To Prospective (or Current) Ministerial Students:
Whether you’re preparing for the pastorate, to be an evangelist, a church planter, a teacher, a missionary, or something else besides, you find yourself at seminary becoming equipped to fulfill your call. A big part of your job as a student will be to write papers. Up until now, in your undergraduate years for example, writing papers may have seemed like one of those pesky chores that simply had to be marked off your “to do” list. I want to submit that writing papers in graduate school and at seminary can and should become something very different.
I don’t claim to be an expert on teaching how to write; I do a fair bit of writing—both books and articles, both scholarly and popular—but I haven’t spent much time teaching writing. That’s my wife’s area, rather than mine, but perhaps I can say some things that will help some of you along in this area. Forgive me for my forthrightness; I’m just going to write what I feel needs to be communicated, and I do it with the sincere desire to help, challenge, inspire, encourage, and correct.
First I want to emphasize the importance of writing. As you are seminary students and prospective ministers (in various capacities), I’m sure you understand the importance of such tasks as giving sermons and presentations of various sorts. But especially in this day and age, written communication is of vital importance. You will have to do a great deal of it in your career, whatever particular vocational direction you choose.
Beyond the professional requirement of it, writing is one of the most important ways in which we learn to think. Often, if your experience turns out anything like my own, you won’t know exactly what you think about a matter until you’ve sat down and begun committing words to paper. Writing is thinking. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it; the better you write, the clearer a thinker you’ll become. So this matter of writing pertains to nothing less than an aspect of the most important commandment: to love God with all of your minds.
The dynamic nature of the writing process reveals something of great importance. You don’t need to have everything figured out in advance before you start writing. Admittedly, you likely won’t be able to generate a finished, final, polished draft as soon as you start to write. Not even professional writers do that. So that’s okay; don’t be afraid of lousy drafts. Some of the best writers write poor first drafts. That is just an inevitable part of the process. The key, though, is not quitting after a first draft. Write, and write again.
A paper I wrote in graduate school went through seven drafts before I felt like I finally nailed it. Admittedly, that was a bit much, but don’t be afraid to revise and revise again. Various portions of the book I just finished went, by turns, through multiple dozens of drafts. Don’t be afraid of bad drafts; don’t settle for early drafts; don’t be afraid to keep revising until the job is done. Papers are never finally done, as it happens; one usually just decides to quit. And that’s okay; just don’t quit too soon. First drafts in seminary are rarely done well enough to turn in. This means that last-minute papers should become a thing of the past. You can do better, and you must. Graduate school is a time to take a big step forward in this area.
I also see too much reticence to start writing among seminary students. Some students spend a bit too much time obsessing about their paper, trying to get every question answered in advance, preoccupied with the contours and shape and tenor of the project. After following the prompt (and that’s what paper directions are, not a blueprint for every detail and twist to come), I might suggest you start to write. All the inordinate navel-gazing can become an excuse to put the process of writing off interminably.
In a class I recently taught, I noticed that, with just a matter of weeks left in the term, some students had yet to write a single word on their paper. It is vital students be willing to dive in, put a stop to procrastination, muster the courage to give it a shot. When a teacher asks for a thesis statement and outline, she expects you to have written something, tried out ideas, to have seen what works and what doesn’t. She is most assuredly not simply asking you to guess and speculate about what you might like to write about. In my own experience with writing, I could never write an outline or even construct a robust, properly delimited thesis statement without doing some serious writing first. If you haven’t realized this before, let this be a lesson you’ll remember in the future.
Incidentally, this is not micromanagement on the part of your professor. She knows what good writing involves—both its difficulty and possibility—and she wants to give you the best shot at success. You are still students, and writing is still something you are improving at. Indeed, hopefully, you’ll never stop improving at it. But in seminary you still inhabit the position of a student who has the chance to gain from the expertise of the professor. Honor deadlines and due dates, work incrementally through each stage of the process, and, by all means, take the encouragement, the corrections, the admonitions, and grow the wiser. Don’t bristle, don’t resent the work. If you want to be a leader and a proclaimer of truth and a teacher, you must cultivate teachability yourself.
