Category Archives: Journal

Preaching Method

I’m not a preacher; I’m a theologian. But now that I’ve graduated seminary I sometimes have the honor of preaching. And as someone who just barely passed the two required preaching courses while he was focused on other things, I’ve had to go back and really develop a theology and strategy of preaching. It should go without saying that it’s a work in progress, but I’m at a place now where I’m comfortable with my system—which means the next step is to share it. Maybe someone out there can benefit from what I’ve learned, but either way there’s always room for improvement and maybe you can help me see where.

Topic/Text Selection

The first and most obvious question is what to preach on. I was trained to be sensitive to what the congregation needs to hear, but not being a pastor I don’t have that kind of insight. I once heard John Piper say when he’s a guest preacher he preaches to himself that way he knows at least one person needed it. I like that better, but this early in my ministry I’ve taken to something a little less holy: what can I preach well?

This has really driven most of my sermons to-date, especially because I usually have only a few weeks’ notice. I preached on Ahab because I had just read about him in my devotions. I preached on the tree and its fruits because I had just studied the passage in the context of LGBT acceptance. Most recently, I preached on 1 Corinthians because that’s what we’ve been studying in Sunday School. The more I know something ahead of time, the better chance I have of knowing what to look for and how to communicate it.

Study Method

Once I have my topic, I start running the passage through a system in the three phases we used in seminary: exegetical, theological, and homiletical.

Phase 1: Exegetical

The exegetical phase is just getting into the passage itself. First, I want to know the immediate context for the passage. Why is this here? What ideas are continuing, and which are new? How the author frames the passage is probably the most important factor in choosing how I will introduce it in the sermon. If it’s an epistle, I will also play with a structural outline to try and identify rhetorical choices.

Second, I want to try and surface issues in the Greek. I do a very rough translation, and if a word jumps out at me I take note. I’m looking for ambiguous meanings, untranslated concepts, repeated words, related words, etc. I don’t expect to come up with a better translation than the professionals; I just want to have some idea of why they made the choices they did and what might be getting lost in translation. (Note: I don’t talk about Greek and Hebrew words from the pulpit; I only explain the concepts because that’s what I expect people to remember.)

Third, I take the list of questions I’ve been building and I start to do research. Who’s the referent in this verse? What does this metaphor mean? Is it used elsewhere? What’s the relationship between these two ideas? Does this command really imply that? My research is mostly based on Scripture alone, although there are times when I have to turn to historical background information to really get a reference. I see the Bible as one whole text even though it has many authors, and I’m very interested at drawing legitimate connections across books. I’ve also found Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is a great help at avoiding common errors in biblical studies.

Phase 2: Theological

The boundary between exegesis and theology is thin and messy. I was given conflicting advice on this: some professors insisted I “bracket out” my theology, take nothing for granted; others insisted the only way to read it rightly is with Christian presuppositions.

I try to do both if I can.

Not all doctrines are equal. I refuse to bracket out core doctrines like the Trinity or salvation by grace alone through faith alone. But I feel very free to challenge other doctrines. My sense of how far to take which ideas is really very intuitive and not something that lends itself to explanation.

In short, the question raising and answering process is really the beginning of the theological phase for me. I’m looking for key ideas and trying to identify the timeless truths they communicate. Now there’s a danger here: you can use a passage to communicate all kinds of good theology. I think it’s much better when you can identify the theology the author was trying to communicate.

So one could hypothetically use Jesus’ tree/fruit analogy to talk about order in creation or a theology of arboreal imagery—and I might even do that in a teaching context. But preaching is a different task to me. I believe preaching is exhorting with the authoritative words of God. I’m not up there to educate. I’m there to press the points I believe God is pressing. If I teach anything else, it’s on my own authority. Hopefully it’s right. But if I’m going to say “thus saith the Lord,” I’d better be a sure as I can be that this is really His point; because again, not all doctrines are equal. So that’s why in this example I preached that the fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart. I’m confident that was Jesus’ point, not mine.

