September 28, 2016
By Dr. Patrick T. Smith,
Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy
A well-known and well-worn joke shared regularly when I was in grade school goes: "How do you clean Dracula's teeth?" The response: "Very carefully." When I think about the question, "How do we make ethical decisions in a complex world?" the response of the childhood joke somehow seems appropriate.
To be sure, there are many moral questions whose answers are very clear. For instance, we must not torture innocent people just for the fun of it. The immorality of this activity ought to be beyond dispute. Yet, we face many pressing ethical questions in our contemporary context that are difficult, and defy simple and unreflective responses. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many important ethical discussions are not thought through carefully and too often are reduced to clichés. When this happens in the Christian community, we are woefully unprepared to help ourselves and equip others to make good ethical decisions in a complex world.
Many orthodox Christians correctly affirm the Bible, first and foremost, as the inspired narrative of God’s loving plan of redemption for His creation. Does the Bible also help with ethical decision-making? Certainly. Divine revelation through Scripture has a primary role in Christian ethics. We must, however, take care not to misunderstand the nature of Scripture, nor to misuse the Bible in ethical decision-making. We must not think of the Bible as simply a book of moral precepts to be mined for making ethical decisions. If we do so, I think we miss its point.
Further, this approach increases the likelihood that we will err or misuse the Bible in ethics. The moral prescriptions of the Bible are authoritative for the Christian community when they are properly interpreted and appropriately applied in our contemporary setting.
Even with the high view of Scripture held by most evangelical Christians, many matters are not nearly so straightforward that one can find a verse or passage containing direct instruction on what to do in a given situation. Take, for example, the medical treatment of terminally ill or imminently dying patients. On one hand, Christian theology recognizes that human life is valuable and a tremendous good of which we are to be faithful stewards. On the other hand, it also recognizes that our human existence this side of the new heavens and new earth is not the highest good and that there is a time to die. Hence, it is often complicated to determine on purely biblical or theological grounds exactly when someone should forego various kinds of therapeutic treatment at the end of life.
Further, “there are no direct discussions about war, genetic engineering, environmental pollution” and a number of other contemporary issues. So there is a deliberative process that must take place to discern how prescriptive biblical principles may be applied in complex situations. This is why the discipline of hermeneutics is so important in all facets of Christian discipleship. Regardless, Scripture has a prime place in Christian ethical reflection.
Ethics is complex for several reasons. First, we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world (Gen. 3). As Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes, “sin distorts our character, a central feature of our very humanity. Sin corrupts powerful human capacities—thought, emotion, speech and act—so that they become centers of attack on others or of defection or neglect.” This certainly in no small way affects how we live and the ethical decisions we make.
A second factor is that “we sometimes encounter competing ethical claims” (more on this below). Third, our individual decisions are often affected by a “plurality of publics.” In other words, a number of people or groups have a legitimate stake in ethical decisions. To whom is one primarily responsible in making decisions? Last, the empirical facts may not be easy to discern or ascertain. It is widely recognized that in applied ethics many moral judgments hinge on non-moral facts.
To illustrate this last point, consider the ethics of organ transplantation. Of course, many take it to be morally unacceptable to harvest the vital organs of people who are not yet dead for the sake of saving others’ lives. Since“ successful transplantation requires that organs be removed from cadavers shortly after death to avoid organ damage due to loss of oxygen, there has been keen interest in knowing precisely when people are dead so that organs can be removed.” And determining this is an empirical matter once the theoretical criteria have been established. Therefore, the empirical facts are crucial in assessing the morality of organ donation in a particular case.
In the midst of such complexity, the real, perhaps inevitable, possibility exists that ethical dilemmas will arise. An ethical dilemma can be understood as “a conflict between two or more value- or virtue-driven interests.” In such circumstances, it is important to have some tools that can assist us in making sound ethical decisions. The following model represents just one such framework.
1. Gather the facts
In many cases, issues are resolved by becoming clear on the details of thecae. We need to ask, “What is the context of the ethical deliberation?” Given that we make ethical decisions in specific circumstances, if we don’t have the facts, moral assessment is not possible.
2. Determine the ethical issues
Sometimes we face situations that present personal and professional difficulty, but may not constitute an ethical dilemma. Here, it is important to identify as specifically as possible what are the competing moral interests that stand in need of resolution.
3. Determine what virtues and principles have a bearing on the case
If the conflict we are addressing actually is an ethical dilemma, then, of course, there are competing values or principles that underlie it. After identifying these principles, the task is to determine which ought to be afforded more weight in the context where unavoidable moral conflicts emerge. This approach, sometimes known as graded absolutism or ethical hierarchialism, sees moral rules and principles as prima facie. This simply means that at first glance or all things being equal, these rules carry moral obligations in most situations, but maybe overridden by other ethical considerations insinuations where there are genuine moral dilemmas. “Clearly,” for a Christian ethic “biblical principles are to be weighted more heavily.”
4. List the alternatives
A very important part of this model is to ask: “What are the courses of action that may be taken?” When this is done, we’ll see that some decisions eliminate themselves. We should always strive to be as creative as possible to get around a moral dilemma. The more alternatives that can be generated, the better likelihood we have of discovering an option that minimizes the potential negative consequences of our decisions.
5. Compare the alternatives with the virtues and principles employed
It may well be the case that most, if not all but one or two alternatives, can be ruled out when we apply the relevant principles and values to them. “In order to make a clear decision, [we] must weight one or more virtues/values more heavily than others.” One worry with the graded absolutist approach or ethical hierarchialism is that some may simply “use the notion of prima facie rules as a smokescreen for picking and choosing which rules [they] wish to adhere to in any situation.” In order to avoid this scenario, certain conditions must be met when overriding a prima facie rule: (1) Justifiable public reasons must be offered in favor of the overriding principle; (2) It should be done as a last resort; (3) “We should seek the action that least violates the principle being overridden;” and(4) The overridden principle should leave “moral traces,” which is an awareness of the moral weight concerning the decision being made.
6. Consider the consequences
If one has not been able to completely rule out possible alternatives when applying the rules, then the positive and negative consequences of the decision should be determined and assessed as well as can be done.
7. Make a decision consistent with a Christian ethic
We must avoid the “paralysis of analysis” and make a decision. Sometimes this means choosing the best available alternative even if not ideal. Whatever decision is to be made, it should be as consistent with a Christian ethic as humanly possible given the unique features of the scenario.
To consider how these steps can be applied in a concrete situation, take the example of a man hiding Jews during World War II. The facts are that soldiers are tracking down people of Jewish background and unjustifiably executing them. The man is asked in a very forthright manner if he knows their whereabouts. That individual has the opportunity to protect human lives by concealing the location of Jews on his property. The ethical issue here is that there is a moral conflict between telling the truth and saving a life when it is in one’s power and ability to do so.
In determining what virtues and principles bear on this case, it is important to reflect on the biblical teaching that God is a God of truth. He expects His people to be truthful and lying lips are an abomination to God (Proverbs 12:22).Also, God places a high value on human life and expects us to do the same (Matthew 22:37-39). When we have an opportunity to save the life of another or to prevent evil from coming upon others, we have a responsibility to do so.
What are the alternatives for a person in this situation? To tell the truth or deceive in order to protect human life, it would seem. (For the example employed here to illustrate how the criteria may be used, let’s assume no other alternatives are available.) When comparing the alternatives,
it seems that there is an unavoidable conflict. The question now becomes, “Which of the moral principles, both deeply ingrained in Christian ethics, ought to be afforded more weight?”
When one considers the consequences, it is almost certain that human life will be lost unjustifiably by revealing thelocation of the Jews. Some may decide that while lying is not ideal, the principle of saving a life through some form of deception is morally permissible, given the situation. However, these same individuals should also stress that it is morally imperative not to make this a common practice for the sake of mere convenience. Deception should only be chosen when there is an unavoidable conflict with grave consequences in the balance.
It is important to know that ethical decision-making cannot be reduced simply to identifying and applying rules and principles. A crucial part of Christian ethics is about determining what we ought to do in this way. Applying guidelines, while important, is only part of a proper Christian response. Just as important is reflection on, and development of, the kind of persons we are to be. Christians must strike a balance between what some have labeled decisionist ethics and virtue ethics. The former category provides answers to the question, “What ought I to do?” whereas the latter addresses the question, “What kind of person should I be?” Most certainly, character counts.
Moreover, ethics is a profoundly communal exercise. We are created as social beings. Certain shared moral responsibilities and moral bonds are moral requisites of genuine community. It is difficult, indeed, to overstate ourinterdependence with one another. Therefore, we most often do not make ethical decisions in isolation. Nor do we grow in character apart from the community that helps form and shape it. Kyle Fedler describes these points nicely when he writes:
“[T]he development of Christian character is absolutely central to the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be shaped by the values, commitments, and worldview of the community of faith to such a degree that one begins to internalize certain virtues and dispositions….While belief and action are vital to being a Christian, one must also allow oneself to be shaped and molded into a particular kind of person, to develop a set of virtues that reflect what we as Christians claim to believe about the world.”
