“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore


Barnes & Noble




Peanut Butter Christianity: Is Yours a Cheap Imitation . . . or the Real Thing?

One day my wife sent me to the store to buy peanut butter—specifically, natural peanut butter. In other words, no fake stuff. This seemed simple enough . . . until I arrived in what looked like the peanut butter department of the grocery store. I suppose managing that aisle alone must be a full-time job. The options overwhelmed me—creamy, chunky, extra chunky, honey-flavored, jelly-filled, low fat, organic—and countless sizes, shapes, brands, and prices! My head spun.

There I stood, paralyzed with indecision, wanting nothing more than to snatch the cheapest jar of peanut butter and dash for the checkout. Instead, showing due diligence, I searched for “natural peanut butter” amidst the flashy brand names that virtually called out from the shelves like brochure pushers on the Vegas Strip: “Pick me! Pick me! Don’t you remember all those commercials you saw as a kid? All those smiling faces? Those cool special effects showing golden roasted peanutsmagically spread into smooth, creamy peanut butter?”

Lured by the flashy labels, my eyes landed on one popular brand paired with the keyword “Natural.” How convenient!

I grabbed it from the shelf.

I felt rather victorious until I got home and took a closer look at the back label. I then discovered that “natural” peanut butter isn’t necessarily a literal description. That particular brand of natural peanut butter did include roasted peanuts, of course. But it also contained sugar, palm oil, and salt. So that’s what we mean by natural? Really? All those things naturally grow on a peanut plant? I guess from one perspective these ingredients are natural as opposed to, say, “supernatural.” And at least I couldn’t find any unpronounceable ingredients like monosodiumtriglyceraticidipropylol. And to be fair to that brand, if we were to compare its ingredients to that peanut butter-like substance found in the candy aisle of a grocery store, that jar of peanut butter looked like pure gold.

But is junk food peanut butter really the standard? When I contrast that version of natural with a different, lesser-known brand’s natural peanut butter, I’m a little less forgiving. The ingredients lists for several others simply say, “Peanuts.” No salt, no oil, no emulsifier, no sweetener, no chemicals added to preserve freshness or enhance flavor. Just plain peanuts. Call me naïve, but to me, that’s natural whether we like how it tastes or not. Shouldn’t peanut butter made of just puréed peanuts serve as the standard for what constitutes natural peanut butter?

Over the next couple of weeks, as my mind periodically returned to the out-of-control peanut butter situation, something struck me. The failure of most peanut butters to actually live up to the natural standard reminds me of the out-of-control state of much of what is happening in contemporary evangelicalism. If I were to liken authentic, classic Christianity to the truly natural form of undiluted, unmixed, real peanut butter, then the multiple forms of evangelicalism that diverge more and more from this standard become, well, less and less authentic.

What I’m suggesting is this: over the last several decades, many of us evangelicals have become increasingly accustomed to a less “natural” form of Christianity. While still essentially Christian, many aspects of evangelicalism have become victims of “enrichment” by non-Christian ingredients that are meant to enhance the faith. This “enrichment” has been done to make the gospel more convenient, palatable, or marketable. Yet as these added ingredients take up more and more space, the essentials of the faith are necessarily displaced.

Take a stroll with me through the virtual aisles of our evangelical subculture—gift shops, radio stations, television programs, websites, even many of the new, trendy churches. We find ourselves surrounded by positive thinking, self-help, and behavior modification. We’re lured in by self-esteem best-sellers, do-it-yourself Christianity, and countless authors presenting the spiritual life as an ascending ladder: seven steps to this, three keys to that, the one prayer that will revolutionize your world, expand your influence, fulfill your desire for happiness. Let’s just be honest. Much of the garbage stinking up the shelves of Christian bookstores is passed off as Christian Living, but it’s mostly psychobabble or practical proverbs no better than what we find in the secular self-help or generic spirituality sections of our online bookseller.

