Twinterview: Brits abroad
A few weeks ago I introduced the concept of the twinterview. Basically, I ask two people joined by some common bond or interest the same set of questions, and we get to compare and contrast the answers.
The twinterview series kicks off with Derek Thomas and Carl Trueman, both of whom were born in the UK and both of whom are now living and working in the USA, both of whom are bloggers at Reformation21, and both of whom kindly agreed to answer my questions. The answers are as given, and I have not commented on them, either in terms of interest, agreement or disagreement, but feel free to engage politely in the comments section.
I am very grateful to Derek and Carl for their willingness to participate, not least in answering some fairly blunt questions honestly, openly and fully.
1. What do you see as your primary or most important public role (are you pastors, preachers, scholars, teachers, writers, or are these unhelpful distinctions)? If you could be only one of those things, which would you (feel obliged to) choose, and why?
Derek Thomas: Definitely, pastor or under-shepherd. After all, this is a New Testament word (ποιμήν and verb ποιμαινω). Part of the reasoning behind my insistence over the past sixteen years to be fully involved in the local church as well as the academy has been my view that theology is for the up-building and edification of the church. This involves more (though, no less than) imparting information. Without caring for the souls of men and women and children, theology and preaching has little or no purpose. Frankly, I have no interest in theology that cannot be applied pastorally. Indeed, since God himself is a Shepherd (Ezek. 34, John 10), the shape of my sanctification should also be shepherd-like. I think I could be content, pastoring in a small country church for the rest of my (useful) life.
Of course, this question is a little bit like the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question. Pastors are meant to be scholars-teachers – “Study to show yourself approved, a workman that does not need to be ashamed” (2 Tim 2:15, at least, this is the King James rendition, more or less). If we are to “rightly divide the word of truth” (ESV), we need to study a great deal to ensure its outcome. So, pastor-scholars-teachers, scholar-pastors-teachers then, in the Reformation/Puritan tradition (they were surely both). Teaching is essential and therefore a educated ministry ensuring an educated church is necessary. Something John Stott wrote in his final book (The Living Church) comes to mind when, commenting on Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” he said something like, “the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day.”
Carl Trueman: I am first and foremost a churchman. I am committed to the local congregation both as a Christian and as a Teacher. I am committed to serving my denomination as a member of presbytery. Then, I am a seminary professor and administrator. Finally, I write. Of course, these all overlap in ways that mean I am only making formal distinctions here.
2. What three things would you be especially grateful to see happening in your particular sphere of operation and influence over the coming year?
DT: An upturn in the market to bring my 401K back from its three year-long nosedive comes to mind, so that I can retire. But seriously, perhaps the following:
I find myself doing three things: preaching, teaching (at a seminary) and writing and perhaps I can address this question along these three lines of thought:
i. I have recently moved (after 17 years in Belfast, 12 years at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi) to work alongside Sinclair Ferguson at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia. South Carolina. I made a decision when I moved from Belfast to destroy most of my sermons (Agh!) so that I would not be tempted to repeat them and grow lazy in sermon preparation. I continue to preach new sermons on a weekly basis but still flounder as to what true preaching looks like. I have taught courses on homiletics but am more and more convinced that it’s better “caught than taught.” I am an avid reader of books on homiletics, and the recent 40th edition of Lloyd-Jones’ lectures at Westminster Seminary (Preaching and Preachers [Zondervan]) remains my favorite. When I grow up (I am 59), I want to learn how to preach.
ii. I still teach for the academy (RTS) on a weekly basis and have recently begun to see that I am now in my “last phase” as far as providing any direction and influence for young, eager (restless) seminarians. I want to be able to convey that apart from the gospel, all instruction is just Pharisaic advice: interesting at best, deadly at worst.
iii. Writing is mainly about guilt: missed deadlines and undisciplined routines. But my intention is write a book on John Bunyan, and it’s only half done.
CT: I have been called as Pastor of my local church from August. I would love to see the congregation grow both numerically and in terms of its knowledge of the Christ and the faith. On the seminary level, I am leaving administration and moving back to full-time teaching; I hope as an institution we can continue to attract the same high quality of students that Westminster has come to expect. In terms of writing, I need to fulfil a few outstanding contractual commitments. So I hope for time to do that.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of working in an academic environment? Do you feel you have developed or atrophied in particular areas because of that environment, and what steps can an academic take to prevent the negative impacts?
