Fairmount ARP Church October 26, 2008
Scripture Lesson Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Sermon “The Death of Moses” Benjamin P. Glaser
In the closing days of the Second World War Franklin Delano Roosevelt succumb to the effects of a hardening of the arteries surrounding his brain. He had been President for over 12 years at the time of his death; having directed the United States through the Great Depression and the vast majority of World War II. FDR was responsible for leading us through some of the toughest and harshest days this nation has ever known, before or since. Whether he did a good and commendable job in his control of our nation’s government is up to the historians but there is one thing that we can be sure of in looking back to those days. Franklin Roosevelt was unable to see, unable to experience the spoils of victory, which included deliverance of the Jews from the Concentration Camps, the release of Chinese nationals from the Japanese labor camps or even to see the surrender of his enemies, but probably most importantly for FDR he did not see the day where the men fighting overseas were able to come home and be out of harms way. As well FDR saw the foundations of the future of this country. Although he was all but being assured of the victory in Europe he knew that the alliance he had made with Joseph Stalin and the Russians would lead to a long and protracted time of tension between the Soviets and the West. Things were less than settled when he died in April of 1945. It would be safe to say that on the day that FDR died there was still a great discomfort and a guarantee that much more would await America in the years to come, for the people he had led the last 12 years.
In our Scripture lesson for this morning we read of the death of Moses on Mount Nebo, but before we speak about Moses death I’d like to spend a little bit of time reminding us about why it was that Moses was not allowed to enter the Holy Land. Because it should seem a little strange to us that the man responsible for leading the Israelites out of Egypt, by God’s power, parting the waters of the Red Sea, providing for the worship of the Lord our God, receiving the Law, guarding the chosen people of God for over 40 years in the desert, among many other things that he had faithfully and willingly done for the Glory of God in his life should be kept from experiencing the joys and wonders of the Promised Land of Israel? I’d like for you if you might to turn with me to Numbers chapter 20 verses 1 through 13 as we read together the background for the reason for God’s refusal to allow Moses into the land promised to Abraham. You can find it on page 000 of your pew bible. [pause for 7 seconds] Starting at verse 1, “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Sin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried [who was Moses’ sister remember]. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.”
Now at first reading it seems God was a little harsh to Moses and Aaron. Moses did what the Lord our God had instructed did he not? I mean Moses hit the rock just as the Lord had commanded? So why were they punished? Well Psalm 106 provides us with a little commentary on why it was God had punished Moses. Verses 32 and 33 from Psalm 106 say, “By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD, [they being the Israelites] and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips.” So here we have Moses being punished, one for his failure to control the people of God and for his and Aaron’s immature, almost childlike screaming at the people and their taking credit for the miracle of God. Look again at verse 10 in chapter 20. Moses says. “”Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Now who brought water from the rock? Did Moses bring the water from the rock? I do not think so. Moses in taking credit for the work of God had committed sin, the same sin that the representatives who had gone in chapter 13 of Numbers to explore Canaan had committed against God, not trusting in the Word of God to provide His people with the necessities that they needed and with the promises of His Word. This is key for us to understand in this time of great upheaval in our nation. Shall we be like the Israelites challenging God and His will in these times and shall we be like Moses reacting with anger and resentment, lashing out in rashness? We must trust in God, trust that God is not only in control of everything that is happening but also that it has a purpose in his providential hand and will in due time prove beneficial to God and His people. We must also remember that it is God who provides for us and must never come to the understanding that we can provide for ourselves using the means God has commanded for us as Moses tried to do here in this passage from the Book of Numbers, because we have seen what the punishment for such a lack of trusting and understanding in what God has planned for us in his Divine Hand.