Modern evangelical Christians who have become accustomed to this trendy, diluted form of Christianity have all but forgotten what the pure faith actually tastes like! In fact, many who are then exposed to a less adulterated faith—a form without all the unnecessary additives—find themselves actually disgusted by the original pure flavor of authentic Christianity, spitting it out and rejecting it as something foreign and inferior—or at least unpleasant to the palate.

The irony is that this purer form of Christianity is the authentic faith once for all delivered to the saints. The biblical gospel proclaimed, the sacraments rightly administered, discipline properly maintained, evangelism and discipleship emphasized, repentance and renewal preached—there is nothing really fancy about these things. In fact, they are so simple to identify and maintain that churches focusing on these fundamentals and freeing themselves from the frills appear to be washed-out has-beens or incompetent wannabes to most big-production glitz-and-glamour evangelicals.

Let’s return to the peanut butter aisle once again. We have to admit that all those peanut butter products do contain peanuts, and so they can genuinely be called “peanut butter.” Similarly, to varying degrees the marks of authentic Christianity are found in most of the products that fill the shelves of the evangelical church market. And to the degree that they retain those essential marks they are, in fact, Christian. Yet many forms of evangelical Christianity have been so colored with dyes, so mixed with artificial ingredients, or so drenched in candy coating that they are in danger of becoming cheap imitations that serve merely to distract from—not point to—the essential ingredients of the historical faith.

Just like additive-rich peanut butters that appeal to flavor rather than to nutrition, far too many evangelicals shop for me-centered feel-good church experiences rather than Christ-centered worship, discipleship, and authentic community. In fact, like sour-faced kids who reject all natural peanut butter, many evangelicals turn their noses away from authentic expressions of church and spirituality. They would rather keep dabbling in the artificial than adjust their tastes to the real thing.

In my book, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, I attempt to draw renewed attention to the original fount and purer streams of orthodox, protestant tradition that once fed evangelicalism’s spiritual reservoirs. And I’m not alone. Numerous evangelical leaders who have been submerged in biblical, theological, and historical reflection have sounded similar alarms and called for similar renewal. But most of these attempts at reorienting the evangelical masses—pastors, teachers, lay leaders, and church members—have been either ignored or unheeded by the masses.

It seems we’ve reached a point in the evangelical church market where it’s no longer enough to read just the front label. Now we have to focus on the fine print and see what place is given to the true marks of classic Christianity. The problem is, too few evangelicals are familiar enough with the original and enduring faith to sort the real from the fake. But it’s not too late! Every person who has reached this point in this essay has the opportunity—and the responsibility—to make a trip back to the shelves of competing flavors of Christianity, to return the poor product that has been pushed by ill-informed dealers, and to reclaim the forgotten faith for the future.


Three Trails to Traditionalism: What Evangelicals Are Running From and Running To . . . and Why

ThreePathsBack in the 1990s, when I was a student at a conservative evangelical Bible College, one of my fellow students shocked many in the student body (and alarmed several professors) when he announced that he was becoming Greek Orthodox.

This confused me.

Weren’t Orthodox Christians just Greek-speaking Catholics without a pope? Didn’t they pray to saints and worship Mary? And their worship! Didn’t they kiss icons, sniff incense, sprinkle holy water, and rattle off irrelevant prayers and creeds that had nothing to do with either the Bible or real life? Why in the world would anybody convert to that?

Then I heard about a free church evangelical who became Anglican—still Protestant, of course, but it made me wonder what would motivate a person to make such a drastic change in doctrine, church order, and worship style. Then I heard about a Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism, leaving Protestantism completely behind. Surely this had to be some kind of sign of the end times!

However, before too long I learned that many Low Church or free church Protestants had left what they regarded as evangelical “wilderness wanderings” to follow the “Roman Road,” the “Way to Constantinople,” or (for those who desired to remain within the Protestant tradition while restoring a liturgical worship) the “Canterbury Trail.” Those who couldn’t take such radical steps into a High Church community sometimes ended up in more traditional conservative Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians or Lutherans. Over and over again I kept running into more examples like these: men and women leaving the open fields of free roaming evangelicalism for the gated gardens of a clearly defined denomination.

