Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Sidney Greidanus’ work Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts is a masterpiece—but more because of the questions it raises than its own conclusions. His aim is to consider how to preach historical texts faithfully. He does this by using a pre-war homiletical[1] kerfuffle in the Dutch church as a foil—specifically by contrasting the strategies of (1) exemplary, and (2) redemptive-historical modes of preaching.

The redemptive-historical model is predicated on biblical theology; “[w]e must, therefore, try to understand all the accounts in their relation with each other, in their coherence with the center of redemptive history, Jesus Christ.”[2] The exemplary method often uses bible persons as illustrations, mirrors and models for our own behavior. Thus, “young David was brave and trusted in God, and so must we!” etc. The champions of the exemplary method are not opposed to the idea of an over-arching redemptive framework, but “their basic motive [is] a concern for the relevance of the sermon.”[3] So, one advocate explains:[4]

… they still feel felt free to treat separately (using biblical givens) certain persons described in Scripture, to picture them psychologically, to speak of their struggles and trials, their strengths and weaknesses, and then to draw parallels between the experiences of the Bible saints and the struggles of believers today. Without hesitation our fathers held up the virtues of the biblical persons as an example to all, but also their sins and weaknesses as a warning.

The problem, Greidanus believes, is that by following this exemplary method one employs a dualistic approach to homiletics—using contrasting preaching methods that do not easily mix. So, one might preach objective facts for the sermon proper, then pivot to “imitate this guy!” for application.[5] Indeed, Greidanus even rejects the common “explain the text, then apply it” method.[6]

Greidanus embarks on a detailed survey of both approaches, which I cannot relate here. The critiques from both sides are very instructive because, despite the passage of perhaps 90 years since that kerfuffle in the Netherlands, the homiletical problem is perennial. He settles on a cautious redemptive-historical approach, but protects his flank by leveling some critiques against excesses from his side. Intellectual sermons are a problem; “conceiving of revelation as a number of theological propositions which can be fitted neatly into a dogmatic system.”[7] A sermon can degenerate into a lecture; “would reading a decent commentary at home not fill the bill?”[8] When one preaches nothing but “facts,” then “[t]his must lead to objective preaching, which is, strictly speaking, no preaching.”[9]

He concludes the book by suggesting some principles for preachers:

  1. Historical texts are proclamations of God’s acts in history. So, one must examine the text itself in proper context. All texts are theocentric, and “people have been taken up into the scriptural narrative not for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.”[10] Application can only properly flow from the nature of these historical proclamations directed to specific people—we cannot add relevance that is not there.[11]
  2. Select a preaching text from one single composition. Preach a pericope, not an isolated verse from a larger passage unit. And, do not stitch a sermon together from a collection of isolated texts. Use one passage.[12]
  3. Privilege historical context. What did it mean to the original audience? But, this does not mean the redemptive-historical approach should be a dry recitation of “facts.” Do not “relativize” the message, but make application from the context of your passage.[13]
  4. The bible is one story. “The historical text must be seen in an expanding context: its immediate context, the book, the Testament, the Bible—in that order.”[14] This means one must place the text in a Christocentric framework.[15] “[I]t must be seen as a constitutive part of a larger whole.”[16] It is difficult to reconcile this with Greidanus’ previous advice about privileging context in application. What if the pericope’s place in the redemptive story is largely irrelevant to the point the biblical author is making (like, say, in Song 4)? His clarification that this overarching motif “is not so much a progression to Christ (the Incarnation) as the progression of Christ”[17] helps, but does not explain the disconnect (or, more ironically, the dualism) in Greidanus’ method.
  5. “Big idea” preaching. Greidanus anticipates Haddon Robinson here.[18] “[T]he sermon will be limited in scope: it has one focal point, one message to drive home.”[19] He recommends preachers structure their sermons to follow the flow of the narrative. However, he allows for re-arranging to suit the theme.
  6. Mind the gap. Greidanus closes by suggesting the preacher bridge the continuity gap between “then” and “now.” The application should follow the “big idea.” There is no explication then application, but rather an “applicatory explication of God’s word.”[20] This application is only possible because of a “progression in redemptive history,”[21] which is Christ.

Greidanus’ suggestions, in the end, closely anticipate both Robinson and Bryan Chapell. Each text has a context, but the preacher must situate it in the larger bible story. Yet, Greidanus does not go so far as to recommend the pastor buy a pair of “gospel glasses.”[22] Still, this disconnect results in the very dualism Greidanus is so anxious to avoid.

The “big idea” motif forces another straitjacket over top of the passage’s own organic context. God did not give us scripture as a bullet-point series of propositional statements, and a passage may well be more complicated than a single distillate.

It is difficult to see how a text can “speak” at all when it bears the weight of two different, contradictory frameworks. A sermon has one “big idea,” and each one is also about Christ’s progression through history, and each passage has a specific context one must “bridge” over to today. That is a tall order. Perhaps it is best to just let the text speak and donate the straitjackets to Goodwill?


[1] Greidanus sees this as a hermeneutical issue (Sola Scriptura [reprint; Eugene: Wipf, 2001], p. 5). I disagree and believe, at heart, it is homiletical.  

[2] Ibid, p. 41.  

[3] Ibid, p. 43.  

[4] Ibid.  

[5] “Here the two methods stand in stark contrast to each other. Though they can be combined in theory perhaps, in the practice of preaching the combination is often infelicitous because of the inherent dualism,” (Ibid, p. 47).  

[6] Ibid, pp. 91-93.  

[7] Ibid, p. 183.  

[8] Ibid, p. 189.  

[9] Ibid, p. 191.  

[10] Ibid, p. 215.  

[11] Ibid, p. 216.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 217-218.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 219-220.  

[14] Ibid, p. 222.  

[15] Ibid, pp. 223-224.  

[16] Ibid, p. 135.  

[17] Ibid, p. 143.

[18] Greidanus even refers to a poor sermon a “buckshot” (Ibid, p. 227), which is perhaps where Robinson got his infamous “a sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot” line (Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], p. 35).

[19] Sola Scriptura, p. 227.  

[20] Ibid, pp. 230-231.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 229-230.

[22] Bryan Chapell writes, “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (in Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 16).

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

NOTE: This is a review of an assigned excerpt from Kaiser’s book for a doctoral class. You shouldn’t construe it as a review of the entire book.

Walter Kaiser’s Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament is an excellent primer for why the First Covenant is important. He published it in 2003. More recent works have made the compelling case that the situation has not improved![1]

He begins by making the case for the First Covenant. In short, it is the foundation for everything. The New Covenant cannot stand alone.

Nowhere in the New Testament can one find evidence advocating that the writers went outside the boundaries of the Old Testament text to gain their view of the Messiah, or that they just rejected outright what these texts taught about the coming one. The “story” the early church told was the story of the promise-plan of God and the line of the “seed” that would end in David’s final son, Jesus. This was the gospel they proclaimed.[2]

Indeed, Kaiser explains, this is the “master problem of theology.” His solution is to see it as the foundation for the entire bible story through his well-known “promise-plan” motif,[3] from Genesis 12:3.[4] Kaiser then remarks that expository preaching is “one of our oldest styles of preaching,”[5] but fails to note we have no examples of Jesus and the apostles employing this method. He defines expository preaching in a manner Kuruvilla would likely approve:

An expository sermon or lesson is one that takes a minimum of a full paragraph (a scene in a narrative or a strophe in poetry) and allows the biblical text to supply both the shape and the content of the message or lesson from that text itself.[6]

However, Kaiser then contradicts himself by quoting Greidanus thus: “the preacher’s task is ‘to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ.’”[7] If the text really determines the sermon shape and context, then Christ cannot be the center of every sermon! He then provides some tips for pastors, which are a mixed bag:

  1. Find the extent of the pericope. Don’t atomize the text—preach the whole natural episode.[8]
  2. Find the “big idea.” I am less and less sure this is a wise move.[9]
  3. Find the “key word.” Kaiser does not explain the rationale for this step, but assumes it. It is unclear what he wants.
  4. Make application relevant and contemporary.
  5. Make a final appeal.

Remarks on narrative

Kaiser devotes a chapter to understanding the building blocks of narrative text,[10] and here is where he becomes less helpful. The harsh reality is, if a pastor does not read widely, he will never interpret the scriptures competently because he will never understand literary genres. No amount of spilt ink or saved megabytes of Kindle text will change this. Thus, Kaiser’s survey of the elements of narrative are good, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Without an intuitive literary radar honed by years of reading for pleasure (fiction and non-fiction), Kaiser’s discussion of dialogue and characterization will remain stale and academic to the poor reader.