Moving back to Deuteronomy 34 and our Scripture lesson this morning we have come to the end of Moses life, the wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai has ended. The last of those God had promised would have to die before they could enter the Promised Land has passed away and now God has allowed for the Israelites to approach the River Jordan to begin the process of preparing to take control, to annihilate the residents of Canaan as God had commanded them. Starting in verse 1 we read, “Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” John Calvin at this point in his commentary on this passage makes a statement that we must understand at this juncture in the Scriptures, he says, “Now, the ascent of Moses was equivalent to a voluntary going forth to death: for he was not ignorant of what was to happen, but being called by God to die, he went to meet death of his own accord.” We observe in verse one that Moses, though of an advanced age required no assistance to scale a large mountain, which tells us that he was not in poor health. I do not know about you but I am a young, spry 28 year-old man and I could not imagine being like Moses who was 120 at the time of his death climbing all the way to the peak of Mount Nebo in the mountain range of Pisgah. Also we notice that Moses died alone with God on the top of Nebo, with none to hold his hand, alone to face the reality of his sin. [pause for 5 seconds] Though why is any of this important? Why does it matter if Moses went on his own accord to die upon the mountain? Why should we feel sorry for Moses? Firstly it matters because it had been appointed by God that it be so. It matters because Moses was a faithful follower of God’s call and God’s will, knowing that God had commanded that he should not enter the Promised Land. He was perfectly satisfied by God’s providence to get an understanding of what God has provided in the boundaries of the Kingdom that will come to be in Palestine, Moses knows by faith that God will be true to his promise and give him a gaze into the blessing which God had promised, that which was but a type of the blessing Moses himself was about to receive in his death. Moses had learned from his earlier sin at Meribah. He had learned to trust in what God had called him to do. Though most importantly these verses of God’s Holy Word teach us something even greater.
I ask you now to think of anybody else in Scripture that this reminds you of, anyone else in Scripture who went willingly to His death on a mount, who otherwise was in perfect health, who lovingly carried out the will of His Father who is in Heaven. Who else died alone on a mountain? Who also was given a glimpse of the glory that awaited Him for following the Will of God?
Turn with me if you will to the book of Matthew chapter 27, verse 41, which is page 000 in your pew bibles. [pause] Starting at verse 41, “The chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ “In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus here like Moses went freely to His death. He also like Moses died alone, abandoned by the disciples, abandoned by His people, to die an excruciatingly painful death upon the Mount of the Skull outside of Jerusalem. There was isolation in that hour of unexplained desertion; misery and loneliness that is unfathomable to us. Christ sounded an intense cry quoting the 22nd Psalm, of which we can barely even begin to understand, this chasm that was created between God and Jesus in Christ’s death was greater than any expanse we can imagine. We get a picture of this chasm in our Scripture lesson when we read of Moses’ separation from the Promised Land. Moses was looking out across the plains of Moab, across the River Jordan in to the land that would be Jericho’s, the plains which Joshua would lead the Israelites in battle against all who currently lived in the Land God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses was barred from this place because of the sin of his people and his own personal transgression. Alexander MacLaren writes, “Christ was parted from God in His death, because He bore on Him the sins that separate us from our Father, and in order that none of us may ever need to tread that dark passage alone, but may be able to say, ‘I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me’—…Christ died that we might live. He died alone that, when we come to die, we may hold His hand and the solitude may vanish.” Christ died alone so that we who call upon Him and receive Christ as our Savior will not die alone as Moses and Jesus himself did at Mount Nebo and on Calvary.
Most hospitals in this country have a policy that no one is to die alone and when someone is close to death the nurse is required to contact the on-duty chaplain so that even those with no family present can have someone hold their hand as they die. They do this because even they recognize the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with dying by yourself, with no one to share in your pain and in your ache. If those outside of Christ see the agonizing sadness of dieing alone how much more do we who are the followers of Christ have not to fear dying by ourselves because we know that Christ is with us?
