Category Archives: Theology

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Everett’s primary objective was to learn the Pirahās language—one of the most complicated ones known to man—and produce a successful translation of the Bible. So at the age of 26, Everett made his first journey to the Pirahās. He and his family would spend large portions of the next 30 years working among these unique people deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett was well-suited for this specific mission as he had shown himself to be an exemplary student of language during his undergraduate and graduate education. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, but he also would earn his masters in linguistics and a doctorate at UNICAMP (a large Brazilian university). In more recent years he has held positions at many universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Manchester.

Everett’s Significant Contribution

This book is significant for several reasons. First, as Christians deeply committed to global evangelism, we can appreciate someone devoting most of their life to an obscure, extremely dangerous place (hence the book’s title), doing the hard work of learning and translation in order to put God’s Word in the tongue of a people. Moreover, though there had been a few previous missionaries to this tribe, none had been successful. Everett notes at the time of his book’s publication that there had never been a known conversion at any period in the history of their tribe! (269).

A second reason the book is significant is because it is more about language and culture than it is the spiritual task of missions. The book interweaves the Everett family’s story with reflections on different theories about linguistics, and how various theories had sought to explain the phenomenon of language. How can Darwinism account for the unique complexities of human language? This question, the subject of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, also pervades academic discussions of language. Since this is also a community Everett had been part of for years, his book discusses this issue in great detail.

Everett contends that the language of the Pirahās actually undermines the dominant thesis of modern linguistic theory, promoted by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, now 88, is the most influential figure in the field of linguistics not only in America, but perhaps the world. Chomsky is famous for his notion of Universal Grammar. In essence, this theory asserts that language is primarily genetic in origins, not primarily cultural (as many others believe, including Everett). Grammar, or how language works/fits together, arises from a set of structures innate to human beings. While languages across the world are very diverse, there are some common elements that show language to be inherent to the human genetic make-up.

Because Everett has been able to document how the Pirahās language does not fit the paradigm advanced by Chomsky and others in the field, his research has caused quite a bit of a stir in academic linguistics.

What’s Theology Got to Do With It?

From a theological perspective, it may be tempting to simply say we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and leave it at that. However, there are numerous ways we could deepen our study of what the Bible says about humanity and consider how this might intersect with what we believe about language.

Some have suggested that language is one entailment of being made in God’s image. Others have suggested it is the central meaning of being in His image. Even Wolfe makes several mentions of this particular doctrine in his book and how it relates to this larger discussion of what humans are like.

One thing is for sure: linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists of all kinds are likely to arrive at different conclusions about language if they operate out of an evolutionary framework.

Intellectuals working from such a framework are forced to try and explain all human phenomena in either cultural or biological terms, or both. Yet in the end they will either simply double-down on the conclusion that human beings are nothing special, just highly-evolved primates. Or they will try to preserve a sense of human uniqueness among all other species, but lack the metaphysical grounding for this belief.

There is much more to Everett’s book that merits discussion here, but I’ll conclude with one final observation. A rather sad reason why the book is significant (SPOILER ALERT) is that in the end Everett tells of his departure from Christianity. This will likely be the only “missionary biography” one ever reads with this conclusion.

As difficult as it was for me to read the conclusion of the book, I think the reasoning he gives is a sobering cautionary tale. I’ll leave it to others who read to glean lessons from this. To me, it is a tale of how increasingly gradually bracketing out theology and communion with God from anthropological and linguistic research can make a person intellectually vulnerable to the already-present spiritual vulnerabilities of life in the world, especially on the mission field.

Simply put, if Christian doctrine is always revised in light of the latest scientific consensus on a particular question, and if one does not carefully guard their walk with the Lord, they will find that the complexities of life will gradually erode the commitments of their soul. Everett was confronted for years with the hardships of life in the jungle, the contentment of a lost tribe to continue rejecting Jesus, and trying to untangle the mysteries of language and culture. This is a tall order for anyone.

Although most of us will continue to dwell in a familiar Western world, we should recognize that there are many complex burdens in serving God and understanding His world. Therefore, we must maintain spiritual vigilance in the fulfillment of our ministries, regardless of where they take us.

