On Diverse Reading Lists: A Friendly Response to Denny Burk

Disclaimer: During my time in Louisville, Denny Burk was the associate pastor of the church where I was a member. We maintain a friendly relationship to this day, and this post should be read as no exception to that.

I spent some time yesterday reading and thinking about Denny Burk’s recent reflections posted on his blog entitled “The Dead-end of Research Justice.” Burk can always be relied upon to interrogate the demands of an ever-secularizing culture on Christians. Secularizing is perhaps not strong enough a word for the idealogical conformity demanded by some sectors of the American left. In this case, Burk is concerned by “research justice”, also known as decolonizing, approach to academia. I share his concern.

Just this past week I saw a completely absurd post from a student attempting to put her professor on notice publicly for failing to meet whatever arbitrary standard the student thought was acceptable. This is a real problem in academia and in our culture writ large. It needs to end.

Burk writes, “Research justice requires racial preferences for authors from marginalized groups and racial discrimination against authors from privileged groups. When you add to this standpoint epistemology (which is also a favored tool of Critical Theory), it’s not difficult to see why the racial identity of the author outweighs reason and evidence as a criterion for excellence.”

So what then? What should professors do? For Burk’s part, he says that he has never screened potential textbook authors with consideration to race. He only screens them for excellence of content and assumes all person of any race or culture can produce such work. Burk writes, “Racial identity just doesn’t figure into that calculus, nor do I see why it should. It is certainly no failure of justice to leave it out of the calculus.”

This is where I want to push back on Burk. First, let me agree with him. I do not think it is wise, correct, or helpful to label Burk’s standard as racist, xenophobic, or unjust. I asked Denny for clarification on this on twitter and he gave it: “Racial identity is not a category that either commends or condemns a prospective text.” It would be fair to say that he takes a “colorblind” approach to text selection.

I want to put forward disagreement with Burk here. While I do not believe racial identity or cultural identity condemn a prospective text (e.g. “no white male authors!”), I do want to offer some reasons that I believe they may commend a text. In sum, I want to argue for the inclusion of diverse voices in theological reading. I believe it would be good for theological educators and Southern Baptist ones in particular to strive towards this sort of intentionality.

The lack of diversity in reading for theological education is a real issue of debate. During my time in seminary, countless students of colors expressed their dismay and frustration to me that in 3-4 years of theological education, every single author without exception was a white man of European descent with the possible exception of Augustine. How can this be possible?

Why Does This Matter?

First, we have to ask: does this even matter? Yes, it matters. Diverse perspectives are meaningful and worth intentionally including in our theological work. For this part of the discussion, I want to draw off of David Clark’s excellent book To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. This is one of the standard texts in Evangelical theological method. In his book, Clark makes a distinction between the sort of postmodern deconstructionism that Burk is concerned about and the value of different perspectives for doing theology. Clark writes, “One’s perspective always forms the grid out of which the world is interpreted and life is lived” (100). To borrow the old phrase, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Clark wants to balance the importance of diverse perspectives with evangelical truth. Culture can not determine truth. He says that Christians must adhere to the universality of the gospel as true for all people and totalizing as a worldview. He writes, “The gospel is true for all peoples in every culture… perspectivalism, however, must deny this is so. Therefore…evangelical theology must reject the current rampant perspectivalism.” This perspectivalism is the belief that cultural/racial/social perspective determines meaning, and therefore, truth itself. This is what Burk is rejecting as well, and rightly so.

However, we should not suggest that we are utterly objective in how we approach theology or exegesis. We all come to the text with presuppositions, both conscious and unconscious, which shape our views. Clark writes, “Evangelical theology at its best will acknowledge that perspective influences all thinking. And a modest deconstruction of overly assertive modernist claims is all to the good. But proper evangelical theology also realizes the need for deliberate strategies to prevent cultural and historical location from imprisoning theology in the though of a particular time” (144). What should we do then? We should a) interrogate our own assumptions, and fight their influence over our interpretation and theological method and b) refuse to allow our culture to imprison our theology.

We are people who are not inherently objective working to interpret Scripture which is absolute. This is a difficult task. D.A. Carson tells us that there is something to learn from this view of different perspectives. He says, “…gently applied [this] rightly questions the arrogance of modernism… ruthlessly applied [this] nurtures a new hubris and deifies agnosticism.”