Once I’m done with my exegetical studies, once I’ve done my best to figure everything out on my own—that’s when I turn to the commentaries. Just like with doing the translation, it’s not that I think I’m better than the experts; I do it because I know the text better when I wrestle with it myself. What’s more, as I wrestle with it I get a better sense of where others may have trouble, so I know to explain them more carefully or illustrate them more vividly. The only reason I even open the commentaries is for validation: did I miss anything or draw a wrong conclusion.

Phase 3: Homiletical

Throughout the whole process thus far, I’m keeping my eyes open for anything interesting, catchy, or eloquent. In some ways I’m having a conversation with the text and cross-references, and I note the parts of the conversation I like. If a crucial idea jumps out, I want to note it so I can craft a phrase around it. If an idea gets me really excited, I’ll jump out of my seat and pretend I’m preaching on it right then and there. Often those bursts of inspiration have gems worth polishing. Hopefully by the end of the exegetical process and the theological Q&A, I have a list of ideas and phrases to sprinkle in as I actually write the sermon.

One unfair advantage here is I took a course in copy writing, which is basically script for advertising. I especially liked what my professor called “fulcrum phrases,” like M&M’s famous “melts in your mouth / not in your hand.” It’s a skill I’ve tried to hone in my songwriting. If you can find that well-crafted phrase that has symmetry, it connects deeper and sticks better. I try to make sure I find at least one for every sermon. Here are some I’ve used:

  • It’s not yours to take; it’s God’s to give.
  • He who walks in humility walks in grace.
  • The fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart.
  • You don’t have to hold on to anything for God to hold on to you.

So that’s my ideal, but I’m looking for anything at all that excites me, because if I’m excited about something there’s a good chance someone else will be, too.

Sermon Structure

At this point, I’m ready to start writing my sermon. I know what the text is about, why it exists, how it relates to the rest of Scripture, which parts are difficult to understand, and which parts are exciting. But before I can build content, I need a skeleton.

Introduction

At Dallas Seminary I learned that a good introduction has the same essential parts, and I use the acronym INSTeP to remember them: image, need, subject, text, and preview. As someone with some creative writing background, I didn’t like this at first. But truth be told, a good sermon borrows from both storytelling and essay. The story draws you in, but the essay keeps you grounded. And just like a good essay, you need a thesis statement and its essential supports to help prepare people for what’s to come.

In my mind, the most important aspect of the introduction is the boring stuff: what’s the subject, what problem does it solve, where is our passage, and what are the main points. The image serves that. As a student I wanted to pick a great image that really stood out and captured people’s attention. But right now I’m in a place where all I care about is getting people interested in the need. If I have an image that raises the need, great; if not, I’ll try to explain my way to it. If you get through the introduction and people still don’t know what you’re talking about or why they should care, you’re about to fight an uphill battle.

Body

The preaching style taught at Dallas and many other evangelical schools is sometimes called “Big Idea” preaching. The short version is that every sermon should have a well-crafted thesis statement. The way it’s taught, it’s everything; your exegesis is all about finding it, your homiletics are all about driving it home. In some cases the thesis becomes more important than the passage itself, which I think is going too far.

But I do think there should be one main idea tying everything together. It shouldn’t replace the passage, but it should drive the passage. As I go through my study process I’m making a list of possible thesis statements. If I haven’t found it by the end of the study process, I keep working toward it. There’s no point in writing the sermon until I have that unifying thought because I’m interested in every detail, every rabbit trail. I need that thesis to give my writing purpose, to tell me what to cut and what to emphasize.

Once I have the thesis, I try to take the existing structure of the passage and relate it back to that thesis. I know there are many different structures you can play with, but I find I do a better job of preaching the passage when I follow its structural cues. When I try to write a novel structure, I tend to make the passage just a series of illustrations for my own points; I’m sure better preachers are skilled at avoiding this problem.

Once I have the thesis and the structure, I write a draft of the whole sermon, weaving in those phrases I had stored up.

Application

Somehow application seems to be the most contentious part of the sermon. Some preachers try to draw out every possible implication while others see application as purely the Holy Spirit’s job and provide nothing. While there are many possible applications, I try to find one that the text emphasizes more than the others and make that the whole deal. So while I really wanted to say something in my last sermon about how we should love unconditionally just as God does, that wasn’t Paul’s application. It’s true and we should do it, but Paul’s application trumps mine because it’s his passage. So I talked about boasting in the Lord.

Once I have my application, I take it in two directions—and I consider this my own secret sauce. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it, but I didn’t hear it anywhere else. My professor always told us “give them something to do!” In fact, he would say to give them something concrete to do that very day to maximize the chances that they will actually apply the sermon. I love it! It takes no time at all to forget a sermon.

But then I discovered there are some who take issue with this entire method of application, among them one of my favorite preachers, Tim Keller. For them, giving people something to do inspires legalism, and that endangers the Gospel. Instead they strive to show how Jesus already fulfilled the command of this passage, and the application is just to believe in Him, to adore Him, to marvel at Him. I love this, too! I absolutely believe that every passage properly understood relates to Christ in some way, and every application can be used to point to His perfect example and finished work.

So I try to do both. And here’s why: both are true. Christ has given us new life and yet we are called to live out a new life. The work is done in one sense, and yet we labor in another. So I always begin with showing how Christ has perfectly applied the passage and inviting people to believe in Him and rest in His finished work. Then because of what Christ has done, I call us to imitate Him by applying it ourselves.

Presentation

At this point all I have to show for my labor is a rough draft. In order to make it presentable, I have a few more steps I go through, and these typically take me a week all by themselves. My goal is to make the sermon sound as natural and engaging as possible.

First, I read the sermon out loud and mark anything that doesn’t sound like me. Maybe I was copying someone’s tone, or more likely my tone was too formal or too informal for the moment. I also italicize the words I want to emphasize. It’s all about the sound.

Second, I memorize the sermon. (Yes, the whole thing.) This is what they trained us to do in seminary, and I thought it was overkill. Yes, you can get better eye contact, step away from the podium, I get that. But what I’ve discovered is that when I memorize my work it polishes the sermon like nothing else. If I can’t remember what I’m about to say, how can I expect the congregation to remember? Memorizing forces me to find the best words for the job.

It also helps me on a structural level, because if I can’t remember what I was about to say next, it shows that there’s a weak connection between the two points. In a compelling script, the next thing has to follow the last. Once you know why the two are married, you can go back and make it more obvious to the congregation.

As I memorize, I boil down the transcript into a preaching outline, which has just enough structure and content to cue me if my mind goes blank in the pulpit. It will have the necessary structural elements, markers for key phrases, and all condensed so that it fits on just a few pages on the platform. (One danger is if I don’t use it in practice, it’s less helpful on Sunday.)

Third—and frankly this is the step I’m most likely to skip—I try to choreograph my movements. I believe good preaching is theater, but not in the sense that you’re dramatizing the text. Your whole body is communicating whether you want it to or not, so your gestures should be purposeful. Use the space to organize thoughts, repeat certain motions when you repeat the same thought, make sure you’re not sending mixed signals. Usually I run out of time before I get here, so I have plenty of room to grow in this area.

Closing Thoughts

As I reflect on my process I realize that it’s uniquely tailored to me. My background as a writer, my love for theology, and my unique skills all lead me to emphasize different things. For someone with a different background and skill set this might be like trying on another man’s armor. How can you leverage who you are to preach better?

Of course, I didn’t do this from scratch; I was given a great model in seminary and have observed some great preachers thanks to modern technology. The key for me is molding this process to fit my unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, and that’s sure to be a never-ending project.

Annual Meeting in Review: ETS 2015

Last week I made my usual pilgrimage to the place where all the evangelical seminary geeks converge: the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year was the second time Atlanta has hosted since I began attending, and it was fun reliving early autumn just before the snow arrived back home.

Over the years I developed a strategy: make plans to attend nonstop papers, then throw out those plans when relational opportunities arise. This year the program was a bit light, but thankfully the people made up for what was lacking.

When reflecting on the meeting I was reminded of just how good last year’s meeting had been. This year had none of the same “aha!” moments, but I did enjoy many rich times of reflection after various papers.

Familiar Faces

As is my usual habit, I attended a number of friend’s papers (e.g., Ford on Ignatius, Roeber on historiography, Svigel on the Didache). But then I also stalked a few of the theologians I’ve come to admire in recent years: Al Mohler, Carl Trueman, and Anthony Bradley. Of course the problem there is that once you begin following someone you have the ever-increasing experience of anticipating what they are going to say on a given subject. This is especially true of Mohler, whose two podcasts have been my intellectual lifeline this year in times when babies and house projects and service commitments have prevented deeper study.

Analytic Theology

What came as an outright disappointment was the afternoon I spent in the Analytic Theology section. For those of you who don’t know, “analytic theology” is a recent movement to apply the tools of analytic philosophy to the questions of theology. I’ve been thrilled about this from the moment I heard of it, but what I saw really didn’t reflect what I think the movement is capable of. The thinking seemed lackluster and the questions unhelpful. Crisp and especially Rae were there asking insightful questions, but I think being overly kind to the presenters. I suppose you can’t be too inhospitable if you want guests to come back next year.

Avoiding the Marriage-and-Family Theme

The theme this year was “Marriage and Family” but it’s clear the real interest was continued discussion of how to deal with LGBT-related doctrines. In the past year I’ve read numerous books, taught two classes, and delivered a regional paper on the subject. That was enough for me. Maybe there were some missed opportunities here, but I’m ok with that.

Reflection on 2015

One of the things I’ve been forced to do each year—and rightly so, I think—is to reevaluate my purpose and progress in the intellectual community. This occupied much of my reflection in private, some with friends, and significant portions of the drive time from Michigan.

Here are a few conclusions I reached:

  1. Even though I can’t justify a doctorate for my career, I am coming to the conviction that I can justify one for ministry. It may even be something I must do.
  2. Even though I have the tools for self-study, I can accomplish much more with a cohort of like-minded individuals. I need to find a group of theologians I can run with or I will fall behind.
  3. Even though I feel as though I’ve hardly studied this past year, (I recall reading only two theology books!), I’m reminded that I’ve still accomplished quite a bit with my LGBT studies, weekly Sunday School prep, church doctrinal formulations, and ministry strategizing. It’s different work, but I haven’t been as lazy as I feared.
  4. Even though I have been working to be useful to our local church congregation and open to correction about my academic bent, the fact remains that right beliefs are a crucial part of our walk with Christ. Theology matters.

I used to journal incessantly, but have cut back quite a bit this year to focus on getting stuff done. All that to say the time was ripe for some reflection.

Lately I’ve referred to my calling as a “ministry of ideas.” As I chart a course for 2016, the question of what that ministry looks like looms large. The plans are still up in the air, but my time in Atlanta this year has been enormously helpful in the process.

See you next year in good old San Antonio, TX!

Manage Your Poop

A couple months ago I saw a blog post going around titled “I Don’t Have My S*** Together.” It’s by a self-professed Christian author who is seriously troubled by the thought of pretending to be good. My response was—and is—visceral, but I was hoping some distance would give me clarity.

I’ve seen this line of thought before. I’ve even wandered a little ways down that path myself. It usually comes of rethinking a legalistic background. You work so hard to be good, to appear perfect, and everyone else around you pretends to be perfect when you know they’re not.

