Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Noah" and Gnosticism

The recent film “Noah” has garnered attention and criticism. I have especially followed with interest the secondary conversation between the promoters and critics of the movie. For instance, in a recent movie review, Dr. Brian Mattson describes “Noah” as a Gnostic recasting of the biblical story. This follows in the line of what some have seen as Hollywood’s trend of pushing Gnostic ideology (e.g., “The Da Vinci Code”), as well as the current scholarly focus on the Gnostic Gospels.
I would like to provide some commentary on a revival of Gnosticism in the broader culture and among scholars. In particular, I want to focus upon the appeals of Gnosticism, recognizing the movie “Noah” as both an obstacle and an opportunity.
Gnosticism has been around since the period in which the New Testament was written. It was a movement that mixed Eastern forms of mysticism with other religions, such as Christianity. Gnosticism as a Christian-related heresy included the teachings of such heresiarchs as Valentinus, who offered a special gnosis, knowledge, which purportedly allowed one to make his or her way to the divine fullness. This gnosis is reserved only for the truly “spiritual.” Marcion, who truncated the Bible in order to excise the God of wrath from it, was also often considered a Gnostic.
While Gnosticism as a particular religion is today small in size, there is little doubt that Gnosticism as an attitude, a way of theological reflection, is making something of a comeback in the West. There are at least three sources for this trend.
  • First, the Gnostic-like outlook appeals to the vague spirituality that has ballooned recently in Western culture, especially among those that have been identified as “spiritual, but not religious.” According to Robert Fuller, a substantial minority of Americans are “associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches” (OUP, 2001). The director and actors themselves have displayed some of these attitudes in their promotions of the movie.
  • Second, there are other scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, who have made a whole industry out of introducing and examining the Gnostic Gospels. Ehrman, a former evangelical, has become of late a sort of analyst-evangelist for early Gnosticism as an alternative to biblical orthodoxy. Early Gnosticism, which certain New Testament texts seem to have been written to refute directly, was a secretive form of syncretism (religious mixing) between Eastern Mysticism and Christianity.
  • Third, these scholarly trends have symbiotically recognized and encouraged the large number of people who want to have some knowledge about God or things ethereal without committing to any particular belief system. The movie “Noah” as a marketing strategy may be intentionally crafted to appeal to “spirituals” and to others interested in a character recognized the world over in one form or another.


Yes, Gnosticism as a religion or as a religious attitude makes two distinct problematic appeals: it has a Syncretistic appeal and a Secretive appeal.

With regard to the Syncretistic appeal, I would encourage Christians to exercise both evangelism and discernment. We must evangelize the lost, and they will have questions about Noah and the God behind Noah. Use the opportunity of the movie to tell them about God and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, but do so while exercising discernment. Be sure to correct misconceptions about Noah, and especially misconceptions about God. Use the opportunity of the movie, but use it wisely.

With regard to the Secretive appeal of Gnosticism, I would argue that any group—whether it be based in an academy, or a conference, or a movie studio—that claims it has knowledge about God or spiritual things must be treated with skepticism. Any claim for knowledge about God that goes beyond the texts of the canon of Scripture taps into the Secretive urge of the Gnostic outlook. In response, we note that God the Holy Spirit inspired and preserved for us a publicly available text, which we call the Holy Bible, and it has included therein all that we need to know about God, much less Noah. Yet again, the critical issue is about Scripture and about how we really need to know and speak God’s Word. We must again and again go back to the Bible.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reflections on Teaching On-Line: "The Christological Content of the Christian Faith"

At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, it is a privilege to be part of an innovative faculty that has taken upon itself the responsibility for instructing a large and growing set of courses through an on-line format. Many people, students here and at other institutions as well as faculty members at other institutions alongside a number of interested laypeople, have often asked for, and continue to request, access to my lecture notes as well as any video or audio recordings of my class lectures. Perhaps now their requests may be answered more fully.

Our seminary students have always had access to the lecture notes and to many of my other writings, but now they also have a growing body of video/audio records of the lectures. However, it is always a struggle to know exactly how much of these lectures to make public and how much of the primary content should be reserved exclusively for our matriculated students. Here, I will make at least one of those lectures publicly available. (If you would like access to more such videos and are absolutely unable to attend seminary, please do consider enrolling in one of our on-line courses.)

This semester, I am teaching Systematic Theology II in both on-campus and on-line venues. In an interesting shift toward the on-line format, last semester I taught 85 students on-campus and 70 students on-line, while this semester the numbers are 75 students on-campus and 85 students on-line.

Now, for some reflections about how we try to make the best of teaching on-line courses, thereby helping bring theological education that much closer to the local churches. In the on-line format, we follow a similar format to the on-campus course, but with modifications to pull the students into required interaction with the professor and with one another. Here is how one session of an on-line Systematic Theology course might appear:

First, we require the student to read carefully a chapter or an article on the subject matter for that session and often to write a critical reflection. For instance, before the first session on Christology, the students are required to read Daniel Akin's chapter on the Person of Jesus Christ in A Theology for the Church.