 

Niebuhr on Theological Education

by W. Jackson Watts

It is common to modern American religious experience to consider the relationship between the Church and the Academy. Specifically, what is the proper relationship between local churches and Christian colleges, universities, and/or theological seminaries?

I’m often interested to see how people from the past have spoken of this relationship. Sometimes interesting insights come from unfamiliar quarters. Such is the case as I was recently perusing H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.

Niebuhr (1894-1962) was a fairly distinguished theologian in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Best known known for his 1951 Christ and Culture (which is still in print and widely read), Niebuhr’s writings spans theological, church history, ethics, and several other fields. His career was mostly spent as a pastor and professor in the St. Louis area, an Illinois college president, and finally as a theologian and ethicist at Yale. However, he spent considerable years as a denominational leader and educator.

He was born into a family which belonged to the Evangelical Synod of North America, which over the years has merged with several other denominations, moving increasingly away from its origins as a church body of German Reformed heritage. As both a pastor and professor, Niebuhr had many years to think through the relationship between the work of the church and the work of the seminary.

Late in his career he directed The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada. This study was essentially a center founded under the leadership of the American Association of Theological Schools, though it was backed financially by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The work of this study center was to evaluate the purposes, methods, and perceived effectiveness of Protestant theological seminaries in North America. They consulted with nearly 100 seminaries, including faculty and students. They also met with a number of leading denominational executives from some of the larger church bodies at that time, as well as recognized pastors.

After much study into the nature of and purpose of the church’s ministry in connection with theological education, the first fruit of their work was a book authored by Niebuhr entitled The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (1956). The volume, though out of print now, provides a great deal of insight in the climate of theological higher education of the 1940s and 50s, especially in the mainline church. I also found Niebuhr’s meditations on the role of theological education to be fascinating as well.

In the final section of the book, he speaks of the theological school as “the intellectual center of the Church’s life.”[1] He does not mean that the seminary necessarily does all the thinking for the church. A close reading will disabuse readers from thinking this is what he has in mind. Rather, Niebuhr’s conception of the mission of the church and the seminary is that love for God grounds and directs the intellectual work of both the church and the seminary. He explains as much in the following excerpt:

Though intellectual love of God and neighbor is not the supreme exercise of love, yet it is required and possible since man is also mind and does not wholly love his loves if his mind does not move toward them. He cannot truly love with heart, soul and strength unless mind  accompanies and penetrates these other activities as they in turn accompany and penetrate it. The coldness of an intellectual approach unaccompanied by affection is matched by the febrile extravagance of unreasoning sentiment; the aloofness of uncommitted understanding has its counterpart in the possessiveness of unintelligent loyalty. When the whole man is active the mind is also active; when the whole Church is at work it thinks and considers no less than it worships, proclaims, suffers, rejoices and fights.[2]

As I was reading this remark I couldn’t help but call to mind Leroy Forlines’ emphasis on the Total Personality. Just as Christianity in general speaks to the mind, heart, and hands, or our thoughts, feelings, and practices, the intellectual pursuits of the seminary facilitate the church by reminding it of love’s inextricable entanglements in this pursuit.

We should be clear that Niebuhr and Forlines (and Free Will Baptists in general) certainly don’t have a ton in common otherwise. Niebuhr’s thought largely embodies a form of liberal theology often called “neo-orthodoxy.” While mostly associated with Swiss theologian Karl Barth, neo-orthodoxy at its core is an attempt to move beyond Protestant liberalism, while still rejecting a traditional, biblical view of revelation. Additionally, theologians in the early-mid twentieth century who were associated with neo-orthodoxy, despite their significant differences, all made significant revisions to other historic Christian doctrines.

The main up-shot of Niebuhr’s insight above is the type of anthropological holism it emphasizes. I increasingly find a type of holism emphasized in the work of other theologians, namely those who have had invested significant time in church and denominational leadership, as well as the classroom. Niebuhr certainly had both, which probably enabled him to see how some of the errors which both the church and seminary could fall prey to as they carried out their respective ministries.

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 107.

[2] Niebuhr, 111.

 

A Book Worth Your Time

by Randy Corn

Getting Religion. By Kenneth Woodward. New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2016. 466 pages, $14.90 ebook.