Then you discover grace. Or maybe you discover it anew. And you realize Jesus didn’t die for perfect people, and that church isn’t a place for perfect people, and that it’s ok not to be perfect. Then you realize just how screwed up the game you were playing really was.

Then you enter the fog.

Christians are supposed to be good, but technically you don’t have to be good. That’s supposed to be the good news: that you’re saved by grace. But sometimes in the fog you start to wonder if being good even matters. And that good news stirs a delusional monster that thinks it’s invincible, that it can enjoy sin without consequence.

But no! You know you shouldn’t. You need to fight this! But then you find yourself losing and you feel like instead of fooling others you’re just fooling yourself. And then you remember someone once told you to “let go and let God.” So you throw up your hands and cry for help.

The writer of that post seems to be in some version of this fog. He’s done with the facade, and that’s fantastic. But I think he goes too far because instead of owning up to his state in humility and striving for something better, he seems to be committed to authenticity and waiting for a miracle. Instead of just losing the facade, it seems he’s lost the image of what could be. He’s just clinging to his brokenness because it’s real.

And I say, “No, you definitely do not have your poop together.” But 1) who does? and 2) is this worth boasting about?

There are good people in the world. Some of them are even Christians. I’m bewildered at how Athenagoras of Athens boasts about the holiness of the early church. He said Christians were above reproach, the best people in the land.

It seems downright cruel to suggest it’s possible.

Because that’s not the church I see. And that’s definitely not me. But what really, really ticks me off is the suggestion that it’s not worth the struggle. A wise man once told me the struggle IS the gift. (He’d stolen it from another wise man.)

The struggle is the gift! I believe that with all my heart. You’re not a slave to sin anymore if you are in Christ, but you will still screw up. And you have the potential to screw up BIG. The point is to do everything you can not to go down that path, and know that you’re not alone in the fight. You have the Holy Spirit and the Church. The fight may be long and hard. Maybe you won’t even win before you breathe your last. But that doesn’t mean you give up, that doesn’t mean sin wins.

Let’s take the major example the writer mentioned. Swearing. He’s tried not to swear, but he still swears, and he’s tired of pretending he doesn’t swear, so he’s being authentic and swearing.

Let’s ignore for a moment that people disagree over how bad swearing really is. The author obviously feels convicted that this is wrong, and you shouldn’t violate your own conscience. He’s tried not to swear. Good! He still swears. Not good. He’s tired of pretending he doesn’t swear. Good! He gives in and embraces swearing because it’s who he really is for now.

NOT GOOD.

This is the mistake: wrapping your identity around the sin. If swearing is a problem for you, yes, that is part of who you are, part of your story, but it’s not the whole story. So is the fight. So is the remorse. So is your attempt to make things right after the fact. When you as a Christian say “I’m a sinner” as if that’s all there is to it, you’re dead wrong. Wrong! Add “saved by grace” and you’re getting warmer. Some would say you’re a “saint who sometimes sins,” and that’s better still.

So, Christian dude who can’t help swearing, you’re not being authentic when you just embrace the swearing like you have no control. Because you can fight it. Maybe you’re tempted to swear 100 times in a day and by exercising minimal self-control, you work it down to 80. The temptation isn’t the sin. Giving in is the sin.

You aren’t defined by your temptations. The “real” you isn’t the you that just happens, it’s the version of yourself you choose to be. Some things you can’t change. You can’t change your past, your natural aptitudes and disabilities, your physiological framework. Maybe you can’t even control what tempts you. But you can work to strengthen the good and minimize the bad. You have a limited range of people you can be. You’ll always be you, but you have freedom to move around the range and be the BEST you possible.

Let me say it again: the real you isn’t what surfaces when you give up. The real you is who you choose to be each day. Pretending you’re something you’re not is wrong. (I say this to myself, too…I want people to think I’m better than I really am.) But giving into the version of you that “just happens” is foolish.