DT: I write from my own personal experience. I could not survive in a purely academic environment. Partly, I think my call is first of all to be an under-shepherd in the context of the church and therefore I have maintained a dual relationship throughout my seminary experience, preaching and involvement in the day-to-day pastoral “messiness” of church life. It keeps my feet on the ground. I regularly tell my students that I have no interest in theology that can’t be preached. Additionally, it is my conviction that there is some danger in teaching future ministers and missionaries and counselors if we (as teachers) are not regularly involved in ministry. Seminary professors who sit loose to the local church have no business teaching. The church is Jesus’ way of growing and discipling all of us. I am therefore subject to elders on a day to day basis (over fifty of them, in my case). That’s Jesus’ way of keeping me spiritually and academically accountable.
CT: The obvious danger is that one becomes too absorbed in abstractions or preoccupied with tiny molehills as if they were giant mountains. I think it was Henry Kissinger who declared that the reason academic disputes are so ferocious was because the stakes are so small. There is also a temptation to want to fight every battle; and, with the advent of the internet, that temptation is set to become stronger. I am aware that I quite enjoy a scrap every now and then, so I have to work hard to resist this last one.
In terms of development and atrophying, my wife might be a better judge of that! I think my theology has improved and deepened over the years. Being Academic Dean has injected a healthy and appropriate ability to compromise and to be pragmatic (in a good sense of knowing which hills are worth dying on) and has also taught me things about leadership I would never have gained from reading a book. On the atrophy side, I often find myself wishing that I had done something different with my life or had remained a straight-down-the-line academic at a secular institution. Life is full of conflict; but when that conflict is theological and ecclesiastical, it can leave one very jaded about Christianity and the church. Thankfully, the Lord is good and such periods of self-pity and disillusionment have not (thus far!) persisted. And the paths have really fallen for me in comparatively sweet places: Westminster is an easy calling compared to working on a shop floor or working down a mine or sweeping the streets.
As to what helps with the negative impact, the answers for me are threefold: developing a mentality where my job at the Seminary is primarily a means of supporting my family. That keeps things in proportion. That is not to say the other aspects are not important to me; but they are not as important to me as this. Then there is a need to eliminate academic ambition: I am fortunate to have done all that I ever wanted to do in the academic world before I turned forty; everything else is now a bonus. If I am run over by a bus tonight, the academic world will not have missed any significant contribution I have yet to make. These two things combine to mean that my identity is less and less wrapped up with my academic theological work. Finally, I try to work as hard as I can, and in whatever capacity necessary, for my local church. I am on the clean-up rota; I help my wife teach pre-kindergarten Sunday School; we open our house each month for students. None of these things involve any great personal sacrifice but they help to remind me that we are meant to serve.
4. How “Reformed” is the “Reformed resurgence”?
DT: Well, for good or ill, Colin Hansen’s epithet – “Young, Restless and Reformed” in Christianity Today a few years ago is doomed to stay for a while. As a sociological comment, it is accurate enough. There is a restlessness among a group of largely “young” people who are deeply suspicious of tradition, dead orthodoxy, anything that isn’t perceived to be trendy, and perhaps the rampant individualism and rightly crying foul at the lack of social awareness that has marked the evangelical (“conservative”) churches in the late twentieth century, much of it under the guise of “separation of church and state” or even two kingdom theology.
The resurgence, the New Calvinism – call it what you will – is real: I teach in a seminary that manages to attract large numbers of (largely) young, r/Reformed students every year, and my sister seminaries attest the same thing. I can recall, forty years ago, when “reformed” was code for “small, insular and defensive.” Conferences that once attracted double digits have been replaced by convention centers holding 10,000. Clearly, something is going on; something that is deeply encouraging.
I know that some of my friends look askance when I tell them that the church in which I minister has 2,500 members (most of whom are there on Sunday mornings, and maybe a third are present on Sunday evenings). I understand (I do, honestly!) the mentality that is deeply suspicious that large numbers means compromise, dilution and possibly “American.”