In closing, Moses had been called by God to save his chosen people from the chains of slavery in Egypt. Moses had led them through the Wilderness, providing for them in every way that God had commanded him to do. In the same way Christ had been ordained by God, born of a virgin in the City of David, to die so that we, God’s chosen people, the Israel of God may live in the Promised Land of the Age to come. Moses got a glimpse of that land from far away but those of us who live in Christ Jesus are greater than Moses, we have been given the opportunity, the ability in Lord’s Day worship to experience the glory and the power and the presence of Jesus Christ and his Spirit here today. Let us not take for granted, as many have done, the pleasures of worship and the glory that we are able to enjoy because of Christ’s atoning death. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross we who have been blessed to be in Christ because of God’s choosing get to receive this glimpse of the Promised Land each and every Lord’s Day right here at Fairmount Church. Just as Moses was allowed a glimpse of the Promised Land, Christ is our promised place of refuge and peace. So as we go out into a world that is hostile to the Word of Christ let us remember one thing, that we go not alone even to our death. For Jesus Christ, our Savior and King, is with us always, even to the end of the Age.
To God Alone Be the Glory, this day and forevermore, Amen
Last evening my wife, our two little daughters, and I had the pleasure of going to our usually Lord’s Day evening service at North Hills RP Church here in Pittsburgh. We had not been there for a couple of weeks due to car troubles, birth of Mackenzie, being out of town, etc… So it was with a little surprise that we went last night to find out that North Hills was having communion. Also another surprise (actually I had forgotten) that North Hills practices what is called “Session-controlled communion” which means that anyone wanting to take communion at North Hills must meet with the Session and be approved prior to taking the elements at North Hills. As it is with many church doctrines that the mainlines and the more conservative denominations have kicked to the wayside and plain-just forgotten the Presbyterians used to be known for this. While those like NHRPC do not hand out tokens like in days passed they take very seriously the dangers associated with taking the Eucharist with laxity and disregard for its holy nature. The rationale for session-controlled communion can be found in Paul’s warning in 1st Corinthians 11 following the words of institution that we all use. Paul says:
The Lord’s Supper
23For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.
Paul clearly is teaching here that a person must examine himself/herself before taking the elements and if they do not and take the elements unworthily they will do harm to themselves. Also implicit in this warning is a call to the Elders of the church at Corinth. For as I am sure Paul directed the Elders at Corinth part of the understanding of the role of the Elder in Paul’s day and in the Presbyterian system in our day is that they are responsible for the spiritual health and welfare of those under their care (cf: 1 Tim 3:5, Titus 1:7). Therefore not only does the individual have a responsible to guard themselves but the Elders have a heavenly call to guard the sheep from hurting themselves much like the Elders would protect them from any other danger. This is why many call for quarterly communion so that all can be protected properly. However as I believe that the Scriptures call for weekly communion and because of this if you are to have both session-controlled communion and weekly communion it is imperative for the session of the local church to be active in the preparation for the worship service each Lord’s Day and that includes introducing themselves to any visitors and letting them know what the policy is at the local church (not just about communion but other things as well).
What is the policy of your local congregation? How do you think this would work at a local level in your denomination?
Let me know what you think.
Part 3 of 3 of Carl Trueman‘s thoughts that I see as a call to all who see Pastors as Theologians.
In a way this brings me back to the points with which I started. You want to integrate your faith with your studies? It simply cannot be done in the purely academic environment of the university because the modern university in its very essence is designed to reject the kind of integration for which you seek. It can only be done when theology is given its proper place within the church, within the worshipping community. And that is why it is not just a matter of principled Christian obedience that you are actively involved in a local church fellowship; it is also a matter of sanctified common sense if you wish to pursue your university studies with true Christian zeal.
Why is this? Because church is the place where you will be reminded again and again of what it really is that you are studying and how it affects you. You may debate sin in a theology class, but in a sermon you will be told something you will never hear in a university lecture theatre: that you are yourself a sinner, intimately involved in the very thing you talked about so abstractly at the seminar. You might talk about atonement with your supervisor; but only the preacher will tell you that Christ died for you. You might study eschatology for an essay assignment, but only in church will you take the Lord’s Supper, remembering that you do this until he comes again in glory. In other words, you need not only to supplement the liberal stuff your lecturers teach you with sound, orthodox evangelical theology; you also need to place yourself in an environment where the indifference to and distance from real life that academic theological study engenders can be alleviated. And that place is church.