Second, we require the students to view the videos of the on-campus lectures. Here is a link to the lecture that the students were required to view. It is entitled, "The Christological Content of the Christian Faith." (The lecture's purpose is to help the students see that Christianity has both a propositional content and personal encounter at its center--Jesus Christ the Lord, the second person of the divine Trinity. This is the first of a number of detailed Christology lectures. You will notice that my teaching style borders between preaching from the pulpit and teaching from the lectern.)

Third, subsequent to the lecture, we ask the students to interact with a thought-provoking discussion question. For instance, "How would you summarize the content of the Christian faith in a summary format? And how would you validate that summary from Scripture?" The student must write 3 paragraphs answering that question and then respond to at least one other student's answer to the question with at least a further full paragraph. The discussion format is helpful in bringing the student to interact with the material.

Finally, the students in the on-line course take written tests and submit in writing some combination of critical book reviews and papers in almost exactly the same format as our on-campus students.

As you can see, in the on-line course, I have tried to mitigate the lack of an incarnational presence as much as possible through electronic means--reading, video, written discussions, and full testing and writing responsibilities. It will take time and feedback to see how well on-line courses do in comparison to on-campus courses, but some of the concerns that I myself had about electronic pedagogy have been somewhat allayed as I have actually taught courses on-line.

If you are called to Christian ministry, please consider enrolling on-campus at Southwestern Seminary. There is really nothing better than living in a community dedicated to academic and applied theological preparation. If you cannot possibly move here, but you are still interested in taking an on-line course, I hope you will also consider Southwestern Seminary. We have an excellent faculty and a vibrant student body. We are committed to raising up witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ. Come, listen, then go, witness.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

God and Evil: A Panel Discussion

Earlier this semester, Mark Lanier, founder of the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, Texas, invited me to participate in a panel discussion on God and Evil. The discussion focused around a book by Udo Middelmann, The Innocence of God. Middelmann is the President of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation, a subtle Reformed theologian, and the son-in-law of the great apologist.

Also participating in that discussion were David Capes, Thomas Nelson Research Professor at Houston Baptist University; Rick Taylor, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; David Fleming, Senior Pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church; John Hill, Minister of Berwick Christian Church; and Lanier as the Moderator.

The Lanier Theological Library has posted the video of that panel discussion here:

It was a pleasure to explore some of the important issues surrounding God's sovereignty and human responsibility, such as anthropomorphic language, Calvin and Calvinism, time and space, God's self-limitation, etc. If you are in Houston, I highly recommend that you find time to visit this fantastic library, whose director, Charles G. Mickey, has requested my help in furthering their collection in systematic theology.

It was a privilege for my wife, Karen, and I to spend two quality days with Mr. and Mrs. Middelmann, both of whom are biblically and culturally engaged deep Christian thinkers, as well as to get to know Dr. and Mrs. Lanier and the other pastoral and academic theologians and their spouses. Please stay tuned for my forthcoming review of Middelmann's book.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Personal and Academic History Behind the New Book, "Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation"

When I was a Master of Divinity (with Biblical Languages) student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1987-1991), the prominent issue facing Southern Baptists was the conservative resurgence. After examining the various issues, theological and political, consulting with mentors, pastoral and academic, and spending time in prayer, personal and corporate, it became clear to me that the conservative movement was fundamentally correct in its primary theological claim regarding inerrancy even as some of the political actions made on all sides were less than acceptable Christian behavior. However, the doctrine of Scripture's "inerrancy" or "dependability" (to use the term favored by James Leo Garrett, Jr.) was only one of a number of important doctrines that came under reexamination during this turbulent period of Baptist life.

Another doctrine that arose in importance was variously known as "the priesthood of all believers" or "universal priesthood," among historical theologians, or as "the priesthood of the believer" or "the believer-priest," in its more solipsistic rendition. While visiting in the hallway after one of his marathon Systematic Theology lectures with the aforementioned professor, I expressed my desire to pursue further academic studies. Dr. Garrett queried me regarding my exact interests and I noted the Scripture's teaching about a "royal priesthood" as well as my concern that this universal priesthood was often unfortunately correlated with a culturally-conditioned Western individualism. I can still see the look in his eye as he encouraged me to pursue such research from both a biblical-theological and an historical-theological perspective. (Dr. Garrett had already written quite a bit on the subject doctrine and we are currently collaborating on a long essay on the doctrine in its relation to congregationalism.) The Lord has used that gracious hallway conversation with one who has been called "the dean of Southern Baptist theologians" to shape my whole life.

After completing the MDivBL at Southwestern, I was called by the Lord to enter the pastoral ministry, specifically in order to be prepared to equip future seminary students better. (After all, the best teacher is one who has been where his student is going. Leading churches for six years in Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina also gave me a passion for preaching the Word and a profound sense of responsibility to the local churches that I hope I never lose in the classroom.) During my pastoral sojourn through North Carolina, I matriculated at Duke University, where I wrote a Master of Theology thesis on "The Reformation Development of the Priesthood of All Believers" under the supervision of the accomplished historical theologian, David C. Steinmetz.