His suggested five-step process from text to sermon[11] is depressingly mechanical. His suggestion of block diagramming, identifying topic sentences in each paragraph, then keying paragraph syntax to that topic sentence[12] is unacceptably atomistic and completely at odds with his own definition of expository preaching. What happened to the text determining the shape of the sermon? Kaiser is inconsistent, here.

I generally view biblical interpretation and preaching as gifts from God. One must “have it” in embryo form; it largely cannot be taught ex nihilo. I confess I have no idea how one can “teach” people to understand how setting, plot, dialogue, and characterization interact. You only learn this by reading a lot. It becomes intuitive. It is the same with crafting a sermon. It is not a mechanical process; there is an indescribable art and “feel” at work. Perhaps it is not Kaiser’s fault he cannot adequately replicate that process on the printed page. Perhaps no teacher can.

Still, this is a helpful book that will encourage the pastor to preach from the First Covenant.


[1] See, for example, Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).

[2] Walter Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 24-25.  

[3] “If there is a key that unlocks this quest for an organizing center, what is it? I contend that it is to be found in the promise-plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 31). Also, “My solution is to understand the two testaments as part of one continuing, unified plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 37).

[4] “If I were to choose a text of the Old Testament that most succinctly states the divine mind and brings together all the multiplicity of themes, I would choose Genesis 12:3. It reads: ‘In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (my translation). There is the organizing plan of the whole Bible,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[5] Ibid, p. 50.

[6] Ibid, p. 49.  

[7] Ibid, p. 51.  

[8] Ibid, p. 54.

[9] See, for example, Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018).

[10] “The central elements in the total package of literary devices used in narrative include: (1) scene, (2) plot, (3) point of view, (4) characterization, (5) setting, (6) dialogue, (7) leitwort, or key-wording, (8) structure, and (9) stylistic and rhetorical literary devices employed,” (Ibid, p. 64).

[11] “The process I advocate here and in Toward an Exegetical Theology includes five basic steps in preparing a text for preaching or teaching: (1) Contextual analysis, (2) Syntactical analysis, (3) Verbal analysis, (4) Theological analysis, (5) Homiletical analysis,” (Ibid, KL 3061).

[12] “Place the topic sentence all the way out to the margin that you have just drawn. Then, show how each clause, phrase, and sentence is related to that theme sentence by indenting the clause, phrase, or sentence to fit under (if it follows the theme/topic sentence in the paragraph) or above it (if it precedes the topic sentence),” (Ibid, KL 3129).

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

I updated this review on 09 December 2020

I first encountered T. Desmond Alexander at seminary, years ago, via his tome From Paradise to the Promised Land. It was then I first encountered the theory of “Eden as cosmic temple.” His work From Eden to the New Jerusalem features that same theme. It’s a theme that seems to fill Alexander with starry-eyed wonder.

His aim is to set the whole biblical story into a framework; a story people can understand and “see.”[1] Alexander suggests a helpful framework for seeing Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 as bookends on the same story. Just as God originally dwelt on earth among men,[2] so the end of the story has God returning to a new and perfect creation to dwell with man once again![3] I had never considered this parallel of “God with us” before. Rather, I had always focused on the old creation/new creation motif.  

However, while he makes a promising start, Alexander is less helpful with the details of this framework. Like biblical theologians sometimes do, he falls prey to the siren song of parallel-o-mania and makes incorrect conclusions predicated on illusory evidence. One representative example is his insistence that Adam was a priest in God’s original temple sanctuary.  

Adam as a temple priest?

To paraphrase Sen. Diane Feinstein, the documentary hypothesis lives loudly within Alexander.[4] He relies on the work of authors who suggest parallels between the building of the temple and the six days of creation. He believes Genesis 1-2 “reflects matters of priestly interest.”[5] Likewise, Alexander refers the reader to monographs which purport to show parallels between Genesis 1 and dietary regulations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[6]

Thus, Alexander sees “a strong basis for believing that the Garden of Eden was envisaged as part of a divine sanctuary.”[7] This assumption is predicated on the idea that Genesis 1-2 was compiled by a later editor in the exilic period and crafted to reflect priestly concerns.[8] But for whom, pray tell, was Adam mediating before sin entered the world? Not to worry, Alexander assures us. “Since no one had yet sinned, there was no need for atonement sacrifices.”[9] It is fair to say this is an inadequate rejoinder!  

The Fall, Alexander declares, was when the first couple “fail[ed] to fulfil one of the main priestly responsibilities placed upon them.”[10] What is the basis for this intriguing claim? Well …[11]

  1. God orders Adam to “keep” the garden (Gen 2:15),
  2. and this verb could also be rendered as “guard,”
  3. and the Israelites were later instructed to “guard” the Sabbath (Deut 5:12)
  4. and the Levite priests were to “guard” Aaron (Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6),[12]
  5. and so, Adam and Eve were priests.

This is not how language works. You cannot play “gotcha” by drawing a parallel between verb usage without considering context.[13] How about context? Their job was to exercise dominion over creation (Gen 1:26-30). The text says nothing about a priestly role. Yet, to Alexander, dominion (he prefers “viceroy”) is almost an afterthought.[14] The cosmic temple paradigm drives his interpretation.

Indeed, this cosmic temple motif is the prism for understanding Alexander’s project. Everything is related to God wanting a cosmic temple. Eden was a cosmic temple; a “divine sanctuary.”[15] The patriarchs created makeshift, mobile temples when they offered sacrifices.[16] The “arboreal” features in Solomon’s temple hearken back to that original, long-lost “temple” in Eden.[17] Even the colors of fabric in the temple represent the cosmos; they are a model of the cosmic temple to come.[18] On this last point, Alexander meekly admits “the case for this is not beyond dispute …”[19]  

Thus, “the fulfilment of God’s creation project requires the existence of priest-kings who will extend God’s temple-city throughout the earth.”[20] Of course, Christ is the ultimate priest-king, and Alexander ably explains this motif in later chapters.

And yet, the Pentateuch:

  1. says nothing about a cosmic temple
  2. says nothing about Adam and Eve being priests
  3. says nothing about Adam and Eve having any reason to mediate anything
  4. says nothing about Abraham constructing a mobile temple sanctuary
  5. identifies no “arboreal” nexus between Eden and Solomon’s temple
  6. says nothing about the temple as a model of the cosmos, and
  7. attributes no significance to the colors of the fabric in the temple

Pastors model bible study by the way they preach. Bible scholars do the same by what they write. With his “cosmic temple + Adam as a priest” motif, Alexander personifies the worst stereotypes about biblical theology, models irresponsible use of the text, and pushes an implicitly allegorical hermeneutic. His book is not recommended.


[1] “… the concluding chapters of Revelation offer a window through which the main themes of the biblical meta-story may be studied,” (T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008], p. 7).

[2] “The opening chapters of Genesis assume that the earth will be God’s dwelling place. This expectation, however, is swiftly shattered when Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from his presence. While people continue to live on the earth, God’s presence is associated with heaven. From there he occasionally descends to meet with selected individuals, although these encounters are always relatively brief and sometimes unexpected,” (Ibid, p. 15).

[3] “As the book of Revelation reveals, there is yet to come a time when all that is evil will finally be removed from the present earth. At that stage, when God makes all things new, his presence and glory will fill a rejuvenated earth,” (Ibid, pp. 18-19).

[4] Alexander has an extensive analysis of Pentateuchal criticism in general in From Paradise to the Promised Land, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), pp. 1-112. He declares “… it seems best to conclude that the Pentateuch as a literary whole … eventually took shape in the exilic period. Though the traditions contained within the Pentateuch clearly existed before this time and were obviously viewed both as ancient and authoritative by the final editor of the Pentateuch, it is exceptionally difficult to demonstrate that the Pentateuch itself existed in its entirety as a literary unit before the sixth century B.C.” (Promised Land, p. 109).

Conservatives will find a much more faithful ally in Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2012), pp. 36-150.

[5] “Weinfeld suggests that the special interest shown in Genesis 1:14 for feast days, weeks and years, and in Genesis 2:1–3 for the Sabbath, reflects matters of priestly interest,” (Ibid, p. 24).

[6] “Blenkinsopp, picking up on the anthropological studies of Mary Douglas, sees a connection between the division of the cosmos into sky, earth and seas in Genesis 1 and the categorization of animals, birds and fish as clean or unclean in the ‘priestly’ dietary regulations of Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21.27,” (Ibid).