I hope this prospect excites you. When you hear on Sunday that you worship the God who rules over history, who is sovereign, who is powerful to save, and yet who stoops to take flesh himself, to care for the poor and the needy – does it not make your heart burn within you when you come to deal with issues of theology and biblical studies on a Monday morning? Of course, much of your studies will be tedious, frustrating, antithetical to the faith you hold dear; but the bottom line is, don’t let it grind you down; and don’t let the university set your theological life agenda as it sets your theological studies curriculum. Make sure that your head and heart are filled with enough good stuff to enable you to deal with dross as and when it comes your way. See your theological work as you should see all of your work: an act devoted to the glory of the God who bought you with his precious blood and will one day glorify you in heaven.
I close, therefore, with the words of one much better placed than I am to speak of the theological scholarship of his own day, liberal and conservative, Catholic and protestant; one who was accomplished across a whole range of academic disciplines in a way that would now be impossible; a man honoured by one of the great universities of Europe for his contribution to theology; but also a man who knew the love of Christ in his own heart and who sought through his writings, scholarly and devotional, to shed that love abroad. I speak, of course, of the great Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. Writing on ‘The Idea of Systematic Theology’, he wrote the following:
The systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel; and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power to love God with all their heart and their neighbours as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold him precious; and to recognise and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. With such truth as this he will not dare to deal in a cold and merely scientific spirit, but will justly and necessarily permit its preciousness and its practical destination to determine the spirit in which he handles it, and to awaken the reverential love with which alone he should investigate its reciprocal relations. For this he needs to be suffused at all times with a sense of the unspeakable worth of the revelation which lies before him as the source of his material, and with the personal bearings of its separate truths on his own heart and life; he needs to have had and to be having afull, rich, and deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to his God, to be resting always on the bosom of his Redeemer, to be filled at all times with the manifest influences of the Holy Spirit. The student of systematic theology needs a very sensitive religious nature, a most thoroughly consecrated heart, and an outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon him, such as willfill him with that spiritual discernment, without which all native intellect is in vain. He needs to be not merely a student, not merely a thinker not merely a systematizer not merely a teacher – he needs to be like the beloved disciple himself in the highest, truest, and holiest sense, a divine.2
Such was Warfield’s vision. Impossible, you say, impossible to achieve that level of integration between devotion and study. Well, yes, with us these things are impossible – but with God, all things are possible. Let us pray that the great God of grace might grant us some measure of that Christian experience in our studies and teaching which Warfield describes so eloquently!
Again this is the second part of a two-part presentation of Carl Trueman‘s essay on the Pastor as Theologian.
How does this play out in practice? Well, first, we must rid ourselves of any notion that we are, so to speak, God’s gift to the Christian church. We may know more theology than the person sitting next to us on the pew at a Sunday morning service; we may well be able to beat them hands down in any debate which may erupt concerning some theological point in the context of a church meeting or even an informal discussion over coffee; but that does not mean we are in any sense a more effective, God-glorifying Christian than they are. If Christianity involves the intimate union of belief and practice, of knowledge of God which finds its being through piety, as Calvin would say, that is the godliness of the true Christian, then technical mastery of the niceties of scholarship does not in any sense count by itself as genuine Christianity. As a result, mere technical accomplishment does not qualify you to take a leadership role within your local congregation, or provide an occasion for you to lord it over others. Many of us are quite capable of reading and mastering the ins and outs of a car maintenance manual; but I would hesitate to recommend myself as capable of changing the brake blocks on my own car, let alone that of someone else. Thus, knowing what prayer means is not the same as knowing what it means to pray; knowing what, say, the Chalcedonian definition says is not the same thing as knowing the Chalcedonian definition’s personal significance.
Luther captured this truth nicely when he distinguished between his own theology and that of his opponents by contrasting the existential impact and personal demands of Christian doctrine as he understood it with the position of others. His enemies, he said, knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead; but he knew that Christ had died and been raised from the dead for him. The difference is between, a scholar sitting in a library and reading a note from the archives saying that the cavalry are on their way to save the beleaguered troops, and actually being one of the beleaguered troops who receives the note.