Naturally, I was curious about why anybody would go from Southern Baptist to Eastern Orthodox, from Lutheran to Roman Catholicism, or from an Evangelical Free church to an Episcopal church. As a young believer who was perfectly happy in my evangelical subculture, these radical departures seemed inexplicable.

Through the years, though, I discovered that these conversions were not isolated cases. Rather, they represented a widespread movement, especially among younger evangelicals, away from free church and Low Church communities toward more traditional High Church denominations. In order to better understand this trend, I began to discuss these conversions with the converts themselves and to read books and articles on the phenomenon. As I did, I discovered that these converts tended to fall into one of three categories:

1. Aversion-Driven Converts

2. Attraction-Driven Converts

3. Preference-Driven Converts

Let me briefly explain each of these motivations and then explain some basic problems within evangelicalism that need to be addressed. (This essay merely introduces the “what’s” and “why’s” . . . the “what do we do now?” question is answered more fully in the book, RetroChristianity.)

Aversion-Driven Converts

The aversion-driven converts are those who simply have had enough of Low Church, free church, or no-church evangelicalism. Frustrated with the “anything goes” instability of their evangelical megachurches or megachurch wannabes, some just can’t stomach the ever-shifting sands upon which their churches seem to be built. Or they have endured just too many church coups, splits, or hostile takeovers to continue appreciating the “who’s in charge here anyway?” debates within their independent congregations. Or they’ve “had it up to here” with the stifling legalism and heartless dogmatism of their fundamentalist upbringing. In other words, their motivation to convert to a stable, well-defined, traditional denomination has more to do with what they’re running from than what they’re running to.

The problem with this kind of conversion, however, is simply this: reaction against something—even if that something is bad—is no way to make a wise choice for something. It’s no wonder that many of these aversion-driven converts become dissatisfied with their destination tradition and end up reacting even to that! Lesson learned: if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.

Attraction-Driven Converts

The attraction-driven converts are completely different. They don’t start with any particularly serious problem with their current evangelical churches. Instead, their entrée into the traditional, historical denominations comes more gradually. The attraction-driven converts claim to arrive at “the Historic Christian Faith,” or to discover “the One True Church,” or to happen upon “the Holy Tradition” either by accident or by careful investigation. As they explore these churches more deeply, they become disillusioned with their historically shallow evangelical background while coming to believe that the traditional denomination has a greater continuity with ancient and historical orthodoxy. They conclude, then, that their Protestant evangelical tradition is really a Johnny-come-lately at best or a devilish usurper at worst. These converts then claim that they were compelled to forsake their evangelical tradition because of their study of church history.

The problem with this approach, however, is that those who claim to have found the one true church through the study of the ancient church often have no idea how to study church history. Rather than engaging in a so-called objective exploration of the facts of church history, they are often unwittingly fed a particular version of church history that just so happens to favor a particular tradition.

Preference-Driven Converts

Finally, the preference-driven converts are motivated not by the ills of evangelicalism or the merits of classic Christian denominations, but by personal preferences regarding worship. I’ve heard numerous friends, colleagues, and students tell me they switched to a High Church or non-Protestant tradition because they “like the liturgy.” They love traditional forms of worship such as lighting candles, offering incense, reciting creeds, partaking of weekly Eucharist, observing the Christian calendar, or some other element of worship completely missing or outright rejected by many evangelical churches. Thus, their decision to convert to a liturgical church was more about adopting a worship style that felt more authentic, appealed to their sense of mystery, engaged their senses, or made them feel connected to a broader and deeper historical faith than their narrow and shallow evangelical churches. In the final analysis, they have nothing against Baptists and Bible churches, but those less formal ways of worship just aren’t for them.

The problem with the preference-driven converts is that they often make their decisions in an extremely me-centered, consumerist fashion. They’re less concerned about content and more concerned with contentment. They’re less interested in fact and more interested in feeling. Though they opt out of the typical external forms of the evangelical subculture, they do so in a very typical evangelical way—through individualistic personal preference!