Clark is insistent that we not give into these cultural forces. What Burk, and the sources he cites, calls “standpoint epistemology”, Clark calls “epistemic relativism” and says it is “deeply flawed” and self-defeating. He says that this view is that “all truth depends on the knower’s viewpoint” and that this is utterly inconsistent with Christian belief.

Commending Diverse Perspectives

Why then would I argue against Burk’s point? Simply put, it’s because there are significant benefits that commend diverse perspectives in curriculum without giving an inch to critical theory, intersectionality, epistemic relativism, or any other secular theory that contradicts the gospel as a totalizing worldview. As such, we should consider works by scholars from the majority world, as well as minorities in our own spheres when we decide which resources to use.

Clark gives an example of why this is valuable. One day, teaching a 90 minute class on divorce and remarriage a student approached him to tell him how the lecture did not relate to his needs. Why? Because he is the eldest son of his father’s fourth wife. His father is a polygamist. In that moment Clark realized that culture had affected his approach to theology, his emphasis on teaching, and his application of Scriptural truth.

I am decidedly NOT saying that there is truth that is inaccessible to white men and therefore we need BIPOC to interpret Scripture in a way that we can not understand as white men. That is some weird form of ethnic gnosticism. I am purposefully NOT saying that culture should determine theology.

What I am saying is that we should read diverse perspectives to prevent undue influence from one culture over a theology or exegetical task that should speak universally. The issue is not the Scripture. The issue is us.

The church is diverse. Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention are diverse. We need each other. We need to hear each other and balance each other. So then I want to conclude with a list of reasons that commend an intentional effort to include diverse voices and perspectives that are not beholden to worldly approaches. Every point below assumes that diverse perspectives and cultures does not mean divergent views about the gospel and assume a refusal of secular worldview; diversity in perspective and background, unity in common confession and a common gospel: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”

  1. Preventing bias. We need diverse readings to prevent a single culture from having unchecked cultural influence over our study of theology. We have blind spots. By their very nature, we can not see them. Diverse perspectives will challenge us on our assumptions, some of which we may find to be less biblical and more cultural.
  2. It’s who we are. We need diverse perspectives because we are diverse. The SBC repented of racism in 1995. Since then, the number of black churches in the SBC has increased significantly. It should not be the case that our nearly 4,000 black SBC churches can send their students to seminaries that they fund and their students basically never read a scholar that looks like them or shares their background. Their tradition is loaded with great resources. That is not even to speak of contributions from Asian scholars, Latin American scholars, and others. Why are we not drawing from them? This brings me to the next point.
  3. There’s no good reason not to. We should intentionally consider diverse perspective because they are not hard to find and countless minority scholars are producing excellent work. It speaks to our blind spots that this requires effort! There are many, many faithful scholars of color who far surpass our standard of excellence in Christian scholarship. Sometimes we saying we are only choosing the “best stuff”. What are we communicating to students who are non-white if the “best stuff” is always from white scholars? This does not reflect the reality of many scholars from diverse backgrounds producing great work. Unintentionally we may be communicating that only we are capable, or that all are capable but culturally we are simply better. Representation matters for precisely this reason.

    (I do not believe Burk, or other scholars believe this. I am speaking here of the kind of communication between a husband and a wife when she is sharing about her day, and he won’t look up from his phone. He may be listening, but is communicating something different. This may not be conveyed in one class, but perhaps over the course of a whole theological education without any minority authors.)
  4. We would benefit. We need to include diverse perspectives because it would be beneficial to us. Diverse perspectives have given us countless insights about honor-shame culture, sacrifice, etc. Asian and African Christians do not help us read the Bible by eisegeting their culture into the text. They have helped us see things we otherwise might not notice, because of the assumptions we bring to the text without realizing it.
  5. It’s another way to show how we have been reconciled to one another. Diverse reading is a picture of the gospel ministry of reconciliation. I am hesitant to put this only because I know of how some may represent it. What I am not saying is that those who assign reading from authors of a single cultural perspective are denying the gospel. I am not saying that the gospel requires my view here. What I am saying is that God in Christ has reconciled people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation to himself. Diverse readings train students to see how God is working throughout all the world and all people so that we are not unintentionally convinced that God is only leading us to produce theology that is up to the standard of excellence.