The outcome of the Enlightening of the universities was devastating for theology precisely because the Enlightenment demanded that theology give an account of itself not in terms of itself, its own inner dynamics and ultimate purposes, but in terms of the universal criteria which had been established for judging what was and was not plausible within the university framework. Basic to this, of course, was the loss of the idea that the Bible was a supernaturally inspired book and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As Stephen Williams has persuasively argued in his book Revelation and Reconciliation,1 the former offended Enlightenment epistemology, the latter outraged Enlightenment morality. At the time, this was not considered to be too serious to the Christian faith: the self-confidence of the Enlightened Christians, bolstered by the fact that Christianity was, after all, utterly dominant in the cultural realm, led them to continue to believe that Christianity was self-evidently superior to other religions and belief-systems, even without a supernatural Bible and saviour understood in terms of Chalcedon.
That the theological toothpaste was well and truly out of the tube at this point only became evident later. Nobody at the time ever thought that Christianity would have to justify its special place in life and thought, so obviously superior did it seem to all the other alternatives. Indeed, the fact that the Bible was not inspired in the traditional sense of the word, and that Christ was not saviour in the traditional sense of the word, did not mean that both were not still that much better than the rest. Nevertheless, in conceding these two points, Enlightenment theologians conceded the two points which actually supported the pursuit of theology as one discipline possessing its own integrity. Now, without any epistemological or soteriological centre to hold it together, the stage was set for the discipline to fragment hopelessly, not just as a result of the external pressures created by the rising tide of information and of sub-disciplinary specialisation in academic culture in general, but also by its own lack of any internal basis for providing coherence and unity. The result is that today, it is rather misleading to speak of theology or divinity as a university discipline. More often than not, it is a disparate collection of various subjects, methodologies, and philosophies that just happen to be in the same department for reasons which have more to do with institutional history and administration than any inner-coherence or mutual relationship.
Theology is not just a question of content it is also a question of context; and if we simply replace liberalism with evangelicalism with regard to content whilst remaining happy with the overall context, we will have failed.
Let me elaborate this as follows using a silly, but I hope pointed, analogy. Let’s imagine that at some point in the future it is decided that the discipline of medicine needs to be reformed. This is done first of all by denying that certain medicines had curative properties which others lacked. Initially it is assumed that while antibiotics are obviously superior to baking soda in curing infections, the difference in curative power is one of degree, not kind; but gradually, over time, all compounds come to be regarded as having equal power to cure. In addition to this first claim regarding curative powers, the reformers also deny that there are any diseases out there that need to be cured. Again it is initially assumed that the very ill person is actually not very ill but simply in possession of less health than others; gradually, however, the logic of the position works itself out and it becomes an act of cultural imperialism to claim that any one person is more or less ill than any other. Indeed, such a claim will certainly lose you your job within the medical faculty. The results, of course, are predictable – the discipline of medicine, whose very purpose was reflection upon and the curing of human diseases, fragments because there is nothing to keep it together, no central concern or conviction which can provide a positive base for disciplinary integrity. In addition, the hospitals run by the students of these great men of medicine gradually empty as their patients are either killed off by the treatments offered, and other people simply go elsewhere for treatment, knowing instinctively that what is on offer is not adequate for their needs.
Then along come a group of students who, for whatever reason, gradually become disillusioned with what they are being taught. For some it does not match up to their own experience; for others it is singularly useless when they themselves are ill; for yet others it is because they have been reading of some other books on medicine which, while not featuring on any reading list they are ever given in medical school, yet seem to make a good deal of sense. Over time they formalise themselves into a Pharmaceutical and Medical Students Fellowship, where they meet once a week to discuss medical questions and to attack the received academic orthodoxy. Indeed, once a year they even arrange a conference where the speakers are a bunch of crazed fundamentalists who have somehow managed to get jobs on medical faculties despite being committed to the outlandish ideas that medicine is good for you, poison is bad, and people actually suffer from diseases (though, interestingly enough, many of these speakers hold faculty positions in the history of medicine, or the interpretation of medical texts, not in medicine proper).