While I sympathize with many of the concerns shared by those who have chosen to travel the trails toward traditionalism, it seems that many have abandoned their evangelical heritage far too hastily and unwisely, driven by emotion, ignorance, or unquestioned assumptions about Scripture, history, and theology. On the other hand, we need to understand why many evangelicals are driven away from their evangelical heritage or attracted to other traditions. I believe the answer is simple. Despite its strengths, there are severe problems with contemporary evangelicalism that are reaching a point of crisis.

Why does evangelicalism appear to be spinning out of control, losing appeal to younger generations, dwindling in numbers, or selling out to pop culture to muster a crowd? Where is evangelicalism headed? What can we do about it? In my book, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith and at the companion website, www.retrochristianity.com, my goal has been to challenge evangelicals to begin thinking both critically and constructively about history and how it informs our current beliefs, values, and practices. However, unlike many attempts to change the present by looking to the past, this approach also begins exploring practical ways for both individuals and churches to apply its principles today. Arguing that the way forward is to draw on the wisdom of the whole Christian past, RetroChristianity not only points out the trailhead of the biblical, historical, and theological path, but it supplies provisions for the journey without forsaking the healthy developments that have benefited Christianity along the way.

RetroChristianity doesn’t naively defend evangelicalism as if everything were just fine. As I review the history and survey the current landscape of modern evangelicalism, I conclude that things are in pretty bad shape and are likely to get worse. However, I don’t believe the retreat into traditionalism is the necessary or most beneficial response—though it is certainly the easiest.

RetroChristianity fully acknowledges the frustrating and upsetting elements of evangelicalism. However, we can’t afford to simply whine about the flaws of the evangelical movement. We need to provide directions for addressing these problems, resting firmly on biblical, theological, and historical foundations. This will help us respond appropriately to extremes within evangelicalism and contribute to its improvement rather than its destruction.

RetroChristianity also acknowledges the egocentric nature of many evangelicals’ approaches to church and spirituality. We need to counter the preference-driven mentality rampant among so many churches, replacing it with a more biblical, historical, and theological framework through which we can make informed decisions regarding doctrine, practice, and worship. This will help us wisely balance the vital elements of church, worship, ministry, and spirituality, avoiding excesses, extremes, distractions, and distortions.

In short, I believe that careful biblical, theological, and historical reflection should make us better evangelicals, not former evangelicals.


[Excerpted and adapted from the introduction RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 17–21. Available now at Amazon, ChristianBook.com, Westerminster Bookstore.]

Why Seminary? (Why Not?)

SeminaryAs a seminary professor, I’m often asked why anybody would want or need graduate-level studies devoted to biblical, theological, historical, and practical training in preparation for Christian ministry (a.k.a. “seminary”). Most of the time, this question springs from a genuine curiosity or interest in seminary studies. But other times the inquiry betrays the underlying assumption that seminary is both unnecessary and unhelpful (or sometimes even dangerous).

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “Well, the disciples never went to seminary. They were just simple blue-collar tradesmen without any doctrinal or practical training. Therefore, seminary isn’t necessary.” This objection is pretty easy to dismiss. The disciples weren’t uneducated, self-trained, amateurs. Actually, they had three years of twenty-four/seven first-hand teaching and side-by-side experience in the presence of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. If you had that kind of training, I’d excuse you from seminary. In fact, I’d trade in my own Bible college degree, Master of Theology diploma, and Ph.D. for those three unaccredited years at the feet of the Savior.

Other times people say, “Mega-church Pastor So-and-So doesn’t have any seminary training, and he has a successful and fruitful ministry; therefore, seminary isn’t helpful.” I have two answers for this objection.  First, larger numbers and bigger budgets don’t mean the untrained celebrity pastor is “successful” in God’s eyes. All too often I see teachings and practices in the ministries of such untrained pastors that reveal an ignorance of central gospel truths, theological imbalance, or pragmatically-driven ministry models. Be careful how you define and identify “successful and fruitful ministry.” Second, just imagine how much more successful and fruitful a sufficiently-trained pastor might be with the same gifts!

