Back to Jerusalem
"Are you going to the dogs this year?" was the question put to me.
I suppose my initial reaction was that I should respond in the affirmative. I tend to think that I am making little progress in anything as the years go by. This year I probably am going to the dogs...
Then I realised that "dogs" was a severe abbreviation for a particular dogmatics conference which was to be held in (a location which will remain undisclosed in) the United Kingdom.
Having been to the dogs before, I decided that I wouldn't, actually, be going this year. In fact, before the previous dogmatics conference had ended, I vowed I wouldn't be back. Not that I have anything against conferences, you understand; they are the nearest thing that most of us get to in-service training. But I had problems.
Problem number 1 was the eclectic nature of the list of speakers. The ecumenical aspect of it I could live with (after all, there are dogs in every church), and the opportunity to confer at a conference is always a good thing, to be reminded that the church is bigger than the Church. But the last time I went to the dogs, I found it difficult to glean much from the proponents of the New Perspective, the defenders of Old Barthianism, or the philosophical musings of the modern theologians. One attendee took the floor to wax lyrical on the absurdity of the filioque. At that point I realised the dogs themselves had gone to the dogs.
Wasn't it Tertullian who asked "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" and I came away from that particular dogmatics conference thinking - well, quite a lot, actually. The problem was that much of the theology was driven by an unhealthy rationalism rather than a wholesome exegesis of the text of Scripture.
But, bad and all as that was, problem number 2 was the real issue. I was attending a conference on academic, dogmatic theology, not as an academic, but as a preacher and pastor. One with a modicum of intellectual ability, to be sure, but as a preacher and pastor nonetheless.
So I'm constantly looking for something to preach. Like Ruth in the fields of Boaz, I go to these conferences to find something I can pick up, take home, beat out and turn into bread for Naomi. Unlike Ruth, I came back from that first round of gleaning pretty much empty-handed.
So then I ask a different question. I'm not interested so much in what Jerusalem has to do with Athens as I am in what it has to do with Back. For those who don't know, Back is the name of the district in which I have ministered with the Free Church of Scotland for the past decade. It's a large and relatively heavily-populated rural area just north of the main town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in northwest Scotland.
Back has the very best of island scenery and local culture. It thrives on a bilingualism that is evident in school, community and church. For historical reasons, ours is the only church in the community, so we have a large profile. We serve an area of about 3000 souls. I have to preach and minister to families whose problems are as real and as poignant as those anywhere. There have been tragic accidents, there have been life-numbing addictions, there have been marriage break-ups, there have been depression, loneliness and despair.
Into all of which I must bring the Word of God. I have to make a spiritual and intellectual journey from Back to Jerusalem (re-read the title: did you think it meant something else?), and I have come to the conclusion that stopping at Athens is rarely helpful.
A philosophical treatise on some obscure bypath of theological reflection may satisfy some self-obsessed academic goal; but it doesn't help me bring a word from God into the real-life situation of those who are hurting.
Yet the task of theology ought to be to serve the church. Was that not what the compilers of the Westminster Confession of Faith meant when they insisted at the outset that biblical revelation had as its end the declaration of God's will "unto his Church" (I.1), for "the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church" (I.1)? And did they not insist that the matter of Scripture was to be made available not only to the learned but to the unlearned (I.7)?
Yet many of our conferences, while fulfilling the requirement to love God with all our mind, singularly fail to help us love our neighbour as ourselves. As a preacher of the Word, concerned to minister it to the needs of the people in my care, my priority is to get Back to Jerusalem: to bring all the joys and sorrows of my flock to the revelation of God's truth, and let the word shape their responses to the circumstances of life.
So how ought we to shape our conferences to ensure that this happens? Let me suggest one or two things.
First, each conference ought to have in its programme a time of worship. Now, by that I don't mean music or even singing; but I do mean worship - a time for sitting under God's Word and learning, like children, to listen to what God says. Did Christ not shut the door of the kingdom on those who thought they knew it all? Did he not commend the spirit of the child as the spirit which authenticates his kingdom?
To be fair, the dogmatics conference which I attended did begin its proceedings in a church building, with singings and prayers. But the sermon was really the first paper of the conference; and that was symptomatic, in my view, of the decline. When we have turned the pulpit into a rostrum we have forgotten our calling. We need real, genuine worship; a moment of preaching the word, taking a text and applying it; otherwise we forget what conference - what dogmatics - is all about.
Second, our theology must be exegetical. Where did we lose this? Theology must be exegesis, exegesis, exegesis. I realise now that the papers from which I have benefited most at times of conference and deliberation are those which deliberately anchored themselves in the text of Scripture. I recall sitting with expectation at a conference at which a speaker was to speak on Christ in the Old Testament. He got up and preached Christ from an Old Testament passage. It was one of the most helpful papers I have ever heard.
Now I realise that there are aspects to theological research which, on the surface at least, defy the methodology I am advocating here. A paper on apologetics or historical theology cannot be methodologically exegetical of Scripture. But it would be a useful procedure for all such speakers to be asked to anchor their paper in a passage of Scripture. After all, few of the Puritan giants proceed without doing so.
My concern is simple: unless our academic pursuits actually take us back to Scripture, they will remain adrift on an ocean of (post)modern relativism. They will vie for attention in today's academic market-place - where they may, indeed, command a great deal of attention. But they will do nothing for the people of God for whom the theology was given. And unless all our conference material can make its way into sermons, Bible studies and exposition of Scripture, it will neither convert sinners nor transform saints.
Third, we need to work hard to bridge that ever-widening gap between rostrum and pulpit. I am not advocating in this essay that the onus is always on the conference speakers. If I am to feed widow Naomi in her cottage in Back, and sustain her faith while she labours under the thought that God has dealt bitterly with her, I must turn the wheat of Jerusalem into something edible.
But I do recall that Boaz's servants were asked to drop bundles of corn in the fields on purpose in order that Ruth would find them. So I just want to urge those who are engaged in academic theology, with all its related disciplines, to remember those of us who are involved in the daily grind of life, weeping and laughing with our people, trying to make the Bible meaningful to them, and generally trying to minister something to them fresh from Jerusalem's fields. If I can't get that at theological conferences, where should I go?
I recall several years ago listening to a lecture on Thomas Chalmers, given by a former Professor at the Free Church College. He told a story - possibly about Chalmers himself - in which a lecturer was giving a public lecture, after which one lady in the back row turned to her companion and said "Not for us, Maggie!". The interesting thing was that after the lecture that night I overheard a conversation between two ladies in the church car park. Can you guess what one said to the other?
My concern here is simply that all our theology, all our academic work, all our PhDs, all our confessionalism, all our dogmatics, must somehow feed back into the life of the Maggies of this world. God gave himself for them in the Person of his Son. I"m all for analysing, discussing and conferring on the mindblowing theology inherent in the sentence I've just written. But unless I give it to Maggie, I will have gone to the dogs.
Herman Bavinck, in his magisterial Prolegomena says it much better than I can, when he asserts that the "significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two" (Reformed Dogmatics: Vol 1, 2003, p85). What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
Thinking out loud
You'll appreciate that I'm just an ordinary pastor with an interest in theology, and I'm just thinking out loud. Sometimes it's an effort to think in silence, but I have a essay to write, so I might as well think publicly. Perhaps I should have anchored all of the above in a text of Scripture. So here's one: "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). I first came across that text printed, in part, in the King James rendering, hanging on a plaque in my grandparents" home. I think I was quite young when I realised that the great things of the Bible were for ordinary folks like them. I hope that now that I have become a man there are some childish things I haven't done away with.