[7] Ibid, p. 25. 

[8] See footnote 4, above. 

[9] Ibid, p. 25.

[10] Ibid, p. 26. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 34. 

[13] It is probable that Alexander’s context is that (as I mentioned earlier) the Pentateuch is an edited document compiled during the exile and deliberately fashioned to reflect the priestly concerns of the so-called “J strand” of material.

[14] “In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve are endowed with a holy or priestly status that enables them to serve in the temple-garden and have direct access to God. In addition, the human couple are appointed as God’s viceroys to govern the earth on his behalf,” (Ibid, p. 76). Emphasis mine.

[15] Ibid, p. 25. 

[16] “While the various sacrificial sites mentioned in Genesis 12 – 50 are not viewed as permanent sanctuaries, they clearly foreshadow the tabernacle and temple,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[17] “Since the garden is a place where divinity and humanity enjoy each other’s presence, it is appropriate that it should be a prototype for later Israelite sanctuaries. This explains why many of the decorative features of the tabernacle and temple are arboreal in nature,” (Ibid, p. 25).

[18] “… this is conveyed through the use of fabrics that are blue, purple and scarlet in colour, representing the ‘variegated colors of the sky,’” (Ibid, pp. 38-39).

[19] Ibid, p. 37.  

[20] Ibid, p. 80.

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Abraham Kuruvilla’s A Vision for Preaching is a wonderful, refreshing book. I am aware this is at odds with my lukewarm review of his contribution to Hermeneutics and Homiletics. In fact, Kuruvilla’s essay in that volume is a precis of this book. This book is much better.

Kuruvilla’s work is an exposition of one statement:[1]

Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God—all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I will focus on two aspects; (1) the thrust of the passage,[2] and (2) how to apply scripture.

The sermon—bullet or buckshot?

Like many pastors, I read Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching at seminary. In that classic tone, Robinson explained his “big idea” approach to preaching:[3]

A major affirmation of our definition of expository preaching, therefore, maintains that ‘expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept.’ That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.

Kuruvilla is against this approach. The sermon, he argues, is not an argument in service to a particular “point” in the text. That is the “old” homiletic,[4] where “the point” drives the structure of the sermon:[5]

Craddock’s wry observation (noted earlier) in this regard is worth repeating: ‘The minister boils off all the water and then preaches the stain in the bottom of the cup.’ Thereby, sermons turn out to be ‘didactic devices,’ more about arguments to persuade listeners to buy into these propositions, and less about texts and what they (or their authors) are doing. All this may even imply that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, that is, the reduction of the text into one or more propositions, one can abandon the text itself.

This, Kuruvilla, insists is not the way. Instead, the sermon is about what the author is doing with the passage. The preacher is a tour guide, a docent,[6] and his role is to point out what the biblical author is doing with the text—not to re-package it into a “point” or “big idea” to be argued to the congregation.[7] The text is not a plain glass window the preacher points through towards some “big idea” beyond. Rather, it is a stained-glass window the reader must look at.[8]  

So, Kuruvilla argues, the author is doing something with the text. There is a layer behind the onion of the simple words. For example, pretend my wife says, “the trash is full!” She is indeed telling me the trash is full, but she really wants to move me to action—she wants me to take the trash out![9] So, Kuruvilla’s point is there is no “big idea” or “big argument” or “series of points.” There is only the preacher as tour guide, showing what the author is doing, in his context.

Application

This means, for Kuruvilla, application is always based on the theology of the passage.[10] “Specifically, the ‘theology’ in the “theological hermeneutic” proposed here is pericopal theology, not biblical or systematic theology.”[11] Each text has a message for God’s people. It might be more than one “big idea.” Whatever the passage communicates, whatever the author is doing with his message, that is the basis for application.[12]

Ironically, Kuruvilla manages his best explanation of his view (his “Big Idea,” perhaps!) in an academic article, not in this book:[13]

What is needed in the pulpit, then, is a creative exegesis of the text undertaken with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing—pericopal theology—enabling their experience of the text + theology.

The sermon is not a lecture; “my three points this morning are on the screen!” The sermon is where the pastor pulls back the curtain and show what he found behind it in his own study.[14] This is the great challenge—to structure sermons in an engaging, inductive way to let the congregation “see” the theology of the passage.

Kuruvilla’s book is a tour de force. It is a breath of fresh air from the redemptive-historical and other biblical theology approaches that seek to impose a framework for application into each text. Bryan Chapell recommends we use “gospel glasses” to see redemption in every text.[15] This is incorrect—some passages just are not about redemption, and to make them so will rip them out of context.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 7. 

[2] I will routinely use the phrase “passage,” whereas Kuruvilla prefers “pericope.” His definition is more expansive than normal. “Though the term is usually applied to portions of the Gospels, I use it in this work to indicate a slice of text in any genre that is utilized in Christian worship for preaching. In other words, a ‘pericope’ is simply a preaching text, regardless of genre or even size. It is through pericopes, read and exposited in congregations as the basic units of Scripture, that God’s people corporately encounter God’s word,” (Ibid, p. 116).

[3] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 35. 

[4] “The modus operandi of the ‘old’ homiletic is to put the text through a grinder and then preach, in points, the pulverized propositional products that come out of the contraption,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, pp. 95-96).

[5] Ibid, p. 99. 

[6] “… we must reconceive the role of preachers. I propose the analogy of a curator or docent guiding visitors in an art museum through a series of paintings Each text is a picture, the preacher is the curator, and the sermon is a curating of the text-picture and its thrust for the congregants, gallery visitors. A sermon is thus more a demonstration of the thrust of the text than an argument validating a proposition. A creative exegesis of the text is undertaken in the pulpit with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing. The sermon unveils the author’s agenda. The distillation of the text into points and propositions is thereby obviated. Instead, as Long describes, the preacher is a “witness” of the text, to the text—equivalent to my analogy of the preacher being a curator of the text-picture,” (Ibid, pp. 103-104).

[7] “Thus, for the longest time, preaching has been conducted as a forensic argument that proves the putative proposition of the text for the congregation—an act of reasoning, a parceling of information, and an appeal to the cognitive faculties of listeners to bring them to a rational conviction about that proposition,” (Ibid, pp. 100-101). 

[8] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018), 831.  

[9] This is actually Kuruvilla’s own hypothetical example from his conversation with Hershel York on York’s Pastor Well podcast. “Episode 36: Abraham Kuruvilla discusses hermeneutics and the gift of singleness,” (19 August 2019). Retrieved from https://equip.sbts.edu/podcast/episode-36-abraham-kuruvilla-discusses-hermeneutics-gift-singleness/.

[10] “What the pericope affirms in its theology forms the basis of the subsequent move to derive application,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, p. 121).  

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 122. 

[13] Kuruvilla, “Big Idea,” 842.  

[14] Ibid, 843.  

[15] “A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Bryan Chapell, “Redemptive-Historic View,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics, ed. Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018], p. 16).

The pit of despair …

The pit of despair …

Homiletics and Hermeneutics, edited by Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim, is a great primer for weighing various homiletical approaches. The editors explain, “This book is about teasing out the theological presuppositions of approaches to preaching. That is, we want to explore the hermeneutic that lies behind one’s theology of preaching.”[1] The four views they present are:

  1. Redemptive-Historical (Bryan Chapell)
  2. Christiconic (Abraham Kuruvilla)
  3. Theocentric (Kenneth Langley)
  4. Law-Gospel (Paul Wilson)

This issue here is not about preaching methodology. It is about the presupposition behind the methodology. The authors disagree about the unifying theme behind scripture. Where is God going. What is He doing? What has He been doing?

  • Is the story of the bible about redemption and the Cross? Chapell explains, “Christ-centered preaching, rightly understood, does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every biblical text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ’s ministry.”[2]
  • What about God? Is all scripture about Him and His glory? Langley insists, “Theology proper is the preacher’s best lens for seeing and displaying the unity of the Bible. Other lenses, like covenant, law-gospel, or redemptive-historic, elucidate some texts but not all, or at least not all texts equally well.”[3]
  • Sanctification? Is that the great telos of God’s story? Then go with Kuruvilla. “Jesus Christ alone has comprehensively abided by the theology of every pericope of Scripture. Thus, each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ (a facet of Christ’s image), showing us what it means to perfectly fulfill, as he did, the particular call of that pericope. The Bible as a whole, the collection of all its pericopes, then, portrays what a perfect human looks like, exemplified by Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the perfect Man: the plenary image of Christ.”[4]
  • What about law and Gospel? Wilson writes, “Every text already implies both law and gospel, even if every preacher has not been taught to recognize them.”[5]

The authors agree on much, and perhaps talk past each other.[6] This book’s value is in letting the pastor seehow a unifying theme may (or, may not) act as a straightjacket on the text. I propose a simple test:

  • If the interpretive grid will not let Song of Solomon 4 and Genesis 38 say what the text so plainly says, then it is invalid and ought to be discarded.