This is why being a member of a local church body is so important for followers of Christ. In the context of the Christian community, we can see the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people. Making ethical decisions in a complex world is not merely a deliberative process, though it is certainly no less. We make ethical decisions in the midst of complexity in a holistic way that includes with our mental deliberation the appropriate kind of character that is developed by reflecting on God’s Word and His world amidst the community of believers (Romans 12:1-2).
September 19, 2016
By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
"Go" Most people have heard, correctly, that the only imperative in the passage is the command to lead the nations to be Christ’s disciples. The participle that comes before the verb is rightly translated “go” (not “going”). It is a participle of attendant circumstance, which means that it is not stressed as much as the imperative but still carries an imperatival force. It is to be understood as action that must be done if the command given in the main verb (“make disciples”) is to be accomplished. We cannot accomplish the task that Jesus has given us if we stay on the mountain, or stay in Jerusalem, or stay wherever we might find ourselves. If everyone in the world is to learn of the one who has authority over them and who has given commandments for them to keep, then the Church must be intentional about bringing that message to all people everywhere.
"Make all the nations/peoples my disciples" This is the clause that has the one imperative in the passage. This is the main point. Going is a necessary precursor to the accomplishing of this task and, as we shall see, baptizing and teaching are specific parts of how this task is to be carried out. What does it mean to make someone a disciple of Christ? Despite some of what has gone on from time to time in the history of the Christian Church, Christ does not condone or warrant the use of physical, political or other kinds of force. This is not a justification for the Crusades or forcible conversions. No one becomes a disciple against his or her own will. Christ calls people to follow him, and only those who freely decide to follow him are his disciples.
To be a disciple is to be one who is committed to learning from, and obeying, the teachings and example of one’s master/teacher. Since Christ was committed to proclaiming the need for repentance and the good news of the Kingdom of God, and sent the 12 and then the 72 out to do the same (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1), his disciples understand that they must be committed to that task as well. Since he was known for ministering to those who were marginalized and rejected by mainstream society, his disciples recognize that they also must be committed to an inclusive approach to ministry. The disciple learns the teachings of the master and passes them on to others.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes he rejection of all self-serving and self-promoting behavior and the rejection of self-justifying interpretations of Scripture in favor of behavior and interpretations that reflect ruthless honesty about our own moral and spiritual failures (especially our failure to respect our proper obligations to God and others). We are to unequivocally place God’s honor and agenda above our own. For followers of Christ, this also means following Christ by taking up the cross each day. The cross is at the center of the message of each of the four Gospels, and it was at the center of Christ’s teaching and mission. Those who follow Christ may expect to be rejected and persecuted just as he was. To follow Christ is to be prepared to suffer the loss of all things for the sake of gaining Christ and the life that he offers.
"Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," This clause points to a key initial step in making disciples. Christian baptism is associated with faith in Christ (Acts 8:12-13; 16:15; 18:8;19:4). To be baptized in someone’s name is to “become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear.” The baptism of an individual in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit suggests that this person is being brought into intimate relationship with the Trinity; now belongs to, and stands under the protection of, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and lives in intimate relationship with them.
Christian discipleship, according to Jesus, is about living out a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is about living out the relationship established by God’s covenant (the new covenant in Christ’s blood) which introduces the believer into the eschatological salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Father has sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to our lives and communicates Christ’s presence to us.
"Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you." This passage is filled with uses of the adjective “all”: “all authority,” “all nations/peoples,” “all have commanded,” “always” (literally, “all the days…”). The relationships between the first three uses of the adjective are particularly important to note. Jesus does not inform his readers that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth just so that they will obey him when he tells them what to do, but so that they will understand why it is that all nations/peoples should obey everything he has commanded.
The key logical relationship is not between “I have all authority” and “You should go and make disciples” but between “I have all authority” and “Everyone everywhere should obey everything I have commanded (so go and work toward that end).” Jesus emphasized his universal authority so that his disciples would understand why he should be universally obeyed. To be a disciple of Christ is to understand who he really is, the Lord of all creation, and to live one’s life out with a passion for other people to come to know him and to recognize his absolute, loving and gracious lordship as well.
The obedience that Jesus describes here is referred toby the Apostle Paul as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 6:26). Christian obedience will never be perfect this side of the resurrection, but the life of discipleship is a life marked by both continual learning and continual practice of the teachings of Christ (cf. Matt. 7:21-27).
"I will certainly always be with you, to the very end of the age." Jesus, “God with us” (cf. Matt.1:23), reminds us that none of what he calls for in discipleship can be accomplished with our own resources. It is only because Christ is with us—because he goes with us into the world—that we can possibly dare to step out to follow the discipleship agenda that he set for us. Christ’s presence and power are the keys to Christian discipleship. We are not disciples of some ancient teacher who has merely left us his teachings. We are disciples of the living Lord who walks with us and who teaches, nurtures, restores and empowers us as we go into the world in his name and his power.
Jesus probably had Daniel 7:13-14 in mind when he gave the Great Commission. There, we are told that the Son of Man was given authority—an everlasting dominion—so that all nations would serve and worship him. Christ is the Son of Man, the Lord of all. He has been given universal authority which ought to be universally recognized and radically respected (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). What would our lives look like if that truth were to truly penetrate to the very core of our being?
Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies, and Director of the Th.M. Program in Biblical Studies. He also served for 12 years as a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Portugal, teaching at two theological schools. He maintains close ties to Portugal, serving as a translator/reviser of the Portuguese Bible Society’s contemporary translation of the Bible. He received an M.Div. from Denver Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
September 12, 2016
By Dr. Edward Keazirian,
Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program
In recent years, our nation has experienced more than a seven-fold increase in bank failures. In such uncertain economic conditions, one might be advised to seek a more heartening metaphor than a bank to express the security of our hope. We might consider Ben Franklin's proverbial “death and taxes” as an alternative to the banks for expressing dependability, certainty and permanence. However, in a culture that confuses true hope with wishful thinking, optimism, positivism and other attitudes about the future, even the certainty of death and taxes falls short of the security of the hope we see proclaimed in Scripture. Death and taxes have have their temporal limits, but true hope trumps even death and taxes because true hope is eternal.
The best working definition of biblical hope that I have ever heard is simply “faith extended into the future.” Like our faith, our hope is grounded in the unchanging and absolutely trustworthy character of God. And like our faith, our hope is based on three expressions of God’s faithfulness: God’s word, God’s action and God’s promises.
Abraham epitomizes faith because he believed and obeyed God when he had nothing more to go on than the word of God. When God said, “Go,” Abraham trusted and went. In the same way, Abraham also stands as the archetype of hope. Because he was fully convinced that God could do what he promised, Abraham never wavered, but in hope–against all the evidence, humanly speaking–he believed he would become the father of many nations, just as God had promised. His faith fueled his hope, so that what he knew of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness in the present became his assurance for the future as well. Abraham lived with the expectancy–the hope–that he would inherit all that God had promised him. Although he did not see his hope completely fulfilled in his lifetime, we are told that he saw and welcomed those promises from afar. Even death did not quell his hope, for he was convinced that God could raise the dead if necessary in order to fulfill his promises.
Long before Jesus ever addressed the doubts of Thomas, Abraham was blessed and honored for believing without having seen. For Abraham, hope is vindicated not on the basis of what he has seen, but because of what God is. True hope is rooted in God. This is a foundational theme of hope throughout Israel’s scripture, but it is especially evident in the raw expressions of the soul in Job and the Psalms.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long (Ps. 25:5).
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD (Ps. 31: 24).
I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good (Ps. 52:8-9).
Whether the psalmist’s hope is in the LORD or in his name, the meaning is the same. His hope is rooted in the being, character and reputation of God, for the name embraces the very essence of the person. Therefore, true hope–that sense of confidence and expectation that good things will happen in the future–depends on the reality that God is sovereign, in control of all that happens and thus able to direct all circumstances and events for the accomplishment of his purposes; that God is good and loving , certain to purpose only what is good and loving for all creation; that God is compassionate and merciful, sensitive to and patient with the limitations of His children in understanding, accepting and submitting to His purposes; that God is righteous and just, committed to vindicating the innocent and punishing the guilty, righting the wrongs that people have suffered, and restoring what was lost or stolen in the unfolding of His purposes from beginning to end; that God is trustworthy, faithful to keep His word and to fulfill His promises; and that God is true, consistent in word and deed with all the perfections of His nature.
Therefore, the godless—those who forget God—have no hope. Just as reeds depend on the water of the marsh for life, so hope must be rooted in God to survive (Job 8:13). When we are cut off from God, whether by our own initiative or God’s, all hope is gone (Job 27:8), for hope not only resides in God, but also derives from God.
Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge (Ps. 62:5-7). Because God protects and delivers, we can rest securely in Him, regardless of our circumstances. Whether our physical security, our emotional stability or our public reputation is threatened, God provides refuge and stability. We must not forget this. So much of our experience in life seems contrary to what we would expect of a sovereign, loving God that we are tempted to doubt God, to see ourselves as victims of evil, injustice and ignorance rather than beloved children of a sovereign God. Indeed the evil one is there at every turn in a crisis to sow seeds of doubt and to ask “has God really said…?”
Job exemplifies this struggle for all believers. As strong as his hope is—stronger even than death itself —he nevertheless experiences the silence of God in the crisis. And it seems as though he were uprooted and cut off from all hope, no better off than the wicked and cut off by the very God whose character he trusts more than his own life.
Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13:15)…. He has blocked my way so I cannot pass; He has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped me of my honor and removed the crown from my head. He tears me down on every side till I am gone; He uproots my hope like a tree. (Job 19:8-10)
However, because God is the guarantor of true hope, Job’s hope does not fail. Despite all the contrary circumstances swirling around him, Job can still affirm, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
Though true hope is focused on the future, it sustains us in the present. We know that no matter what happens, our hope will endure. It will transcend death and it will ultimately prove to be redemptive simply because it is guaranteed by the God who fulfilled His promises to Abraham—and indeed to all who believe—through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that, dear friend, is a hope even better than anything you can take to the bank. As we eagerly await in hope the ultimate consummation of all that God has initiated in word, act and promise, let these affirmations of the psalmist be our own:
We wait in hope for the LORD; He is our help and our shield (Ps. 33:20).
But, as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more (Ps. 71:14).
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word
I put my hope. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption (Ps. 130:5-7).
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—
the LORD, who remains faithful forever (Ps. 146:5-6).
DR. EDWARD KEAZIRIAN, Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program, joined the Gordon-Conwell faculty in 1995. He is involved in multiple ministries through his local church, the First Baptist Church of Danvers, MA, including SundaySchool, the worship team, church boards and spiritual mentoring. He is also currently a member of Balikatan, the U.S. support organization for InterVarsity ChristianFellowship in the Philippines, and has participated in several short-term missions trips there and in Alaska. Dr. Keazirian is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and Phi Alpha Chi honor society at Gordon-Conwell. His forthcoming book ison peace and peacemaking. He is an avid fan of Boston sport teams.
September 07, 2016
By Dr. John Jefferson Davis
Chair of the Division of Christian Thought; Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics
"What is the role of theology in the life of the church?" Some busy pastors in American churches today might be tempted to answer, "Honestly, not much. I haven't thought much about 'theology' since I left seminary. I'm too busy preparing sermons, attending committee meetings and dealing with conflicts and problems in my church to give much attention to theology."
However, I would like to suggest that for even such busy pastors, a more accurate image of the role of theology in the life of the parish would not be that of a neglected textbook on the pastor’s shelf, but rather that of a back bone in a healthy body. The backbones in our bodies, like the foundations and electrical and plumbing systems in our homes, are usually taken for granted–until something goes wrong. Like a healthy backbone in a healthy human body, sound biblical theology can provide support, shape and stability to the Body of Christ.
In the early church, the development of Christian theology was shaped by four important functions it served in the life of the church: the catechetical, the apologetical, the polemical and the homiletical. All four of these functions of theology in the early church are still vital for the ministry of the church today. In its catechetical function, theological instruction prepared converts for church membership and participation in the Eucharist, instructing them in basic Christian doctrine. This process of catechesis is often referred to as “discipleship” or “discipling” today. Converts were instructed in the “rule of faith,” a summary of Christian doctrine that formed the basis of the later Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Such early summaries of Christian belief are found in the New Testament itself, e.g., Paul’s summary of the kerygma in I Cor. 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve…”
Augustine’s Enchiridion, or On Faith, Hope, and Love (c.421), was prepared as such a catechetical manual, following the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the two “Great Commandments.” In the preface to his 1560 French edition of the Institutes, John Calvin stated that it was his intention to provide a summary of Christian doctrine that would help Christians in their reading of the Old and New Testaments. Today, new converts and new church members still need to be catechized and instructed in the fundamentals of the faith. Books like John Stott’s Basic Christianity or R.C. Sproul’s Essential Truths of the Christian Faith can assist the pastor in this historic task.
The apologetic task of theology in the early church was to defend and explain the faith to outsiders (cf. I Pet. 3:15,“Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you”). Early Christian apologists such as Aristides, Diognetus and Tertullian responded to misunderstandings and accusations from the pagans, and Justin Martyr responded to criticisms from the Jews of his day. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gentiles defended the Christian faith in the face of Muslim criticisms. In today’s religious climate of religious pluralism and the “new atheism,” the need for informed Christian apologetics remains as relevant as ever. Several generations of Christians have been helped by classics such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Miracles. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God provides cogent responses to many of the criticisms of the faith in our own day. In its polemical function, Christian theologians defended and expounded the biblical faith against heretical threats from within the church. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in his massive Against Heresies (c. 185), defended the biblical faith against the threat of Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of the physical creation and placed the biblical story into an alien context of Gnostic cosmological speculation.
In the face of the Arian threat, Athanasius vigorously and tenaciously defended the full deity of Christ, and together with the Cappadocian fathers of the 4th century, laid the basic foundations of Christology and Trinitarian theology that have guided the church ever since. In the modern period, orthodox theologians have labored to preserve the historic Christian faith from the attacks of Enlightenment biblical criticism, deistic denials of miracles and Unitarian denials of the Trinity, original sin and substitutionary atonement.
More recently, revisionist readings of biblical sexual ethics, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, feminist criticisms of the “patriarchal” language of the Trinity and “Open Theism” have questioned or rejected historic orthodox belief. The Pauline admonitions to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (I Tim.4:16), and for believers not to be “blown about by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14) but to grow mature in the faith, are just as relevant as ever. The fourth function of theology in the life of the early church was the homiletical one: assisting preachers and teachers in the exposition and teaching of Scripture (cf. I Tim.4:13: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching”). The church leader is to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit. 1:9).
Knowledge of sound doctrine aids in preaching and teaching not only by the avoidance of heresy, but also by enabling the preacher to place the particular text in the larger context of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption and new creation. This was precisely what the Gnostics in the early church failed to do, wrenching the biblical texts out of their biblical contexts and placing them in the context of an alien system of thought.Heterodox religious movements today such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons can distort the biblical teachings in the same way. Sound teachers in the early church such as Irenaeus, and effective preachers today such as John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, Haddon Robinson, Timothy Keller, Gordon Hugenberger, Mark Dever and others have robust theologies that enable them to place the biblical text in its wider redemptive-historical context, and so preserve the distinctive Christian identity of the message.
In addition to these historically recognized functions of theology in the life of the church, a sound biblical theology can provide vitality, vision
and standards for assessment in the local congregation. Church history shows that a robust biblical theology can contribute to church growth and vitality. The opposite is also the case. Churches and denominations that tolerate doctrinal erosion tend to have tepid worship and declining memberships. During the decades between 1965 and 1999, for example, the PC(USA), the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church lost, respectively, 40 percent, 29 percent, 26 percent and 24 percent of their total memberships. Growing churches were generally those committed to an orthodox and biblical theology.
As the leader of the flock, the pastor is responsible for casting a vision for the church. The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation provides the theological framework and context for such a vision. Salvation itself is not only forgiveness of sins and hope of heaven in the future, but also an experience beginning now of entering into the life of the Triune God. Because of Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of the Father and sending of the Holy Spirit, we—as adopted sons and daughters in Christ—can begin to experience the love of Jesus’ Father for his beloved Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to its culmination and never-ending deepening in the presence ofGod in a gloriously beautiful New Creation (Rev.21, 22). Such a theological vision can energize and unify a congregation, just as John F. Kennedy’s famous vision casting of May 1961,to a joint session of Congress—“A man on the moon by the end of this decade”— energized NASA and the nation for the Apollo space mission.
Finally, sound theology provides a standard for congregational assessment, a basis for asking and answering the question, “How are we doing as a church?” For example, the biblical doctrine of the church, that specifies worship, discipleship and mission as the three God-ordained purposes of the church, then provides the basis for asking questions such as “How well are we worshipping God?”“ Are we as a people growing deeper and more mature in our relationships with Christ and one another?” “How effective are we in reaching out to others—in service and proclamation?” “Are we growing as a church that is ‘deep, thick and different’—deep in our worship and knowledge of the Triune God, ‘thickly’ committed in love and service to one another and distinctive from the secular culture in our beliefs, lifestyle, values and hopes?” “Are we growing both in our obedience to the ‘Great Commandments,’ and in our fulfillment of the Great Commission?”
And so it is that theology now, as in the New Testament and subsequent centuries of church history, can play a vital role in the life of a healthy church. As pastors, teachers and lay leaders, may we continue to “teach and admonish with all wisdom, so as to present everyone mature in Christ” (Col.1:28), and so be able to say with the Apostle Paul at the end of our ministries, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:8), in the expectation of that crown of righteousness to be awarded by the Lord to his beloved church.