Perhaps some of you harbor fears and doubts about your writing. That’s fine, and perfectly natural; fear provides the opportunity for courage, and can function to remind us of our need for divine assistance. Now, having acknowledged it, get to work and, with God’s help, work through the fear. God doesn’t want you to be timid to the point of its becoming debilitating. That is not humility; it is lack of trust in God to do the work through you. You have got to be a willing, faithful vessel, though. You’ve got to work hard and be willing to risk failure; lack of diligence and faithfulness in this area, however, will only ensure failure.
Having said that, you do need to do one very important thing before writing, which reminds me of a troubling trend I have occasionally seen. It is the failure to recognize the importance of the research to be done before you write. When a teacher asks for a bibliography, it’s natural for her to assume that you actually read the materials you are citing, at least some of them anyway, not just cobbling together a list of sources that strike you as at least tangentially relevant to the topic at hand. And she expects you not just to read the materials, but to take notes, highlight important concepts, underline, discuss, ponder, journal, in short, do active, engaged reading.
Teachers hope that something would have taken root—some central idea, some important topic, some engaging question, that mesmerizes your attention, captures your imagination, ignites your passion, and makes you feel like you just have to write about it. A teacher doesn’t expect you to have it all worked out ahead of time; that’s not how it works; but you should have developed at least some inkling, some intimation of a fruitful direction to explore, some guiding theme or motif or at least question.
Writing is not just a hoop to jump through. It is a sacred chance to share your thoughts, to glean insights from others on an important question, to enter a dialogue that was going on before you came along and will continue after you’re gone, to attain clarity that you didn’t have before, to become better equipped to minister, and the list goes on and on. This should be a joyous, festive experience for you; instead, too often, it’s like pulling teeth for some, a matter of dread, an unpleasant chore. It can be almost painful to watch. Somewhere along the way I fear that some have lost the sense of what an unmitigated and unadulterated joy writing can be. You simply must recapture such a sense, or catch it for the first time if need be.
Have you ever thought about the fact that special revelation has been communicated to us through the written word? God inspired people to write—God worked through their talents and gifts, their minds and writing abilities, even their editing and thought processes, to communicate eternal truths. Obviously none of us will be composing sacred writ, but God’s still in the business of inspiring us to write what He intends. Speaking is often spontaneous and off the cuff; it can be hit and miss. Writing gives you the chance to modify, refine, qualify, revise, polish, texture, and make it as elegant as you’d like it to be, as clear as you can make it, as erudite and eloquent, poignant and powerful as you want.
Please, friends, I know you have a lot on your plates; that grad school can feel like an endless litany of requirements and hoops; that you sometimes feel like you hardly have time to breathe. But your faithfulness now is part of your calling. Part of what this requires is that you must come to see the writing process, a central part of your preparation, as a chance at a reprieve from the frenetic pace and harried schedule, a chance to get it right, to attain necessary clarity, to take the time to think an issue through, to be a co-laborer with Christ in producing something that can be a blessing both to you and others. It’s a sacred duty, it’s a privilege, and it’s a joy. Don’t forget that. It’s an opportunity for excellence.
David Baggett, PhD
Professor of Apologetics
With the culturally proclaimed period of post-modernism, a very negative practice is observable in Progressive Christian apologetics—the embrace of fallacies in order to explain and promote divergent religious principles running contrary to traditional biblical thought. Thus, it is easy to find the utilization of illogic in the writings and argumentations of theologians and pastors like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Matthew Vine, to name a few. No doubt, most readers and listeners are unaware of the frequency these fallacies, but they occur often and with set purpose, unfortunately. Thus, this article begins a cursory investigation of several different key cultural speakers and thinkers in Progressive Christianity, and examines the sophistic tools they use to sway readers and listeners in regards to key doctrinal ideas.
The “Transcript” of Matthew Vines’ video on gay Christianity (see matthewvines.com) is a very clear example of this embrace of illogic in progressive Christianity. Mr. Vines makes an eloquent, emotional, personal argument defending homosexual activity for the gay Christian, meandering through biblical passages that one-sidedly condemn the activity, utilizing specific Christian ethics and verses to affirm gay relationships, but unfortunately implementing multiple misconstructions and inaccuracies throughout his testimony to justify his position.
