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Nothing New Under the Sun

Matthew Pinson

When it comes to the big questions, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. I am often reminded of this when I attend debates between Christians and skeptics of various varieties. For example, several years ago I heard Craig Evans debate Bart Ehrman, the famous evangelical-turned-skeptic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing Ehrman’s arguments (and later reading them in some of his books and articles), I was really surprised that that was all he had.

Most of his criticisms of the Bible would do more to bring doubts to a child in a Sunday school room than a person who had taken a freshman course in biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I was struck particularly by how many of his concerns were reiterations of things that the church fathers themselves were dealing with 1,700+ years ago. Here I was braced for some new, groundbreaking scientific argument or an argument made possible because of computer technology or some new archaeological discovery. But what I heard was just more rehashing of much of what skeptics of Christianity have been saying for hundreds, yea thousands, of years.

This memory came back to my mind recently when I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s wonderful little book from the 1940s, Giving a Reason for Our Hope (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1949). It’s a wonderful little volume on apologetics that is still relevant for today. In answering the question, “The Modern naturalistic version is that God is simply an imagination of ours, so how can we answer that?” Henry replies:

“The arguments which the modern naturalists use against belief in God are not new; strictly speaking, nothing essential has been added to the argument as it existed many centuries ago, in ancient Greek times. The arguments were all in existence when Christianity came into the world. It is not because a man is modern, but because he is a naturalist, that he says God is a figment of the imagination” (16).

This is so true. In the major intellectual questions about Christianity, there is nothing new under the sun. Reading this also brought to my mind not just our contemporary intellectual context, but also our contemporary cultural context. Many evangelical Protestants have developed a “fear of man” and are too intimidated by the rapid cultural changes in our technological, secularizing society.

It seems that we think what we are facing is unique to our time, and thus we have to use methods in our church growth practices that have never before been tried in the history of Christianity. (And it’s not that the apostles and saints and martyrs throughout history couldn’t have tried them, that they didn’t have the resources to try them. It’s just that they chose not to.)

I don’t want to downplay the acute difficulties and unique qualities of modernity and postmodernity. But I think that we need more to see ourselves in a missionary situation to a pagan culture, like the church fathers and missionaries of the Christian tradition, rather than seeing ourselves as being comfortable in a Christian culture and still thinking we can spread the gospel like we used to in that culture. Yet, in the big questions, there is nothing new under the sun. We are not experiencing anything that the early church did not experience, or that various traditional missionaries to pagan cultures did not experience.

I think it’s helpful for us to look at the church fathers, especially prior to the mammoth changes in the fourth century when the church began accommodating pagan culture more and speaking a prophetic word to it less. When we look at the early church, we see it engaging a pagan culture that is similar in profound ways to our own, and we find that they had almost all the resources at their disposal that we currently have. Yet they based their ministry of the gospel on the all-sufficient word, not the methods and gimmicks the secular culture used to draw a crowd.

Every age and society has its unique qualities. Yet because humanity is made in God’s image and is fallen and finite, we find that there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy Scripture that God breathed out more than twenty centuries ago gives us—just as it gave the saints and martyrs who went before us—everything necessary for life and godliness, for building Christ’s church, for extending the kingdom, and for defending the rationality of the Christian gospel in a complex marketplace of ideas.

Convention Round-Up

by Jackson Watts

Last week our National Association met in Little Rock for its 82nd annual meeting. The Commission for Theological Integrity held a seminar, and also elected a new Commission member.

Convention attendees are offered dozens of opportunities to take in seminars. However, long before seminars were common on the National program, the Theological Commission sponsored an annual theological trends seminar on Monday afternoon. This year that tradition was continued by Dr. Andrew Ball. Ball is professor of philosophy at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama. He presented a seminar on Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide in Theological Perspective. Those who attended had a number of meaningful questions and comments as this issue encroaches more and more on the life of God’s people.  Soon we will be providing a follow-up resource on this topic here on the blog, so check back soon  for more on this.

In the past year the Commission lost one of its members, Reverend Randy Corn, due to resignation. He had to resign due to health reasons, but we deeply appreciate the contributions he made during his time on our Commission.

At the Convention Dr. Thomas Marberry was elected to fulfill Brother Corn’s unexpired term, ending in 2019. Marberry is pastor of First FWB Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and distinguished professor of New Testament at Randall University. Previously, he served as vice president for academic affairs at Randall. Marberry earned a B.A. from Baylor University, a M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in the New Testament studies from Baylor University. He has taught Greek, theology, and church history for almost four decades, and has written extensively. He has published two Randall House Bible Commentaries–Galatians and 1,2,3 John, and is currently completing a commentary on the book of Luke. Dr. Marberry has been a presenter at the Theological Symposium many times, and has contributed to Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought. We welcome him to our Commission!

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve: Part 2

by Matthew Pinson

I am—we all are—under a great temptation to discard the Great Tradition of the Christian Church, and our own heritage of Free Will Baptist faith and practice, replacing it with the latest flavor of the month from the non-denominational movement, again, hoping that something will work, something will stick. We are desperate.

But Scripture and the saints and martyrs of our Christian past call us to go back and retrieve scriptural faith and practice that has been eclipsed—to be reformers, not revolutionaries, to put into practice Burke’s maxim that “we must reform in order to conserve.” Only in this way can we know that we have something that will last, that will work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. Only in this way can we have a deposit of truth and life that we can pass down unscathed to our children and their children and their children’s children.