John Jefferson Davis, Ph.D. a member of the faculty at Gordon-Conwell since 1975, is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, and serves as Chair of the Division of Christian Thought. His most recent book is "Worship and the Reality of God: An evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP Academic, 2010).
August 30, 2016
By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Paul was chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting his day before Caesar, knowing that his life might soon be “poured out like a drink offering” (Phil. 2:17). And yet, he says in the very same verse, “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” In fact, in the same letter he mentions “joy” or “rejoicing” 14 times! That is more than I’ve probably ever mentioned “joy” on a good day with the sun shining and things going well for me!
Of course, hardships were a constant part of Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 6:4- 10 he speaks of having experienced, among other things, troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, hunger and dishonor. Did you notice his use of plural forms? Not a beating, but beatings. Not imprisonment, but imprisonments. And that was before he wrote any of his “prison epistles.”
Later on in that letter he gave more details. He says he had been in prison more frequently than other believers the Corinthians knew and had been “flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (11:23). He says,
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (11:24-27).
Typically, however, when Paul thinks of the hardships he has experienced (or is experiencing), he thinks at the same time of God’s strength, support and grace. The hardships are reminders of the power of death. Paul knows full well death’s power and its impact on his life and the lives of others. It is seen not only in failing bodies and funerals at the end of earthly journeys; it is also seen in the trials, tribulations and deprivations that are experienced along the way. Paul, however, knows a power that is much stronger than the power of death. It is the power of God and of the resurrection life that will not only be his and ours on resurrection day, but is already manifest as the Spirit provides life in ways that help him—and us— continue on despite death’s power in the here and now. That point is made over and over in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.
Note below how Paul alternates back and forth between references to his (and others’) challenges and difficulties on the one hand and references to God’s sustaining grace on the other. He then ties these to what we know about Christ’s death and resurrection as the pattern that makes sense of our own experience as Christians.
4:8a We are hard pressed on every side... ... but not crushed;
4:8b perplexed... ... but not in despair;
4:9a persecuted... ... but not abandoned;
4:9b struck down... ... but not destroyed,
4:10 We always carry around in our
body the death of Jesus... ... so that the life of Jesus
may also be revealed
in our body.
4:11 For we who are alive are always
being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, ... so that His life may be revealed
in our mortal body.
4:12 So then, death is at work in us, ... but life is at work in you.
4:14 ... we know that the one who raised the
Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us
with Jesus and present us with you in
4:16a ... Therefore we do not lose heart
4:16b Though outwardly we are
wasting away... ... yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that
far outweighs them all.
4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
preludes to the glory.
In 4:16a and 4:18 Paul breaks away from the alternating pattern to indicate how it relates to his own understanding of Christian hope and endurance. A comparison of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 with what Paul says in Romans 8:18 reveals that this is Paul’s constant way of thinking about the issue:
8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us
“Our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17), that is, “our present sufferings” (Rom. 8:18) are “what is seen.” But this “is temporary,” not that on which we fix our eyes (2 Cor. 4:18). Rather, our focus is on the “eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17), i.e., “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), that “is unseen” and not temporary, but “eternal.” God's grace is sufficient to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory.
We don’t lose heart because, although we can’t help but notice the former, we fix our eyes on the latter, and live mindful of the fact that death comes before resurrection glory, and that God’s grace is sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10) to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory. In the strength God gives us to persevere despite our difficulties, we see the promise of the ultimate victory of resurrection life and glory.
Is there any evidence that this is the same way of looking at things that undergirded Paul’s tenacious faith while in Roman chains, and that allowed him to write the Philippians a letter so marked by the theme of joy? What was the pattern of thought that Paul urged the Philippians to adopt? Their attitude, he said, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). How did he face suffering? He “humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him” (vv. 8-9). Christ was obedient in suffering even unto death, and then was raised to glory.
Of course, Christ’s obedience and glory both outshine any Christian obedience and glory, but the pattern is the same. It is in light of that pattern that Paul can speak, later in that same chapter, of looking forward to “the day of Christ” (v. 16) and of being glad and rejoicing with the Philippians even if he is being “poured out like a drink offering” (v. 17). And he calls on the Philippians to also “be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).
This is confirmed in Philippians 3:8-11 where Paul says he considers all the losses1 experienced in this life “rubbish” (or garbage, or dung) “that I may gain Christ and be found in him” with the righteousness that comes from God by faith (vv. 8-9). Then he explicitly mentions suffering and relates it to the theme of Christ and his resurrection (vv. 10-11): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul’s tenacious hope, his joy in the midst of the challenges he faced as a follower of Christ, was founded on his understanding that as he followed Christ, his sufferings entailed sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in death, and that it was the power of the resurrection— at work in Christ and now in him—that would see him through his challenges all the way to the ultimate goal of his final resurrection and the glory that awaited him.
For Paul, it was now impossible to think of death and its friends (e.g., difficulties, trials and suffering of various sorts), without being reminded of the resurrection and the power of resurrection life in the present (to get us through the challenges we face) and the future (where we will experience the final victory), with, and thanks to, Christ our Lord. That was a key to his tenacious faith and joy in the midst of trials.
Dr. Roy E Ciampa is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies and Director of the Th.M. program in Biblical Studies. He joined GCTS after 12 years of cross-cultural experience, teaching at two different theological schools in Portugal, and collaborating with the Portuguese Bible Society in the revision of its contemporary translation of the Bible. He is an ordained minister and serves on the Board of Overseeing Elders at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA. Dr. Ciampa is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research and the Evangelical Theological Society. He is also on the Advisory Council of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society and a regular participant in the annual Nida School of Translation Studies. He is co-mentor of the Gordon-Conwell Doctor of Ministry track in Bible Translation.
August 23, 2016
By Kenneth Swetland, D.Min.
Pastors tell me that they have never received a call in the middle of the night that was good news. When the 2 a.m. call comes, pastors brace themselves for hearing bad news, and are then relieved when sometimes it’s only a misdialed number or someone playing a joke.
But, when the call is serious, it’s time to act. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often for most pastors, although some say that a younger generation apt to keeping late hours and used to instant gratiﬁcation or help available 24/7, are often the ones making the middle-of-the-night call to their pastor. An older generation tends to wait until 6 or 7 a.m. unless they are so devastated that they need pastoral care immediately or know their pastor would want to respond quickly.
Pastors can help educate their parishioners by informing them (often more than once) that they are available at anytime if there is a crisis. This kind of availability is part of the call to be a pastor. Not wanting to help when people hurt raises the question of whether one has a genuine call to pastoral ministry, which at its biblical base reﬂects a desire to minister grace and comfort from a Triune God to people in need. I know a pastor who did not want to be bothered outside of the 9 to 5 ofﬁce routine and had an unlisted phone number at home. It’s not surprising that he did not last more than a short time at his ﬁrst church and is not a pastor today.
On an accreditation visit to a seminary in Costa Rica afew years ago, I was touched with the sign on the practical ministry department door: “Pastoral Accompaniment.” That’s what pastors faithful to the biblical model of pastoring do—accompany people when a crisis comes. So, what do you do when the 2 a.m. call comes and it is indeed bad news? First, determine whether you need to go immediately or wait until later. For example, if individuals calling are under the inﬂuence of alcohol or drugs and you determine in talking with them that they are safe but would be unable to “hear” what you have to say if you responded in person, it may be best to afﬁrm your love for them and concern for their well being, but ﬁrmly advise that it would be better for them and you if you visited later in the day. Then keep your word. You can certainly pray with and for them on the phone. And, when you hang up, hope they do not call right back. It may be wise to phone a family member to report what happened and enlist that person’s help as needed.
Sometimes unstable persons, such as those with Borderline Personality Disorder or in a manic phase of Bipolar Disorder, call in the middle of the night, insist on talking at length and want you to be with them right now. Responding by going along with their request often does not help them towards spiritual and emotional health and it can be intensely frustrating and time consuming, not to mention tiring for you. But, not going along with their request often causes them to become angry and accuse you (often to others) of not caring. And, there’s nothing that strikes pain in a pastor’s heart like the accusation that he or she does not care. It is wise, therefore, to have a plan of action in mind for when emotionally unstable persons call. For example, assure them of your concern on the phone, pray with them, help them recognize that they can make it without seeing you immediately and hold to your decision not to get out of bed to go visit them. You may also need to call a family member to provide assistance. If a person is suicidal, you need to call the police and report what has transpired.
Once a woman I had been counseling who had Borderline Personality Disorder called me to say that she had taken a bottle of pills in order to kill herself. Since she had agreed to contact me if she was suicidal (“suicide contract”), she made the call and told me what she had taken. I then called the Poison Control Center for our region and learned that she had taken a potentially lethal dosage and needed immediate hospitalization. My next phone call was to the police who broke down her door and got her to the hospital where she was revived (and for several weeks hated me). I also called an elder in the church to accompany me to the hospital since I did not want to be alone when I visited her. This brings up the question of whether to see someone alone in the middle of the night or take someone with you.