In 1976 I was twenty years old and had my first opportunity to cast a ballot in a presidential election. I voted for Jimmy Carter, largely because of the furor he created by proclaiming himself “born again.” Four years later I would vote for Ronald Reagan because, like few candidates before him, he publicly embraced the values which most evangelicals hold dear. I have often wondered how many voters were swayed by these or similar factors in the election of our 39th and 40th presidents, or for that matter any of them. Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, Getting Religion, goes a long way toward giving an answer.

The subtitle of this book is “Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.” Far from being a dry recitation of sociological facts, the author weaves a personal memoir into the tapestry of American society, especially as it relates to religious faith. Woodward was the religion editor for Newsweek magazine for nearly four decades. This gave him extraordinary access to the movers and shakers of American religion, from evangelicals like Billy Graham and Bill Bright to Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  He either reported on, or was present for, most of the events in the past forty years that made the landscape of American religion what it is.

The great value of this volume is that it helps the reader gain perspective on all of the varied religious impulses in our country over the past half century. While the section on the author’s own Roman Catholic background is interesting, and the discussion of mainline Protestants is enlightening, the section dealing with Evangelicals was of greatest interest to me.  In chapter three, Woodward argues that while “Entrepreneurial Religion” is not a theological phrase, it is Evangelicalism’s distinguishing feature. The proof of this assertion is not so much in the churches that constitute the movement, but in the para-church organizations which Evangelicalism has spawned.

The book gives a short recitation of the televangelist scandals, and also some interesting information about such organizations as the Moral Majority and the Religious Roundtable. While the author is sympathetic to Billy Graham and Bill Bright, he saw Jerry Falwell as playing dangerously close to scandal financing the Moral Majority out of revenue from his broadcast ministry. This the Lynchburg preacher justified by a phrase in the fine print of his promotional literature, which allowed him to spend any money raised as he saw fit!  Woodward summarized, “The key to his personality, I always thought, was his determination to make good as well as make waves” (chapter 12).

The volume closes with two chapters dealing with the current political situation.  The first “Piety and Politics” dealing with the Republican Party and the last “Religion as Politics,” focusing on the Democrats. This is one of the best explanations I have seen about the polarization in American politics, why broadly speaking you don’t find moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats.

In his epilogue, the author sums up the shift in public morality due to the underlying erosion of what was a Christian consensus in American life. Woodward quotes sociologist Christian Smith who had done extensive surveys of teenagers and college students. His frightening conclusion is that most have adopted what he calls, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This means that college students think God wants them to be nice, happy, and that He is not all that involved in the day-to-day living of their lives.

If you are looking a broad analysis of the influence of religious faith in our current culture and how we got here, this is the book for you.

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*Chapter location is given in lieu of page numbers due to the review being of the iBook version of this volume.

Arminian and Baptist: A Review

by Theological Commission

Occasionally members of the Commission for Theological Integrity publish articles, essays, book reviews, and full-length books. As this occurs we hope to keep readers abreast of these developments, especially if they will be useful and informative. We see this as an extension of our work of being an effective Commission.

Recently we learned of a new review of one of Dr. Matt Pinson’s most recent books, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House, 2015), written by Kevin Jackson. This review appeared at the website for the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA).

Readers can find out more about this interesting and eclectic fellowship of self-identified Arminians here and here. The Commission (nor the National Association of Free Will Baptists) have a formal relationship with SEA. However, there are some who have been associated with both the NAFWB and SEA. They occasionally reference Free Will Baptists and Free Will Baptist authors.

Even for those who have not yet read Arminian and Baptist, this review will provide a brief overview of the chapter content. Also, the reader’s self-idenfiying as a Wesleyan Arminian (and reviewing the book from that perspective) gives something of a window into some of the distinctions between Reformed or Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism that aren’t merely perceived, but actual.

We leave it to readers to make their own judgments about the accuracy of the Mr. Jackson’s assertions and perspective. Readers can also find other material on Pinson’s book here, here, and here.