Vines’ discourse begins with a Strawman Fallacy, setting up a universal dichotomy that is not proven in order to promote his agenda. Vines states, “The most common themes voiced by those who support changing traditional church teaching on homosexuality are those of acceptance, inclusion, and love, while on the other hand, those who oppose these changes express concerns about sexual purity, holiness, and most fundamentally, the place of Scripture in our communities.” So, only pro-gay Christians are loving, inclusive, and accepting; anti-gay Christians are legalists and literalists who have an exclusive vision of individualism in the Christian community? Such a conclusion comes across as diluted and cursory (and ironic), considering the artificial parameters presented by Vines.
Secondly, Vines points to evidence throughout his defense that only supports his pro-gay position while casually dismissing other truths that refutes his assertion; this is known as a Confirmation Bias Fallacy. For example, he points to six passages that condemn homosexuality but then immediately points out that they are six verses out of 31, 000; however, there are over a dozen verses that specifically condemn the practice and a case could be made for over a dozen more that indirectly refute Vine’s position. A more important question is how many biblical verses directly and specifically affirm the gay lifestyle for the Christian and the non-Christian (answer: none). Moreover, I suspect if one biblical verse stated, “Don’t bully homosexuals,” that would be a sufficient proof for Progressives.
Another one of Vines’ illogical habits is the Confusion of Correlation and Causation Fallacy. One of his more clear inconsistencies is evident when he states, “But everyone has a sexual orientation – and it isn’t just about sex,” which is like saying everyone has elbows, but they’re not connected to their arms. Additionally, he writes, “Family is not about sex, but for so many of us, it still depends upon having a companion, a spouse,” and yet, he is arguing for gay Christians to be able to express themselves sexually in a relationship with same-sex partners. Friendship is an integral part of Christianity, and no traditionalist is demanding that gay Christians not have friends or family in their lives.
Additionally, condemning traditional Christian sexuality morality, Vines claims, “Gay people are told to avoid romantic relationships entirely,” which is false. Gay people are told to avoid romantic relationships with members of the same sex alone. All Christians are told to avoid all unhealthy, lustful, romantic relationships, regardless of their gender orientation, and same-sex relationships are completely acceptable provided that they are based on Agape love and not sexual Eros alone. The relationship of David and Jonathon versus David and Bathsheba are fantastic examples of this notion. Vines’ assertion is that gay Christians just want what heterosexual Christians want, but a more accurate comparison would be gay Christians want what adulterous Christians want, which are relationships forbidden in the Bible as destructive and unhealthy.
One of Vine’s biggest false assertions is that, because of his gay orientation, “according to the traditional interpretation of Scripture, as a Christian, I am uniquely excluded from that possibility for love, for companionship, and for family.” Ultimately, Vines is saying that gay Christianity is not about sex; however, he also says that gay Christians are unhappy because they cannot have sexual relationships with same-sex lovers. They are deprived of “human dignity” because they cannot have culturally-affirmed same-sex lovers, which is in their nature. Again, using this reasoning, a heterosexual person with a natural lust-problem would be prevented from experiencing love, companionship, and family if he or she was unable to express him or herself in an adulterous relationship outside of marriage, which is absurd. Love and companionship is easily and regularly found outside of sexual activity; in fact, it is more of the norm in society than sexual relationships.
Vines continues, “By holding to the traditional interpretation, we are now contradicting the Bible’s own teachings: the Bible teaches that it is not good for the man to be forced to be alone, and yet now, we are teaching that it is.” Of course, most theologians and biblical scholars would note that Adam was lonely before he and Eve were aware of their sexuality. Thus, God gave Adam a friend to tend to his emotional/intellectual--but not sexual--needs. Sexuality was not an issue until the first couple went against the word of God and brought destruction upon themselves for another natural, innocuous activity, but one rightly prohibited by God. Ironically, like Adam and Eve, Vines wants his listeners to think that gay Christianity is “good fruit,” acceptable to God despite it being prohibited clearly and unequivocally in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.
The sorrow of this situation (and what Vines misses overall in his discourse) is that intimacy is defined by God in the Bible and is not defined by sexuality alone, culturally, but that is what Vines is trying to do (and not do) at the same time—dismissing the Word of God and proclaiming sexual needs to be quintessential for fulfillment in life. Vines utilizes other fallacies to win his argument (appeal to ignorance, argument from authority, begging the questions, composition fallacy, etc), and although his intentions are sincere and his goals may be noble, in the end, his illogical, self-serving arguments negate the authority of his efforts. One cannot build a true bridge on false beams; it will collapse, unavoidably, with the weight of reality.
In our modern world of Sacro-Egoism (radical religious individualism), self-serving fallacies are commonly used by Progressives to promote their radical religious agenda, illogically appealing to the personal, emotional wants and needs of people, while ignoring the biblical, evidential facts established by God in the Holy Scriptures long ago. And while gay Christians’ wants, needs, and human dignity should definitely be important to all Christians if we are to love one another as Jesus commanded, using fallacies to appease their suffering is just a placebo, at best. What every human being needs, regardless of sexual orientation, is a right relationship with God that transcends our humanity. Finding that right path to emotional well-being and healing begins and ends in truth alone.
John S. Knox, PhD
Adjunct Instructor of Apologetics
John the Baptist is an example of a leader who knows his position. The fact is that being in a leadership position is easy for us to take control and to forget that we are only servants. In John 3, we see that John the Baptist could have easily taken a position it did not belong to him, and lie to his followers and the rest of the people. Nevertheless, he did not fall into this temptation.
As leaders, we are always exposed to different temptations, being one of them, the pride of leadership. It is important, therefore, to understand our position in leadership. In order to do this, we should take into consideration the following guidelines from John 3:27-30.
Understand that what you have has been given to you by God.
In 3:27 John is referring to Jesus, saying that Jesus could not claim anything unless God had anointed him. In other words, Jesus could not claim to be the Christ, the anointed one, unless this was true. In the case of a leader, it is important for him or her to understand that his/her abilities are God given. To recognize this fact serves as a continual reminder that we are who we are because of the Lord our God.
Have a clear understanding of your calling.
John clearly understood his calling, to go ahead of Jesus (Jn. 3:28-29). This did not mean to be above, but only to prepare the way of the Lord (Mt. 3:2). In similar way, a leader must always remember that his/her calling is to serve and prepare the way to lead people to the Lord. It does not matter the level of influence a leader has, it might be a large circle of influence or a small one, the fact is that a leader must never forget that he or she has been called by the Lord God.
Seek to be continually transformed in your character.
John understood that Jesus would gain more and more popularity with the people, and that he needed to diminish (Jn. 3:30). This required a test of his character. A leader must understand that with time and personal achievements, his/her fame will increment, but he/she must transform his/her character in order not to confuse himself/herself and forget who called him/her. This requires a change; a transformation of oneself until Christ be formed in us and we reach his full stature (Eph. 4:13). Let us remember that Paul admonishes us to transform our minds (Rom. 12:2), which is something we do by letting the right thoughts into our minds, and rejecting those which my lead us astray from glorifying the Lord.
The irony of the Kingdom is clearly demonstrated by John the Baptists which is that if we want to be great leaders, we must be servants of all.
Augusto Rodríguez, PhD
Adjunct Instructor of Global Studies
The task of systematic theology is, in part, to contemporize the Christian message. The truths of God's word are never out of date, but as the societies in which Christians live change, they raise new issues which must be addressed by believers. In recent days, more Christians have seen the need to address environmental concerns. While this is an appropriate move, it should be grounded in a biblical understanding of God's standard and purpose in creation.
The detailed account of the seven days in which God made heaven and earth begins with land that is t?hû w?b?hû, "uninhabitable wilderness," (Gen 1:2) and ends with creation that is "very good" (Gen 1:31). God's work over these six days is devoted to the task of bringing about this transformation. God's standard for a good creation should guide the Christian's environmental concern.
The goodness which God sees in his creation is often understood to be generic or moral. However, the details of the creation account point to a rather specific standard which God has for his creation. On day one, the light specifically is deemed good, but not the darkness. On day two, in which sky and sea are divided, God deems nothing good. On day three, the appearance of dry land when the seas are gathered is deemed good. Other specific elements which God dubs good are vegetation; the sun, moon, and stars in the sky for "signs, seasons, days, and years" (1:14); birds, sea creatures, and land animals; and gold. Most notably absent from the list of "good" things in creation is mankind, even Adam in his condition before the fall.
What criteria runs through God's judgment of his creation? The answer is something like, "That which is hospitable to human habitation." Neither the sky nor sea are home to humans, so nothing on day two is good. While I am something of a "night owl," I must admit that the darkness of night is truly home to beasts, not mankind. Thus God dubs light, not darkness, "good." Man himself, as the standard to which creation is held, cannot be deemed good. And who does Moses believe, as he writes, will use the sun, moon, and stars for signs, seasons, day, and years? For whom is the gold of Havilah good? It is humans who will make use of these elements of creation, by God's intent and design, and it is their fitness for this use which makes them good. God's final appraisal of his creation is that he has made it "very good," very fit as a whole for the humans he has made and no longer a wasteland of water and darkness.
This corresponds with God's later appraisal of land. When he brings forth the children of Israel from Egypt, he does so to bring them into a good land, good in that it flows with milk and honey, that is, good in that it offers bountiful provision for the Israelites (Exod 3:8). Likewise, the spies who search the land to see if it is good see its goodness in the same feature (Num 14:7-8). Time and again, it is dubbed a "good land" throughout Deuteronomy, and is described as "a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of oil olive, and honey, a land wherein you shall eat bread without scarceness. You shall not lack any thing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig brass" (Deut 8:7-9). Note that God's vision of their prosperity is not primitive. He conceives of the Israelites farming, mining, and working metal. God's measure of a good land, in creation, exodus, and conquest, is one in which humans have what they need to prosper and thrive in civilization.
Some may question this understanding of the goodness of creation, for it is decidedly anthropocentric. One can see a parallel to it, however, in Paul's reading of the Pentateuch. In 1 Corinthians 9, he is discussing the propriety of ministers earning a living through the gospel ministry. To support his point, he quotes Deut 25:4, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn," and continues, "Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written." Note that this goes beyond what is necessary to apply the text to ministers of the gospel. He could easily argue from lesser to greater, that if oxen should eat from their labors so should men. But he does not read the text this way. He understands his first question to have an absolute "No" as answer. God has written this "wholly" for humanity. This is a bold assertion; a command to treat animals well presumably has their well-being at least somewhat in mind. Yet Paul rejects any such reading. The only proper way to read the commands of the Pentateuch is anthropocentrically. Both God's speech in creation and his words in the account thereof should be read likewise. All that is spoken by God is spoken for the good of humanity.
The Christian should always seek to give voice to God's view of things. And in His view, the goodness of his creation is its fitness for use by and prosperity of humanity. None of this is to suggest that evangelicals should not have a voice in environmental matters. Much of what is done to the earth, including some of what is done in the name of the environment, is not conducive to human wellbeing. But the evangelical voice should be clear that this goal is above all others in God's eye, and thus in theirs.
Michael Chiavone, PhD
Assistant Professor of Theology
I wonder what Apostle Paul would think of the modern Christian world. In 1 Corinthians 9, the great evangelical innovator states, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” For Paul, nothing mattered more than reaching people for Christ, and he did not let social conventions get in the way.
Still, the advancements of the past decade have brought technological innovations never before dreamt of by the ancient Christian saints. What used to take months to share across the globe now can be transmitted in milliseconds. The limitation of paper and pen has been swept away with the availability of electronic media in all its amazing, creative formats. More and more, the “People of the Book” have become the people of the E-book and the Internet.
Blogging, which was once the solitary voice of youthful hipster dudes and dudettes, is now accepted by most pastors and Christian laypeople as a viable and effective way to discuss religious thought. In fact, blogging is a hallmark of Pacific Northwest culture, and these online authors embrace the medium with enthusiasm and purpose that in many ways echoes the sociological voice of modernity.