My rule of thumb is that if the person I am going to see is a woman and is alone, I want someone with me so there is no appearance of anything improper. The same principle holds for female pastors visiting male parishioners. If other family members are going to be present, then going alone may be the best course of action. Here’s where it’s good to have aboard of elders trained and ready to assist you in a crisis.
Other words of advice:
Kenneth L. Swetland, D.Min., is Professor of Ministry and Campus Pastoral Counselor at the South Hamilton campus, providing pastoral care for students and graduates, and served as Academic Dean of the Hamilton campus from 1992-2002. He has pastored churches in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, was a chaplain at Penn State University and for nursing homes in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, and has worked as a psychotherapist at Gordon-Conwell Counseling Center, Health Integration Services in Peabody, MA and Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton. He has also taught in Eastern Europe, and has an interest in helping European seminaries in their development. Dr. Swetland continues as a supply speaker for many New England churches.
August 18, 2016
By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious affliation, beliefs and practices in the United States. One of the significant findings was that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all self-identifying Christians. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that 56 percent of all Evangelical Christians believe that there are many paths, other than faith in Christ, to God and eternal life (See http://pewforum.org).
Many were so shocked by these numbers that the Pew Forum went back and did further polling to make sure that by religion, respondents did not have in mind other Christian bodies or denominations. Their earlier results were essentially confirmed. In this most recent study, large numbers of Americans believe that actions or a combination of beliefs and actions can lead people to God. Even among the 30 percent of Americans who say that eternal life depends on one’s belief, nearly half designate belief in God, a higher power or other generic beliefs as sufficient for salvation. Among Evangelical Christians, only 45 percent clearly affrim that a personal belief in, or relationship with, Christ is essential for eternal life.
Increasing numbers of Americans, Christians and even Evangelicals are questioning the long held commitment of the Church that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Among all Americans affiliated with a religion, 52 percent believethat Islam leads to eternal life with God, 53 percent believe that Hinduism leads to God and 42 percent even believe that atheism leads to God. Among Evangelicals, the numbers are 35, 33 and 26 percent respectively. Clearly in recent years, in the midst of growing cultural and religious pluralism, large numbers of Christians are troubled by, or ignore, the claim of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). What are we to make of all this? Is Jesus really the only way to God? In a pluralistic world, why shouldn’t we accept an inclusivity that embraces multiple ways to salvation? Isn’t it arrogant to believe otherwise?
Our Pluralistic Context
The perspective that there are many ways to God is essentially one variant of universalism, the belief that ultimately all humans will be embraced by God and experience eternal life. To be sure, it is an old belief that was occasionally found early on in Christianity. In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen contended that in the end God would restore the whole of creation, including Satan, to a perfect state. This meant that people who never trusted Christ would be saved. Origen’s beliefs were condemned by a Church council in the 5th century.
Over the years, and in our own time, there have been many arguments for a universalism, or at least religious pluralism, which question the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Some argue that it is arrogant and triumphalistic to believe that any one way is essential for salvation. Others contend that surely God is a God of love and mercy who will accept people into his presence who don’t believe in Christ. The mercy of God trumps all other characteristics of God.
Some contend that all religions are essentially the same, simply using different names for the divine and different emphases in following the divine path. Still others attempt to articulate a religious pluralism or universalism on biblical grounds, citing texts such as Colossians 1:18-19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross;” or Romans 11:32, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” But perhaps the most significant factor for the growing belief in many paths to God is the pluralism of our social context. By pluralism I don’t mean merely the existence of multiple nationalities, races, ethnic groups or religions in a society. More fundamentally, pluralism means that varying worldviews, belief systems and moral frameworks exist side by side in a given culture.
With pluralism, we now rub shoulders daily with people who put their world together in vastly different ways. Thereare varying perceptions of God, the good life, salvation and human nature. There are varying ways of life reflecting these worldview assumptions. As we daily live with a plethora of worldviews, we experience these folks to be exceptionally fine people, who often reflect integrity, high morals and outstanding contributions to our communities. For a democracy to work, we recognize that these multiple frameworks all need to have a voice in the public square, and all religious and moral frameworks need to be assured of essential rights under the law.
In the milieu of social and legal pluralism, it is quite easy to glide into a religious pluralism which questions the uniqueness or truth claims of Christian faith. When we experience people of other religions as good, moral people, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain any notions other than multiple paths to God and salvation. When we encounter the plurality of the public square, it becomes almost second nature to believe that such plurality must exist with regards to truth and paths to eternal life. Moreover,when we look around us, many who are exclusive in their beliefs often appear to be arrogant and intolerant. Religious pluralists appear to be kind and accepting, and exhibit a tolerance needed for a pluralistic world.The reality of this sociocultural pluralism makes it difficult to maintain a belief in, and commitment to, Christ as the only way to God. Our context of multiplicity tends to undermine the long-held belief that salvation is found only in Jesus.
How Do We Respond?
Given the contexts of our time, what do we do with the question, “Is Jesus really the only way to God?” As we respond to this question, we need first to note that Jesus thought himself to be unique and the only way to a personal relationship with God. In Jesus’ teachings, he made very direct claims about himself and his work which clearly reveal his own identity:
Such statements may not sit well with a postmodern mindset which is squeamish about truth, and particularlyany claims to truth. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many are willing to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher but not his unique claims to be God. In Lewis’ memorable words he responds:
"That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God" (Mere Christianity, p. 41).
Not only did Jesus himself believe that he was the only way to God, being one with God the Father, the early followers and apostles believed the same. Peter, in one of his early sermons, said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The apostle Paul had hated Christians before he became one. After his conversion, he spoke frequently about Christ with clear conviction that he was the only way to salvation. Speaking of Jesus he said, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10, 11).
In similar fashion the apostle John wrote, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God…God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I Jn. 5:1, 11-12). Since the days of the apostles, the historic Christian Church has affirmed the uniqueness of Christ in his identity and in his role as the only savior for human sin. There has, of course, been substantial variation regarding particular doctrines among the various families and denominations of Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have historically been in agreement that salvation is found in no other than the person of Christ. The recent trends are contrary to those convictions.
The growing number of Christians who are troubled by Jesus’ claims to be the single course to salvation indicates how much the world has come to live in us as we attempt to live in the world. We easily allow the push and pull of our culture to define our beliefs, commitments and way of life, even while giving lip service to the name of Jesus. Perhaps the Pew Forum poll will be a wake-up call as to how much Christians have allowed the world to shape their sentiments.
Affirming the uniqueness of Christ for salvation and eternal life does not, of course, answer all our questions.There is much that God has not told us about the mysteries of life, death and eternity. We naturally wonder what happens to those who never had opportunity to embrace Christ. To such quandaries, we must simply trust in a Savior who is both loving and just, and whose understandings are far beyond ours. We must acknowledge that from Scripture we know relatively little about heaven and hell. What we do know is that Jesus, the apostles and the historic Church in all its variations have affirmed that Jesus is the only true way to God. And it only makes sense that if a person didn’t want Jesus as Savior and Lord on this earth, they would hardly want to spend forever with Him.
To affirm the uniqueness of Christ for salvation is not cause for arrogance and boasting. In fact, Scripturally it is exactly the opposite. Our salvation has nothing to do with our attainments, efforts and native beliefs. In salvation we do not find God through our own ingenuity. Rather, God finds us as we respond to his loving mercy in Christ as evidenced on the cross. The embrace of Christ as Savior and Lord can never be touted as cause for human triumph, smugness or self-assertion. It is not a sign of our superiority, or cause for triumphalistic efforts in society. The uniqueness of Christ is a sign that the triune God of the universe cares so deeply for his wayward creatures that he mercifully provided a path to forgiveness—a way to the Father’s embrace. It is in the Father’s embrace through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we come to realize that we can never pull the Triune God apart. For indeed to know Christ is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know the Spirit, who enables us to stay true to the One Savior in the midst of a pluralistic world.
Dr. Dennis P. Hollinger is President and Colman M.Mockler Professor of Christian Ethics. He formerly served as President of Evangelical Theological Seminary; as Provost, College Pastor and Professor of Christian Ethics at Messiah College; and as a professor at two additional seminaries. He has also been a visiting professor at seminaries in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and India, and a full-time pastor at three churches, including an urban church on Capitol Hill. He speaks extensively in the U.S. and internationally, has written or co-edited eight books, and has authored more than 65 articles. His Ph.D. is from Drew University.
August 04, 2016
By Bruce Herman, MFA
I love that memorable line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell’s sister confronts him with his duty as a missionary for Christ in China, admonishing him and scolding him for his “frivolous” participation in the pagan Olympic games in Paris. His reply: “Yes, of course! I am indeed a missionary—but God made me fast, and when I runI feel His pleasure!"
Giving God pleasure—imagine! This has to be the heart of glorifying the Lord—a desire and capacity to give our Maker pleasure. I also love Augustine’s famous paean of praise: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” It may be a bit cheeky, but I’d revise this just a little for the purposes of my article: “You are our Maker, and You made us to be makers. Our hearts are restless until we make something—something beautiful like what You have made.”
