Merry Christmas, baby:
Bible nerds might say Psalm 119:105.
Stories, proverbs, aphorisms, histories, epistles, myths, fables, tales, narratives, cultural assumptions, sayings are not only conveyed by the written word. The spoken word and visual media, photographs, electronic media, memes, other conveyances of the digital age, etc. all shape our vision, defining what we see.
What do you think of this image?
What does it capture?
What does it miss?
I think of Christian spiritual formation and the discipline of study and of the reading of Scripture, though I think the gaze shouldn’t be downward, but outward. Notice that the light is directed first toward the reader and taken in before it is directed outward, and that there is no light at all until the book is opened.
Good pickin’ here.
Sometimes I have the opportunity to connect with authors. Thomas Breimaier has written a book about one of my favorite preachers. I reached out via email. Tom’s book Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon [affiliate link] is good stuff. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
Who is Thomas Breimaier? Tom was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to the United Kingdom in 2013. Alongside studying at the University of Edinburgh, he helped out in various capacities at Hope City Church, Edinburgh, a church plant in the west of the city. He currently works at Spurgeon’s College in London, teaching classes in systematic theology and church history. Tom is married to Hannah, a primary school teacher who is originally from Scotland.
Our exchange follows.
BAS: For my readers who do not know much about Charles Spurgeon, who was he, and why is he a notable figure?
TB: Charles Haddon Spurgeon was quite possibly the most well-known preacher of the 19th century. That said, he was born in a small village and spent virtually all of his childhood in villages and small towns between Essex and Cambridge. As such his upbringing was very much steeped in a rural identity. He is most known for his preaching in London, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which was the largest Protestant church in the world. He preached to thousands each week, and through his influence he started a college for pastors as well as two orphanages which would eventually become home to over 800 boys and girls. Spurgeon was known first and foremost for his sermons, which were transcribed and printed each week, and often sold tens of thousands of copies both in Britain and globally. He died comparatively young, at 57, and yet he remains one of the most influential evangelical figures in global Christian history.
BAS: What led you to the study of Surgeon, his preaching, and his ministry?
TB: I think it really started when I took a class during my graduate program called “The Bible in the Nineteenth Century.” I had read a bit of Spurgeon beforehand, but I wanted to take the opportunity to dig deeper into the sermons and writings of a Christian figure who captivated the minds of millions in his century. These ideas percolated in my mind for a few years, and when I applied to the doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh, I thought this might be my opportunity to really dig into this topic. It was really fun to work on a project that combined history, theology, and biblical studies, and it was also a genuine encouragement to me personally to spend several years reading Spurgeon’s heartfelt writing every day.
BAS: Your book explores two main themes of Spurgeon’s preaching: his focus on conversion and on the cross. Why were themes important to Spurgeon? How did they shape his ministry?
TB: These themes are two of David Bebbington’s famous ‘quadrilateral’ definition of Victorian evangelicalism. [The others are a particular focus on the Bible and also social activism.] So, in a sense, I’m tapping into themes that are part of evangelical identity across a range of figures. That said, what I’ve argued in the book is that these themes held a particular bearing on his engagement with the Bible. Spurgeon grew up in a context that held the Puritans in particularly high regard, and as such I think he’s taken theological streams that were prominent in the various European reformations and brought them into the modern world. This, in my view, shows us two key things. First, these truths which undergird the Christian message of the Gospel are timeless and transcendent. Second, while these truths are timeless, it is the obligation of Christians to know their mission fields well, and to communicate the hope of the Gospel clearly and in an engaging way.
BAS: Spurgeon is best known for his preaching ministry. But he also established a magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and a training school for pastors, now known to us as Spurgeon’s College. Why did Spurgeon launch these initiatives, and how did they increase his influence?
TB: Spurgeon never had the benefit of a formal university education. During his youth, nonconformists (i.e. non-Anglican Protestants) weren’t able to study theology at the ancient universities like Oxford and Cambridge. There were a few Baptist training institutions, but they were similarly targeted at a constituency that was already well-educated, and also largely restricted to those that could afford the various expenses that come with higher education. Spurgeon set out to create a training path for ministers who would not have had a chance to apply to the other ministerial training facilities. Spurgeon didn’t care nearly as much about the students’ previous academic records as he did their capacity for ministry. As such, he started with bright and able preachers and ensured that they learned necessary elements of biblical and theological studies, as well as further instruction on preaching and rhetoric.
The magazine is in some ways a similar endeavor. Spurgeon realized that not everyone was called to be in paid ministry, however he had the expectation that all men and women would benefit from further study and reflection on biblical and theological topics. As such, he reprinted his and other people’s sermons, offered various news on the state of Christianity and missionary works, and he also included a number of book reviews in each issue, which directed his readers to further resources.
For me, both of these enterprises show a strong desire on his part to provide clear, helpful instruction for the whole church. I should also say that for me it is an absolute privilege to be part of Spurgeon’s College today, where I’m able to play a small role in training men and women for Christian mission, ministry, and leadership.