Occasionally I have people who scoff at seminary, claiming to be self-taught Bible students who want or need no formal instruction. They have an underlying distrust and even animosity toward formal training—“Seminary is dangerous!” They believe biblical scholars and theologians have no advantage in reading, interpreting, and teaching God’s Word. Sometimes they think seminary training just complicates a person’s simple faith. Or occasionally they appeal to the Holy Spirit as their only teacher, usually appealing to 1 John 2:27. To this train of thought, I respond with the following six points. First, it’s usually only those who don’t have quality seminary training who are convinced they don’t need it. But how would they know whether they could benefit from something they’ve never had? Second, if “a pupil is not above his teacher” (Luke 6:40), then those who are self-taught will never rise above their own idiosyncrasies. Simply put, people who are self-taught haven’t had qualified teachers. Third, Paul encouraged the Corinthian believers, “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).  And the author of Hebrews castigated his readers for being “dull of hearing,” remaining children in their knowledge, requiring somebody to re-teach them the basic principles of the faith when they should actually be teachers (Heb. 5:11–14). Clearly, he expected them to continue to learn and grow in their knowledge beyond infancy and simplicity. Fifth, Peter warned that those who are “untaught” (the Greek term literally means those who have not received formal teaching) were more likely to twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). The corollary to this is that those who have received formal training are less likely to be unstable in their doctrine and less likely to twist Scripture into a doctrinal hang-man’s noose. Finally, nobody should deny that the ultimate teacher of truth is the Holy Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit carries out His teaching ministry by gifting teachers in the church, whose responsibility it is to teach believers (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28–29; Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:13, 16; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24; 4:2; Heb. 5:12; Jas. 3:1).

So, if there aren’t compelling arguments against seminary training, what positive benefits are gained through seminary? Why should those called to Christian ministry go through a graduate program of biblical, theological, historical, and practical training? Why would we spend all that time, money, and energy on a two-to-four (or more) year course of study? If we aren’t going to get a degree to make more money or to be inspired to live a better Christian life . . . why would we endure seminary studies? To answer the “Why Seminary?” question, let me use the analogy of home improvement.  A complete seminary program equips believers for faithful and fruitful ministry by: 1) cleaning out doctrinal junk, 2) rearranging doctrinal furniture, 3) remodeling doctrinal structures, and 4) firming up doctrinal foundations.

First, a quality seminary education will successfully clean out doctrinal junk. If you’ve ever watched Hoarders, you know that those with a hoarding disorder always need outside help. They have completely lost the ability to discern between what to keep versus what to throw . . . what’s healthy and beneficial versus what’s unhealthy and damaging. Only a person with an objective perspective who lives outside the home can see what the hoarder can’t—that they have accrued unnecessary, useless, worthless, and sometimes even unhealthy and dangerous junk. Similarly, seminary should challenge students’ “folk theology”—cliché, debunked, or exaggerated doctrines and practices that have little or no foundation in Scripture, history, or sometimes even orthodoxy. Good seminary training will open the doors and windows of a person’s beliefs and practices, providing opportunity to haul out the useless and damaging doctrinal junk, airing out errors and shedding light on oddities. Of course, like hoarders, it’s always up to the student to “clean house” when necessary.

Second, a seminary education will skillfully rearrange doctrinal furniture. Every home I’ve been in has a number of chairs, a table or two, a sofa or so, permanent and moveable fixtures, and other furnishings that make a house a home. But some homes are better coordinated and decorated than others. Picture the difference between a bachelor’s haunt and the White House . . . or the furniture section of a local thrift store and the mock-ups at Ikea . . . or the typical college dorm room and a suite at a Hilton. Yes, the haphazard furniture functions just fine, but the set-up lacks symmetry, proportion, and beauty. And amateur “homemakers” have a tendency to constantly rearrange things, striving to achieve an elusive balance . . . or at least keeping guests from constantly bumping into and tripping over everything. In the same way, most lay people who lack seminary training have all (or most) of the essential elements of a functional Christian theology, but they almost always lack a centering theological principle, a biblical narrative arc, or a sense of how the smaller and larger pieces of the doctrinal puzzle fit together as a whole. Quality seminary training provides a balanced, full-bodied arrangement of Bible, theology, history, practical ministry, and other essential elements. No vital element will be missing. No portion will be inappropriately exaggerated. No central elements will be shoved off to the side. By submitting to a complete degree program in a seminary context, graduates can rest assured that they have been exposed to a tried-and-true arrangement of the furnishings and fixtures of Christian theology.