But how Reformed? This sounds like asking Scrooge to attend the party. I’m loath to be a downer on what appears to be upbeat and encouraging. But if I were to make some observations they would fall into three categories: i) I remain skeptical of their doctrine of the church. If we take 9Marks as a standard (and why not?) then the resurgence isn’t even close. Too much of this remains extra-ecclesiastical or even non-ecclesiastical. The “I can worship fishing on a boat, or sipping my tall half-skinny half-1 percent extra hot split quad shot (two shots decaf, two shots regular) latte with whip” at my local Starbucks on Sunday and bring in the kingdom (whatever that means). ii) I remain skeptical, too, of the resurgent understanding or commitment to holiness. Many are reacting against a legalistic, fundamentalist background, and are drawn like butterflies to a lamp to the un-conditionality of justification that declares us law-keepers. But mention the “third use of the law” or its equivalent and the “l” word (legalism) pops out like a genie from the (same) lamp. iii) De Young and Gilbert have done us a valuable service in addressing missiology – what it is, what it isn’t – calling out perceived notions of kingdom and its relationship to culture (why is “reformed” culture so, well, middle-class, techo-centric and affluent?). iv) I am deeply suspicious of a movement that is largely driven by the term “young”. Right, I’m past being young, well past it; but there is a smattering of ageism at work here, what Lewis termed chronological snobbery. The resurgence is socially networked (preferably Apple), prone to regarding “authoritative” whatever someone has posted on a blog that morning, thereby missing the role that valid Christian tradition plays in defining orthodoxy.
I could go on…
CT: That, of course, depends on how one defines ‘Reformed.’ If you understand it in terms of the Reformed confessions and church orders which stem from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then it is not very Reformed at all. It is largely baptistic and exhibits a separation between theology and church life/organisation which is alien to the confessional traditions of Christianity.
If you understand it as ‘anti-Pelagian’ or committed to four or more of the five points of Calvinism, then it is fairly Reformed; but that is a rather minimalist definition of the term.
Part of the problem is that terms such as `Reformed’ and ‘confessional’ have come to be used by many as having nothing more than doctrinal significance. For me, they also carry with them clear implications for church life and ministry. One cannot separate Reformed theology from Reformed practice, even if there is some legitimate debate about the finer details of the latter.
Simply put: belief in predestination does not make you Reformed in the sense that the word carries in my world. Nevertheless, we should rejoice that good doctrine is being grasped by so many young people. That is a good thing, even if not as perfect as we might hope.
5. What counsel would you give to a young man considering and assessing a possible call to the ministry of the Word of God?
DT: Put yourself firmly and securely under the oversight of a competent session (elders) and don’t believe Aunt Joan who thinks you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Don’t think that the church is going to put out its arms to welcome you, seeing you as the hero it has been looking for. Ministry is service, Jesus-shaped service, which means humbling oneself, considering others more important, and a call to suffering if needs be. Please don’t say, “I need x amount of dollars or I’m not even going to consider you as worthy of me.” Read John Owen on Mortification, Calvin on Cross-bearing and Self-Denial (Institutes, Book 3) and several biographies of missionaries (like David Brainerd, John Paton, Jim Elliot).
CT: First, you need an internal call, a desire to teach and preach the word but you also need more than an internal call. Have you external evidence that you are being led in this direction? Have you had opportunities to teach and preach? Have they been well-received? Look at the qualifications for eldership in Paul’s Pastorals. Do you meet the criteria? More important, do other people think you meet the criteria?
Second, do not rush. When you are in your twenties, a year can seem a long time but it is not really so. Paul clearly assumes most people in church leadership positions will be older – family men, men established in their communities, men who have a track record of godliness and spiritual reliability. So go and receive the appropriate ministerial training but do not necessarily assume you should then go straight into a pastorate. I am taking on my first pastorate this year, aged 45 with 28 years of being a Christian, a decade of secular work experience, a decade of teaching at seminary, a marriage of nearly 22 years, two more or less adult children and service on two kirk sessions behind me. I hardly feel qualified now. I could not have done it aged twenty-five!
6. What advice would you give to a young pastor who asked what means he might use to remain faithful to God and in the work of the ministry over the anticipated course of his life? What particular warnings about particular dangers might you offer?
DT: What did Robert Murray McCheyne say? Congregations will forgive a minister almost anything so long as they think he loves them. Love the people. And then, love them some more. It’s not about you; it’s about Jesus and them.
Be accountable. Develop a relationship with your elders (and if not all of them, at least some of them) who will hold you accountable. Attend conferences of ministers for the sheer purpose of being nourished and refreshed. And unless it’s a settled conviction from God that you remain celibate, or you have already made the choice (and a poor one), marry well, not first of all a “looker” but someone whose intent is to ensure that you do the work God has called you. Pace yourself: this is a long-distance race. I’m not sure that every “burn-out” victim is genuine.