I will apply this test to Song of Solomon 4. To be blunt, the text shows us two people who are eager for their wedding night. Of course, there is something more going on here. Something for the congregation to learn. Which model handles this text responsibly?

  • Redemptive-historical. Chapell would use his “gospel glasses”[7] to see how Song 4 reflected the Gospel message. Presumably, he would do something akin to “righteousness of marital love” + “fall” + “Jesus’ love for the Church” = redemption.
  • Christiconic. Kuruvilla would seek the “world in front of the text”[8] to explain how this sexual marital bliss helps Christians become more Christlike.[9] His application would focus on God’s plan for marital love, and suggest concrete steps towards action.  
  • Law-Gospel. Wilson would look for both “trouble” and “grace,”[10] and if necessary engage in mirror reading to fill out his “four pages” scheme.[11] At the risk of sounding crass, I must insist that for the protagonists in Song 4, there is no “trouble” on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  • Theocentric. Langley would take this marital bliss and tie it to God’s design for men and women in marriage, and close with doxology to a God who cares about His people.[12]

Kuruvilla’s model does the most justice to the text as it stands. To be sure, each author has interesting and helpful contributions. But, the Christ-iconic framework allows us to more consistently cast the hermeneutical straitjackets into the Goodwill donation bin and let the texts speak for themselves.[13] Langley warns us:[14]

Lay people learn hermeneutics from their pastors’ preaching. Whether we like it or not, they learn how to interpret Scripture from how we handle Scripture in the pulpit. So what do we teach listeners about hermeneutics when Jesus makes a surprise appearance in a sermon from Proverbs? When it turns out Song of Solomon is not really about God’s gift of married sex but about Christ’s love for his church? When redemption trumps creation as the theological underpinning of every sermon? When texts are not handled with integrity because every Sunday the preacher follows the counsel to “make a beeline to the cross.”

He continues:[15]

People have a right to expect that a sermon will say what the Bible says. But if we import Christology (or law-gospel, or kingdom, or any other theme) into texts, do we not unintentionally communicate that texts are pretexts for talking about something else?

Amen to this.


[1] Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.), xi-xii.

[2] Ibid, p. 7. 

[3] Ibid, p. 89. 

[4] Ibid, p. 59. 

[5] Ibid, p. 129. 

[6] For example, Kuruvilla scolds Langley in his response: “Sermon after sermon, week after week, one is left strumming, striking, and scraping the same few strings and chords of theological themes found in Scripture. Instead, I suggest that preachers expound the concrete specificities of the pericope in question and the particulars of life change it calls for,” (Ibid, p. 111). If every one of Langley’s sermons is indeed about God, then Kuruvilla is correct. I do not know if that is the case!

[7] “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Ibid, p. 16).

[8] “… the interpretation of Scripture cannot cease with the elucidation of its linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements: what the author is saying (semantics). It must proceed further to discern the world in front of the text: what the author is doing (pragmatics). And this projected world forms the intermediary between text and application, enabling one to respond validly to the text,” (Ibid, p. 54).

[9] “… each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ,” (Ibid, p. 59).

[10] “Sometimes I opt for alternate terms like ‘trouble’ and ‘grace,’ although the law is not appropriately reduced simply to trouble. Still, trouble and grace can provide a simpler route to the preaching of the good news,” (Ibid, p. 121).

[11] “This mirroring function of law and gospel is a principle of inversion,” (Ibid, p. 131).

[12] “Preachers may take up a variety of texts and topics, but they should take them up (and their hearers with them) all the way into the presence of God, so that listeners are instructed by the Word of God, convinced of the value of God, captivated by the holiness, grace, kingship, wisdom, and beauty of God. Preaching is all about and all for God,” (Ibid, pp. 81-82).

[13] Langley observed, “We may appreciate, for example, the kingdom lens, but find that it works better in the Synoptic Gospels than in large swaths of Scripture where the kingdom theme is not prominent. Or we may appreciate a traditional Lutheran lens, but discover that law and gospel are not present in every text,” (Ibid, p. 89).

[14] Ibid, pp. 96-97. 

[15] Ibid, p. 97. 

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is an invitation to pastors to examine their hearts, and it is excellent. It is what Richard Baxter wished he could he done, had he not been such a self-righteous bore. Tripp has a counseling ministry and travels regularly, seeing churches and leadership teams up close and personal nearly 40 weeks per year. Before he wrote this book, Tripp often taught these same themes at pre-conference events for pastors. He explains the genesis of this book:[1]

When I finished and came off the platform, a long line of concerned and broken pastors formed in front of me. About five pastors down the line stood a man who wept his way toward me. I think I could have set up a counseling office for two weeks, full-time, and still not have ministered to all the needs that stood before me. It was at this conference that I determined that I would speak to these issues and do all that I could to minister to my fellow pastors. This book is the result of that clear moment of calling.

Tripp’s book falls neatly into three sections; (1) pastoral culture generally, (2) forgetting who God is, and (3) forgetting who you are. He explains what he wants the book to achieve:[2]

This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart- and life-exposing mirror of the Word of God—to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Throughout, Tripp offers personal anecdotes of failure and doubt to emphasize that he is not standing above the fray, sniping at busy pastors. He has been there. He has seen it. He has experienced it. He has failed. This is why his message is effective. Tripp empathizes and encourages you to be better.

This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change. It is written to make you uncomfortable, to motivate you toward change.[3]

Indeed, Tripp’s work is essentially a modern-day The Reformed Pastor, only his work is actually helpful. Baxter, on the other hand, sneers at you, grinds your face into the mud with a polished jackboot, then screams at you about Christ (see my review of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor here).

This review will focus on two particularly great chapters from Tripp, and one problem that is perhaps not his fault, but still a bit jarring.

His third chapter, titled “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease,” is outstanding. Tripp discusses people he calls “theologeeks.” These are academic pastors who have little patience to deal with real people, and prefer to revel in scholasticism. “They love the academy and would unwittingly drag the academy into the local church and preach sermons that are more theological lectures than gospel meditations.”[4]

Tripp recounts what happened during one of his practical theology courses at Westminster Theological Seminary:[5]

I was recounting my own heart struggle, when I had been asked yet again to visit a man who had already eaten up much of my pastoral time and energy, when one of my students raised his hand and blurted out, “All right, Professor Tripp, we know that we will have these projects in our churches. Tell us what to do with them so we can get back to the work of the ministry!”

There are many things to pay attention to in his statement, but notice this: he didn’t even call the struggling people, to whom we are all called to bring the gospel, “people.” To him they were projects, that is, obstructions in the way of his definition of ministry. Now, if these people are not the focus and object of ministry, then what is ministry? There was no love for people in this student’s statement, and if there was no love for people in his vision of ministry, then it is safe to conclude that there was little operational love for Christ either. He was like many other idea, technology-of-theology guys who populated so many of my classes.

This is astonishing behavior. One wonders how a young man could ever ask such a question. One immediately wonders if this man is connected to local church ministry in any meaningful way. No person who is “in the trenches” could ever dismiss real people so flippantly as “projects” who detract from “real ministry.”

Tripp goes on to lament the “systemic”[6] problem he sees in seminary training, which is an icy intellectualism. “Have we accomplished our training task if we produce generations of graduates who have big theological brains but tragically diseased hearts? Must we not hold together theological training and personal transformation?”[7]

Seminary professors used to be experienced churchmen, Tripp writes, but increasingly they are now academic specialists who beget more people just like them. “So the energy in the classroom was not cloning a new generation of pastors but cloning experts in apologetics, ethics, systematics, church history, and biblical languages. It has been a subtle but seismic change in the culture of the seminary and the kind of results it produces.”[8]

I have seen this in myself. This is actually the thing I fear most about myself; an icy intellectualism that freezes out joy. I am naturally a nerdy person, and am currently reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics at bedtime for fun. I think of sermons I preached years ago, and shudder. I look at sermon notes from those days, and recoil in horror. They are running commentaries, not sermons.