And the beautiful is at the heart of all that God has made. Open your eyes, and even a superficial glance at the night sky or the fields of wildflowers below our feet reveals this: God loves beauty—in its full range, from the awesome raging of the thunderstorm to the fragile petals of a rose. One might even be bold and say that just as God is Good and God is Truth, God also is Beauty—true beauty in all its multivalence and grandeur—God’s kabôd . And this is where I begin as a painter, desiring above all to give my Lord pleasure in the works of my hands.
My heart has been restless since my earliest days—restless to make something that would point toward my beautiful Maker—and by His grace I cannot remember a day when I didn’t feel this way. I have always made art, and I’ve nearly always wanted it to please God. Except for a brief interlude in my life during which I was confused about how to serve God as an artist, I’ve always at least intuited that God takes pleasure in the works of our hands and hearts and imagination—when it is done unto Him and for His glory.
What does it mean, in real terms, to make art to the glory of God?
First, I believe that because God is the author of all things beautiful and significant, it is a natural desire of all children to make beautiful and significant things. Children can, and do, distort this urge in order to simply garner attention for themselves. But adults are always disappointed to see this in their child. And that is because we all value the unselfconscious joy of making that we witness in children. The famous artist Pablo Picasso once memorably quipped, “I spent four years in the academy learning to draw like an old master. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning to draw like a child!” And what he was pointing toward, I believe, is the very principle being discussed: childlike, unselfconscious making—which naturally glorifies God just as the rest of God’s creation does, merely by being what it is.
It is easy for a child to make art to the glory of God—just as the sunrise or sunset, the thunderstorm or wildflowers glo-rify God without vanity or self-consciousness. But how is a fully grown person to do so, much less a professional who is paid and must always be promoting her works in order to gain exhibition space? Are we to copy the work of children and make clumsy, charming little works that show no knowledge or sophistication? No, of course not. This would be to indulge in even greater self-conscious posturing. But I do think there is a principle here to be noted: the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows. To make art to the glory of God requires that we give our all in the process of making—holding nothing back. But the difference between the child and the grown artist is that knowledge, technique, experience, even a kind of artistic “wisdom” is operating as we mature and practice art over a lifetime.
Yet the requirement that a work of art be free from pretentiousness or self-conscious posturing is a good one—and the artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted. In his seminal work I and Thou , Martin Buber says:
This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.
Buber has uncovered something deeply signifcant here. There is in the creative process a certain mystery. His phrase “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him” indicates that there is a dimension of authentic art-making that involves assent to a certain loss of control, a certain giving in to the form itself. This idea about art might sound at first quite romantic: mysterious forms jos-tling to be made into works of art independent of the artist, etc., etc. But I believe that Buber is simply describing the reality of the artist’s situation.
When an artist truly desires to be a servant of God, she relinquishes some of her autonomy. There is no room for prima donnas or dilettantes in God’s service—nor is there room for the artist to over-determine outcomes. In that case we are not talking about art but something else. Perhaps propaganda? There is at the heart of the authentic creative process a tacit acknowledgment that we are derivative creatures ourselves. We have not created ex nihilo. And the “form” that Buber speaks of here is nothing less than the artwork of God upon which we must draw in order to make our own works.
Moreover, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his famous Mars Hill speech, there is an echo of God’s own voice in the poetry and philosophy of even the pagans—whose culture was rich with reference and patterning derived from the natural world. Plato’s concept of the pure forms is one of those echoes, and it is fairly obvious that Buber is referencing that platonic idea of form. The sensitive artist perceives those forms that our Maker employs in His own making. And those forms call out to us for a response of praise.
The most fitting praise for the works of our Maker is to be found in our earnest creative work. We were made by a Maker to be makers. Scripture tells us that we are formed in the image of God—the Imago Dei—and the first thing we learn of God from Scripture is that God creates. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we are restless until we engage in creative making ourselves. Buber’s thought is that we must give our all in our making—all our talent, skill, knowledge, feeling, intellect, love—holding nothing back. In this same passage from I and Thou he goes on to say:
The deed [making a work of art] involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.
Again, he emphasizes that wholeheartedness is a prerequisite. But an additional requirement is glimpsed: there is a risk and a sacrifice in art making—and the artist must resist the tendency to objectify the form that “wants to become a work” through her. What does this mean? Buber’s entire book is predicated on the idea that human beings always assume one of two postures in relation to each other and to God’s creation: either we treat the creation as objects to be used and experienced (“It”) or we relate to the creation as “Thou”—that is, as being worthy of love, respect and care rather than possession, use and objectification.
We may seem to have wandered far from the question of how to make art to the glory of God. But this is the connection I am trying to make for us: to glorify the Maker, we must become makers. The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God’s own character in our creative process. Just as God imbues his human creatures with autonomy and dignity and loves them rather than manipulating or possessing them, human artists are to serve the forms they create—endowing them with a certain freedom and autonomy. And this is what Buber is at pains to express, namely that human creativity involves the very same risk that divine creativity engenders: the risk that the created work might break or break the maker. And if there is any doubt that God’s creatures have the capacity to break their Maker, simply remember the Cross.
Where have we come to in our attempt to investigate the connection between human art and God’s glory? I believe that the spark of divine creativity that is within the human imagination is deeply connected to the principle I have been attempting to elucidate. It is in our very capacity to make works that outlive us—works that seem to exist independently of their author’s interpretive grid—that we most echo our Maker. The element of risk and sacrifice is also at the core of that resemblance to our God. In a very real sense, the Lord engaged in a cosmic risk by creating human beings. The possibility that we might rebel and refuse God’s love was there from the beginning. And that very capacity of the created thing to resist its creator is what eventually calls forth a sacrifice.
To make art to the glory of God, the human artist must imi-tate this “deeper magic” of God’s own creativity: risk and very real sacrifice must accompany our making process. If we avoid these and play it safe in our art making, we will always fall short of glorifying our Maker. To conclude let me recount a passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :
‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. - Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 482). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
So then, as the Elves put the thought of all that they love—all the beauty and mystery and majesty of Lothlórien, their lovely land—we are called to put the thought of all we love of our own dear Lord’s handiwork into all that we make. Perhaps then He will be glorified and we will feel His pleasure
Bruce Herman, MFA, is the Lothlórien Distin-guished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He joined the faculty in 1984 and became the first Chair of the Art Department in 1988. His primary focus as a teacher and artist is figurative painting. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 1992 and was awarded the first fully endowed Distinguished Chair at Gordon in 2006. His art has been exhibit-ed internationally and is housed in museums such as the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
July 26, 2016
By Rollin Grams, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament
These are exciting days in Jesus studies. Much is being written on the historical Jesus, and intriguing studies in New Testament Christology have recently been published. Yet some of the works making it to print are intentionally trying to deconstruct the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. This article intends to address a few such challenges while recommending recent publications worth reading.
Deconstructing the Jesus of faith has been around in Modernist and now Postmodernist forms for some time. Herman Reimarus’s
Apology or Defence of the Rational Worshippers of God (1778) argued that Jesus was a pious Jew who called people to repentance and got himself killed in Jerusalem. His disciples then decided to steal His body and claim that He had risen from the dead so that they would not have to go back to work. Secrecy, conspiracy and scandal are not new to studies on Jesus. For those denying Jesus’ resurrection, such theories are standard fare (cf. Mt. 28.11-15).
Deconstructive Postmodernist scholars, however, seem willing to float theories primarily for the results they produce. The game is to construct alternative scenarios and see what happens: move Gnosticism into the 1st century, argue for different dates of manuscripts, imagine that Jesus’ tomb has been discovered, and so forth. New theories— ones touting secrets, conspiracies, and scandals—also sell well, as authors, publishers and bookshops have discovered. A number of works, such as those by Bart Ehrman, are aimed at undergraduates to unsettle their faith. His titles promote hype around secrecy, conspiracy and scandal, using words like “lost,” “battles,” “betrayer,” “misquoting Jesus” and “Bible fails.”
Consider how one deconstructs Jesus in a Postmodern age. First, argue that orthodox Christianity is less credible and perhaps even later than certain heresies because there were contending views on Jesus from the start. It is, of course, quite true that from the very beginning there were any number of responses to Jesus. The idea that Christianity first had a solid, orthodox trunk and only afterwards developed branches reaching out in heretical directions is clearly false. But the correct picture is not of an upside-down tree, with branches in all directions at the beginning and then a particular branch emerging from the mix asorthodoxy. There was a “normative Christianity” from the beginning.
Five lines of argument are worth considering:
1. Orthodox churches in the 2nd century could trace their lineage back to their apostolic foundations (cf.Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heresies; Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus (Eusebius,H.E. 5.24.2-7)).
