Dire Circumstances and God’s Faithfulness

“Great is Thy faithfulness, oh God, my Father…” So the hymn goes, drawing our attention to the constancy of our God. To be quite transparent, there are days (and more than one in the average week!) where the faithfulness of God feels as distant as the finish feels in the last six miles of a marathon. To sing this song on such days feels disingenuous and even hypocritical.

In my Bible reading I was working through Lamentations. The verse on which this song is based occurs in chapter 3. What surprised me this time through was the utter bleakness that leads up to verses 21-23. Jeremiah is oppressed on every side. Jerusalem is in shambles at the hand of Babylonians and he has come to realize these dire circumstances were just (1:18) and purposed by God (2:8, 17). The imagery, however, is even more disturbing in chapter 3, where the Lord is depicted as personally causing the affliction to Jeremiah (3:10-13). To say that Jeremiah is having a bad day would be a gross understatement.

It is in this desperate and humbled position that Jeremiah calls to mind the faithfulness of God. Finding a connection between Jeremiah’s circumstances and God’s faithfulness is unimaginable, even absurd. But making this connection in this passage and in our lives is essential. In the darkness of challenging circumstances, assurance of God’s enduring faithfulness shines all the more brightly.

F.B. Huey comments on this passage: “The unbroken mood of despair was displaced by a beautiful affirmation of hope in spite of suffering…In the midst of chaos and depression, the poet revealed a deep faith in the trustworthiness of God.” (Jeremiah and Lamentations, NAC, 473). The steadfastness of God’s love for us stands in stark relief to the troublesome canvas of our lives. May God continue to remind us, and may we remind ourselves, of God’s enduring faithfulness.

A Call for Humility in the Debates over Divine and Human Agency

Convictions about interpretations of biblical texts are necessary in a post-modern world that often encourages indecisiveness. However, some convictions need to be tempered with humility in light of ongoing debates between believers who are committed to the authority of the Scripture. One such debate is the nexus between divine and human agency. The Christian church has debated the topic for two millennia. Positions have been catalogued along a continuum from determinism, to compatibilism, to Molinism, to libertarianism. Such debates have spawned theological systems such as Calvinism and Arminianism. Of course, extreme positions such as Open Theism have rightly been rejected by orthodoxy.

What’s not always considered, though, is that these debates concerning divine and human agency predate Christianity. For instance, Cicero, the Roman philosopher and statesman of the 1st B.C., described such a disputation between ancient philosophers in his work On Fate (e.g. 39). In addition, Josephus, the ancient Jewish apologist who wrote from Flavian Rome in the aftermath of the Jewish war of A.D. 70, describes divergent views on the issue among the mainstream schools of Judaism (i.e. Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees). His portrayal of the sects ranges from determinism to libertarianism (e.g. Antiquities 13.171-173). In particular, his portrait of the Pharisees ranges from compatibilism (Jewish War 2.162-163; Antiquities 18.13) to mild libertarianism (Antiquities 13.172). If this scenario reflects historical reality, it would shed some light on the likely theology of Saul of Tarsus, who later becomes Paul the Apostle.

I am not arguing that we should not seek to discern the Biblical teaching on divine and human agency. Rather, I am saying that we should enter the debate with a recognition that the tension between divine and human agency has been deliberated for a very long time. Develop interpretive convictions, but do so out of a spirit of humility in the presence of mystery.

Doug Finkbeiner

The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 2

Mentoring as life-sharing, experience-imparting and skill-training has a long history. The third-century bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea wrote an account of his relationship with the church father Origen, who became his mentor. When Gregory came to Palestine, it was for the purpose of having a relationship with Origen. Although he admired Origen’s mind, he wanted more than an information download. He wanted to spend time with the great bishop in order to learn from his life, not just his mind.

This view of mentoring was common in the early centuries. Clement of Alexandria wrote in his book on ethics, The Tutor, “The role of the tutor is to improve the soul, not to educate nor give information, but to train someone in the virtuous life.” Like others who wrote on mentoring, Clement understood the purpose to be “to form the soul in virtue” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale, 2003, 268).

This is the aspect that many students don’t realize they need just as critically as they need theological training or skills in biblical languages. But the truth is, more men wash out of ministry because of character issues than doctrinal deviation.

Character formation is not always welcomed by young protégés. At first, Gregory resisted Origen’s attempts to change him. Though Origen’s words “struck like an arrow” Gregory was not ready to undergo the discipline imposed by Origen. Gregory was more interested in argument and intellectual debate, but this was not acceptable to Origen. His aim was to “move the soul,” and he challenged his disciples to open their hearts and allow their wills to be molded by the good (p. 269).

Although learning a set of precepts was part of the mentoring training, “what counted for more was the example of the master and the bonds of friendship formed with the disciple…Friendship, said Gregory, ‘is piercing and penetrating, an affable and affectionate disposition displayed in the teacher’s words and his association with us’” (p. 269).

This personal relationship had a profound impact on Gregory. “Through Origen’s friendship with him, Gregory learned to love Christ, the Word, but he also began to love Origen, ‘the friend and interpreter of the Word’” (p. 269). Only when this relationship became personal, was Gregory finally persuaded to give up those objects that stood in the way of Christian maturity. The master had to first know and love his students before he could cultivate their souls, and like a skilled husbandman, bring forth fruit from an uncultivated field. “To correct, reprove, exhort, and encourage his students, the master had to know their habits, attitudes, and desires. Origen’s love for his disciples was part of the process of formation” (p. 270).