For me, my most feared danger is cynicism: just when you think you have seen everything, along comes a professing Christian who does the unthinkable. It makes me wonder if the gospel really does change people’s hearts. I must remind myself that Bible believers did these things, too and that the gospel is not “God saves those who are worthy of being saved.”
CT: For me, my marriage has been key. A faithful, down-to-earth wife who does not believe the propaganda I tend to spread about myself is a gift beyond price. If you have one, listen to what she says. You will not regret it.
Then there is the basic, common sense things: make sure you are accountable. Formally, this will be to elders or to the presbytery but often that can be too remote a relationship to work effectively. Have a close friend whom you trust who can rebuke you when you step out of line and encourage you when you are despondent.
Stay away from situations where you are likely to fall into temptation. We all know what things tempt us in particular. Be proactive in avoiding contexts where the temptation can take hold.
Try to sit under good preaching as much as you can. I love preaching; but I miss not sitting under good preaching more often.
7. I believe that I am right in saying that you both held Baptistic convictions at one point. As a Baptist, I am intrigued (not to mention grieved!): would you be willing to explain why you felt compelled to make such a shift (i.e. to Presbyterianism), and – apart from the obvious with regard to the nature of baptism – what impacts has that change had on your theology and practice? Do you think you have lost anything by the change?
DT: Wow! What a question! Will you still be my friend if I answer this one?
It was traumatic and difficult. I hurt some people in the process (my good friend, Geoff Thomas for one). Geoff was my mentor. I still regard him to this day as one of the half dozen men and women who have shaped my life. He impacted me when I was a very young Christian. I made the shift because I felt it impossible to maintain a purely credo-baptist view of baptism. If I single out a few things, they were:
- My inability to convince someone like Simeon that the New Covenant was “better” than the Old in relation to children.
- Rom 4:11 and Col. 2:11-12 seemed decisive in arguing the strongest possible connections between the boundary markers of Old Covenant and New Covenant and what they signified.
- Jeremiah 31 and the promise of the New Covenant was best viewed as promising the abolition of cultic restrictions than of ensuring that the “pure church” view (they shall all know me because every member of the church has made a profession of faith).
In the end, however, it was a “gestalt” – more of “a looking at the whole in a different way.” The various “pieces” of the puzzle took shape. The whole was more convincing than the parts. The unity of administration of the covenant in regard to offspring made more sense than a semi-dispensational approach that insisted that circumcision was first of all a sign of national identity (an ethnic boundary marker) and only secondarily something of spiritual significance.
Did it make any difference did make to my theology and practice. I suppose, a more congruent way of thinking “family” rather than “individual” in ministry. Of course, a commitment to covenant theology is an enormously embracive theological “system” that views the entirety of redemptive history as more of a unified story.
Did I lose anything? A life in Aberystwyth!
CT: For me the first thing that attracted me to Presbyterianism was the ecclesiology. Independency (at least my experience of it) seemed to oscillate between a form of anarchy, with concomitant lowest-common-denominator theology and worship, and a situation where the elders wielded total power in a functionally unaccountable way.
As one involved in many parachurch activities, I wrestled for many years with issues of confession, authority and accountability. Confessional Presbyterianism answered many of those questions for me in a cogent manner.
Theologically, I became convinced that the Baptist position was not able to do justice to the unity of the Old and New Testaments.
From Presbyterianism (at least from Hodge, Warfield and Bannerman) I learned the importance of the doctrine of the church, the nature of church authority and of accountability. The single biggest practical impact of this was I was ordained, first as an elder now as a minister, in order to place myself formally under the authority of a church court.
Did I lose anything? Nothing comes to mind.
8. What do you find to be the particular blessings and challenges of being “Brits abroad”? How might you respond when someone accuses you of abandoning a place that badly needs faithful men of God?
DT: Ouch! You know how to hurt a man. I’ll pass by filthy lucre. Truth is, I’ve never seriously been offered a place to work in the UK following my departure from Belfast. I write only about myself, but the move to USA was a difficult decision, without doubt the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. I made it prayerfully, consulting a host of people. Am I to “second guess” this process and add guilt to my decision? Not really. I regret (I do) that I am not in the UK, after all, my grandchildren are there.