And I get worked up over this 1) because I’ve wrestled with sin and grace and sanctification, I spent a long time in that horrid fog, 2) because I’ve traveled in legalistic circles and seen the damage fake perfect people can cause, and 3) because I see people who should know better falling into this trap and taking others down with them.

So I’m saying to you, no matter where you are: do not be fooled. You struggle with sin? GOOD! Be glad. Some people don’t have that luxury. The struggle is the gift. You won’t be perfect, and you should never claim to be, but giving up is worse. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t lose heart.

You’re not alone.

Test-Driving an Advent

It’s too early to be blogging about Advent.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, ok, I know what you might be thinking. Either a: “what is Advent?” or b: “too early? It’s half over already!”

This is my first time giving Advent a try, so I’m kind of fumbling my way through here. I had no plans to observe it coming into the season, but some friends from church invited me to join them for a study and I said yes.

I think most of us in the group have never done this before; it’s not a very Baptist thing to do. Advent is the time Christians long ago set aside to prepare for Christmas. It’s a time for pondering the mystery of God becoming one of us.

Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of the Incarnation, but not so big on finding more things to celebrate. I have a hard enough time infusing one day with meaning—Advent just feels like a whole month of days to fail at being holy. Plus I have a slightly radical streak that rebels against the whole idea of being compelled to celebrate something at an artificial and arbitrary time. Why can’t we be thankful all year? Why can’t we celebrate God with us every day? Why can’t we revel in the resurrection continuously?

By now you can probably tell the problem isn’t Advent. The problem is me.

The problem isn’t the suggestion that we spend a month preparing to celebrate a day that changed every other day since. The problem is the temptation to be a perfectionist, making up laws and judging myself righteous by them. Maybe some people feel compelled to do this, but that’s not Advent’s fault. At least not if you’re a Baptist.

In my context Advent is something that’s not from the Bible, but is a good, biblical suggestion from the broader church across generations and denominations. It’s an opportunity to take or leave. Have a hard time making much of Christ on Christmas? Here are some ideas to get you in the spirit.

Of course, leave it to me to take a time set aside for pondering Christ and instead pondering my own heart and habits.

On the bright side, I’m making some encouraging discoveries:

First, I’m discovering that celebrating and meditating on the Incarnation is something I do all the time. I owe that to my theology professors at Dallas Seminary. They taught me that God becoming one of us is central to everything we do. We know the Father through the Son. We are sent into the world just as the Son was sent to us. We become all things to all people so that we might save some in the same way Jesus became man without giving up His divinity. God’s revelation is always contextualized, and that’s a gracious gift. To Drs. Burns, Horrell, Kreider, and Svigel, THANK YOU! What a gift!

Second, (and hopefully this doesn’t get me into too much trouble), there’s a sense in which we celebrate Advent without knowing it. We put up the lights after Thanksgiving, we play Christmas music all month, we send out cards (sometimes) and bake goodies and watch Christmas movies. You can do all of these without savoring the birth of Jesus, but each one is an invitation to ponder, to meditate, to prepare your heart for the big day. It’s not much like the way the church has celebrated in the past, but it’s an opportunity to accomplish the same goals.

I don’t know if I’ll follow an Advent curriculum next year. We’ll see how the rest of this year pans out. But I’m all for taking advantage of the traditions we already have and share, for redeeming the culturally neutral activities.

And if you’re not already doing something for Advent, I invite you all to do the same. Let the things you’re already doing for the season invite you to ponder what Jesus did and prepare your heart for Christmas Day. While you hang your lights, ponder what it means that Jesus was the light that came into the darkness (John 1:4, 5). While you listen to Christmas music, ponder the image of God in man that longs for the love and peace and joy that Jesus offers us. While you bake goodies to share with family and friends, consider the joy the Father had in sending His Son to us—even the joy the Son had in giving Himself to us.

May your days be merry and bright!

Annual Meeting in Review: ETS 2014

Happy December! I have a long overdue ETS 2014 recap for you.