 

An Episode in Cross-Cultural Theological Instruction

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I had the honor of serving as a visiting professor at the Los Cedros de Líbano Seminario (the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary) in Pinar del Río, Cuba. This is the seminary of the Cuban National Association of Free Will Baptists. Incidently, their national association will be holding its 75th national convention later this week.

This was the second time I have visited our island nation neighbor to the south, a land which has for many decades been dubbed “the land of Castro.” Certainly much has changed in relations between the United States and Cuba in recent years. Only time will tell the full implications of those changes. Of course, more changes are likely to come as international commerce, the Internet, and other elements are increasingly introduced. Above all else, the flow of American money into any country carries with it a dynamic that is hard to entirely assess.

But I came to Cuba not as a tourist or businessman, but as a brother and servant, at least I hope that is how it was perceived. The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary has done a tremendous job training countless Christian men and women for service to Christ’s church throughout the island and the world. Its graduates are pastors, missionaries, youth ministry leaders, women’s ministry leaders, and more. That some of their American brothers have been welcomed to lend a hand in their theological instruction is a great privilege that I hope is not underestimated.

Teaching theology is itself a peculiar task. Once we move beyond some of the misconceptions about what theology or doctrine is (no small feat), there is the challenge of determining how to convey ideas—often complex ones—to a particular audience. As Cuba is a foreign country with a unique history, language, economy, customs, and socio-political arrangement, these factors must be taken into account in theological instruction.

The topic of my course was theological anthropology. Essentially, my task was to instruct 1st thru 4th-year seminary students on what the Bible teaches about man.[1] Some of the specific areas we covered were the doctrine of the image of God, man and woman as a gendered beings, and the total personality approach to humanity. Most of the instruction was done with the help of translators, for whom I am so grateful. Though my own understanding of the Spanish language facilitated my teaching and preaching at times, without translators I would have been useless to these students.

As a student of language, as well as someone who stands in front of people each week attempting to communicate God’s truth, I cannot help but marvel at what a unique thing language is.

I think far too often we take language for granted. We assume that the challenge of learning and teaching is bound up largely in our ability as teachers and preachers to understand for ourselves. And indeed, you cannot effectively teach what you do not adequately understand! Yet there is a personal, intellectual, and symbolic world we quickly move into as we open our mouths to speak understanding into the ears, minds, and hearts of our students. We must master our subject, or something close to it, but then we must master our audience as much as we can.

Approaching the Challenge

Mastery of cross-cultural instruction is difficult for any number of reasons. First, we have to do the hard work of learning something about that unique audience. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they presently believe? What do they love? What do they fear? Certainly the Bible gives us a foundation for knowing the answers to such questions among any audience of human beings.

However, answers to these basic questions take on slightly different nuances in different times and places in human history. I’m increasingly convinced that even the most seasoned pastor probably needs two to three years in the pulpit at a new church before truly knowing how to speak to that specific group of people in an optimal way. Thankfully, the clarity of Scripture and the power of the Gospel is such that God can still use His servants to accomplish something even in new settings.

A second challenge is understanding the words, images, idioms, and concepts of that target audience if we are to introduce something new, or reform an understanding something already present. This is especially important when one is teaching through a translator. The translator is certainly as immersed in the linguistic-intellectual challenge as the teacher himself. It becomes especially important to read the faces of students as the words are said for the second time.

I have spoken with many folks who have preached with the help of a translator before. The one observation that always emerges quickly is just how problematic our American idioms and metaphors are, even when heard by skilled translators. I’ve heard more than one humorous tale of a preacher growing increasingly frustrated and stammering as he tried to explain an idiom to a translator, bringing the already-plodding sermon to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, the hard, but crucial work of communication requires that we focus on the core biblical metaphors in order to make cross-cultural instruction most beneficial. If we increasingly grasp the everyday idioms and metaphors of the target audience, then those can also be employed in the teaching task.

But the beautiful thing that I was reminded of is that in Christ, even a teacher and student of different origins still have a common language: the Scriptures. They have a common goal: Christlikeness. They have a common law: the way of love.

Accordingly, I have great confidence—in principle and from experience—that the Great Commission works. Ours is only to find our place in that work and do it.

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[1] There were also some pastors who sat in on the classes who were on campus for a pastors’ conference. Additionally, a few other professors were present at times during the week.