Third, a quality seminary education will help students remodel doctrinal structures. This goes beyond merely superficial rearrangement and proportion. Sometimes seminarians need major deconstruction and reconstruction of their doctrinal convictions. Oftentimes students come from a theological ghetto that has minimized or exaggerated certain beliefs and practices. They have been baptized into one confession that never challenged them to think critically about their own tradition. Or they have been raised in one way of doing ministry and have never considered whether such a model is the most culturally appropriate or even biblically faithful way of doing things. In my own experience, Christians from a free church or low church background have no room in their doctrinal home for a biblically, theologically, and historically faithful doctrine and practice of the sacraments. Remodeling will make room. Christians from a liturgical or high church background often can’t imagine a time in history when the church didn’t have this or that particular form of worship . . . nor can they appreciate the liturgical diversity in the Christian tradition. Remodeling will make space for models of worship that were previously unfamiliar. Many pragmatically-driven Christians don’t have a completely accurate and healthy understanding of such fundamental doctrines as the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or even the Gospel. Remodeling will repair the walls that protect and promote these vital truths. Some Christians with very narrow church backgrounds—especially those who have been to a Bible College—will have an opportunity to revisit some of the structures they received without question . . . or at least without a full awareness of the diverse perspectives within orthodox protestant evangelicalism. Quality seminary training provides a safe, cautious, constructive, and expertly-guided opportunity for substantial remodeling of one’s doctrinal structures prior to engaging in full time Christian ministry. This is vital, because once a person is in the thick of ministry, a faulty and flimsy structure can collapse under pressure and a radical or reactionary “gutting” of one’s theology can destroy a church. Seminary, not ministry, is the place to get your theological house in order.

Finally, a seminary education will firm up doctrinal and practical foundations. Seminary doesn’t answer all biblical and theological questions, but a balanced seminary curriculum will equip future leaders with the language skills, interpretational methods, theological framework, and historical backgrounds necessary for tackling these questions on their own. It moves the learner from the level of parroting canned, cliché responses to predictable questions to the level of thinking through new questions and providing compelling answers. It moves a Christian from the passive and unconscious acceptance of the core doctrines of the faith to a place where he or she can actively and consciously understand, articulate, and defend these doctrines. By firming up the foundations of the Christian faith, seminary will instill confidence in future pastors and ministers. Seminary training will shorten the preparation time needed to put together biblically faithful, theologically sound, and practically compelling sermons and lessons because most of the foundation work will have already been done. Just as a firm foundation will keep a building from teetering when the earth shakes and the storms blow in, a well-balanced seminary training will stabilize a person’s life of ministry, preventing him or her from swaying with every wind of doctrine or crumbling like those whose ministries are built on a foundation of shifting sands.

When it comes to the need for seminary-trained church leaders, I admit that my perspective is biased, prejudiced, and one-sided. After all, I’ve devoted my life to teaching future pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries, and lay leaders. But my perspective on the value of seminary training isn’t an effect of my position as a seminary professor; my dedication to teaching as a seminary professor is motivated by my conviction that seminary training is needed today more than ever. No meandering internet reading sprees can replace seminary’s planned, balanced, curricular approach. No narrow, in-church training program can compete with seminary’s full-bodied education by diverse pastor-scholars who are experts in their fields. And no amount of practical ministry experience can fill in the inevitable gaps in biblical, theological, and historical knowledge needed to face the questions and challenges bombarding believers in our post-modern, post-Christian world. Yes, I’m sold-out for seminary training. But I have good reasons to be.