This year the annual meeting was held in San Diego—and by coincidence my wife Jenny decided this was the year she should tag along and see what all the fuss is about. The weather was gorgeous, and I never really got why people are so crazy about palm trees until now.

I’m ready to call SoCal home.

My habit at annual meetings is to have everything scheduled out, then chuck the schedule when opportunities for personal meetings arise. This year I was a little more careful to try to get more from the presentations since this was an expensive trip.

Philosophical Tensions

I attended a few philosophical papers, but they were less interesting to me than usual. Both presenters are world-class thinkers and dove into complex philosophical jargon that made it extremely difficult for lay people like myself to follow. One of my friends commented that it steeled his decision to pursue other subjects, and I have to admit this isn’t the kind of philosophy I’m interested in either. Maybe it’s because I don’t know enough. But as a theologian I want to be able to make use of philosophy, not specialize in it. I want to be able to follow the top-level arguments so I can translate them for normal church folks. It poses an interesting question for someone excited at the prospects of analytic theology.

Blaising’s Surprise Party

Usually I listen to one paper here, another there, but this is the first year I sat down for a couple of whole sections. The first was on God and the future—which turned out to be a surprise unveiling of a festschrift for Craig Blaising. I like to call Dr. Blaising my “Grand-Mentor” since he’s the mentor to so many of my mentors. The professors I’m most indebted to frequently cite him as one of their biggest influences, and it was neat to learn more about him as he was honored by so many. It was a privilege, really. I believe the book (which contains many of the papers presented) will be out next year.

My favorite of these papers was actually the one that wasn’t planned. Nathan Holsteen filled a last-minute vacancy and presented a paper on Calvin’s eschatology, which paid special attention to how Calvin’s doctrines interacted with each other. The basic idea is that changing one doctrine—justification by faith—in an otherwise Catholic setting, has ripple effects. No doctrine stands in a vacuum. I absolutely love the idea of mapping doctrine and showing their relationships, demonstrating cause and effect. I hope I can do more with this in the future.

Discovering Public Theology

I made my way to a number of historical papers on seemingly unrelated themes and subjects, but one idea kept popping up: public theology. This is the first time I’ve really been confronted with the name, but upon reflection I find it’s a topic I’ve been interested in all my life.

I suppose you could describe public theology as what Christians have to say to those outside the church. It’s less focused on evangelism (the other, more obvious message the church has for the world) and more on being a constructive prophetic voice in the public square. For example, as Christians we believe God has given us clear and binding instructions on right and wrong, so the response of the church is to better understand and obey them. But having received this knowledge we can also turn to those outside the church and communicate and advocate for these standards in society. It’s a different mission than salvation, but not unrelated and certainly an important ministry.

I’m thrilled that this is an official subject of study and that more is being done in this area. The papers I heard that touched on it included: 1) Al Mohler on the implications of Augustine’s eschatology for current cultural challenges; 2) Greg Thornbury on patristic interactions with non-Christians, specifically Athenagoras and St. Antony; 3) my friend Dan Roeber on the negative impact of Finney’s revivalism on the Burned-Over District; and 4) two papers on historiography, which I think is closely related to public theology since it deals at least in part with discerning God’s work in history (which is everyone’s business).

The Adam Panel

The second block section I sat in on was a panel discussion about the historicity of Adam. (Yes, THE Adam.) Apparently this was an encore of a panel conducted last year on the same topic with the same people—the four contributing authors of the “Four Views” book by Zondervan. I won’t rehash the whole thing since you can just buy or borrow the book and read for yourself, but I’ll venture a few observations.