Upon completing the ThM at Duke, I had planned to return to Southwestern Seminary to write a PhD dissertation under the supervision of Dr. Garrett. (I had attended Duke as a result of his guidance.) Both Garrett and Steinmetz seemed somewhat surprised when I turned away from both Southwestern and Duke and decided to apply elsewhere instead. That decision was due primarily to the counsel of my pastor, Wayne L. DuBose, who had performed the wedding ceremony for my beautiful wife, Karen, and me, and who had ordained me to the ministry. During a visit with Brother Wayne in Alabama, he strongly encouraged me to apply to the University of Oxford, where he had always wanted to study. I objected that such an exalted university was hardly likely to accept a boy from the backwoods of Louisiana, and besides, even if they did, I would not have the funds to attend, nor were such funds available through the Southern Baptist Convention. Brother Wayne encouraged me to apply and leave the issue of finances to the Lord. (Subsequently, Brother Wayne raised a substantial sum of money in order to send me to Oxford, for which I am eternally grateful.)

During an exploratory journey, after a long teaching tour through the recently opened nation of Russia, I interviewed with Diarmaid MacCulloch of the Theology Faculty at Oxford University and with Larry Kreitzer at Regent's Park College, the Baptist school attached as a Permanent Private Hall to the University. There were sure indications from the Lord in so many ways to attend Oxford for three years of study and my wife and I still look back on that experience as some of the best years in our lives. To begin with, I was supervised by Kenneth Wilson, Principal of Westminster College and a Methodist philosophical theologian, who led me to study the broad historiographical, philosophical, and theological issues undergirding the development of the doctrine of royal priesthood. When I opted to narrow my studies to the English Reformation, the faculty assigned Judith Maltby, Chaplain at Corpus Christi College and an Anglican historical theologian, to be my supervisor. Judith introduced me to the intricacies of the English Reformation and proved to be an incredibly insightful reader and commentator on whatever I wrote and submitted to her keen eye.

Rowan Williams (yes, the now retired Archbishop of Canterbury) and Diarmaid MacCulloch (yes, the famous historical author and British television personality) were, respectively, the external and internal readers for my dissertation. It was intimidating to enter the faculty offices and meet both men, who were dressed in their full regalia, in order to be queried for three hours regarding my thesis. But, at the end, they lauded my work and, furthermore, recommended that the dissertation be awarded publication by Oxford University Press. This was a rare and unparalleled affirmation and opportunity. Oxford University Press is the world's most respected academic publisher and they offered to publish this Southern Baptist's first major work. It was heady stuff!

However, I was keen to return to the service of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Within a few days, I was back in the United States and changed track to preach in the churches, to pursue a career in theological pedagogy, and to engage in academic administration. Moreover, I wanted to revise the dissertation somewhat in preparation for publication. Surprisingly, I also ran into an unexpected emotional block to revisiting a subject to which I had given so much of my life already. In the meantime, I continued to write and edit a number of essays, books, and volumes. However, through the patient counsel and personal encouragement of Maltby, MacCulloch, and of Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford and former Principal of Regent's Park College, as well as the encouragement of Craig Blaising, the Provost at Southwestern Seminary, I finished the revision. The revision was subsequently approved by the Theology and Religion Monographs committee at OUP and  is now set to appear.

The book is now available in the United Kingdom and may be pre-ordered in the United States. A pdf copy of the introduction is available through the kind auspices of Oxford University Press. The book has been dedicated to Thomas B. Wilson, Sr., and Dilys J. Wilson, loyal members of the Episcopal Church, who kindly supported this Baptist through the years in the pursuit of the Lord's will. They are both now in glory and I believe they would appreciate the result. Most importantly, I hope the church universal will have benefited through this contribution to the history of ideas. The table of contents follows:
1: John Wyclif's Universalist Approach to Universal Priesthood
2: Royal Priesthood in Late Medieval England
3: Common Priesthood in the Early English Reformation
4: Royal Priests: Henry VIII and Edward VI
5: Priestly Magistrates: Thomas Cromwell's Faction
6: Thomas Cranmer: The Ministerial Priesthood is 'Necessary'
7: Thomas Cranmer: The People's Priesthood
8: The Reformation of the Queens
Thank you for allowing me a minute of your time to honor people who have been so important in my academic life. My hope in writing this is that perhaps one of my students would also be encouraged to take the long road of academic studies in the trust that it may benefit both church and academy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Word-Honoring Debate on Calvinism

The debates between the New Calvinists and Traditionalists within the Southern Baptist Convention have often generated more heat than light in recent years. (Traditionalists are also known as non-Calvinists or even Biblicists.) However, there are positive dialogues that have taken place, too. 

Recently, Dr. John Mark Caton, Senior Pastor of Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, moderated a dialogue on Calvinism between Dr. Matthew McKellar and yours truly. Dr. McKellar, a longtime pastor and expository preacher and also a former trustee, is now Associate Professor of Preaching here at Southwestern Seminary. It is a privilege to have this avowed Calvinist on our faculty working alongside this avowed Biblicist/Traditionalist/non-Calvinist.

If you are interested in this hotly debated topic, please take a moment to hear the hearts of academic theologians and a pastor-theologian, who each seek to deal with the issue from a biblical-theological foundation even as they arrive at different responses to the Calvinist system of interpretation.