So, then, why seminary?

Why not?

“Silence of the Bishop”: A Calm, Cautious, and Controlled Response to Critics of Christianity

Not long ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

That non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity.


Typical Responses to Critics of Christianity

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But what choice do Christian leaders have? How else should we respond to news that rattles the cage of a skittish Christian community?

The common approach today is to respond instantly to every criticism: Be ready to have an answer for every challenge. If somebody emails us for a quote, we need to be prepared to say something. If the news asks us for an interview, we must take that opportunity to set the record straight. If the cameras show up for a comment, we should have our makeup in hand. Why? Because Christians need to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:25). This is the apologetic approach of the modern media age. At one level the reasoning makes sense: if we don’t answer, people will think we don’t have an answer—not only our critics, but also those believers whose spiritual safety is our responsibility.

Now, I have no intention of criticizing this approach in its entirety. This kind of readiness and willingness to take opportunities to respond to critics has been part of the Christian faith for centuries. And Christian leaders ought to take advantage of opportunities to clear the air of controversy and calm the hearts of those with fragile faith. Yet my contention is that this is not the only Christian method of responding to critics . . . nor is it always the wisest.

In this essay, I want to suggest a different approach—less popular today, but no less Christian.


The Silence of the Bishop

Around the year A.D. 110, while under arrest and on his way to Rome to be fed to the lions, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a handful of letters to several churches in Asia Minor warning them of false teachers and urging them to faithfully contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Apparently, though, the bishops of Ephesus and Philadelphia were not known for a strategy of vocal debate with false teachers and critics. In fact, it seems that some in their churches were even disappointed by their bishops’ strategy of keeping silent instead of debating their critics in the public square.

Rather than chastising those pastors for failing to arm themselves for disputation and to meet their opponents at high noon for a public shoot-out, Ignatius actually praised their refusal to engage in doctrinal battle royal. To the church in Ephesus he wrote: “The more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him” (Ign. Eph. 6.1). Similarly, concerning the bishop of the Philadelphian church, Ignatius wrote, “I am impressed by his forbearance; he accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).

Scholars have gone back and forth on exactly what Ignatius meant by praising the silence of the bishop. However, by placing Ignatius’s commendations in their Hellenistic rhetorical context, Harry O. Maier concludes, “Ignatius’ praise of silent bishops is not an attempt to defend ineloquence, nor is it intended to urge circumspection in theological debate; still less is it evidence in the first instance of the cosmological theorizing of a speculative theologian. Rather, it represents an idiosyncratic treatment of a commonplace in ancient rhetorical art concerning the discipline of well-timed and temperate speech that accomplishes important tasks of promoting social harmony and civil good order” (Harry O. Maier, “The Politics of the Silent Bishop: Silence and Persuasion in Ignatius of Antioch,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, 55.2 [2004]: 506). For Ignatius of Antioch, the silence of the bishop meant “the opposite of intemperate speech and as such connotes the well-deployed rhetorical ability of the virtuous who have trained themselves to use the right word at the right time to achieve the common good” (Maier, “Silent Bishop,” 506).

Ignatius and the wise bishops of Asia Minor avoided mimicking the empty chatter of their foolish detractors. The heretical false teachers were talkative, impulsive, loquacious babblers. In response, the wise Christian leader should be cool, temperate, self-controlled, thoughtful, moderate, and well-reasoned, keeping silent in the face of opponents’ ceaseless prattling . . . but speaking calmly, cautiously, and controlled at the proper time and in the proper tone (cf. Maier, “Silent Bishops,” 507–509).


Answering a Fool according to His Folly

In today’s culture of information overload, public debate, blog posts, podcasts, talking points, sound bites, tweets, and re-tweets, the ancient Christian virtue of remaining silent in the face of hurricanic hullabaloo seems more like a vice. Instead, when a scholar touts some new discovery as a challenge to the faith, many Christian leaders feel compelled to respond immediately . . . as if the discovery actually constituted a legitimate and dangerous challenge to the faith. But is this the wisest approach? Is meeting the unfounded alarm with equal panic a healthy path toward engaging the shrill detractors and critics in a hostile culture?