2. Our canonical Gospels present the testimony of eyewitnesses.
3. Normative New Testament Christology is built out of its Jewish, especially Old Testament, roots.
4. Orthodox Christian tradition was preserved with due care for accuracy. Consider the important role of teachers in the community, the likely memorization of sayings of Jesus, the role of eyewitnesses in the community and the community’s high value of accurate memories of Jesus. Also consider the importance placed on apostolic custodians of the Church’s tradition, the assumption by New Testament authors that the churches knew traditions about Jesus, the Gospels’ historical interests in their choice of the genre of biography, the tendency to check prophecy with tradition and the control that a community exercised on the right telling of a story.
5. The early Church held a high Christology (e.g., Jesus seen as divine) from as early as we can tell. It did not develop from low (e.g., Jesus seen merely as a prophet) to high Christology over the rest of the 1st century. The evolutionary view is inherent in the title of Maurice Casey’s book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God. Key 20th century works assumed it: Wilhelm Bousset’s Kurios Christos, John Hick’s Myth of God Incarnate and James Dunn’s Christology in the Making.
Recently, however, strong challenges to this evolutionary view have appeared. Larry Hurtado notes that the earliest Church’s devotion to and worship of Jesus testify to its high Christology. Richard Bauckham argues that the earliest Church held a high Christology through its interpretation of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee argues exegetically that the New Testament’s earliest author, Paul, consistently held to a high Christology that was already in
the Church tradition. And Sean McDonough of Gordon-Conwell argues that the often neglected miracles of Jesus explain the early Church’s view that he was the agent of creation.
A second way to deconstruct Jesus is to rearrange the evidence from primary sources. What if one could argue that 2nd century Gnostic sources were either from the early 1st century or that they represent an early version of Christianity? What if the 200 or so verses that Matthew and Luke have in common, called ‘Q’, were taken as a complete perspective on Jesus held by a community, and then one focused on what was not in this imaginary document—Jesus’ death and resurrection! What if the Gospel of Thomas was actually written around AD 50—before the canonical Gospels? One essential feature of Postmodernist deconstruction is to see truth as communally (or locally) constructed. So, why not put forward 2nd
century Gnostic works, even if one does not subscribe to such views oneself, as an equally true or even preferabler epresentation of Jesus?
All this requires some discussion of the dating of documents. Consider, for example, the date of the Gospel of Thomas. Craig Evans has argued rather convincingly that the GT should be dated after AD 170, over against the view that it predates the canonical Gospels, as key scholars in the “Jesus Seminar” have maintained. Two of Evans’ arguments might be noted. First, to state the obvious, the GT quotes or alludes to various New Testament works, including the four Gospels! One must assume that there was an earlier version of the GT—but we have no such document. Second, the GT’s units of Jesus’ sayings are linked by Syrian catch words, and it often depends on Tatian’s Syrian Diatessaron, which was compiled around AD 170. It is surely a late 2nd century, Syrian work that shows Gnostic influences—hardly an early, reliable source for the historical Jesus.
A third way to deconstruct Jesus comes through archaeology. We should expect that archaeology will continue to provide us with further helpful discoveries to assess events in the Scriptures, including those in Jesus’ time. There is a lot more digging still to do in Israel! Yet archaeology’s revelation of “secrets from the earth” can also play into the deconstructive agenda. Some speculationis relatively innocuous, such as the discovery of a cave supposedly used by John the Baptist in Suba in 1999. Other speculation intends to deconstruct Christian faith, such as the claim that Jesus’ ossuary (bone box) has been discovered, along with family members, in a tomb in Talpiot. Judaism practiced a two-stage burial of the dead: an initial burial over the first year until only the bones were left, and then a second burial of the bones in a stone box. If Jesus’ bone box were to be discovered, that would be the end of Easter for most of us. Numerous problems with such a view have ably been pointed out by Craig Evans and Ben Witherington.
In conclusion, the peculiar arguments in recent deconstructions of Jesus are not simply the rehashing of views met already in Reimarus in the 18th
century as the Enlightenment was coming to a close. They come in new packaging for a consumerist, iconoclastic age, but also with new arguments. Yet more credible analyses of Jesus in the light of ancient texts and archaeology are providing us with exciting evidence about Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all creation.
Dr. Rollin G. Grams is Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center for Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus. He served for many years as a missionary in theological education in Kenya, Ethiopia, Croatia and Singapore, and lectured and tutored at the Oxford (England) Centre for Mission Studies. He iscurrently a lecturer/doctoral program supervisor at a seminary in Prague, and SIM-USA theological education coordinator. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.
July 21, 2016
By Tim Laniak, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus
Let me begin this brief (and therefore audacious) refection on God’s creativity with a short summary of what the Bible says regarding creation. Genesis leads with a bold idea that only Yahweh is the Creator— He alone created everything in this world. In the context of rival worldviews, this likely constituted a polemic against any claims to the contrary. Nothing else is to be worshipped because, after all, everything except God is derivative. Genesis 1 describes God’s creative acts as issuing from a divine word. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible,” (Heb. 11:3). A succession of powerful, life-creating words is at the heart of the panoramic description of creation.
Genesis 1 is also characterized by order, and perhaps more to the point, ordering. God orchestrates the creation in a succession of days, beginning with the domains for all things and then the respective inhabitants of each domain. The puzzle pieces fall into place, one by one, until the humans are created and given a sacred, royal trust to rule over God’s world. Genesis 2, the “zoom lens” view of the sixth day, provides a different angle of vision on our Creator God. He creates a world that is, in all of its diversity, pleasurably beautiful. This may already be hinted at in the simple words, “it was very good,” repeated in Genesis 1. Chapter 2 goes even further to stir the senses. The trees are, “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” You can virtually hear the bubbling streams that led from Eden to the four great rivers. You can smell the “aromatic resin” and perhaps catch a glimpse of shimmering gold and onyx.
Adam takes the invitation to name the various animals that are living with him safely in this stunning paradise. And then God creates Eve to join Adam in their shameless, naked enjoyment of God’s created world—an expansive garden of delightful differentiation of life forms, sizes, colors, textures and elements. Think of the garden described lyric after lyric in the Song of Songs. Who wouldn’t, while looking and smelling and tasting in this exotic garden, admire the creative mind behind it all?
That gives you a sense of what a fairly quick read of Genesis 1 and 2 says. Taking the rest of the Bible (and a bit of Ancient Near Eastern background) into account, you can also recognize some implicit analogies about this Creator God. Before I mention them, let me assure you that I’m not trying to turn God into a human. That’s the last thing the biblical creation account allows for! But the Bible does engage in what we call “anthropomorphisms.” That is, we are invited to think about God in terms of human qualities and roles. This is a massive accommodation to us created beings, but one that graciously makes an invisible God more understandable and more accessible.
First, God is the Divine Architect who fashions the world according to his predetermined design. In the prophets and wisdom literature we hear about God “laying the foundations of the earth.” He asks Job if he was there when he “marked off the earth’s foundations” and “stretched a measuring line across it.” Job wasn’t there when the footings were set and the cornerstone was laid “while the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:4-9; cf. Prov. 8:27-31). The heavens were filled with the sounds of astonishment and delight when the Architect took what was in his mind and made it visible in space.
God is the Divine King who chose to create and order a kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not just a New Testament concept. It is a notion of life the way God intended, grounded in this initial design. His Sabbath rest hints of “sitting down” on his throne in a cosmic realm over which He alone reigns— a realm where all his enemies are “under his feet.”
God is also the Divine Craftsman who “makes” (‘asah) and “forms” (yatsar) things that he calls into being. Forming Adam from the ground (‘adamah), in particular, is the result of God “getting his hands dirty.” And Eve’s creation equally engages God in an intimate, personal way. He, literally, “built” her from a rib taken from Adam. We are, as humans, a mix of divine breath and the dust of the earth. God continues to create each one of us and to “form” every day of our lives (Ps. 139:13-17).
It isn’t hard to spot the Divine Gardener at work in Paradise. “The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed” (Gen. 2:8). God brought Adam and Eve into the creative project that he had begun. They would oversee and contribute to the fertile productivity of this garden. This was not only the organic environment where they would work. Eden was a covenantal farm, with one tree that brought perpetual life and another tree that brought an end to that life.
Finally, God the Divine Father is here in Eden as the spiritual parent of the first humans. You find a hint of that when the same language of “image and likeness” is used as Adam has his own son, Seth. Luke will later trace the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam, “the son of God.” Sonship is perhaps as “creative” as any analogy. Reproduction is the most direct way that any person contributes to the creation of another.
Have you forgotten just how creative God is? Look around at the world he created. Do you see the fingerprints of a master Architect? A sovereign King? An engaged Craftsman? An imaginative Gardener? Your eternal Father? I certainly hope so!
Dr. Tim Laniak (M.Div.’89) is Professor of Old Testament and former Dean of the Charlotte Campus. He has served as a missionary in 15 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; as the Director of the International Fellowship House in Boston; and as a welfare housing manager for elderly immigrants in Brookline, Massachusetts. For more insight on topics addressed in this article, see his book Finding the Lost Images of God (Zondervan, 2012).
July 21, 2016
By Kenneth L. Swetland, Ph.D.