I want to close by saying that I am grateful for Denny Burk. I don’t see him saying everything I’m pressing against here. We don’t always agree, but I have always found him to be willing to engage in a charitable conversation with me. I hope this brings far more light than heat to this conversation. I think Denny would agree with a lot of what I say here. I do not think he is guilty of intentionally excluding any authors, and he explicitly encouraged reading widely. I just wanted to go a step further and say that these reasons listed above commend diverse readings and should encourage us to intentionally shape our reading lists, within our confessional standards, in such a way. I am not condemning “colorblind” reading selection; I am attempting to affirm intentionally diverse reading as a better way.

Now, go read widely.

John Calvin on Sinful Theological Disagreement

Recently I wrote a paper for a Ph.D. seminar about the contrast between Bavinck and Berkouwer’s view of the tension between beatific vision and divine invisibility. One small thing I found in the course of my research is that Herman Bavinck claims1 Calvin has no contribution on the subject. I began to track down this claim and I found a really interesting comment from Calvin on the necessity of guarding against sin in theological disagreement.

Bavinck is partially right. Calvin does refer to such issues (debates about seeing God’s essence, etc.) as the “thorny questions” of revelation. Where Bavinck is wrong is that he claims this is proof that Calvin merely bypasses the question and has no position. Calvin’s theology and exegesis give clues that he is more open to the idea than described here. In his Institutes (II.14.iii.), Calvin describes a future time in which Christ will set aside his mediatorial office and his “middle place between God and us” and “his divine majesty shall be beheld face to face…God will cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.” In his exegetical commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin concludes, “…when the Apostle says, we shall see him as he is, he intimates a new and ineffable manner of seeing him, which we enjoy not now…hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.”2

These are interesting points, but Calvin’s introductory comments on the matter are instructive for all of us in the midst of theological disagreements over the “thorny issues”. Whether we can see God in his divine essence in some meaningful way or not, Calvin warns about “wrangling” on this issue so much that “we lose the peace without which no one will see him…”

Does this complex theological issue matter? Is it worth debating or worth even forming opinions on? Yes. Clearly. Calvin does so, as well as Bavinck. But there is something more important. No matter how we will see God, we will not see him at all if we do not do so in a way that reflects Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Was Calvin perfect at this? It’s doesn’t take much more than a quick google search of Calvin’s faults to know that he was not. A better question is this: How are we doing? How are you doing? May it never be said of us that we debate the finer points of theology in a way that disgraces the Theos or use words that bring scorn upon the Logos.

May it be said of us that when we say our piece, we keep our peace.


1. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 190.

2. John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Epistle of John, trans. John Owen, vol. 22, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).

An Interview with Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. on Preaching

This past spring I was honored to interview Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. for a Library Talk at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Smith has been a mentor of mine for nearly 10 years, since we first met on the campus of Southern Seminary in 2012.

Those who have heard him preach before can not help but be moved by his powerful oratory and commitment to the word of God and the gospel. I often tell people, though, that’s he’s even better off stage. I can think of no man I respect more in the world.

I hope this conversation with Dr. Smith benefits and encourages preachers who hear it. In the course of this conversation we discuss sermon preparation, trinitarian preaching, God’s work in the preaching moment, the use of scripture in preaching, suffering in the ministry, and more.

Who should do theology?

Is theology for everyone? R.C. Sproul has made popular the phrase “Everyone’s A Theologian,” even publishing a book by the same title. He’s right: everyone has thoughts and foundational beliefs about God that shape their lives. In asking the questions though, I have something more specific in mind: who should engage in theological discussion? Who should be part of the debates, write the blogs, and host the podcasts?

St.Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390) answers:

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

“…there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

Endemic to Evangelicalism, particularly the very-online Evangelical social circles, is what I have come to call “theology as sport”. Like the old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It may be that one of the worst effects of a Twitter and Facebook timeline is how serious theological claims are thrown into a stream as if they’re no different from the latest political charade or Hollywood fanfare. And so arguing over theology takes on all the gravity of a sports debate, or can be filled with all the competitive vitriol of a political fight.