The book of Proverbs states two apparently contradictory perspectives on engaging the fool’s folly. The first: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Prov. 26:4). In other words, when we respond to fools in a way that stoops to their methods, reasoning, manner, and tone, we will appear to be just as foolish as the fool himself. Yet the very next line shines light from a different angle: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (26:5). Without lowering ourselves to the manner of a fool (26:4), wisdom often demands that we respond appropriately when such a response will likely lead to the successful censure of the wiseacre. These verses need to be understood in light of their intended results: when answering a fool will result in folly, we should remain silent (26:4). But when answering a fool appropriately will lead to a correction of the fool’s self-estimation, we should instruct him (26:5).

This kind of calm, cautious, and controlled response seems to be in view in Peter’s classic “apologetics” passage, where that apostle writes, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). This passage implies that the person is making a genuine inquiry concerning the devoted believer’s Christian hope; he’s not an arrogant scoffer engaged in a public smear campaign. The manner of response should be with the virtues of “gentleness and respect.” Similarly, Paul instructed Timothy to “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Rather than shying away from genuine teaching opportunities, the faithful pastor or teacher should patiently engage in instruction.

This virtuous approach to engagement in the public square requires that we speak when it’s appropriate to speak . . . and that we be silent when we should be silent. It means we refuse to match the shrill tone of excitable detractors. We evade escalating polemics. We avoid being dragged into flash-in-the-pan controversies that will burn themselves out. It means that we know when to open our mouths and gently but firmly answer the fool who thinks he’s wise in his own eyes . . . and when to shake the dust off our feet, refuse to give holy things to the dogs, and avoid casting pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6; 10:14).

When we look to the Lord Jesus for examples of responding to questioners and critics, we find that Christ displayed unpredictable and varied approaches, too. If He perceived that the challenges were inspired by wicked or disingenuous motives, He would simply refuse to answer them (Matt. 21:24; John 8:3–9). When the disciples asked an honest (though confused) question about His second coming and the destruction of Jerusalem, He not only answered their own question, but He also addressed bigger issues that should have concerned them (Matt. 24:1–51). Sometimes Jesus answered simple, honest questions with simple, straightforward responses (Mark 12:29–31; John 4:19–24). At other times He simply remained silent (Matt. 26:63; John 18:9). Overall, Jesus exemplified the kind of calm, cautious, and controlled engagement with questioners and critics we might expect from the One Who is Wisdom incarnate.


Accomplishing More . . . through Silence?

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

In our age of religious, social, political, and cultural attacks on the Christian faith, Christian leaders can’t afford to get seduced into responding to constant potshots. As Ignatius of Antioch taught us, there’s something virtuous about the calm, collected, “silence of the bishop” in the midst of a barrage of enemy fire. There’s something to be said about a Christian leader’s cool approach to critics’ outrageous claims and scholars irresponsible assertions—an approach that rises above the fray, shrugs off the flack, and communicates to younger believers that ultimately no weapon formed against us will prosper (Isa. 54:17).

However, when we leaders behave like every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to our people that we’re in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

Of course, there will always be a contingent of Christian apologists and scholars out there engaged in a failed modernist exercise of “understanding seeking faith.” Deep down they hide their belief that some terrible misunderstanding, unanticipated piece of damning evidence, or cleverly articulated argument could potentially topple the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

However, in a classic Christian approach of “faith seeking understanding,” whether criticisms come in drizzles or downpours, trickles or typhoons, we will not be shaken (Ps. 62:2). To some our unwillingness to answer the fool according to his folly will look like an inability to put the scoffer in his place. But I believe the calm, cautious, and controlled Christian leader is a much greater boon to the Body of Christ than the half-cocked “hero” who is always itching to jump into the fray. I agree with the words of Ignatius of Antioch, that often the silent bishop “accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).