Senior Professor of Ministry
While burnout is not a common experience of pastors (although some observers think it is on the increase), it is by no means completely absent either. In my involvement for the last seven years with Gordon-Conwell’s Oasis ministry, a counseling support ministry for our alumni, I have observed what seems to be a growing phenomenon that I call “general malaise.” Sometimes it is manifest as depression or anxiety; but more often it is simply a weariness of the soul, wondering if what one is doing is effective, or matters. From this soul weariness, it’s a short step to burnout.
When we speak of burnout, we usually refer to being extremely tired and in need of a few days of rest in order to rebound with our usual energy and vision. But, when the medical community refers to burnout, it is a physical and emotional phenomenon that takes six to 12 months of rest to recover from. I know whereof I speak.
It was 50 years ago when I was a pastor in Rockport, MA, and had just completed my first year of ministry. On a beautiful June Saturday in 1965, I decided to get in shape in one day after a winter of little exercise, and had a vigorous bicycle ride up and down the hills of the town. When I sat down for lunch, suddenly I could not speak (except in gibberish), and this was followed quickly by loss of vision and paralysis down one side. I was rushed to the hospital where I spent a number of days at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
The initial diagnosis was that I had experienced a stroke, but the usual tests did not confirm this. One of the top neurologists at Mass General would bring the interns around to see me and ask them for their diagnosis. When they said “stroke,” he called attention to the test results that did not confirm a stroke. They were silent and did not know how to properly diagnosis me. After a few days, however, the doctor came to visit me and revealed that he did not know what the problem was either!
This doctor thought I had a “stress-induced stroke” due to the heavy physical exercise of the bike ride, and that if my body could be rested suffciently, I would recover. Further, he pointed out that he thought I was carrying the burden of the church myself when that was really God’s job. “There is a God, and you are not God,” he said. His analysis was right. Although I believed firmly in the sovereignty of God, I was behaving as though if anything good were to happen in the church, it was up to me to make it happen.
So, the doctor prescribed a pill to make me sleep 12 hours a night, and another one to wake me up in the morning, thinking that if the body was suffciently rested, full function would return. Fortunately, the paralysis had gone away in a day or so after the initial episode, but speech and vision were slow in returning. After several weeks, I slowly began to re-engage in pastoral work, but it took about a year to completely recover. My doctor today said what happened 50 years ago was likely what is now referred to as a “neurological migraine variant,” rather than a “stress-induced stroke.” The cause was the same—not pacing myself, but behaving as though I were God, thereby pulling my body under stress that resulted in a physical breakdown.
In his classic book The Stress of Life, Canadian medical doctor and researcher Hans Selye describes what stress and burnout are. His research indicates that ev-eryone has a “baseline” and a “threshold” in dealing with life. Defining stress as “the nonspecific response of the body when any demand is made on it,” he focuses on the physical responses of the body when we hit the thresh-old too often without returning to our baseline. Calling it the “General Adaptation Syndrome,“ Selye says that there is a natural “alarm phase” which is triggered whenever we get close to the threshold in dealing with the stuff of life. This sets up a physical process (interaction of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepineph-rine and melatonin) that is automatic and brings the body back to the baseline (called the “resistance phase”). If this is not done, then the “breakdown phase” begins.
Some people have high thresholds for handling stress; others have low ones. And, unless we stay within our natural God-given parameters, we can push our bodies into the burnout phase. That’s what happened to me 50 years ago.
The primary cause for burnout is unrealistic expectations, both those we place on ourselves, and those we allow others to place on us. Living into these expectations, which are often unconscious, results in burnout by exhausting the body’s natural defense line of knowing that “too much is too much.” Overwork without suffcient rest is the result. (It should be noted that being under-challenged can also contribute to high stress, with the result being what is dubbed “rust out.” But this is also attributed to inner stress.)
Here are the classic signs of approaching burnout:
- Cognitive function slows down: We are not able to think clearly for long periods of time; the mind just seems to be mush.
- Sense of helplessness and hopelessness: the sense that “nothing will work,” a loss of hope. This thinking is the single most debilitating factor in battling stress.
- Regression to a more comfortable behavior experienced in the past: We often ignore important tasks, and are indifferent to significant relationships.
- Become locked into destructive patterns of thinking and behaving: A spiral downward.
- Depression: mild to moderate, often unrecognized.
- Physical illness (not attributed to a “medical” condition): colds, ulcers, headaches, backaches, nausea, weakened resistance system, etc.
The characteristics of people who are susceptible to burnout are those who:
- Over plan, perhaps reflecting a fear of not having enough to say or do;
- Have multiple thoughts and actions simultaneously;
- Have a high need to succeed (as the individual defines it for himself/herself);
- Have a desire to be recognized (often masked in surface humility);
- Easily feel guilty when there is no real cause for it;
- Are inordinately impatient with interruptions or delays; overextend in taking on more responsibilities than their threshold will allow;
- Have a sense of time urgency (“This must be done now!”);
- Exhibit an excessive competitive drive (“I must be the best!”);
- And have a tendency to be a workaholic.
If there is “bunching” of the symptoms, it is time to take stock of one’s way of dealing with life. Studies suggest that there are only two ways of dealing with stress in order to avoid burnout. One has to do with deliberate efforts to reduce stressors by recognizing that the threshold is being pushed and making a conscious decision to “cut back.” This works best when perspective and counsel from others is engaged. Making a decision to “cut back” is not easy, but it can and must be done.
The second way of avoiding burnout is increasing one’s tolerance level for handling stress. Here are the common, and proven, methods for doing this:
- Maintain an active devotional life: Read and reflect on Scripture, practice regular prayer, trust God in all things, even those that are frustrating or baffling.
- Hold fast to your original call from God. Trust God to continue to lead you.
- Take a sabbattical if needed: Time away from regular duties can be restorative in experiencing renewed vision and energy for the work of ministry.
- Deliberately seek out a “soul friend,” one with whom you can be totally honest and who can be a means of support in talking about your inner life and tasks of ministry.
- Work to secure a happy home life for you, your spouse and children. Family problems often contribute to high stress.
- Eat a healthy diet in order to maintain good health.
- Maintain purity of mind in selections of recreational reading, movies, TV, etc.
- Be intentional about taking a Sabbath day in doing things that restore the soul.Learn to laugh and enjoy life. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22).
- Have one or two hobbies that bring enjoyment and a change of focus from daily tasks, and be disciplined in pursuing the hobbies appropriately.
- Learn how to deal with conflict and do not avoid it when it happens.
This is not an exhaustive list, and in many ways is “what your mother taught you.” But research shows that practicing these behaviors can help to ward off burnout. The words of Richard Baxter in his classic work,The Reformed Pastor (1656), are relevant: “If you are burnt to the snuff [the end of the candle], you will go out with a stink.”
And, Robert Murray McCheyne, the early 19th century Scottish pastor who died at age 30, said to a dear friend as McCheyne lay on his deathbed, having “burnt himself to the snuff,” “The Lord gave me a message to deliver and a horse to deliver it with [by which he meant his body, not a literal horse], but, alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the message.” Burnout can be avoided. It must be avoided. Not doing so exacts a high price.
Dr. Kenneth L. Swetland is Senior Professor of Ministry. Since joining Gordon-Conwell in 1972, he has served in a number of capacities, including Professor of Ministry, Academic Dean and Campus Pastoral Counselor. Now working part-time, he counsels pastors through the seminary’s Oasis program and has taught in a D.Min track. He has been a pastor and chaplain in various New England churches, and a psychotherapist for several counseling centers on Boston’s North Shore. He is ordained in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference
July 11, 2016
By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
Last week the tragic murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile unleashed a wave of distress, anger and fear. The trauma continued as five Dallas civil servants were killed with seven others maimed by a vengeful sniper. Our hearts go out to the numerous families suffering and mourning the loss of loved ones as a result of these violent and senseless actions. Clearly as a society we have much work to do in balancing social justice and order.
This past weekend, many of you led and participated in prayer vigils, sensitive dialogues and communal worship experiences where you prayed for the families who are in mourning and prayed for peace and justice across the country. In times like these it can be challenging to make sense of the anxiety that is sweeping the land. As leaders who have accepted God’s challenge to “think theologically, engage globally and live biblically,” I encourage you to pray, engage in meaningful dialogue and to continue to lead God's people in communal worship seeking shalom.
As a seminary, we remain committed to encouraging opportunities for formal and informal dialogue within our diverse and inclusive campuses as we continue to train leaders for the 21st century Church. To that end, over the coming months you will hear about our new Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) which will lead conversations on race relations and racial reconciliation, one of ISBCE’s goals. Led by Drs. Emmett G. Price III and Patrick Smith, the ISBCE will further empower our comprehensive training for seminarians and our robust resources for prospective and current students as well as graduates.
Please continue to pray for those who are mourning and suffering, and for the Church as it seeks to comfort, bring hope and embody justice in this time of turbulence and great loss.
Dennis P. Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics