Do You Need God to do Church? (2)


The “Thesis” of the Primacy of the Divine Presence,
Power & Provision in Making the Church Effective


From last week’s Blog –

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today. DBS+



It is one of those defining metaphors for me. It was Sam Shoemaker, the Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Renewal Leader, who first used it.

In 1952 Shoemaker was the main speaker for Religion-in-Life Week at the University of Pittsburgh. Representatives from a wide variety of denominations – Baptist and Presbyterian, Episcopal and Roman Catholic – were invited to share their faith.  …During his address at a closing dinner for speakers and student leaders, Shoemaker surprised us by remarking, “Some have likened the Episcopal Church to the fireplace and the Methodist Church to the fire.”  After pausing for laughter at his own expense, he continued, “You’ll have to admit, however, that the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”

…This is a problem that has plagued all churches: the relationship between the organization and the life it is supposed to encourage. Every organism requires some degree of organization to channel its energy and fulfill its mission.  So it is natural for the church to develop confessions of faith, services of worship and programs of activity.  Imperceptibly, however, the inner life tends to wane even though the outward form persists.  Throughout church history the flame in many organizational fireplaces has flickered and died.  Though the fireplace was designed initially to foster a blaze, accumulations of soot eventually clogged the flue and smothered the fire.

…Eventually another generation, feeling the cold, tries to rekindle the fire. Unfortunately, it does not burn well, the flue is clogged and the hearth no longer fosters a blaze.  Yet the custodians of the fireplace often resist the cleaning or painful remodeling which is now necessary.  …So the kindlers of the flame are tempted – or even forced – to move their fire out into the middle of the floor.  There, one of two things is likely to happen.  Either the fire rages out of control, or its isolated coals die down for lack of a proper hearth.  Samuel Shoemaker was right: the best place for a fire is in the fireplace. (Charles Hummel – Fire in the Fireplace – IVP – p.p. 14-16).


One of the reasons that this metaphor has such power for me is that I have lived it.

I was raised in the “fireplace.” Mom and Dad took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, and the church they took us to was the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, a “high” Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition – “smells and bells.” And then, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was in High School, I caught on “fire.” These were the heady days of the Jesus People Movement in Southern California, and its heat and light touched my heart.  I was not the Prodigal who had wandered off into the far country, the typical “Jesus Freak.”  I was more of an “older brother” who had stayed home and gotten just as lost.  And in the same way that God’s love in Jesus Christ found the prodigal, so it found me.  And from that moment until now, I have struggled constantly with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” This is part of the reason why I think I would up as a member and minister in the Disciples of Christ.

The Disciples are part of what’s known as the Stone/Campbell Movement.  The “Stone” comes from Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844), founder of the “Christian” Church in Kentucky – a product of the “fire” of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting during the Second Great Awakening.  The “Campbell” refers to Thomas Campbell (1763 – 1854) and his son Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), the founders of the “Disciples of Christ” Church in what is today West Virginia – the strudiest of the “fireplaces” built in early America.  When these two movements shook hands and became one church in 1832 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “fire” and the “fireplace” were joined, and the struggle between structure and passion, Spirit and form, organization and organism in the heart of our Movement was set in motion.  Our heritage hardwired the “fire” and the “fireplace” into our very denominational DNA, and I’m glad for it.

This spiritual struggle constantly serves as a reminder of the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” nature of reality. I have found that my life and faith are so much better served by hanging onto “furious opposites” rather than by championing one-sided half-truths, and this has proven particularly true for me with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” As Sam Shoemaker pointed out, “the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”




But, to my way of thinking, the “fire” has a certain primacy.  It comes first.  It’s the reason why the “fireplace” gets built.  This is the “thesis” in my dialectic.  It’s where I start.


The late Calvin Miller in one of his books lamented the way that so many churches he knew had become “hollow museums” where the curator invoked the name of God with no expectation of God ever actually making an appearance.  In contrast, writer Annie Dillard in one of her essays observed that based on her reading of the Bible, ushers in church really ought to be issuing crash helmets at the door before lashing congregants into their pews. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), for proof, just stroll with Moses up the side of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-25) or spend the morning with Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-7).  There is “fire,” and we don’t kindle it.  At best, we can provide the “fireplace” to contain the “fire” when and where it falls.  This is not nothing, as I will explore next week in my “antithesis” blog on the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective.  But the fanciest “fireplace” there is just gathers dust unless and until there is a “fire” in it, and that “fire” is not something we engineer, it’s something we receive.


Samuel D. Rima (Rethinking the Successful Church – Baker Books – 2002) says that he had to “rethink the successful church” when, after leading one congregation in a season of significant numerical growth, he got called to another church where they wanted him to do the same thing all over again with them.  And Sam said that as he began that he really did believe that “if only he did the right things, applied the proper techniques, and raised enough money,” that he could “manufacture church growth just like a mortgage banker increases his or her market share.” He saw it as a favorite “recipe” that if followed precisely would get the same results every time (25).  But what Sam discovered in his new church was that although he was the same minister as he had been before with exactly the same skill sets and the same vision and commitments, that he didn’t get the same results.  He eventually left that church “feeling like an unmitigated failure,” “wounded and shaken to his very soul” (47).  And in his recovery Sam says that he began to come to terms with the great Biblical truth that he had failed to take into account in his previous “success” and “failure” in ministry, what he calls “the Sovereignty of God.”

We must realize that there are much greater forces at work in our ministry than simply our own will power, enthusiasm, determination, giftedness, vision and passion.   The reality is that the church in which we serve is God’s church.  And God has some very definite ideas of what success looks like in his church.  …It is not up to us to determine what will ultimately take place in the church we serve – that’s God’s job – and we forget or neglect that reality at our own emotional and spiritual peril. (52)

In one of only three places where the word “church” actually appears on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels, after telling Peter that his confession of Him as being the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was correct, Jesus told His disciples that it would be “upon this rock that I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  And I hear an echo of this promise in I Corinthians 3:6, where Paul, discussing the different functions that different ministers had performed in the life of that church, observed: “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” It’s a different metaphor, but I think that it’s the same truth as the “fire” and the “fireplace” comparison makes.  To get a crop a farmer has to plow, and plant, and water.  But nothing the farmer does causes the seed to grow.  In the same way, I believe that we can help to create the conditions that are conducive to conflagrations, but the “fire” still has to “fall.” It is something that God is going to have to do when, and where, and how God so chooses, and that’s what Divine sovereignty means.  It means that God is in charge and that we have to be patient, expectant and responsive.  This is why everyone who has studied the great moves of God in church history, looking for the causes and conditions that preceded their arrival, always come back to prayer.


Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892), a British Baptist preacher was one of the true giants of the church. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, was a congregation of over 6,000 and added well over 14,000 members during his thirty-eight-year London ministry. During his lifetime, Spurgeon is estimated to have preached to 10,000,000 people, and he remains history’s most widely read preacher. There is more available material written by Spurgeon than by any other Christian author, living or dead. His sixty-three volumes of sermons stand as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity, comprising the equivalent to the twenty-seven volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica” (

When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle (as New Park Street Church became known), Spurgeon would take them to a basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then the pastor would declare, “Here is the powerhouse of this church.” (

The church as a “fireplace” doesn’t make much sense and isn’t of much use apart from the “fire.” Just like the wind of the Spirit that Jesus said “blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8), the “fire” is not something that we can create or control, but it is something that we can desire and seek, and that will necessitate prayer.  We can’t force the hand of God, but we can open ours to receive what God wants to give us on His terms and in His time.  DBS+

C. H. Spurgeon


O God, send us the Holy Ghost! Give us both the breath of spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal! O Thou art our God, answer by fire we pray Thee! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see Thee to be God indeed. The kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. Oh, that Thou woudst send the wind and the fire! Thou wilt do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer.

Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. Oh, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad brethren, now lying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern!

Oh, for the fire to fall again— fire which shall affect the most stolid! Oh, that such a fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, Thou art ready to work with us today even as Thou didst then. Stay not, we beseech Thee, but work at once.

Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Thy might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Thy reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!  



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Do you need God to do Church?

bug eyes

The triad – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is often used to describe the thought of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel stresses the paradoxical nature of consciousness; he knows that the mind wants to know the whole truth, but that it cannot think without drawing a distinction. Unfortunately, every distinction has two terms, every argument has a counter-argument, and consciousness can only focus on one of these at a time. So it fixes first on the one, then under pressure fixes second on the other, until it finally comes to rest on the distinction itself. Hegel refers to this process of alternation and rest as dialectic. []



This familiar philosophical category serves me quite well.

I am an inveterate moderate. I deplore the extremes.  I never finish preaching a sermon without wanting to immediately say, “Now, on the other hand…” I never vote without wishing that I could take some of the positions and qualities of each candidate, and just like Frankenstein, use those parts to fashion an entirely new and different kind of being.   I get impatient with people who stake out their positions with clarity and passion, and who then refuse to listen to alternate points of view that are being staked out by people who can match their clarity and passion.  I can’t understand how people fail to see the complexity of things, and who become comfortable championing one-sided half-truths.  In his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (judged to be one of the 20th century’s foundational documents), Walter Kaufmann lamented the way that we tend to settle all too easily for black and white conclusions.  The alternatives before us are always myriad and manifold, he said, requiring us to be perpetually open and inquisitive, which brings me to the great wrestling match that’s been going on in my head since my Sabbatical earlier this year.

Scroll back through my blog posts to May 20, 2014, and take a quick look at “Human-Centered Church Growth ~ Christ-Centered Church Growth: A Collaboration or a Conflict?” In my examination of how some churches have been able to successfully shift their understanding and practice of evangelism from just being one of the many things that they do to actually becoming part of who they are, part of their culture as a church, the tug-of-war, at least for me, always returned to the same issue: when it comes to evangelism, what’s God’s part and what’s ours?  This is a perennial theological tussle – it’s Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield, Edwards and Finney.

The conundrum gets distilled quite nicely for me in the comment that an Episcopal priest once made to R.T. Kendall, the Minister Emeritus of London’s historic Westminster Chapel – “If the Holy Spirit were taken completely from the Church, 90% of the work of the Church would go right on as if nothing had happened!” (The Anointing – 3).  Exploring this idea, just about a year ago Geoff Surratt, a church planter in Colorado, in a blog on his web page – “Inner Revolution” (, asked “How long could you do ministry without God?”

I wonder how long I could be successful in ministry without God? I’ve been in vocational ministry for 31 years, and I seldom encounter a situation I haven’t seen before. I have a stockpile of sermons to pull from, and many other places where I can grab a complete sermon with a moment’s notice. I do strategy, staffing and structure in my sleep. My experience, connections and the internet give me all the tools I need to do ministry, and do it at a very high level. God is good, but often not all that necessary.

How about you? How long could your church function, and function well, without God? You have your sermons planned through Easter, your song lists loaded into Planning Center and your small group resources online. You have well-trained volunteers and the best staff money can buy. Your IT and weekend tech have redundancies built in to handle any contingency. The people who attend your church know that they will have a quality experience every weekend regardless what might happen behind the scenes. Certainly God is welcome at your church, but is he really necessary?

I am all for policies, procedures, strategy, training, planning and technology. If fact, except for policies and procedures, these are the things I love the most. And I am amazed to see how effectively churches use these tools to reach people far from God and lead them into biblical discipleship. What scares me, shakes me to my core, however is how easily we can substitute the tools of worship for genuine worship. How often we find ourselves worshipping the creation rather than the creator. How many weekends we leave church feeling satisfied because the music was good, the sermon was well received and the attendance was up without even considering if God was pleased.

How long has it been since I have been on my face before God, desperate to hear from him, knowing that I am absolutely toast without him. When was the last time I was so hungry to experience the power and presence of God that I could not eat, I could not sleep until I felt the supernatural touch of his Holy Spirit? When was the last time I was so overwhelmed by the responsibility of preaching the Word that I could barely breathe?

It is not all that hard to build a ministry without God.                                                                                                    

What a terrifying place to be.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today.  DBS+



If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today,
95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.



If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church,
95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference.

                                                                                                                                                                               ~ A.W. Tozer



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“W.W.J.D.” & Ebola

The news this week of the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States in our very own backyard – Presbyterian is Northway’s neighborhood hospital, Vickery Meadows where the afflicted man lived is part of our congregation’s “front doorstep” Mission field through the work of Oasis de Esperanza, and Hotchkiss Elementary School where some of the children in the family of the afflicted man attend is one of our “Signature Outreach Ministries” – has given us all pause.

The traditional five stages of grief provide a helpful roadmap to understanding the range of reactions and responses that we are experiencing in ourselves and observing in others.

Denial: The initial state of disbelief that this is really happening and the refusal to accept its full reality.
Anger: The frustrated and frightened outpouring of raw emotion.
Bargaining: Looking for someone or something to blame, and the offer to change behaviors in the hope that it might change circumstances.
Depression: The dawning realization of the full reality of the situation and its dire consequences.
Acceptance: Finding a way to live in the hope, love and peace that God in Jesus Christ supplies that is bigger than the circumstances that we face.

These are the natural and normal inward responses to our outward experiences of loss and threat. They are part of the path that inner healing takes when we are wounded or worried.  Our commitment to Christ certainly doesn’t exempt us from such experiences of difficulty or emotions of distress.  Even the most cursory reading of Jesus’ response to the death of his good friend Lazarus (John 11), and the accounts of the deep personal crisis that Paul found himself facing during the Second Missionary Journey  (2 Corinthians 1:3-2:4; 4:7-18; 11:21-10) are sufficient Biblical grounds for the spiritual legitimization of grief.

Because we are human beings, when we get bad news or face difficult circumstances, we will find ourselves launched out onto the sea of grief where we are forced to weather the storm. But because we are Christians, we are called to be and do something more than just grieve, spiritually and emotionally legitimate as grief may be.  Paul described what we are capable of and called to as Christians to be a matter of “hopeful grieving” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Not ignoring our pain and fear, in faith we are exhorted to push through it into something else.

Black white

When an explosion and fire destroyed the music room of Cleveland Hill Junior High School in Buffalo in 1953, the Rev. Charles B. Smith visited the homes of the parents who lost children in the tragedy. The shock of the community, and the anguish of those who had to go find a casket for eleven and twelve year old children was almost too much to bear.  Fathers and mothers spoke of the comfort and caring and prayerful support that Rev. Smith gave as a Christian and neighbor.  He spoke to their condition out of the resources of his faith, and out of his understanding for their grief in a personal way, for one of the fourteen children lost in the school fire was his youngest daughter, Reba. [Told by David Poling in his Sermon “The Last Fraud” in The Gift of Easter, Floyd Thatcher, editor, Word Books, 1976].

Our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior pushes us into an entirely different gear as we make our way through life as Christians.   “The love of Christ constrains us” is how Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14.  That word “constrains” in Greek is a word that describes the action of “compressing forcibly all of our energies into one channel.”


In your imagination see the concentration of water flowing through the nozzle of a fire hose, how it focuses and directs all of that potential and power into a particular direction. In exactly the same way, the love of Christ “compresses forcibly” all of our energy as Christians into a channel of response.  This explains the remarkable record of how Christians have reacted through the centuries to the difficult circumstances that have broken upon them as part of their life in this world.

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. (


Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the deserted houses of the pagans and care for those sick as well. This individual act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. (

And this isn’t just ancient church history. All of the medical professionals who have been in the news in recent weeks for having contracted Ebola while serving in West Africa and then being care-flighted home to receive treatment in the United States were serving through missionary agencies as part of their own commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

ebola vic

In our own spiritual tradition, the Stone/Campbell Movement, we have the example of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) who served sacrificially during the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville in 1873 when 1 out of every 25 people died in that city. Because David Lipscomb was a leader in that part of our church that asked to be counted separately in the 1906 United States Census, he is better known in the Church of Christ than he is among the Disciples of Christ, but for all of our differences, we are still part of the same spiritual family of churches, and so he is “ours” too.


Even though he lived well outside the city of Nashville, safe from the devastating effects of the Cholera outbreak, David Lipscomb moved into the city during the Cholera outbreak when so many with means were fleeing it in panic. This left the poor at the greatest risk, and David Lipscomb as a Biblical Christian knew all about “God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” how they are the special objects of God’s care and concern, and therefore of the church’s as well.

C. Leonard Allen in his book Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (ACU 1993) described the work that David Lipscomb did in those harrowing days.

Though Lipscomb himself was not physically strong at the time, he worked for days among the poor and sick, placing his own life at risk. He helped distribute food and supplies.  He went into the homes of destitute black residents of Nashville and helped to clean and feed them.  And he used his buggy to carry a group of nuns – whom he deeply respected for their courage – to and from the places where they were needed. (93-94)

In his periodical, The Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb addressed the spiritual crisis that the Nashville Cholera Epidemic posed for Christians. As trite and hackneyed as it has become in the church today as a gimmick and a merchandizing platform, David Lipscomb positioned the decision of Christians in his day as to how they would respond to the crisis they faced in terms of simple obedience to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ – “W.W.J.D.?”

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are…

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor…

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?   Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, off cast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.

I don’t know what the days ahead hold for us as a community of faith in the part of this city where Ebola has made its American debut. I am inclined to believe the assurances we are being given that everything is under control and that the situation is contained and being managed.  But even if that’s true for here and now, it’s not true for “there” – West Africa – and it’s far from certain for “then” – the coming days both in Dallas, Texas, and throughout the global community.

It is only natural for us as human beings to worry about our personal safety and to think about the frightening possibilities when a threat the size of Ebola moves into the neighborhood. But as Christians, our personal safety and continuing well-being cannot be our only consideration. “The love of Christ constrains us,” and that strips “W.W.J.D.” from being a snappy slogan on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt, and positions it in our hearts as the critical and urgent question of our commitment to follow Christ. “What would Jesus do?”  DBS+


These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

~ David Lipscomb


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Making Sense of “End Time” Scenarios

A Little “Believing Thinking


The release of the “Left Behind” major motion picture in theaters this past weekend so closely on the heels on HBO’s popular “The Leftovers” series on cable television brings “eschatology” [from the Greek ἔσχατοςeschatos” meaning "last" and λόγος, “-logy” meaning “Word” as in "the study of"] back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And at the edges of this conversation there are already some completely predictable and well-defined responses.

Secularists, skeptics and cynics dismiss the very suggestion of a divine intervention in the course of human history to judge and rescue humanity in preparation for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being a ludicrous proposition from the very start. Their worldview cannot accommodate the idea.  President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” And that saying stakes out the secular response pretty concisely.

Confidence in human goodness, potential and ingenuity is the engine that drives every expression of secular hope. Education and legislation will save us. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better,” or at least we could and would if we just had more and better information, and the right people running things in Austin and Washington D.C.   And this isn’t just a “secular” response; it’s widespread in the church these days as well.

J.C. Wynn’s (a professor of pastoral theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/ Bexley Hall/ Crozer Theological Seminary) 1977 book Christian Education for Liberation and Other Upsetting Ideas (Abingdon) included the essay “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” In answering this question, J.C. suggested that -

Church educators are too imbued with a secular belief in progress to find much place for a doctrine that speaks of calamity and utter finality. The marked influence of progressive education upon the Sunday church school… imported a pervading optimism about humanity and expectation of inevitable progress…. (91-92)

The “eschaton” [The “End”] is completely beyond the ability of men, even the educators, to affect or to control… Eschatology faces the reluctant church educator with a reminder that none of us moves toward God so much as God comes toward us. God does not wait for us to inch our way to Him, but invites us, leads us, falls into step with us.  This encounter is not something that clever men have thought up, but a leading of the Spirit.  His is the divine initiative. (94-95)

Church education tends to assume that its goals are so earthbound that we seem limited to teaching persons for here and now. The conviction that Christians are strangers and pilgrims on earth, en route to a city whose maker and builder is God, is too seldom emphasized… If our citizenship is elsewhere, as the New Testament holds, that hope is underplayed… Christian hope is equally for the first hour of life and for the last. …Christian education dare not avoid the nearly impossible task of teaching persons both for the next things and for the last things as well.  (96)

At a Regional men’s retreat on the topic of hope a number of years ago I was asked to lead a workshop on what the Bible had to say about it. And so I used the occasion to orient the participants to the New Testament’s vocabulary of eschatology (The “Rapture,” the “Antichrist,” the “Tribulation,”  the “Millennium,” the “Signs of the Times,” the “Second Coming,” the “Final Judgment”), to introduce some of the major schools of the interpretation of these words and concepts (Realized Eschatology, Existential Eschatology, Symbolic Eschatology, Historicist Eschatology and Futurist Eschatology), and finally, to lead them in a discussion about why it all matters, about what these “events” and theories tell us about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in our world.

When I was finished I got pulled aside by an Area Minister who was really quite upset with me for having “wasted” his time and that of all the participants on such an “irrelevant workshop.” He accused me of filling their heads with nonsense and of failing to offer them anything of practical value for when their lives got hard and they needed something specific, concrete and helpful to hang onto. “You sounded like a wacko in there,” he told me, “like someone you would hear on the radio late at night!” And as he stomped away (it was the very last time that this man ever talked to me), I remembered J.C. Wynn’s observations about the “conspiracy of silence about eschatology” in the church and better understood just how pervasive and even militant it could be.

Eschatology is not even on the table for consideration in many of our churches; we don’t have the tools to think about it intelligently and we don’t take the time to talk about it helpfully.   All we do is try to distance ourselves from it, abandoning the field to the extremists; derisively dismissing them as “ignorant fundamentalists” as we smartly walk off feeling superior.  And there’s no doubt, as theologian Gabriel Fackre put it, that eschatology has become the peculiar domain of overzealous interpreters who “with their lush apocalyptic imagery and confident descriptions of the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven sometimes claim to know more than the Son of God about the how and when of His coming” (Matthew 24:36).

This is the equal but opposite “predictable and well-defined response” to movies like “Left Behind” and TV shows like “The Leftovers.”  They stir the religious imagination of some believers, and believe me, they will throng to their screenings.  When the dust settles, “Left Behind” will make money and have fans, and that’s because there is an audience for such productions.  In a frightening world people are looking for hope, and while the theology of “Left Behind” is not mine, I think that only a fool would stand outside throwing rotten tomatoes at it, mocking the sincerity of the faith of those who made it or the depth of the hunger of those who are going to see it.

I once knew a preacher who told me that he had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday night for the full length of his more than ten year ministry in a particular church, and that he still wasn’t done when he left. And when I asked him if his people ever got tired of his singular focus, he told me that on the contrary, that they couldn’t get enough of it! Personally I’ve attended the protracted meetings of traveling Bible teachers with their charts and time tables who style themselves as “Prophecy Experts.”  I’ve read their books and listened to their tapes.  I know the passion and precision of their arguments, and while they never personally persuaded me of their particular positions, I spent enough time with them to know that they were serious and sincere, and that they deserved my respect rather than my ridicule.  It’s not enough just to call them stupid, and I’m not prepared to concede to them the domain of Biblical eschatology.


“Left Behind” is the popularization of an indefinable interpretive tradition of eschatology. Because it generates popular novels and movies, and because we operate in the shadow of Dallas Theological Seminary and within the sphere of C.I. Scofield’s lingering influence (the Scofield Bible Church is not more than 2 miles east of Northway’s front doorsteps and many of my church members could produce a Scofield Reference Bible if asked), Dispensational Premillennialism (the name of the “identifiable interpretive tradition of eschatology”) holds a certain primacy in the public perception of what it is that Christians believe. And some Christians do believe it, fervently.  But Dispensational Premillennialism is not the only eschatological option available to a Christian who is trying to be Biblical in his or her beliefs.  Despite its popularity today, especially in the American Bible Belt, Dispensational Premillennialism has never been the majority opinion of the church on eschatological matters.  Augustine wasn’t a Dispensational Premillennialist, and neither were Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II.  Democracy – who wins the popular vote – is a lousy way of arriving at theological truth; but when most of the church’s big hitters from across the centuries of church history took a different interpretive path than that of Dispensational Premillennialism when it came to matters of eschatology, that should be duly noted in one’s own deliberation.

Because it’s never enough just to criticize what somebody else believes, when the release of a movie brings into cultural awareness a question of Biblical interpretation and theological conclusion, we should welcome the opportunity to enter into the conversation fully. But that requires us to have given the matter of faith that has made its way into our field of vision some careful thought.  I am not a Premillennial Dispensationalist in my eschatological beliefs; but I am something.  I have some settled convictions, and they are the fruit of a sustained engagement with Scripture and the Christian tradition over many years.


Millard J. Erikson in his magisterial 1998 systematic theology Christian Theology (Second Edition) [Baker Books] helpfully laid out some of the big theological questions that one has to come to terms with on your way to your own personal eschatological conclusions and convictions (1160-1161)  -

Is eschatology (the study of last things) thought of as pertaining primarily to the future (dealing with matters still remote from us) or the present (dealing with events in the here and now)?

Is your view of the future of life here on earth primarily optimistic (an improvement in conditions) or pessimistic (a general worsening of the circumstances of human existence)?

Is divine activity (supernaturally realized) or human effort (familiar and natural processes) thought to be the agent of eschatological events?

Does your particular eschatological view speak of hope for the church alone or for the human race in general? Do the benefits anticipated accrue only to those who are believers, or are the promises to all?  If the latter, is the church the agent or vehicle of the good things coming to all?

Does your eschatology hold that we will come into the benefits of the new age individually, or that their bestowal will be cosmic in character?

Is there a special place for the Jewish people in the future occurrences? As God’s chosen and covenant people in the Old Testament, do they still have a unique status, or Are they simply like the rest of the human race?

The way that I personally answer these questions make me a Historical Premillennialist. This is the interpretive tradition of eschatology that makes the best sense of the Biblical witness to me, and that I believe roots me in the faith of the early church.  But I refuse to make my eschatological conclusions tests of Christian fellowship or fidelity.  My Historical Premillennialist conclusions belong in the arena of “inferences,” conclusions that I have drawn from Scripture, but a construction that is separate from Scripture, that goes beyond Scripture.   Other equally serious and sincere Christians can and do arrange the same biblical materials in different ways, and I welcome faithful conversations with Christians who have drawn different conclusions than I have.  I want to be thoroughly Biblical in my faith and practice as a Christian, and if somebody can help me do this by challenging the way that I think about what the Bible says, then I’m all in.  But, in this, I understand that we are just arguing the details.

I don’t think that the theological point of view that is at work in the movie “Left Behind” is the best way to make sense of what the Scriptures say or the best way to keep faith with the historic teachings of the church.  But having said that, let me quickly add that I still have so much more in common with them, mistaken as I think they are, than I do with those parts of the contemporary church who are part of the conspiracy of silence about eschatology.


As George Eldon Ladd, the teacher from whom I got my Historical Premillennial leanings, used to say, a Christianity stripped of its eschatology is a Christianity that will be “forever incomplete.” At the center of the Gospel “past” is Christ on the cross and at the center of the Gospel “future” is Christ returning in glory; remove either of these poles from Christianity’s equation, and you wind up with something very different from what the New Testament proclaims and the church has historically embraced. DBS+




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“And I was a Stranger”

A Little Believing Thinking


Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” session was on what our respective faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) have to say about the “other,” the “stranger” and “sojourner.” As I wrote about last week, our tendency on topics like these is to jump immediately into the arena of public policy and political action.  And while I would be in full agreement that not to act on our faith’s convictions is the very definition of unfaithfulness (Matthew 7:21-27; James 1:22).  But I would also argue that not to root out actions in careful Scriptural reflection is equally unfaithful.  If being “hearers of the Word” but not “doers of the Word” is spiritually dangerous, then no less dangerous is our tendency to be “doers” without first being “hearers of the Word.” And so in this Interfaith presentation I attempted to summarize the New Testament’s primary teachings about the “stranger” and the “other,” and to describe the characteristic way that we as Christians have tried to keep faith with them.  DBS+


Faiths in Conversation
“The Other & the Stranger” – September 14, 2014 – 7 pm
A Christian Perspective   (Second Revision)

Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church
Dallas, Texas


The theological foundation for this conversation here this evening from the Christian perspective is Creation. The Apostle Paul writing to the Ephesian church reminded them that when he got down on his knees to pray, that he was talking to the God who is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15).  Our creation by God makes us all members of the same human family.  This is what Paul meant when in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens he told them that we are all God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), that “He made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth” (17:26).

Having said this, I think I could sit down right now, and feel pretty confident that I had fulfilled my assignment here this evening of explaining the Christian perspective on “The Other and the Stranger.” Our Creation by God makes us one people, one family, and technically this means that there are no outsiders, no strangers, no “others.” “On paper,” in principle, this is absolutely true. This is the way God intended things to be; His “Creative intent.” But the fact of the matter is that things right now are not the way that God intended them to be.

Following the opening picture of shalom in the book of Genesis where everything and everybody fit together with everything and everybody else in a web of perfect harmony and well-being just like the pieces of a puzzle making a beautiful picture, the stories that follow that portrait of “original blessing” are descriptions of its gradual unraveling.  The scholars talk about the stories of Genesis chapter 1-11 as “etiological” stories, stories of origin that explain why things are the way they are.

We have an innate sense deep inside us – what some of the more poetic theologians have called an “echo of Eden” – that tell us that things are supposed to fit and work together in perfect harmony.  But our experience of life in this world is anything but this, and so the stories that the Bible tells after the stories of creation are stories that explain why it is that we feel so estranged from God spiritually, and so estranged from our own selves psychologically, and so estranged from creation ecologically and so estranged from each other socially.  While we are all one family by design, all the children of the same God, we nevertheless experience each other by the things that make us different.  We divide from each other on the basis of things like race, gender, economics, geography, culture and language.

Donald Kraybill, a Mennonite Theologian and Sociologist, describes our familiar pattern of social interaction to a checkerboard.


Each square on the board represents a particular category of persons… Boundaries emerge to set groups apart from each other.  Members have a clear sense of whether they are “in” or “out” of a group… Social interaction is organized around the boxes and lines on the social checkerboard.  We relate primarily to persons in our own square and in nearby squares. (225)

And, we grow increasingly leery of those in squares away from our own.   This is what the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 is all about.  Since the separation of that scattering we have become strangers to each other.  We have lost Creation’s bond of shalom that makes us conscious of our connection with each other as members of the same family, and we have settled into different squares on the checkerboard where we become strangers and relate as “others.”

As Christians, when we talk about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, we believe that what is being repaired is what has become unraveled; what is being restored is God’s original creative intent for us and the world, it’s about getting us back to the garden. And part of this healing is a movement away from the separation of Babel that has made us strangers, and a return to our more foundational identity as members of the same family.

The New Testament ends with a stunning vision of a new heaven and a new earth with a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God when the work of salvation is finally complete. And the great architectural feature of this coming city of God are its four walls with four gates on each side, 12 in all, open every day and all night long so that the people of the nations can stream in bringing their glory and honor with them to lay before the throne of God (21:24-27).   And in the glimpse that John was actually given of God’s throne, it was surrounded by people of every tribe and tongue (Revelation 5:9).  In the end, by the grace of God, the human family makes its way “back to the Garden” where once again there are no strangers in God’s Shalom.

Until that day comes, we as Christians try to embody what we know about what it is that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus Christ as best we can. We lean into that future that we believe that God is bringing about.  We who are Christians regularly pray – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – it’s the first part of our family prayer.  And believe me when I tell you that you can’t pray these words, and mean them, and then just sit idly by, indifferent to what it is that you know God wills for us and for the whole world. As John Killinger put it, when you pray these words –

You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk.  You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.  You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. (115)

And you want strangers to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion because the New Testament makes it absolutely clear that this is something that God wants.

In Matthew chapter 25, in His instructions on the kinds of things that He expected His disciples to be doing out of their devotion to Him, Jesus Christ talked about taking in the stranger (25:35; 38; 43). “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Jesus said (25:35).   Behind this spiritual truth was the literal truth of Jesus’ own experience as a refugee.  Matthew tells us that when King Herod went on his rampage killing all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth, Joseph packed up his family and fled to Egypt where they lived as sojourners and strangers.  Somebody welcomed them there; provided for them there, and in turn, Christ expected His disciples to do this same thing for others (2:13-23).

In Romans 12:13, the Christians of the Roman church were told to practice hospitality. The word that appears in that Greek text for hospitality is “xenophilia” which literally refers to loving the stranger, the exact opposite of the word that is probably more familiar to us – “xenophobia,” the “fear” or “hatred of the stranger.” Paul understood “loving the stranger and the sojourner” to be a characteristic of someone who is being “transformed” by the person and work of Jesus Christ in their lives (12:2).  In other words, this is something Christians characteristically do.

And the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes this same exact point when he or she wrote: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). “Entertain” here does not refer to inviting them to the movies, or buying them a nice meal, or singing them a happy song.  No, what it meant was opening their hands, their arms, their hearts, their homes and their churches to them.  And according to Adolf von Harnack, the important German theologian and church historian from a century ago, the impact of the church in the ancient world was in no small part due to the way that the first Christians did exactly this.

They loved people in specific and concrete ways: by giving alms to the poor, especially to widows and orphans; by caring for the sick, the infirm and the disabled; by providing for the needs of prisoners and those languishing in the mines; by taking care of the dying, the enslaved, and those devastated by natural disasters like earthquakes and floods; by finding work for the unemployed and taking care of the unemployable; and by welcoming the sojourners and making room in their lives for the strangers.

When Christianity jumped from its exclusively Jewish incubator to the whole wide world in the front room of the house of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10), Peter stated the principle that has informed Christian conscience ever since: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (10:34).  Now understand, Peter didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or easily.  The ways of Babel are strong in us; that checkerboard is tattooed on our soul.  This truth had to hit Peter like the proverbial 2×4 up the side of a Missouri mule, and then it had to grow in him gradually from the inside out.  And as a Christian, this is how I believe that it still works.  Things change for the better in ourselves and the world from the inside out.

When he was asked what the Bible was all about, Gardener Taylor, one of the great African American preachers of the last generation said, “God is out to get back what belongs to Him.” Starting where the Bible starts, Dr. Taylor saw the estrangement of humanity from God that the story of the Garden of Eden tells as the great fact of the human condition.  The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden made them spiritual refugees from their own true native land with God, and the story that the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation is the story of what God did to bring His people home again to Himself.

In the New Testament, this is the dominant thought when the subject turns to strangers and sojourners.   It’s first and foremost a category for a Christian’s own self-understanding.  We find it in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, where the saving work of Jesus Christ gets framed as the way that Gentiles, people who had been spiritual aliens and strangers to the covenant of God, get restored to their place in His family.

Through Christ we have access by one Spirit to the Father… so that we are no longer strangers and aliens… but have become members of the household of God. (2:18-19)

In the Hebrew Scriptures the treatment of the stranger and the sojourner by God’s first covenant people was conditioned by their memory of having once been strangers and sojourners themselves (Deuteronomy 5:15). And in the same way, we who are Christians are commanded to treat strangers and sojourners in ways that are consonant with our own spiritual identity as strangers and sojourners ourselves.  A heart that has been welcomed home to the love of God in Jesus Christ is a heart in which room will be made for the other and the stranger because that’s what God wants, and that’s how God works.


Barrs, Jerram. “Francis A. Schaeffer: The Later Years Lesson 8.” Basic Bible Study Themes, III.
Harnack, Adolf Von. “The Gospel of Love and Charity.” Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.
Killinger, John.  Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey. Word Books. 1976.
Kraybill, Donald. The Upside Down Kingdom. Herald Press.







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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts



Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.


The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.


When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+


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My “Defining” Books; The Serious Titles


A few weeks ago I listed the ten “popular” spiritual books that have had a strong hand in shaping my soul.  These were some of the books that I read before I was 20 years old, and that have remained on the bookshelf of my heart ever since because of the ways that they set the table for the rest of my spiritual life.  None of these books were “scholarly.”  None of them were written in the academy or for the academy.  They were written for ordinary Christians living ordinary lives as members of ordinary churches.

This week I turn to another category of “defining” books for me, what I am calling my “serious” collection.  These are ten of the books that have had the greatest influence on my theological formation.  How I think about who God is and what I understand God to be about have the tendrils of my soul all over these books.  They are the veritable lattice work that has held me up and given me direction as I have grown.  In fact, on my own personal spiritual Mount Rushmore, it would be four of these theologians who faces would appear – Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Brunner.  These ten books demand more of the reader than the ten books that appeared on my “popular” list a few weeks ago, but none of them are beyond the capacity of a serious reader who is prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully.

Before giving you my list, let me first honor the man whose personal and professional example provided me with the example of how genuine believing and critical thinking can combine in a life of great faithfulness.  Dr. William Richardson was one of my professors of New Testament and Church History at Northwest Christian College in the early 1970’s.  He “had me” the day he began a lecture by opening his Greek New Testament and translating the text that we were going to be discussing that day right there on the spot.  I knew then that when I “grew up” I wanted to be just like him.  Dr. Richardson was brilliant, insightful, whimsical, engaging and fully invested in the learning process.  He was instrumental in showing me what Jesus meant when He told us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  Paul talked about the foundation he laid that others would later build upon (I Corinthians 3:11).  Well, Dr. Richardson laid my theological foundation that these ten thinkers with their defining books later built upon.  Even now, with every book I read, every sermon I preach, every article I write, and every thought I have, I do so knowing that I stand on the foundation that my “wise master builder,” Dr. William Richardson laid so skillfully in my head and heart some 40 years ago, and my life and ministry of “thinking believing” has just been “a poor attempt to imitate the man.”  My desire and capacity to read books like the ones that appear on this list were instilled in me by the way that I watched Dr. Richardson’s faith seek understanding.  He inspired and empowered the same pursuit in me.

green book

As I studied theology I often found myself captivated by what a certain theologian had to say, and that would send me off to the library to read a biography of them.   More often than not, the gap between the kind of people they turned out to be, the bad moral and spiritual choices they made on a personal level, and the profundity of their insight into the truth of Christianity staggered me.  It was and remains a mystery to me how somebody can grasp the meaning of Christianity with the brilliance of a great theologian, and not be seized by its truth in a way that produces a Christ-like character in that theologian who is thinking those thoughts and giving them such powerful expression.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the great exception.  His life was the laboratory in which he worked out the truths that he explored in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship.  Ostensibly a commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, this book challenges “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” as terrible substitutes for the obedience of faith  (Romans 1:5) to which we are called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you were to read just one book from the list of 10, make it this one!  It has the power to change your life.

quest book

My sister gave me a copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus for my 12th birthday.  It was not because she perceived me to be a theological prodigy that she bought it for me.  No, it was because the book cost $2.95 new in 1965, which met her budget requirements, and it had “Jesus” in the tile, and she knew that since I was “religious” that I would probably like it!  It wouldn’t be until my first year in seminary, more than 10 years later that I would actually read this book with any degree of understanding. But once I had, I knew that the questions it asked were among the most crucial for the Christian Faith.  Like Bonhoeffer, the example of Schweitzer’s life is a stirring endorsement of the things that he concluded about who Jesus Christ is and why He matters. And while I don’t wind up in exactly the same place as Schweitzer did, I nevertheless believe that he got many things right, and it’s those things that have become and remained some of the most basic presuppositions in my own thinking and talking about Jesus Christ to this day.  This is a great book of stunning theological importance, one of the most crucial of the 20th century.

faith book

I was sitting in the second floor student lounge at Brite Divinity School in the spring of 1976 when the door opened and a box of books were flung in.  A wild-eyed student stood there in the doorway for just a moment after throwing in the box of books before announcing, “I quit!”  And then as he turned to walk away he muttered that the books were ours for the taking, if we wanted them.  The dozen student sitting there fell instantly on that box of books like a pack of hyenas tearing at a fresh carcass.  Every so often from the middle of the scrum a book, a “discard” would get tossed out, apparently holding no interest for the alpha dogs, and that’s how I came into possession of my copy of Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Faith.  Peter said of Jesus Christ, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (I:2:7), and that’s kind of how I feel about this book.  I got it because nobody else wanted it, and through the years it has become one of my “go to” systematic theologies.  Aulen had a perspective on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross that recovered the ancient church’s understanding of the atonement as God’s confrontation with the powers of darkness and His triumph over them in the Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ that has real power in our world today.  It’s this strand of interpretation together with his keen awareness of the reality of evil in the world that makes Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church one of those books that I’ve read multiple times throughout my ministry, and to which I turn frequently for understanding and strength.  If I was told that I could just have one systematic theology from my library of dozens for the rest of my life, this is the one that I would gratefully take with me and continue to use until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.

Romans book

Seminary, at least in the Mainline Protestant tradition, breeds a kind of skepticism about what is perceived to be the naiveté of the affirmations that the church makes in her historic creeds.   You are taught to be suspicious of every faith claim and critical of every belief no matter how central or precious it has been to your spiritual development and vitality.  It was Karl Barth who helped me find my footing in this intellectual storm, and it was his book The Epistle to the Romans that sounded the clarion bell of God’s revelation of Himself and His purpose in Jesus Christ that provided me with my sense of spiritual direction in those days when everything was up for review.  Barth is not an easy read; there is still so much in what he wrote that I struggle to understand; but with that said, the broad sweep of Barth’s argument is clear enough for any of us to grasp, and for me, it has proven foundational.  Someday I intend to take a year or two to read Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics in its entirety (14 volumes… thousands of pages… very small print…) but until then, his Epistle to the Romans keeps me spiritually grounded and properly oriented.  Barth staked out the theological middle ground between the uncritical theological conservatism of my Christian College days and the hypercritical theological liberalism of my seminary days.  I owe him my soul.

Christ book

I love this book, and have for years.  I read it for the first time in Christian College in a class on culture as part of the missions’ curriculum.  And I knew, even as I was reading it for the very first time then, that its importance and insights transcended the narrow application that we were making in that class.  In many respects, H. Richard Niebuhr lived in the shadow of his brother, the theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr.  I mean no disrespect to the other brother’s genius.  Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be the most important theologian that America has ever produced; although Jonathan Edwards might have something to say about that.  But the Niebuhr I love most is H. Richard, and the book that I cherish the most is his Christ and Culture.  Since the moment that Jesus Christ first sent His disciples into the world with the warning that they were not to be “of the world” (John 17:16), the church has struggled with how to remain faithful to Christ while actively penetrating that world.  The categories that this book establishes as the way the church has gone about this throughout history are the continuum of alternatives out of which the church still operates today.  Robert Webber wrote a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book called The Secular Saint, and it is a good place to begin the exploration of this question.  But don’t settle for Webber’s introduction alone.  Read Webber as a way of dipping your big toe into the water, and then jump into the deep end to Christ and Culture, I think you’ll find the plunge to be invigorating!

essential book

The late Donald Bloesch showed me how to be a serious theologian with Evangelical convictions serving in a Mainline Protestant denomination (The United Church of Christ).  I chose his 2 volume work Essentials of Evangelical Theology for my list because it is easily his most accessible work, and because it is his comprehensive exploration of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian, but I could have easily chosen his 7 volume Christian Foundations series, or his absolutely magnificent book on the theology of prayer (The Struggle of Prayer), or any of his incisive books on the state of the church’s life and faith at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century (Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, or The Evangelical Renaissance).  Bloesh was not fancy.  He rarely dazzles.  He was no flash in the theological pan, an intellectual acrobat turning spectacular somersaults in a phosphatized suit high on the flying trapeze to the amazement of the crowds below.  Instead, Donald Bloesch undertook the proverbial “long obedience in the same direction,” and for that I am forever grateful.  His theological breadth, depth and maturity was always a powerful encouragement to someone like me who has spent his life and ministry trying to walk the same path that he travelled.


Back in the days when I was reading Karl Barth for the very first time, and really struggling with the complexity of his thought and expression – again, he is not an easy read – somebody told me that for English speaking readers, the writings of Barth’s contemporary and sometimes rival, theologian Emil Brunner are so much more accessible.  And so on my next trip to the theological bookstore, I picked up a copy of the first volume of Emil Brunner’s Systematic Theology – The Christian Doctrine of God – and dug in.  Before I had gotten through the first 10 pages I was hooked.  I now have dozens of books that Brunner wrote, all dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted.   If I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer, it was Emil Brunner who then seasoned and deepened my theological appetites.   Whoever it was who pointed me in Brunner’s direction did me a great favor.  I understand Brunner, and I deeply appreciate his perspective, the same perspective that Barth had, only in a much more approachable way.  His little book Our Faith is the perfect introduction to both his particular theological perspective and to the scope of systematic theology as a whole in my opinion, and it’s online @  This easy and even entertaining little book will give you a good feel for his style and his perspective, and if it whets your appetite to go deeper, then I think that the three volumes of Brunner’s Systematic Theology are as good a set from the school of Neo-Orthodoxy as you will find.

black book

I came out of Christian College thinking that everything that was wrong with Christianity could be laid at the feet of just 2 men – the Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin.  Needless to say, when I went to the bookstore to get my textbooks for the first theology class that I took in seminary, I was more than just a little bit alarmed to discover that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was going to be our primary text.  I swallowed hard and bought the set.  And then the next few months were spent reading and discussing what Calvin had to say, and slowly I came around.  Today I am a Calvinist in the same way that Jacobus Arminius was a Calvinist, which is to say that I regard John Calvin to be the formidable theological force from the Reformation era that can’t be ignored or avoided.  You can’t go around him; you’ve got to go through him, and when you do, Calvin changes you.  You may disagree with him and his conclusions, but you can’t dismiss him, especially if you purport to be working from Scripture on matters of faith and practice.  In many respects John Calvin has become my theological baseline, the theologian I use to check the things that I am going to say about God as a preacher and a teacher.  I don’t want to be found “misrepresenting” God (I Corinthians 15:15); the stakes are just too high (Matthew 18:1-9; James 3:1).  And so I let John Calvin function as my theological speed bump.   He forces me to slow down and to think carefully, reasoning all of my positions, theological and moral, from Scripture.


If Calvin is the theological giant you can’t avoid from the Reformation era of Christianity, then Augustine is the theological giant you can’t avoid in the era between the Apostolic age and the Reformation.  He is the station through which every train of thought must pass, and the turnstile into this station is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, Confessions.  This book is part of the canon of Western Civilization.  It would be hard to think of yourself as educated and not to have spent some quality time with this book.  Written in the form of a prayer, Augustine reviewed the journey of his soul with God, reflecting on the experiences, encounters and ideas that brought him into a meaningful relationship with God in Christ.  It is timeless, however, everything depends on the translation.  People who complain that they just don’t “get” Augustine, are usually the victims of a lousy translation.  The two best that are out there are Frank Sheed’s and Maria Boulding’s.  I also highly recommend that you companion read Augustine’s Confessions with Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.  Brown’s work puts Augustine in context and that’s a key to understanding, and understanding Augustine is crucial for an informed faith.  After the New Testament, Augustine is the next great voice that echoes down the corridors of time.  You need to hear what he was saying.


I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976 to study with George Eldon Ladd.  I had been introduced to his work in Christian College, and I found him to be both challenging and clarifying for my faith at the same time.  Another Evangelical in a Mainline Protestant church (American Baptist), I viewed him as another role model for serious scholarship.  The New Testament Theology class that I took at Fuller was supposed to be taught by him, but health concerns precluded him from being able to do so.  And so I studied his book with his hand-picked substitute.  I felt like Dr. Ladd was being “channeled” by this teacher, and it was probably the next best thing to actually having Dr. Ladd there himself.  And the end result was positive, spending an intensive semester working through Dr. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament.  This experience, in my first semester of seminary, was the theological bridge between my spiritually nurturing undergraduate experience at Christian College, and my spiritually challenging graduate experience at seminary.  And I have always been grateful that it began with three months of drilling down hard into Dr. Ladd’s text.  It set out the markers for the field on which my consciously Biblical faith has played ever since.  The way I think about what the New Testament is and what the New Testament teaches were both decisively shaped by this book.  In fact, next to the New Testament itself, this just might be the most important book that I have ever read; it certainly has had the most enduring consequences for my believing and my behaving.

So, there it is, my list of the ten “defining” serious books in my life.  Just like the last list, there are so many others that deserve to be here – books by Carl F.H. Henry, Alister McGrath, Thomas Oden, David Bosch, Bruce Metzger, T.F. Torrance, P.T. Forsyth, Anthony Hoekema, Roland Allen, Hermann Bavinck, Gordon Fee, Harvey Cox; books and authors who have challenged my thinking and impacted my believing.  But these ten are somehow the most “foundational.”  Together they form the slab on which my life and ministry have been built.  DBS+



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