In my PhD study of religiosity in the West (U. of Birmingham, 2009), I discovered that most believers in Oregon (at least) approach faith and religion as radical individualists—what I termed, “Sacro-Egoism” (Implicit Religion, 2008). There definitely are other methods to religion countering this extreme individualism--Institutional (Sacro-Clericalism), Communal (Sacro-Communalism), and Mystical (Sacro-Theism)—but the Sacro-Egoistical voice is evidentially the most prevalent in blogs from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. Reading through many blogs from the Pacific Northwest reveals not only an enhanced religious authority of the individual, but also a personal embrace of spirituality and mystery, a negative approach to the institution of church, and a radical look at communal structure of religion.
Regarding other blogging types, a Sacro-Clerical blog would take a traditional approach to religion and give the ultimate authority to the church institution, a Sacro-Communal blog would suggest that ultimate authority of thought and interpretation rests within the local group of believers, and a Sacro-Theistic blog would focus on mystical encounters and direct divine communication in religious matters. For sure, blogs of these types exist, but they are more the exception than the norm, currently.
Perusing through popular blogging sites such as christandcascadia.com, patheos.com, and relevantmagazine.com, one can easily and repeatedly find examples of Sacro-Egoism within the various blogs. In these online communities, both language and topics demonstrate a radical, personalized approach to faith and interpretation. Bloggers consistently utilize words such as “I,” me,” etc. to present their own authoritative take on matters of doctrine, scripture, and praxis. Moreover, the authors are unabashedly willing to share their unique voices and understandings on religiosity, and they invite discussion on such matters, creating a milieu of accessibility and theological conversation.
For example, one blogger from relevantmagazine.com writes, “If God gave you a dream, you should pursue it. You should fight for it. Don’t ignore a dream God has given you. Your dream matters.” Another states, “I want to be a part of finding a way to live together with deep differences in a pluralistic society. And I want to do it in ways that allow me to reflect into the world the deep sense of divine love and grace I’ve experienced and on which I am entirely dependent.”
Still, the blogs can be edgy and provocative, and easily demonstrate the key characteristics of Sacro-Egoism: “Believers” pick and choose their avenues of faith rationally in line with their personal vision for an inclusive society; they are more open to religious options, but more closed to religious institutionalism; and they uphold their personal authority and rights of religious expression and belief above all else.
From patheos.com, one blogger writes, “Every time I see some smiley TV preacher talk about God’s plan for me or hear Sara Palin say something irretrievably mean and stupid about poor people, every time I pass an embarrassing billboard featuring Jesus and a fetus, I totally get why reasonable people steer clear.” Still another proclaims, “But the church is changing. Because I AM the church. And I know many, many, many parents just like me. The church is shifting. I’m beyond grateful that God is ushering in a new day and age. Legalism, fundamentalism, literalism – all of it – is on its way out. The next generation will not tolerate it. God is refreshing the truth of unconditional love to all people.”
Regarding the future, Anastasia Karaflogka’s essay, “Religion on – Religion in Cyberspace” (Predicting Religion, 2003), suggests that the evolution and nature of spiritual quests and religious knowledge will only increase in this technological age, and that it could have both a corrosive and a creative effect on society. She states that religion on the Internet will continue to cultivate arenas “. . . where people can ‘meet’ to interact; to exchange ideas, knowledge, information and experience; to give substance to creative, imaginative and innovative new concepts and ideas; and to relocate, re-evaluate and deconstruct old concepts and ideas in a new setting.” Blogs are an effective medium to accomplish this notion.
Still, there are some dangers to blogging. In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul spoke of the freedoms and rights of the Christian; however, he also spoke of the dangers of self-reliance and self-delusion. As he explained, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. . . but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
As technology continues to provide a worldwide platform for all people of faith to voice their personal opinions, the power of cyberspace and blogging will continue to grow and influence religious thought, church philosophy, and accepted doctrine. Blogs can be a wonderfully innovative way to open up discussions of God, but they can also be vain and vacuous soapboxes of empty value without proper humility and purposefulness.
The Apostle Paul admonished readers to “run in such a way, as not without aim;” blog authors and readers alike should heed his advice regarding this powerful and personal avenue of evangelism in the twenty-first century.
John S. Knox, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Apologetics
and Heather Harney (Student, GFU)