BAS: Lastly, how is Spurgeon instructive for us today? What can we learn from his life, preaching, and ministry?
TB: First off, I often tell students and others that they shouldn’t feel obliged to be Spurgeon! He was who he was, he had his own gifts, we have ours. In ministry and everything else, comparison is often a road to disappointment and dismay. Nevertheless, I’d say that we ought to be inspired and challenged by his approach to the Bible. We should read widely like he did; and preach plainly, like he did. But we can’t forget the most important thing: to preach Christ and him crucified. We shouldn’t feel compelled to avoid the gospel because it’s not explicit in a particular text. Yet we also shouldn’t try to tack on an altar call to an otherwise unrelated sermon. Instead, we can recognize-like Spurgeon did-that the Bible is a book which is ultimately about reconciliation with God the Father through the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and step into that mission by proclaiming those ancient truths. Spurgeon took these truths and presented them in accessible and engaging ways, and he never preached without sharing the good news. I think it’s a good reminder, and a convicting reminder, for every man or woman who wants to teach God’s word.
Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.
Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.
Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.
How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”
Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.
In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:
I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.
Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.
Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.
I just happen to disagree.
I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.
But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.
Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.
Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.
Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.
People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.
They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.
Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.
A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.
Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.
How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.
Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.
In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.
In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.
Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.
If you have connections to Santa, please pass this along to the Big Guy. I have no answers. I do not know what protocol are in place at the North Pole, or if magic is an effective treatment against the coronavirus.
We’re concerned. Help us out. Get this in front of Santa. My kid probably isn’t the only one wondering about these things.
For us in 2020 we are in a different sort of wilderness. Things are not the same as they have been in the world, in our families, in our neighborhoods or our churches—and there’s no telling what things will look like in the future. On top of the pandemic we’re dealing with political division, economic uncertainty, and the heightened awareness of racial injustice where many continue to lament, long for, hope, and work for change.
Many of us as individuals and communities have experienced other times of wilderness in our lives, as well.
The remembrance we practice in these times is not always cheery and optimistic. Gratitude in the wilderness is a hard fought practice. It recognizes and gives thanks for what God has done in the past, cries out in pain for the way things are now, and calls God to act in the present in accordance with how God has in the past.
So when life gets hard and times get dark and confusing, remember how God has been at work in your life, in your family’s life, and in the life of your community in the past. Continue to give thanks for it. Cling to it. Be a witness, pass it along, and hold each other up.
And do the difficult work to look for where God is at work in the present.Emily Beth Hill, “A Table in the Wilderness“
If you were to choose a biblical motif to attach to this year, I suppose you cannot do much better than wilderness.
Hill is right: the people of God have always been a community of memory and remembrance, witness and testimony. We look back. We look around. We look ahead. We learn how to do this in and through the biblical story.
The biblical story provides us with markers, clues, schema, ways of understanding and meaning making, ways to make sense of what is taking place in our present moment. The biblical story, as has been said, is not only something to look at but to look through. As God has been faithful in the past, God is now faithful in the present, and will be again in the future, for God is eternal, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Without being glib or dismissive, without minimizing present sufferings, without diminishing the hurts and burdens we’ve endured this year, look for those things for which we can be thankful, both great and small, and name those things with gratitude, giving thanks to God.
Racially diverse congregations have increased substantially in the United States over the past 20 years, and the percentage of all-white congregations has declined, according to a study by a Baylor University sociologist and two colleagues.
Overall, multiracial congregations — defined as those in which no one racial or ethnic group comprises more than 80% of the congregants — have nearly tripled, with approximately a quarter of evangelical and Catholic churches now being multiracial.
Other key findings:
- 10% of mainline Protestant churches were multiracial, up from 1%.
- 22% percent of evangelical congregations were multiracial, up from 7%.
- 16% of Pentecostals are multiracial, up from 3%.
- Catholic churches on average continue to be more diverse than Protestant churches with 23% multiracial, up from 17%.
- Less than 1% of Black Protestant churches were multiracial in 1998 or 2019.
And an important final remark:
Despite these changes, difficulties face racial desegregation in American religion, said study co-author Michael O. Emerson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining white congregations but very few whites joining Black churches,” Emerson said. “Until congregations confront the historic structures that keep racial groups divided, diversity inside congregations may function mainly as a superficial performance.”
For researchers, what would this confrontation look like?
And what are the causal factors that have let to increased diversity, where it has occurred?
With all due respect to Dr. Michael Emerson, and acknowledging scholars are often understated in their conclusions and often bent toward skepticism, increased diversity in some congregations “may” be “a superficial performance.” But it may be something else entirely, like behaving toward a preferred way of being based on a shift in theological convictions and religious values. It may also be a movement of God, or a historical return toward the early diversity of the Christian movement.
That aside, I’m encouraged by the trend.