There is a problem with this group, however: yes, they are intellectually committed to the old reactionary notions of disease and cure; yes, they want to think through the medicinal issues for
themselves; but at the end of the day, all they do is talk. They consider their task done when they demonstrate to Professor Smith and Dr Jones that it is plausible even within the setting of the medical school to believe in disease and cure; and at base, all they really want is for Smith and Jones and their ilk to accept them and their viewpoint as having a legitimate place at the discussion table. They don’t actually want to go out and apply what they have learned to themselves or to the sick lying in hospital; they are fearful even in their fellowship groups of ever using the old offensive terminology ol illness, cure, poison, and remedy; and they certainly don’t want to imply that Smith and Jones don’t make interesting and legitimate contributions to debate. Indeed they often laugh loudest when Smith cracks a joke about ignorant medical fundamentalists of the past such as Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming; these students just want to be known as clever men of medicine who, despite their intellectual commitment to curing people, are nevertheless on the whole perfectly decent and user-friendly and not going to rock the boat by actually trying to cure people. They have rejected the shibboleths of contemporary medical theory, but they have done so within the same context and culture as their opponents: not that of curing people, but that of juggling with clever and interesting ideas.
I’d like to post a few snippets from a larger article by Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia concerning the role of the Pastor in undertaking theological study. I find the central problem with the mainline church is the ignorance of both Pastor and Elder as to not only basic Christian Doctrine and how it works together to understand the development of our identity in Christ but how “Knowing God”, as J.I. Packer put it, delivers for us a much richer and fuller worship and prayer life. I have separated the article into three posts.
Themelios 26.1 (Autumn 2000): 34-47.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]
There can be no more pressing question to be addressed by the theological student than that of how academic theological study proper is to be related to the everyday life of that same student as a Christian believer. Now this is a vast subject, and scarcely one that can be covered adequately in this paper. It is, after all, an issue with which some of the church’s greatest minds have wrestled with for a lifetime and yet never come up with a fully satisfactory answer. It is important at the start, therefore, that I clarify precisely what specific issues I intend to address in this paper in order, as the advertisers would say, to prevent disappointment later on. My aims will be modest. I shall not deal with specifics, merely with the general framework within which your studies should be approached…
…My first basic point, then, is this: don’t imagine that you can successfully integrate your theological studies with your daily Christian walk unless you have first established the latter on a sound footing. Are you praying daily for spiritual help, not just for your work, but for your life in general? Are you reading God’s word every day not simply to pass your examinations but to familiarise yourself with salvation history, with God’s revelation of himself, so that you yourself can understand more fully the God who has redeemed you and your own identity as one of the redeemed? Are you attending a local church regularly (and I must stress at this point that CU is no substitute for church) where the word is faithfully preached and the Lord’s Supper is duly administered? If not, then you might as well stop now, for I have nothing more of use to say to you here; if you have not laid such basic foundations for integrating your studies with your faith, then you are simply not ready to address the more specific issues which academic theology raises for the Christian…
…At this point I confess my debt to John Calvin who, at the start of his Institutes, while not using the word ‘theology’, highlighted the fact that knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are intimately linked to the extent that it is not easy to see which precedes the other. Calvin’s definition is useful here because it highlights the fact that theology has two poles which stand in relation to each other: on one side, there is God who reveals himself; on the other side there are human beings who receive that revelation. As Calvin will go on to say, that revelation of God is accommodated to human capacity – not that it is an imperfect, misleading and inadequate synthesis of the human and the divine, but that it is divine truth expressed in a manner which human beings can grasp. In short, the nature of theology is determined both by the God upon whom it depends and upon the humanity that receives it. This means that whatever model we develop to understand how theological study and Christian devotion are to be integrated must proceed on the basis of who we understand God to be; who we understand ourselves to be; and therefore the relationship that exists between the two…