We do well to heed this warning from Nazianzius about such people who use theology for their own entertainment, their own platform, or their own social ladder:

They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense… Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

Sounds familiar.

Gregory of Nazianzus quotes taken from “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Order a copy here.

Calvin on the Two Natures of Christ Applied to His Role as Mediator

Recently I spent a fair amount of time researching theologies of the beatific vision among Reformation theologians. In the course of that research, I came across this excellent reflection on the two nature of Christ from John Calvin. In this section of Institutes of The Christian Religion, he applies the doctrine of the two natures of Christ to His role as Mediator in the life to come. Calvin writes:

…because he was hid under a humble clothing of flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and humbled himself (Phil. ii. 8), and laying aside the insignia of majesty, became obedient to the Father; and after undergoing this subjection was at length crowned with glory and honour (Heb. ii. 7), and exalted to supreme authority, that at his name every knee should bow (Phil. ii. 10); so at the end he will subject to the Father both the name and the crown of glory, and whatever he received of the Father, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. xv. 28). For what end were that power and authority given to him, save that the Father might govern us by his hand? In the same sense, also, he is said to sit at the right hand of the Father. But this is only for a time, until we enjoy the immediate presence of his Godhead.

Some may take issue with Calvin’s argument that Christ’s place at the right hand of the Father has a terminal point. His point is that this is Christ’s place by virtue of his role as mediator. His role as mediator is not eternal. Certainly Christ subjects himself to God. But even this is only for a time. Calvin claims that tremendous damage has been done to the doctrine of Christ by not paying appropriate attention to Christ’s role as Mediator and the telos of that role in balance with his fundamental identity as the Son. He continues:

Christ, therefore, shall reign until he appear to judge the world, inasmuch as, according to the measure of our feeble capacity, he now connects us with the Father. But when, as partakers of the heavenly glory, we shall see God as he is, then Christ, having accomplished the office of Mediator, shall cease to be the vicegerent of the Father, and will be content with the glory which he possessed before the world was… His giving up of the kingdom to the Father, so far from impairing his majesty, will give a brighter manifestation of it. God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.

As Mediator, Christ brings us to the Father. But there, joining Christ in our glorified state, we see God. We see him not as Mediator, but we see him in His glory–“Christ’s own Godhead”.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to know what Calvin means by this phrase. In his commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin says, “…hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.” What is this majesty? Do we see God’s per essentiam– which is to say “as He is” in his essence? His glory? The relations between the persons? Calvin isn’t clear, and even warns against wrangling with such questions. What is he certain of, however, is that when we see God there will be a shared glory between the persons without exclusion to one or the other. Christ is not eternally the Mediator. Calvin is re-centering our knowledge of God in the age to come on the Son’s eternal generation. He will be known to us as the Son in the glory he had with the Father before he world began. This glory is not to the exclusion of his incarnation. It’s important not to confuse Christ’s laying aside his role as mediator with his laying aside his body. He does no such thing. As the incarnate Lord, his glory will shine forth before his people with greater effect when he sets aside his mediatorial office.

Some claim that Christ gives the Kingdom to the Father as an act of special glory reserved for the Father (to whom the Son is then eternally subordinate). Instead, Calvin’s claim is that the Son gives the Kingdom to the Father. In doing so, his own glory shines forth. More can be said, but for now this is a beautiful reflection to sit with. It will be a lovely thing to see the Son in his glory.

For more, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), II.14.iii.

Some of The Best Books I Read In 2014

We love lists, don’t we? We especially love lists about books. [Insert witty paragraph that shows I’m well-read and my opinion on this matters.] Without further adieu, the 5 best books I read in 2014 (in no particular order):

Handbook of Consolations: For the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death

consolationsIf nothing else, this one wins the award for best title.

This book is nearly 5oo years. Written by German Luther Johann Gerhard, this short volume is a balm for every Christian soul. Despite some reservations I have due to my being a Baptist and not a Lutheran, Johann Gerhard’s words were a great encouragement to me. Handbook of Consolations is part of a large, but nearly forgotten, type of literature known as ars moriendi. These books focused on the importance of how one dies. In this book in particular, Gerhard deals with the subjects of doubt, pain, suffering, sin, repentance, the sufficiency of the cross, the certainty of faith, the efficacy of the sacraments, and so on. I would recommend it to all Christians.