America is a wonderful country for all its irksome qualities. There are situations where I say to myself, “Americans” – I guess, the stereotypical loud, assured (arrogant) “guy” who thinks in US-centric terms, disdainful of the rest of the world, confident of US superiority and manifest destiny. But this is a stereotype. For all the whining from the eastern side of the Atlantic, more tourists head for America, fall in love with its varied landscape, envy its economic success and gasp at what appears to be a continued blessing on the church (for all its craziness).
Some of the kindest, most generous people in the world are here in the United States.
CT: America is a great place to bring up a family: so much space, a great climate and friendly people. Being in an alien culture also gives one an interesting perspective on one’s home culture. American Christians are also extraordinarily generous in their giving to the church.
The challenge is often knowing who are the genuine Christians and who are the mere cultural ones. It is not so much the case in Philadelphia but in many parts of the South, church is still the place to go to be seen and to set up business deals after the service.
My wife recently remarked to me that, in the UK, we rarely knew how friends at church voted. Politics simply was not part of the conversation and nobody presumed to assume that you voted one way or the other. There is still a certain overlap here between politics and theology, some aggressive manifestations of which can make life uncomfortable for a foreigner. The ‘culture war’ aspect of the church is one of the strangest aspects of the church here from a foreigner’s perspective.
9. Looking back to “home” – if it still is – what, from your vantage point on American soil and your occasional visits, do you perceive to be the particular dangers to and challenges for Christians and churches in the currently-just-about United Kingdom (apart from the existence of Paul Levy)?
DT: “Home” – it’s a difficult concept to define. I visited the farm in Wales a few years ago where I was raised and spent the first eighteen years of my life. I wanted to take some pictures with a modern SLR camera. I asked the new owners for permission only to be told I was “trespassing” and was told to leave. I had always thought it to be “home” until that moment.
The challenge of meeting rampant secularism with insularity is a real one. Dealing with Levy, an impossible one.
CT: Still home, despite Levy’s residency. Obviously he is a major problem but the situation is easing. I am personally relieved that readers of Ref21 seem, on the whole, to understand that he is a real person and not a symptom of my multiple personality disorder.
I guess discouragement would be one thing. Times are tough.
Another issue would be the potential for complex legal issues relative to freedom of religion in the next ten to twenty years. The danger is always that of a knee-jerk reaction in such situations. Careful and nuanced thought about Christianity in the public sphere is what is needed.
Do I feel guilty for leaving? Sometimes. Do I feel guilty enough to return? No. And, of course, I was never called by any church in the UK to minister; nor did any Christian education institute call me to work for them. So there is a sense in which I have no more abandoned a Christian ministry call in the UK than a business man who takes a job in the States. If I could do what I do here but do it back home, I might return; though as my children grow up effectively as Americans, such a move becomes harder to contemplate even at a hypothetical level.
10. Are there any particular books you wish you had read, but have never got round to?
DT: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Started, several times, but never finished.
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Selected Poems (superior to Chaucer and Welsh).
CT: Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. I heard a radio program on this book last year. It is a massive Russian epic, set in the twentieth century, stretching from the Gulags to the Nazi death camps. It is a blistering study of the evils of totalitarianism in both its Soviet and Nazi forms. The KGB thought it so dangerous that they even confiscated the ribbons from the typewriter Grossman used to type it. It sits, massive and unread, on the shelf next to my favourite seat in my lounge. Maybe this is the year….
11. Is culture neutral?
DT: Of course not! Culture is an expression of the collective sociological and artistic behavior of a fallen world.
CT: Of course not. It’s a human construct and thus fallen. It is also rarely defined in many of the popular discussions I see of Christianity and culture. There it tends to be understood in terms of either pop culture or high culture. The net result is that it becomes something practically restricted to so some version of the arty-set (the kind of thing which fills the ‘Pseuds Corner’ of my favourite British magazine, Private Eye) or to young people.
Culture is better considered as the set of systems or behaviours which a society has for transmitting meaning and value. When thought of in those terms, neutrality is clearly not possible. It is also not possible to define it simply in terms of art or literature (whether elite or pop) either, which is very helpful for avoiding the kind of elitism or trendiness which Christian culture vultures often unconsciously propagate.
12. If you could have every Christian read three books this year, besides the Scriptures, which would you choose?
DT: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (it should be read once a year); Kevin de Young and Ted Kluck’s Why We Love the Church (a cracking good read on an important topic); John Stott’s The Living Church (final words from a faithful servant).
CT: New book: Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge; classic: Augustine, Confessions; mainstream: George Orwell, Essays.