…We must always remember that human beings are not simply intellectual automata. Our beliefs are not simply the result of value-neutral logical processes working from self-evident truths. This is something which the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism in the wake of postmodern critiques has made very clear indeed; and yet this is something which Luther and Calvin could have told us five hundred years ago, which Paul had spotted way back in the first century, and which the serpent so brilliantly exploits in Genesis 3. Christian belief is therefore a moral as well as an intellectual stance. The reason that individuals do not believe in Christ is because they are in a state of moral and intellectual rebellion against God. This is not to say that non-Christians are as bad as they could be; but it is to point to the fact that objections to Christian belief all contain a fundamental moral element which refuses God’s claims. After all, Christ points us to our sinfulness, our moral turpitude; he stands in judgement on our self-righteousness; he calls us to repent, die to self, and live for him, though every instinct in our minds and bodies militates against this; and surprise, surprise, we do not like this at all. Furthermore, while we remain on this mortal plain, we will continue to struggle against our basic human desire to be free of God. Loss of faith, like lack of faith, is thus never simply a problem of epistemology; it is also a problem of morality. In the same way the failure to integrate any particular aspect of our lives into the larger reality of our union with Christ, from our studies in the university library to our behaviour within the marriage bond, is not simply a problem of technique but also a problem also of morality…
…All this is to leap ahead of ourselves, but it does underline the fact that knowledge of an abstract, impersonal kind should never be mistaken for that personal, doctrinal knowledge which lies at the heart of the Christian life, faith, and church. The simple point, therefore is: when you leave the lecture theatre and walk through the door of the church, remember first, who you are – a sinner saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less. Second, remember that while you may have gifts, great gifts, to offer the church – that is for the church to recognise and for you to offer in all humility. Your attitude should be that of the servant who sees his or her skills as an opportunity for the more effective serving of others than as a basis for exalting yourself above the level of those who have not had the privilege of a theological education.As a result the next step towards getting theological study right, after the foundation of personal and corporate worship, is involvement as a servant at whatever level in the day-to-day running of the church, whether as a Sunday School teacher, a Youth Club leader, or even as a church cleaner. Even Christ stooped to wash feet – and we should be prepared to make ourselves no less humble…
One of the many mandatory courses we must take in fulfilling the requirements for the Masters of Divinity degree here at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a class in Pastoral Care. Many of those whose silence was deafening in classes focused upon Church History and Theology have sprung anew in their willingness to speak and discuss in section. I recently heard Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary bemoan the fact that at his Seminary nearly half of his Church History classes are filled with students who are seeking degrees for Pastoral and Biblical Counseling, not to be Gospel preachers. Now this should be no surprise to those with any interaction with the American church whose movement into seeker-friendly and ego-smoothing churches over the past 30 years has provided us a generation of people looking to God not for salvation from eternal death but salvation from eternal unhappiness. Christ no longer is sought for his life changing death on the cross but for his ability to bring us out of the valleys and onto the mountain top in our emotional and mental health. This not only brings to us a false definition of who Christ is but also presents an untrue concept of what the Christian life looks like. While their are many reasons for why the protestant Church itself has devolved back into a Roman Catholic understanding of Grace one of the main reasons has been the movement of the seminary education of Pastors away from its former focus upon systematic theological formulations to a renewed centering on the sanctifying health of the human soul. One of the most telling consequences of this shift has been the change in the way we see ourselves approaching death. My sister, currently engaged in a Clinical Pastoral Education course at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, WV, is prevented by her supervisors from sharing the Gospel with those with which she is given to engage. Her task is to make people feel comfortable and help them to be content given their surroundings. She is of course supposed to do this in an “ecumenical and non-sectarian” way. Which according to her means that she is not allowed to speak in a Christocentric manner but only in a generic way about God and his presence.
The obvious question to be asked is can a Christian minister be a chaplain in this circumstance and still be truthful to the Gospel? The easy answer for any who pay attention to the question is a flat out no. Of course if Christ is supposed to be nothing more than a therapist why then should we focus upon the reality of the gospel message? Seminaries need to ask the question whether they exist to fill pulpits with preachers who seek to to preach about the saving Grace of Jesus Christ or staff Hospitals with smooth talkers and flatterers?