Christian presence in India by the third century and likely by the first. There has been a continuous Christian presence in India for at least 1700 years.
  • The Roman Empire was probably only the fourth kingdom to espouse Christianity as its official religion. Armenia and Georgia (both in the Transcaucasus between present-day Russia and Turkey) and Aksum (modern Ethiopia) preceded it.
  • The greatest intellectual centers of the early Christian church were Alexandria and Carthage, both located in Africa. It would be well past the year 500 before the cities of Rome and Constantinople would match the intellectual stature of the two African cities.
  • We all hear that the office of the Pope in Rome, called the “Chair of St. Peter,” has been continually occupied since the first century. But the title of the patriarchate of Alexandria is the “Chair of St. Mark,” and that chair has been continually occupied for more than 1900 years as well. The holder of that chair is still called “Pope” in Egypt today.
  • There has been a continuous Christian history in black Africa (in Ethiopia) since the 330s. The modern Ethiopian Tawehedo Church (often mislabeled as “Coptic” by Westerners) is the heir of that history.
  • By the year 500, in the Middle East and Africa, the Bible had already been translated from Greek into Coptic (spoken in Egypt), Ge’etz (spoken in Ethiopia), Syriac (spoken throughout the Middle East), Armenian, Georgian, and Nubian (spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Translation into Arabic followed in the eighth century. During the same time period, the only translation into a northern European language was the Gothic translation done in the fourth century (by an Arian missionary!), and it would be 1000 years later before the next northern European translations began to appear.
  • Christianity had demonstrably reached China by the end of the eighth century, although it lasted no more than two centuries there before dying out, not to be revived until the modern period.
  • It was at least the ninth century (and some argue as late as the fourteenth) before the majority of Christians were located in Europe. (And today, the majority of Christians are again found outside the Western world.)

Again, there is controversy about some of these “facts,” but with that caveat registered, it is still clear that Christianity has—from the very beginning—been a faith for the whole world. The details of the story of Christianity outside of Europe are largely unknown to us in the West, but that is changing today. As the contemporary Christian world is more and more centered outside the West, the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia is garnering increasing—and long overdue—attention. Ancient works never before available in “Western” languages are being translated, and the rest of the early Christian story is coming to our notice.

What will our story of the early church look like 50 years from now? Well, many elements familiar to Westerners will be the same, but a whole new dimension to the story will likely become familiar, giving us an ever fuller glimpse of the vastness of what the Lord has done in leading his people through the ages. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.




Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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Thank you Dr. Fairbairn for this series and the reminder for us not to neglect the early centuries of the church. There needs to be balance to learn from many saints throughout history regardless of when they lived (time of habitation is not what determines importance but intimacy and conformity to Christ). If you ask an Eastern Orthodox if he/she knows about Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, there is a good chance they have never heard of these or other "modern" saints, heroes, martyrs. There is much to learn from the ancient faith, we should not neglect our historical treasure but neither should we neglect what the Lord has been doing down through the ages and continues to do today, it goes both ways :)
Arthur Roshkovski 9:53PM 12/11/13

Gratitude and Miracle | Seminary Student Blogger

November 25, 2013

Melissa Zaldivar

It took me about a year to read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, and as I read it I started a gratitude list. The premise of this book is one of searching for little acts of grace that God gives us that we often overlook. Voskamp found that she drew nearer to God as she made it a point to write these things down, to acknowledge them and thank him for giving them.

I started clumsily at first, knowing that I couldn’t just make a list of things I loved, but rather I had to capture moments. It started to grow into habit over time until I bought a little brown book in which I write out those things that spark a sense of gratitude, little whisperings of the Savior’s provision.

106. The raspy shouting of a child trying to whisper in church.
114. Friends returning from long trips.
139. The crowd that lingers after a polo match, wandering in the light of dusk.
166. Walking the Brooklyn Bridge.
194. Pressing record for a living.
246. Rumors of Advent.

Thanksgiving used to be the kind of holiday that I almost overlooked. It didn’t have the pizzazz of Christmas and it was almost impossible to go all the way home for the holiday, so it fell to the back of my mind until mid-November.

This year’s Thanksgiving feels new. After a year of writing down the things that make my world powerfully and pointedly and almost unbearably beautiful, Thanksgiving is a holiday that I am greatly looking forward to.

This year, Thanksgiving falls on the first night of Hanukkah. As a Messianic Jew, I am Christian by faith, but Jewish by tradition and lineage. Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, is characterized by a focus on the miracles of life, the faithfulness of God and the dedication with which we must honor the LORD in our own lives. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah in John 10 (which also was when Jesus announced that he was One with the Father).

The Jewish calendar is not the same as the Roman one, and so sometimes Hanukkah is early December and sometimes it’s later. This year, since Thanksgiving is so late and Hanukkah is so early, they coincide, and I could not be more pleased.

Today I was talking to a dear friend about the ways that God moves in our lives through the smallest details to bring us to a better understanding of who he is. Just nine months ago, she and I were strangers and now here we were overwhelmed by his faithfulness as good friends. Gratitude and Miracle.

We are fallen and yet he loves us. Gratitude and Miracle.

I get to be a student of theology for this season. Gratitude and Miracle.

These holidays might have more in common than I realized.

Each year, we recite prayers as we light candles on Hanukkah. The flame glimmers in the window, shining out to the community around us, as if to proclaim the light of God himself. We say in Hebrew, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

As the sun sets, and Hanukkah arrives Thanksgiving night, I will pull out that little brown book and a pen, writing by the light of a menorah, soul full of family and friends, and I will pour ink onto the page and it will simply read, “Gratitude and Miracle.”

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah. May he continue to grant us life, sustain us and enable us to reach new seasons. And may the gratitude for the miracles he gifts us be ever on our lips.

Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.



Tags: Author: Melissa Zaldivar , spiritually vital , student blogger

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