 

The Gateway Chronicles (Books 1-6)

gateway

K.B. Hoyle is a rising young star in fiction. To take a break from studying during the Spring 2014 semester, I read the her YA series The Gateway Chronicles. These books tell the story of a young girl named Darcy and five of her friends who are taken through a gateway into a land where they have been prophesied as the redeemers of that world, Alitheia. These books are an easy read, and the ending was a true surprise—which rarely happens to me when reading fiction. As a regular fantasy reader, I found Hoyle’s invention of a new mythical creature, called “narks”, to be one of the best and most creative features of any fictional book I have yet to come across. Hoyle’s  understanding of narrative and redemption help shape these stories, and I was easily captured by them.

 

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

81Zhc7ela8L._SL1500_I hear that I’m about two years late on this one.In this book, Smith argues for a change to how we view education in the Christian life. The life of the mind, he says, is deeply shaped by the liturgies of our life as they shape our desires. He discussion of liturgy and the formative power thereof is so good that I can not overstate it. I think it could be helpfully appropriated by professors, pastors, and stay-at-home mothers. Though this book is not accessible to all (it requires a certain level of education already), I would recommend it to all who are willing to take it on. I read through this with my friends Collin and David, and found it was one of the best ‘book group’ experiences I have ever had because the book in question was excellent.

 

Strange Glory by Charles Marsh

bonhoeffer-book

Bonhoeffer was not C.S. Lewis. Heck, even C.S. Lewis wasn’t C.S. Lewis according to how some folks portray him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a fascinating Christian leader who lived a great life. Perhaps better than any other Bonhoeffer biography, and certainly more so than any recent ones, Charles Marsh holds forth on the enigma that was Bonhoeffer, laying bare all of his idiosyncrasies (like his obsessive cataloging of his clothes) and peculiarities (such as his relationship with Eberhard Bethge). I was privileged be at a small book release for this work with Dr. Charles Marsh in Birmingham, AL. His love for Bonhoeffer and commitment to accurately represent his life struck me that night and led me to read this work. What I found was a masterpiece, a wonderful work, that is theologically and emotionally engaging at every turn.

 

Theology of the New Testament by Frank Thielman

Thielman

This year for New Testament class, Frank Thielman’s NT textbook was our only text apart from a few articles and handouts. It was and remains to be one of the best books I have ever owned and read. Not only that, I can personally testify that Dr. Frank Thielman is among the godliest and humble men I have ever met in my life. This book is no different. Thielman exudes a quiet confidence in the Word of God in his confrontations of liberal theology while showing no fear of engaging in textual criticism himself. He likewise critiques the New Perspective on Paul while giving credit where credit is due to that crowd. Thielman is not afraid to borrow from someone at one moment and criticize them the next. He recognizes that all truth is God’s truth. Because of this, he draws from the best of all the traditions in Christianity. That, and more, makes this book excellent.

 

1 Corinthians by David Garland

[Part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series]

Garland

As part of a Greek exegesis class on 1 Corinthians with Dr. Frank Thielman (see above), I was required to read this entire commentary. I was worried, since 1 Corinthians has long been a great mystery to me. Food sacrificed to idols? Sleeping with step-moms? Few things have shaped me in seminary like my time in 1 Corinthians. Little did I know that Paul’s words on lawsuits would immediately apply to my life. Little did I know that God would use 2014 to teach me that weakness is how he prefers his people. As Garland points out, the foolishness of the cross is the primary message of 1 Corinthians. It ought also to be the primary message of our lives. This book is not a devotional. It is an exegetical commentary. If you don’t know a lick of greek, it will be incredibly challenging to read. Nonetheless, my time with this book was a time that I will never forget. Garland’s writing is lucid and concise. He explanation of difficulties in the text and explanations is helpful. I would recommend this book to all preachers, as well as all who wish to know 1 Corinthians better.

 

I hope you enjoyed this list. Yes, this post was a tad informal. I’m in seminary, and my reading list isn’t for most folks right now. But if anyone benefits from this, it will have been worth it.