I also fear I compensate too much by going in the opposite direction, by not going deep enough in my preaching. I had a recent conversation with another pastor. The man spoke with joy about the chiastic structure in a psalm he would preach for an upcoming mid-week service and how Hebrew wordplay reminded him of something from Exodus. I thought of the people in the congregation where I serve and thought, “People are in debt. People have bad marriages. People are tired. On Wednesday evenings, they don’t need to care about chiastic structure. They just need God’s word to help them get through the week.” Am I wrong? Have I become subtly anti-intellectual?  

In his 12th chapter, “Self-Glory,” Tripp asks us to think about whether we are subtly worshipping ourselves. He presents a hypothetical pastor and writes:[9]

He was convinced that most of the strategic things that needed to be done would be best done by him. Fewer and fewer people were commissioned to do ministry tasks. No, fellow leaders were more and more tasked with support duties because the larger ministry duties were all done by him.

This was particularly hard hitting, because I tend to be a perfectionist. Am I this way because I think I am better than anyone else? Tripp asks, “Where do you attempt to control things that you don’t need to control? Where do you find it hard to delegate ministry to others?”[10] This introspection of mine demonstrates just how well Tripp succeeded in penning a diagnostic book for pastors.

The one grouse I have with Tripp is that he ministers in larger and wealthier context than most pastors will ever see. He exists in the realm of the megachurch, or at least the very large church. This makes his attempts to “relate” strained and artificial at times. For example, Tripp rightly criticizes pastors for phoning in mediocre sermons, then writes:[11]

… I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks. This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.

This is a world the ordinary pastor will never experience. Tripp has apparently never had to preach or teach several times per week, help troubleshoot problems in the soundbooth, field questions about Zoom issues and work a day job … all at the same time. Tripp clearly has time on his hands, so his anecdote here is not helpful.

In another section, he introduces a hypothetical burned out pastor. Solemnly, Tripp writes “[t]he door to his office was shut more now than it had been, and he delegated more of his duties to his executive pastor.”[12]

An executive pastor? Any shepherd of a smaller, ordinary church will surely laugh out loud. Where can I find one of these “executive pastors” to whom I can delegate work!?

These quibbles aside, Tripp’s book is excellent. It fulfills its quest to be a diagnostic tool for busy pastors. It makes you think. It makes you examine your heart. It encourages. It is refreshing. Sadly, perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that James MacDonald, Joshua Harris, and Tullian Tchividjian are among the seven pastors who penned jacket endorsements. Each crashed, burned, and left his ministry since Tripp’s work was published.  


[1] Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 32. 

[2] Ibid, p. 11. 

[3] Ibid, pp. 11-12. 

[4] Ibid, p. 44. 

[5] Ibid.  

[6] Ibid, p. 46. 

[7] Ibid, p. 52. 

[8] Ibid, p. 53. 

[9] Ibid, p. 169. 

[10] Ibid, p. 170. 

[11] Ibid, p. 149. Emphasis mine.

[12] Ibid, p. 125. 

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Richard Baxter’s work The Reformed Pastor was first published in 1656 and is commonly considered a classic. Many seminaries recommend the book, and most pastors with graduate training are aware of it. J.I. Packer penned the introduction for the Banner of Truth edition, and after studying the work one can appreciate why Packer was forced to acknowledge the following:[1]

… Baxter was a poor performer in public life. Though always respected for his godliness and pastoral prowess, and always seeking doctrinal and ecclesiastical peace, his combative, judgmental, pedagogic way of proceeding with his peers made failure a foregone conclusion every time … his lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot.

Packer called it like a fortune-teller. Some guys know how to encourage pastors. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he was there to help.

Baxter’s text was to be delivered at a pastor’s meeting in December 1655, but he was “disabled from going thither” and fashioned his remarks into what became The Reformed Pastor.[2]His aim was to encourage pastors to be more diligent by exposing “the sins of the ministry.” Baxter, anticipating angry howls from his peers, launched a defensive salvo by proclaiming “plain dealers will always be approved in the end; and the time is at hand when you will confess that they were your best friends.”[3] It is fair to assume Baxter did not have many Facebook friends.

Baxter’s burden was to demonstrate that pastors were generally lazy and undiligent and must become diligent. In short, he wished to consider how to stir pastors up to good works. He explained the book’s outline:[4]

I wish to propose the following method:

First, To consider what it is to take heed to ourselves. Secondly, To show why we must take heed to ourselves. Thirdly, To inquire what it is to take heed to all the flock. Fourthly, To illustrate the manner in which we must take heed to all the flock. Fifthly, To state some motives why we should take heed to all the flock. Lastly, To make some application of the whole.

This list is deceptive, however, because this “application of the whole” takes up approximately 50% of the text (pp. 133-256) and is quite tedious. Like a pastor who re-preaches his sermon during the conclusion, Baxter circles the airport like a wounded 747 and never quite “lands” his plane.

Baxter says much that is good. Unfortunately, he lacked a good editor. The book is perhaps 50% too long. Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They are very helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, one begins to really dislike Baxter.

He explains Pastors must guard their own hearts:[5]

If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God – if you will not make this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers …

Baxter shows prophetic powers when he rails against hypocrisy. “What a difference was there between their pulpit speeches and their familiar discourse? They that were most impatient of barbarisms, solecisms, and paralogisms in a sermon, could easily tolerate them in their life and conversation.”[6] He could be referring to social media!

Pastors must look after every member of the flock, even if means downsizing or securing assistance and taking a pay cut. “If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and child cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less?”[7]

He warns:

We must carry on our work with patience. We must bear from many abuses and injuries from those to whom we seek to do good. When we have studied for them, and prayed for them, and exhorted them, and beseeched them with all earnestness and condescension, and given them what we are able, and tended them as if they had been our children, we must look that many of them will requite is with scorn and hatred and contempt, and account us their enemies, because we ‘tell them the truth.’

In all, the first half of Baxter’s book is ponderous but helpful. It convicts. It exhorts. It helps. Here, in this paraphrase of Baxter’s outline for “motives to the oversight of the flock,” we see a representative sample of this qualified praise:[8]

  1. Pastors are overseers of the flock
    • You must therefore take heed to the flock
    • You agreed to be a pastor, so suck it up and do your job[9]
    • You have the great honor to be an ambassador for the gospel, so go do it
    • Do not take the blessings of your pastoral position for granted
    • Be found faithful
  2. The Holy Spirit made you a pastor, so “take heed to it”
  3. How could you be unfaithful to the Church of God?
  4. Christ purchased the Church with His blood, so “shall we despise the blood of Christ?”

This cycle of (1) assertion of sin, then (2) exhortation to be faithful repeats over and over. But, by the time Baxter turns to “make some application of the whole,” the book is only halfway over. What new information does Baxter impart?

His focus is on catechizing. “I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto.”[10] However, this emphasis is of little use to Baptist pastors who believe the New Covenant is only for regenerate believers.[11] At once, the object of his exhortations have been rendered moot for Baptist ministers, who are forced to make general application only.

Baxter begins the application section by spending 39 pages trying to convince pastors to repent of their sloth.[12] “What pains do we take to humble them, while we ourselves are unhumbled!”[13] In short, he beats a dying horse with gusto and drove this pastor to personal despair.

One is tempted to shout at the book, “Yes, I admit I’m not the best pastor ever! Leave me alone, Saint Baxter!” It is doubtful a sentient being has yet lived who would not melt under Baxter’s steely Puritan gaze. Again, a paraphrased outline makes the point:

  1. We have great pride (9 pages)
  2. We are lazy (4 pages):
    • “If we were duly devoted to our work, we should not be so negligent in our studies.”[14]
    • “If were heartily devoted to our work, it would be done more vigorously, and more seriously, than it is by most of us.”[15]
    • “If we are heartily devoted to the work of God, why do we not compassionate the poor unprovided congregations around us, and take care to help them find able ministers …?”[16]
  3. We are too worldly (6 pages):
    • We wed ourselves to whatever political party happens to be in power.
    • We do not speak the truth because it will harm our interests.
    • We hoard our money and are not charitable.
  4. We are sectarian (12 pages).
  5. We do not exercise church discipline (4 pages).

If this were not enough, after a brief discussion of how to catechize,[17] Baxter circles the airport once again in his 747 with 17 pages of “motives from the necessity of this work” and “applications” thereof, in which he largely repeats himself. These pages are filled with exhortations that have grown annoying (and worse) by their incessant repetition:

And if you pity them, will you not do this much for their salvation?[18]

Oh what a dreadful thing it is to answer for the neglect of such a charge! and what sin more heinous than the betraying of souls?[19]

What cause have we to bleed before the Lord this day, that we have neglected so great and good a work for so long …?[20]

And now, brethren, what have we to do for the time to come, but to deny our lazy flesh, and rouse up ourselves to the work before us.[21]

After continuing in this vein, Baxter summons a crescendo of 15 itemized “condemnation[s] that is like to befall negligent pastors.”[22] Baxter assures us that (among other things) our parents will condemn us, our training will condemn us, “all that Christ hath done and suffered for” will condemn us, all Scripture “will rise up and condemn us,” and all our sermons will condemn us.

Baxter is clearly a man with a burden. Unfortunately, his burden for catechizing is not applicable for Baptist ministers. Because he held to Presbyterian polity and came from a “State church” context, Baxter assumed the members of his “parish” were New Covenant members because they had been baptized. Baptists believe only believers are New Covenant members. Where Baxter wanted to catechize, Baptists would evangelize.

Also, his attempts at exhortation degenerate into guilt trips from overuse, and his entire work has a superior, snobby sort of air to it. It cannot be described. It must be experienced. To this bi-vocational pastor, it largely increased feelings of inadequacy that were already present. I will not read it again and would never recommend it. As the learned archeologist Dr. Henry Jones often remarked in a different context, “it belongs in a museum.”


[1] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2012), 10-11.  

[2] Ibid, 38.  

[3] Ibid, 39.  

[4] Ibid, 52.  

[5] Ibid, 62.  

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Ibid, 91-92.  

[8] Ibid, 124-132.  

[9] “Consider that it is by your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church. And doth not common honesty bind you to be true to your trust?” (Ibid, 127).  

[10] Ibid, 172.  

[11] Some dispensationalists believe the New Covenant has no application to the Church. I will not engage that position, here.

[12] Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 133-172.  

[13] Ibid, 133.  

[14] Ibid, 146.  

[15] Ibid, 147.  

[16] Ibid, 150.  

[17] Ibid, 172-194.  

[18] Ibid, 198.  

[19] Ibid, 199.  

[20] Ibid, 200.  

[21] Ibid, 202.  

[22] Ibid, 205-211.  

The End of White Christian America

The End of White Christian America

I originally wrote this review in October 2019 for publication at another site, but forgot to post it here.

Robert P. Jones wrote The End of White Christian America in 2016. He’s the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, and holds a PhD in religion from Emory and an MDiv from Southwestern. He’s a clever and engaging writer, and opens with an obituary for “White Christian America” (“WCA”). In this “eulogy,” he explained that WCA had been ill for some time, but the disease became terminal after the 2004 presidential election:1

The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors—complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.

Jones writes from a progressive Christian perspective, and he sheds few tears at the death of WCA. His thesis is that a particular cultural era has ended in America; an era largely shaped and defined by WCA.2

What is WCA?

This is the million-dollar question, but (for me, at least) the biggest initial stumbling-block is that Jones decided to use a framework that generalizes Christians of various theological stripes by the color of their skin.3 It’s these white Protestants, Jones argues, who have lost their grip on the culture and are fast fading into obscurity.

After about two months of reflection, I’ve decided that Jones wasn’t trying to broad-brush Christianity by skin color. Instead, he uses WCA as an update on the old “WASP” label; it’s a shorthand for a particular expression of cultural Christianity.4

In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities. White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.

America has long been dominated by complementary religious visions, and although these visions had different theological content, they shared a belief in American exceptionalism. It’s white Protestants who had the cultural cachet to shape and influence American society in their respective ecclesiastical orbits. But, Jones argued, that time has now passed. He observed,5

There are, to be sure, pockets of the country where the spirit of White Christian America still seems alive and well—like midwestern and southern exurbs, where lively megachurches have followed the outmigration of whites from cities, and rural communities, where churches and pastors continue to have vital social roles. But even within these reassuringly insular settings, it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole. And that realization—both for those inside and outside WCA’s domain—marks something genuinely new in American life.

Jones builds his introductory chapter around three grand buildings that act as foils to tell his story:

  • The United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which opened in 1923 (white, mainline optimism)
  • The Interchurch Center in New York City, which opened in 1960 (white, mainline ecumenicism)
  • The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, which opened in 1980 (white evangelical protestant resurgence).

Jones explained:6

At each building’s opening ceremony, white Protestant leaders spoke in prophetic tones about the indispensable place of Christianity in upholding America’s moral and political health. Today, though, all of these buildings have a different purpose from their founders’ ambitions. Each edifice has adapted—or even been transformed—to reflect the realities of a swiftly changing country. Indeed, through the life of these buildings, we can see the decline of white Protestant dominance amid the steady diversification of the American religious landscape.

An era has ended forever. America’s religious landscape will never again be dominated by white Protestants. It isn’t so much that the color of American Christianity has changed (though it has). Rather, it’s that an America-centric civil religion has passed from the scene and it will never return.

So what?

Jones has few solutions to offer a confessional evangelical. But, his description of the problem is invaluable. America is not what it once was, and Christians cannot operate as they once did – as if Ronald Reagan were still in the White House. Jones frames the spectrum of responses to this reality by drawing parallels to one psychiatrist’s description of the five stages of grief at impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Jones argues (and I agree) that while mainline Protestants have long since adapted to the changed operating environment, white evangelicals have not.7

We see the spectrum of responses in our churches. Denial and anger are common, especially among the older demographic who remember a different America; one characterized by Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority. It was, to paraphrase George Marsden, a dime-store civil religion – but it was real.

Throughout their history, white evangelicals have developed a rich lexicon of apocalyptic anger. Evangelical sermons and hymns are infused with martial imagery, and nostalgic “re-” words like “reclaim,” “restore,” “renew,” “repent,” and “revive” are staple fare. This vocabulary originates in the evangelical theological emphasis on human sin and divine judgment, but it’s bolstered socially by evangelicals’ self-perception as an outgunned minority struggling valiantly against outside powers.8

We see this in our churches in intense suspicion about Muslims, immigrants, and the sexual revolution. Pastors thunder forth with bombast about “America turning its back on God!” In these circles, there is little more than lip-service on bringing Christianity’s substantial theological weapons to bear to win these individuals to Christ. Rather, there is a pervasive fear of “them” and visceral anger that “America is under attack.”  

Bargaining is the stage at which Christians hope to reach an accommodation; an armistice of sorts. In practical terms, it usually manifests itself as a series of desperate moves intended to showcase WCA hegemony in an attempt to force a ceasefire. Jones highlights numerous cases, all in the South, where Republican legislators have attempted to introduce bills to make the Bible the “official state book.”9 He also notes Mississippi’s decision to add “in God we trust” to the State seal.10 Jones observed,11

The need to forcefully elevate their Christian status reflects white Christian lawmakers’ fear that for an increasing number of citizens the Bible and God are no longer a guiding cultural force. These efforts amount to little more than bargaining beside the deathbed of White Christian America.

Jones showcases two theologians who epitomize the depression and acceptance stages in WCA. The first is Stanley Hauerwas, whose 1989 book Resident Aliens was a clarion call to a mainline constituency to forsake civil religion and embrace its status as a colony of outsiders in a hostile world. This is one of the most profound books on ecclesiology I have ever read. Hauerwas wrote:

[W]e believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith12 … A tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition. This book is about a renewed sense of what it means to be Christian, more precisely, of what it means to be pastors who care for Christians, in a distinctly changed world.13

The other book is Onward, published by Russell Moore in 2015, who is at his best when critiquing the civil religion of the American South. “The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”14

It’s in his last chapter where Jones’ analysis mercilessly rips the security blanket off our evangelical consciences and forces us to realize that America has changed. This chapter has some of Jones’ best writing and his most apt illustrations:

Today, White Christian America’s faded cultural map is increasingly inaccurate. Like retirees setting out on a trip with their 1950s AAA road atlas, the graying descendants of WCA find themselves frequently pulling off the road in disbelief and frustration as they encounter new routes and cities that are not on their map. The slow death of WCA has left many with a haunting sense of dislocation.15

What a picture! What pastor has not experienced this whirlwind sense of dislocation, as if he were a latter-day Rip Van Winkle and had awoken in another era? What Christian over age 65 has not felt the same – and said so at prayer meetings?

Today, confronted with a range of shifts—from changing neighborhoods to gay marriage attitudes—the descendants of White Christian America are confronted with a diversity-and-youth-driven country that seems alien to their sense of what it means to be American.16

“Christian America” was a reality for so long, but it isn’t a reality any longer. To be “American” is not to be a Christian – certainly not a Republican.

Confronted with the psychic discomfort that results from a lack of cultural confidence and security, the greatest threat to White Christian America’s descendants is the siren song of nostalgia. Faced with an unfamiliar cultural landscape, today’s white mainline Protestants may find it easier to skip excursions altogether, preferring instead to huddle in their homes and churches around yellowing photo albums of journeys past.17

Who has not sat back, trying to recapture a little of the glory of those days from long ago? But, as the song goes, time slips away and leaves you with nothing but boring stories …

Jones sees a bright future, but a different one. His progressive theology allows him to see hope in LGBTQ inclusion and a particular expression of racial reconciliation. “The death of White Christian America marks the end of an era in the nation’s life. For many, it is a cause for considerable grief; for others, relief or even celebration. But this much is clear: in the soil fertilized by White Christian America’s remains, new life is taking root.”18

For evangelicals, Jones’ book is a sober warning. It forces us to confront a rapidly changing America. Those of us who minister in secular contexts already understand this. What will we do? How should we re-calibrate our perspective, emphasis and expectations to exegete our culture as it is, not as it was during the Carter administration? Jones has few relevant answers to offer, but he sure pinpoints the problem. Along the way, he points us to two men who do have some answers – Hauerwas and Moore. Hauerwas noted:19

A few may still believe that by electing a few “Christian” senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a “Christian” culture, or at least one that is a bit more just. But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic. All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer “our world”—if it ever was.

Indeed. What will we do about it?

Notes

1 Jones, White Christian America, 1.

2 Jones spends considerable time discussing politics, family and race in WCA as a means to prove that WCA is, indeed, dead and gone. I chose to not discuss that in this review and restricted myself to his main thesis – WCA is dead and Christians are facing a new world.

3 Ibid, 31. “Throughout the book, I use the term White Christian America to describe the domain of white Protestants in America. In the twentieth century, White Christian America developed along two main branches: a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region.”

4 Ibid, 38-39.

5 Ibid, 39-40.

6 Ibid, 7-8.

7 Ibid, 198.

8 Ibid, 203.

9 Ibid, 208-209.

10 Ibid, 209.

11 Ibid, 212.

12 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 15.

13 Ibid, 14.

14 Russell Moore, Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 7.

15 Jones, White Christian America, 229.

16 Ibid, 229-230.

17 Ibid, 230.

18 Ibid, 240.

19 Resident Aliens, 16-17.

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

I was assigned this 27-year old text for a DMin class for two reasons; because it’s a good book, and because it was written long enough ago so that I can appreciate that some challenges are perennial. It was written by James Means, a long-time faculty member at Denver Seminary. Here’s the back cover, which explains what the book is all about:

This is a good book. Means rigorously organizes all his chapters with detailed headings and sub-headings. Indeed, one gets the impression the book began life as a series of bullet-pointed lecture notes tucked into a battered portfolio. The advantage is superior organization. The downside is a relentless series of hammer blows that smite the poor pastor with his own inadequacies. Each sub-heading brings a fresh swing of a nail-studded 2×4 to the head.

At the end, the pastor might be inspired. But, he may be demoralized and staggering from the cumulative blows of Means’ sub-headings. Some pastors would finish the book ready to quit. What sentient being is equal to the principles herein? Has such a man ever existed?

To be clear, Means wrote an excellent book. Its downfall is that the cumulative weight of “an effective pastor MUST DO THIS” over several chapters is crushing. This is a good book that is best considered a reference work. Or, perhaps the pastor should ration his chapter readings.

However, because I am a bi-vocational pastor with insufficient time to do all I must do in ministry, perhaps I am just grumpy. I generally do not like “how to be a better pastor” books.

Rather than cover each chapter, I will highlight some areas which I think are particularly important.

Pastoral competence

In his first chapter, “What’s It Going To Take?” Means tackles leadership competence. This, Means argues, is the key to effective ministry.[1] He organizes his discussion around an effective pastor’s character imperatives, then his requisite skills. Here are his character imperatives:

  1. Personal integrity.
  2. Spiritual vitality. “Few things are more tragic than pastors who hang onto their credentials and pulpits, but who have long since lost spiritual legitimacy. Such burned-out relics have nothing to offer the people …”[2]
  3. Common sense. “Clergy who lack common sense rarely succeed at anything worthwhile.”[3]
  4. Passion for ministry.

Here are the character skills:

  1. Scriptural expertise. “Pastoral ministry consists chiefly in the diagnosis of spiritual disease and the prescription of biblical directives for cure.”[4]
  2. Cultural sensitivity. “We must figure out the cultural characteristics of our ministry locale, draft a strategy for the penetration of the community with the gospel, muster resources, and lead churches toward effective ministry in their communities – whatever cultural traits and peculiarities we encounter.”[5]
  3. Relational aptitude. “The tragic three-years-or-less cycle of pastoral turnover indicates interpersonal bumbling, among other things. Botched relationships about many a promising ministry.”[6]
  4. Communication skills.
  5. Leadership ability. “Pastoral leadership includes organizational skills, critical thinking, analysis of problems, strategic envisioning, galvanizing a constituency, and enabling groups to achieve worthwhile objectives.”[7]

Means’ advice is timeless and relevant. His point about cultural sensitivity, which he later terms “culturally informed exegesis,”[8] is especially prescient. I believe this is the most critical part of pastoral leadership; the ability to adapt to the community where you are. The capacity to discard or re-image models to fit your ministry reality; to best connect with the people to whom you are ministering. “The basic categories assumed in the Christian story are no longer taken for granted,”[9] and pastors must understand the culture so they can lead a congregation to reach it effectively.

Do you have a plan to make a plan?

Perhaps the most practical thing a pastor can do is to make a plan; to figure out (1) what Jesus wants a local church to do, (2) what your congregational resources are,[10] (3) what your community is like, and thus (4) how you plan to do what Jesus wants with what you have.

I never saw a pastor model this for me. I did see pastors preach faithfully and love their people. But, I did not see a deliberate plan to do what Jesus wants. Means’ fifth chapter, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” lays out a plan to do just that. He presents principles for both (1) pastoral philosophy, (2) church philosophy, then (3) presents some models.

This chapter was particularly interesting because the other pastor and I had just formulated our vision for the congregation before I read this book. Means explains, “Competent pastors and successful churches owe their effectiveness largely to their sense of identity: they know why they are, what they stand for, where they are going, and how to get there.”[11]

Pastoral philosophy

Here are his reflective questions to help pastors figure out the principles, beliefs, and values they bring to the ministry:

  1. Relationships. “Wise pastors decide carefully the degree of transparency and intimacy that should characterize their ministry. Sometimes it becomes necessary to struggle vigorously against the natural inclinations of one’s personality.”[12]
  2. Change. “To what degree should pastors aggressively seek change or preserve the status quo?”[13]
  3. Preaching-teaching. Means suggests pastors figure out rather quickly what kind of preaching they will do; exposition, encouragement and exhortation, verse-by-verse commentary, people’s needs, contemporary topics, or entertainment? “[C]hurches that stumble along in mediocrity usually have pastors with no discernable philosophy of preaching.”[14] This is a simplistic and shallow observation.
  4. Role definition. Play to your strengths, and know your weaknesses. Fail to do that “breeds mediocrity, disappointment, and failure.”[15]
  5. Time Management. “A worthy philosophy of ministry not only clarifies primary and long-range responsibilities, but also dictates how time is managed so that those duties ate fulfilled honorably.”[16]
  6. Leadership style. “To what degree and on what issues should pastors be autocratic, participatory, or laissez-faire?”[17]

These are good, timeless principles. They are a bit abstract and theoretical because context is a significant factor in each of these propositions. I think the “preaching-teaching” comments are off-base. A pastor must use each style in his pulpit ministry and seek to improve where he is deficient. There should be no one, single model of preaching; even the selection of text will largely determine how you frame the message.

Church philosophy

  1. Declaration of mission. Means suggests churches understand their mission as five-fold, encompassing worship, evangelism, edification, fellowship, and social concern. “Some churches may add or subtract from this list and most churches place a greater emphasis on one or two of these than on the others.”[18] Means offers no justification for the social concern category; an issue I shall address later.
  2. Adoption of goals. Once you know your mission, you can produce goals to make these missions happen.“Spiritual leaders must exercise care that these basic goals do not become either so general as to be meaningless or so numerous as to be overwhelming and self-defeating. No church can do everything well.”[19]
  3. Priorities achieved by consensus. “The determination of philosophical priorities flows from decisions about church goals – or ought to.” Means warns, “[a] church sets itself up for disaster when squeaky wheels decide priorities contrary to established church goals.”[20]
  4. Clear governmental structures. “The particular government structure does not seem to matter as much as does its clarity and functional efficiency.”[21]
  5. Unanimity of values. Means suggests this is the most difficult aspect of a church philosophy. “Church values are shared beliefs about what is important, good, useful and rewarding.”[22]
  6. Efficient methodology. This is an awkward umbrella category into which Means stuffs five other criteria, in a manner analogous to the Grinch stuffing the Christmas tree up Little Cindy Lou Who’s chimney.