1) As with any debate, if you don’t all agree to definitions, you’re not likely to reach a conclusion. I heard a whole lot of explanations of where each person is coming from and even clarifying their definitions of key terms. But what I didn’t hear was much argument for why you should commit to one definition over the other. 2) Lots of personal experience was included, and I especially recall this from Denis Lamoureux, the creation-scientist-turned-evolutionist. I appreciate this as a matter of understanding the authors and their journey, but frankly it doesn’t help me decide which of them is right. If you want to change my mind you have to guide me through the same experience you had. Show me why this convinced you and maybe I’ll be convinced! 3) This was a very amicable discussion with numerous attempts to find common ground, which I greatly appreciated coming into such a contentious subject. What I think the panel lacked in rigor it made up in spirit.

Of course I don’t know what they were going for. I was coming as a young-earth creationist (with antipathy for “creation science”) looking to understand the arguments and hoping to hear something persuasive. But arguments where people don’t carefully define terms and focus on personal experience over presenting a case—those just don’t do much for me. That’s a conversation. That’s learning to get along. That’s relationship building. It’s not much of a debate. I value those other things, but that’s not what I was hoping to hear from a panel of experts making contradicting claims about Scripture.

Theology as Calling

While the Adam panel fell short of my expectations, the last block section far exceeded them. The Acton Institute hosted a set of papers and panel discussion on how to live out one’s calling as a theologian.

This was worth the whole trip for me.

As someone with a very grounded, borderline pessimistic view of the academy and his future in it, I’ve been wrestling with what to do with my calling as a theologian. It’s the only thing I’m sure of, the thing I keep coming back to. So how do I feed a family while being faithful to this calling? There’s always “tent-making” I suppose, making your money one way and serving in your spare time. That’s probably my immediate future. But is that all there is?

Three papers were presented as a response to a paper Greg Thornbury wrote. The first of these was the theologian in the marketplace, second the theologian in the pastorate, and third the theologian in the academy. The main message I walked away with is everyone needs a theologian, but not everyone wants one and of those that do even fewer are willing to pay for them.

The one that got the most attention was the second paper, which is part of a larger effort to create a guild for the “pastoral theologian,” which is a pastor that does research like an academic theologian, but with the concerns and insights of a pastor and without the pressures of the academy. It harkens back to a time when the pastorate and the academy worked together more closely, and where pastors were expected to do top-tier theology. The bottom line is go be a faithful pastor and learn to carve out the extra time to do research. If you do your pastoring well, the congregation will give you permission to pursue your strange hobbies.

Paper #3 got the most laughs, probably because this is what we do with bleak news. I don’t think I heard anything new, but the frustration was palpable. There are very few jobs in this field, and far too much competition. The academy is in flux and schools need to become sleeker and more efficient if they’re going to survive. Ironically, this discussion gave me some hope. As someone who strongly considered pursuing a career in music, academia doesn’t look all that different. You work your tail off and hope for that big break. But most people don’t make it—and that’s part of the gamble. You go in full of confidence, believing you can achieve something miraculous, and when you fail you say “that’s how it goes.” Then you go get a “real” job. If I do go back to the academy, this is the mindset I’ll bring with me.

What was really lacking in the discussion was more on the first paper, on theology in the marketplace. The speaker talked about the opportunities online and the needs in the marketplace, but it was something of a tease. It’s not as though there are jobs out there waiting to be filled. This is really theologian as entrepreneur. You need to create your own job, market your own product, find a consumer base. There are definitely opportunities out there, but they’re for entrepreneurs. You can’t simply do theology; you have to be a businessman, an innovator. I wonder how accessible that is to the average theologian. It’s definitely something I’m going to keep pondering.

Like I said, the church NEEDS us, the academy NEEDS us, the marketplace NEEDS us. They just don’t always know it, and they can’t always afford it.

Closing Thoughts

Despite my best intentions, I missed all the plenary sessions. I did get to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s prospective students after-hours party (and got a nifty mug!). I didn’t buy any books because, 1) let’s face it, I bought a house instead; 2) I’ve got a ton of books I haven’t cracked already; and 3) I’m learning interest isn’t enough these days. I’ve got interests up the wazoo. Books should be serving my goals.

Next year’s ETS is back in Atlanta. Maybe I’ll see you there!