We must resist the temptation to lose our nerve, to be intimidated by a challenging culture, and throw arbitrary extra-biblical attempted solutions at the predicament in which we find ourselves—when we have no idea whether these solutions will work or what their unintended consequences will be. Instead, we must rely on those “permanent things” that we know will conserve the church and its faith and practice and allow us to pass on what we have received to future generations.

So, finally, let me pass on to the readers of this blog the quotation from Scruton’s Conservatism that brought these thoughts fresh to my mind. In the context of his discussion of Edmund Burke’s defense of the “reform” of the American Revolution and his distaste for the “revolution” of the French Revolution, Scruton says:

“Burke rejected the liberal idea of the social contract, as a deal agreed among living people. Society, he argued, does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on. Concern for future generations is a non-specific outgrowth of gratitude. It does not calculate, because it shouldn’t and can’t.”{1}

Our temptation as low-church evangelicals, in our intimidation by the cultural change all around us, is to agree with principles like these in the political and social and moral realms, but not to carry this same conservative—conservationist—impulse into our religious and church lives. I think we have a lot to learn from thinkers like Edmund Burke and his modern interpreters like Scruton. At least it gives us food for thought.

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[1] Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: All Points, 2018), 45.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).

 

Free Will Baptists and the Evangelical Theological Society: Part 2

W. Jackson Watts

In my previous post I discussed the value and significance of Free Will Baptists being involved with the Evangelical Theological Society. In this post I will focus more specifically on the 2018 Meeting and what it, and future meetings, may offer for our people.

The 2018 Program

This year’s program will be held in the beautiful city of Denver on November 13-15. The current cost to attend for non-members is only $85, a reasonable fee given the vast amount of content on the program. The Exhibit Hall is perhaps worth the price of the conference alone. It has displays from a number of parachurch ministries, some of which provide free resources to attendees. More significantly, book vendors from dozens of companies, publishing houses, and other ministries are present selling discounted books (as in, cheaper than Amazon). So whether you want to purchase a commentary set, apologetic resources, or books for your local church’s men’s group, there is something for everyone. More information on attending the meeting can be found here. [i]

I’m excited about this year’s plenary speakers, which include Michael Haykin, Michael Horton, and Craig Keener, all great scholars in their own right. Also, Dr. David Dockery will be giving the Presidential Address. Some will know Dockery and Haykin’s names as they have both been guest speakers at Welch College in recent years.

So which Free Will Baptists will be presenting? Below are the presenters, their paper titles, and the sections they will be presenting in.

Baptist Studies

Matthew Pinson – “The Holy Spirit in Seventeenth-Century General Baptist Theology.”

(Pinson also serves on the steering committee for the Baptist Studies study group)

Church History

Jesse Owens – “Matthew Caffyn, Thomas Monck, and English General Baptism Creedalism.”

Old Testament Backgrounds / Ancient Near East

Matthew McAffee – “Lexicography and the Comparative Method: Some Methodological Considerations.”

(McAffee will also be moderating this session, and serves on the steering committee of the Old Testament Backgrounds/Ancient Near East section)

Septuagint Studies

Zach Vickery – “The Translation Technique of LXX-Ruth.”

Pastoral Epistles

Jeff Cockrell – “The Good Deposit in 2 Timothy: Its Content and Trust”

There is truly something at ETS for everyone. Now as a pastor I am the first to realize that one can only attend some many conferences, retreats, and/or seminars each year. We all have to make choices. Some of those are aligned with our personal interests, some with our vocational goals or needs, and some with the expectations of our churches. While these are all different, they often (and probably should) overlap. I find ETS to be an event that is beneficial on all three fronts, so I try to attend the annual meeting at least every other year. Usually flights can be booked to these cities for reasonable prices, hotel rooms can be shared with other Free Will Baptist brethren, and the actual conference fee isn’t too expensive, especially the earlier you book.

Imagine going to a conference every year where there is something there for you whether you are preparing to preach through Hebrews, or getting ready to start a church-based missions program. Maybe you’re a business person who simply teaches Sunday School—there are usually sessions on economics and Christianity. Imagine there is some debate developing in your church around questions of gender, sexuality, and male-female roles in the church or home. There is something at ETS for you. Just about anything in the areas of theology, church history, biblical studies, ethics, and more can be found on the ETS program.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of such a broad program is that one has the opportunity to not just attend paper presentations that appeal to areas we are already interested in, but areas where we have little interest or knowledge. I think it’s helpful to pick a few paper topics (as best as you can discern them from the title in the program) that you think are probably relevant and important, but ones you know little about. Between listening to the paper and interacting with presenters as time allows, one can further their education and equipping for ministry on the spot.

I’m thankful that Free Will Baptist brethren in the past like Dr. Robert Picirilli, Bro. Leroy Forlines, Bro. Ralph Hampton, and Dr. Garnett Reid got involved with ETS and put it on the radar of younger pastor-scholars who now have a chance to grow and serve, hopefully more effectively in the years ahead.

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[i] Each year the Evangelical Philosophical Society also has its meeting concurrently with ETS. And for the few who may be interested, the Academy of American Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature sometimes holds its annual meetings in the same city, usually right before or after ETS.