Interestingly, Means never suggests churches search the scriptures to figure out what a congregation’s mission is. I will discuss that further, below. Rather, he assumes his five-fold mission criteria rather casually. Otherwise, Means lays out an enduring and ageless framework for helping churches implement a mission. The approach is logical and realistic, if again a bit abstract.

Models to consider

Means then briefly presents what this looks like in four different churches. He notes, “Each of these four church philosophies emphasizes one of the missions of the church … an exact balance probably is impossible and perhaps undesirable.”[23]

  1. Evangelism philosophy
  2. Fellowship philosophy
  3. Worship philosophy
  4. Teaching philosophy

This section is less helpful than it might be, and the labels are simplistic. If a church is not doing evangelism, is it really a church at all? If brotherly love is neglected, but a congregation boasts a stellar teaching ministry, is it still a church? Means cannot answer these questions, because he has not examined what a church is, or its mission. His caveats about the difficulties of a perfect balance are helpful, but not good enough. The models he presents are over-corrections to one mission at the expense of others. There is imbalance here, not balance.

One critique

Means understood the state of the church. But, he is disadvantaged because he did not explore the mission of the church from the scriptures at all. The closest he comes is this:

Obviously, the ideological mission (but not the methodological mission) of the church is biblically mandated, though the differing scriptural interpretations of diverse traditions results in significant variations.[24]

The great irony is that, while Means argues against pragmatism, he unwittingly abets it by not presenting a scriptural case for a church’s mission. A pastor with a deficient ecclesiology could fashion his own mission statement (derived from who knows where), then use Means’ principles[25] to design and implement an action plan to confirm him in his flawed mission statement. In short, Means’ book is more an action manual than a theological foundation. It cannot stand on its own without a robust ecclesiology.

John Hammett has observed:

… understanding the doctrine of the church is especially important to contemporary North Americans, because their pragmatic approach to church life, their concern to be relevant to their culture, and their desire to see their churches grow leave them vulnerable to the danger that their churches will be shaped more by those concerns than by the design and of the Lord and of the church. Indeed, how can churches be what God desires them to be if people do not know what he desires them to be?[26]

Means should have devoted a chapter to briefly present a case for a congregation’s core missions, then used that as a springboard to build a philosophy of ministry. This deficit is especially clear by Means’ casual assertion that “social concern” is a mission of the church. He defines this as “action in the community and world to bring about a more equitable and just society.”[27]

Is it a church’s job to accomplish this task? This is not an easy question, which is why a church must first search the scriptures to figure out what its job is. Means adopts a cultural transformation model via-a-vis the church and society, whereas dispensationalism takes what Scott Aniol calls a “sanctificationist” view.

In other words, a traditional dispensationalist philosophy of culture does not understand a church’s role towards culture to be one of cultural redemption the mission Dei, ‘work for the kingdom,’ the ‘cultural mandate,’ or any missiological or eschatological motivation. Rather, dispensationalists view the church’s exclusive mission as one of discipling Christians to live sanctified lives in whatever cultural sphere to which God has called them. This is the extent of the church’s so-called ‘responsibility’ toward culture, and anything more than this threatens to sideline the church’s central mission.[28]

Charles Ryrie agrees.[29] So does Michael Vlach, who notes this issue is really about one’s theology of the kingdom of God.[30] Others are free to adopt the cultural transformation model, of course, but they ought to do so self-consciously. The theological foundation for “mission” is the piece Means misses. And, because he otherwise focuses so much on mission and philosophy of ministry, this is a critical gap.

The great need today is for pastors to consider (1) what their job is, (2) what the church’s mission is, and (3) how to best carry out that mission and make it happen. Means’ book is an excellent guide to that last consideration.

Wrapping up

Means’ book is perceptive and well-nigh prophetic. His advice is sound and his forecasts for the future are correct; particularly his chapters titled “It’s a Small (and Scary) World After All” and “Syncretism, Pluralism, Eclecticism: What a Ride!” In short, he understood what was coming. Or, rather, Means understood the perennial dangers the Church always faces. Martin Luther, in the preface to the Small Catechism, exclaims:[31]

Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people … have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.

The dates change, but the song remains the same. Means’ foresight about the specific shape the perennial challenges would take in those two chapters was accurate, and are still relevant today.


[1] “The most compelling requisite in pastoral ministry is not new programs, bigger budgets, superior technology, state-of-the-art buildings, more talent, or better marketing, but leadership authenticity and competence,” (James Means, Effective Pastors for a New Century [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], 18). 

[2] Ibid, p. 23. 

[3] Ibid, p. 24. 

[4] Ibid, p. 27. This is the classical description of a pastor’s job. In a more recent tome, Harold Senkbeil advocated for the same model. “I would contend that the classical approach to the care of souls is not only the best approach for our conflicted and confused era, but it’s the single best way to address the actual needs of real people in whatever location or generation pastors find themselves,” (The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart [Bellingham: Lexham, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 1213).

However, Means’ contradicts himself in a later chapter on the pastoral role, and provides a frankly intimidating list of performance expectations: “pastors must be spiritual leaders who model discipleship, oversee the spiritual health of the church, guard and communicate scriptural truth, facilitate vision, strategize locally and globally, and develop congregational synergism and joint ventures to advance Christ’s kingdom,” (Effective Pastors, p. 98).   

[5] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 29. 

[6] Ibid, p. 31. 

[7] Ibid, p. 33. 

[8] Ibid, pp. 164-166. 

[9] Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020; Kindle ed.), p. 1. 

[10] What Means calls “congregational identity,” (Effective Pastors, pp. 165-166). 

[11] Ibid, 100. 

[12] Ibid, 104. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, pp. 104-105. 

[15] Ibid, p. 105. 

[16] Ibid.  

[17] Ibid, p. 106. 

[18] Ibid, p. 108. 

[19] Ibid, p. 109.

[20] Ibid, p. 110. 

[21] Ibid, p. 111. 

[22] Ibid, p. 112. 

[23] Ibid, p. 119. 

[24] Ibid, p. 107. 

[25] From his ch. 5, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” (Ibid, pp. 100-121). 

[26] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 11. 

[27] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 108. 

[28] Scott Aniol, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship,” in Journal of Ministry & Theology, Spring 2020 (Vol. 24, No. 1), p. 31. 

[29] “People get sidetracked when they attempt to impose kingdom ethics on the world today without the physical presence of the King. The Christian is responsible to practice church ethics, not kingdom ethics. Church ethics focus on the church; kingdom ethics focus on the world,” (Charles Ryrie, The Christian and Social Responsibility [Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982], 22.

[30] “As those who live between the two comings of Jesus the Messiah, the church should avoid two extremes concerning culture and society. The first is acting as if the church has no relationship to these areas. The second is to see the church’s mission as transforming the world before the return and kingdom of Jesus,” (Michael Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God [Silverton: Lampion, 2017], 542). 

[31] Theodore Tappert (ed. and trans.), “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 338.   

Baxter and his tomahawk

Baxter and his tomahawk

This is my quick take on Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor.

Everybody says it’s great. I’m not sure how many of those people have actually read it. Baxter was a Puritan who died in 1691. He spends most of the book explaining that you’re a failure and a loser if you don’t completely dedicate yourself to pastoral ministry. That’s fine so far as it goes, but Baxter likes to make sure you get his point.

He has this gem I’ll never forget (p. 127):

Consider that it is of your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church.

Thanks, Dick. I needed that.

Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They’re helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, you begin to REALLY dislike Baxter.

The last 15% of the book are detailed instructions about how to catechize a parish of mostly unregenerate people, which is largely inapplicable in a context where you believe the New Covenant is only for actual believers.

So, what do I think about Baxter? I think he’s a depressing guy. Comes across as self-righteous, but earnest. Book was a disappointment, and I’ll never read it again. Some guys know how to encourage. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he’s there to help.

This is the Cliff-Notes version of the 1,500 word review I’ll be writing for my DMin class. I’m gonna keep that line about Baxter’s tomahawk …