This is the soul of genuine Christian mentoring. It is not a business-like, formal transaction of a superior to an inferior; nor is it a feel-good stroking of a student’s ego. It is rather an intentional life-guidance that is based on the mentor’s genuine love for the student, so that he is able to give either encouragement or rebuke when needed, all the while the student knows he is loved and valued. This is true mentoring, and it is desperately needed today, both in the lives of those preparing for ministry of some kind, and any young believer who takes his or her growth in godliness seriously.

The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 1

Mentoring is a popular concept in ministry and education in the first decade of the 21st century. Books, conferences and journals on mentoring have sprung up in recent years, and various schools of thought regarding mentoring have emerged. While every Christian view of mentoring agrees that Jesus’ relationship with the twelve disciples serves as the foundational model for mentoring, the diversity of interpretations and applications of mentoring principles reveals that much ambiguity exists regarding the true nature of mentoring in real life situations.

There are many weak or erring models of Christian mentoring. One approach is to treat mentoring as information download where the mentor is merely passing on information to the protégé. This approach understands the student’s greatest need to be data that he doesn’t already possess. Another view conceives mentoring as mere accountability, where the mentor asks the protégé a number of questions in order to strengthen his spiritual discipline. The student is expected to share failures and successes honestly in order to experience both the joy and support he needs in his Christian life. Still another model of mentoring is practiced by those mentors who seek to mold the protégé into his own image, with all the same opinions, personality traits and idiosyncrasies. In effect, the mentor is trying to make a replica of himself, not helping the student become who God wants him to be.

A genuine understanding of mentoring acknowledges that each of these models contains elements of truth, but each is insufficient by itself. In addition, a mentor dare not leave it up to a student to shape the scope of the mentoring relationship. I agree with Howard Hendricks that a mentoring relationship ought to be based on what the student wants to learn from the mentor and not what the mentor wants. However, many times the protégé does not know what he needs, or may seek to avoid some of the more pressing needs in his life. Students who want mentors often think what they need most is that information download I mentioned earlier, and don’t realize that their greater need is guided character development and spiritual maturity. Also, many protégés who think they are being open and honest with their mentor pull back and keep parts of their inner life hidden as soon as the mentor begins to address those areas.

As a result, the mentor and student must craft together the nature of the relationship, but the student must remain open to the mentor’s scrutiny in areas of his life that the mentor senses needs examination. In the few years that I have been mentoring, I have come to believe that what my students need most is a relationship with me where they can let down their guard, be transparent and honest about their true selves, watch my life with all its warts, ask questions, challenge my answers, have me pray for them and with them, and generally say to them what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

In Part 2 we’ll examine a vivid historical example of this kind of mentorship which occurred almost two millennia ago.

Discipleship and Seminary Education

While seminary education should certainly include a focus on the primary academic disciplines involved in biblical-theological studies, with a concerted emphasis on academic excellence, this emphasis must never preclude or preempt a strong focus on discipleship towards humility and holiness.  As expressed in our mission statement, Calvary Baptist Seminary exists “to glorify God through preparing individuals as godly servant leaders of local churches worldwide.” That is, academic excellence and personal godliness through intentional discipleship are not competing goals – but rather, they are complementary and mutually essential.

In this spirit, I was impressed by a recent quote from Don Carson in the lead essay of his Collected Writings on Scripture [Crossway, 2010, pp. 52-53]: “Because the Bible is God’s word, it is vitally important to cultivate humility as we read, to foster a meditative prayerfulness as we reflect and study, to seek the help of the Holy Spirit as we try to understand and obey, to confess sin and pursue purity of heart and motive and relationships as we grow in understanding.  Failure in these areas may produce scholars, but not mature Christians [emphasis mine].”

We at CBS are passionately dedicated to helping students develop the skills necessary to accurately exegete and effectively communicate God’s Word while investing ourselves in their spiritual development as we grow together in Christlikeness.  The harmonizing of these two essential components of seminary training is well summarized in the oft-cited motto of the prominent post-reformation era German Pietist Johann Albrecht Bengel, when he asserted:

“Apply thyself wholly to the text.  Apply the text wholly to thyself.”

It is our desire to instill this attitude in our students so that, both in word and character, they might accurately and passionately communicate the message of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To blog or not to blog . . . Is that a question?

I’ve been asked to write a blog.   Well . . . more precisely I’ve been asked to contribute to a blog . . . just one of several writers.  So one of my first thoughts was . . . “I need to know what a blog is, before I try to blog on a blog.”  Am I being asked to write a blog (noun) or am I being asked to write a B.L.O.G. (an acronym)??  Obviously, I’m ill-acquainted with blogs.

Consequently, one of my first steps in preparing for this process has been checking a few dictionaries for their definitions of blog.  It seems that blog actually is a noun (and at times a verb) and not an acronym for something longer.  A representative definition goes something like this — “a journal or diary written for public viewing on a website and consisting typically of personal reflections, commentary on current events, etc. arranged chronologically.”

I wasn’t sure that a dictionary definition was dynamic enough to provide a realistic, 3D idea of what a blog or B.L.O.G. is . . . so I decided as a second step of preparation that I should visit a few blogs.  Check them out.  Survey characteristics. Get a feel for it.  And so forth.  So I visited a statistically insignificant number of blogs.  A few done by friends and acquaintances and a couple that I’ve hear mentioned in varying tones with varying degrees of acceptance.

The blogs that I checked cover a wide range.  One has a picture of scenery, Bible verses, and rejoicing over God’s greatness and blessings.  One comments on Bible verses and themes, as well as, on church issues.  One comments on current events with personal observations, comments, experiences, remembrances, etc. – a self-proclaimed curmudgeon.  One is a hodge-podge (sort of like cacophony for those of you who are unfamiliar with hodge-podge)of criticisms, calmness, and comments.  Some are large and complex.  Some are individual and brief.  Some come out daily, some weekly, some occasionally, and some are constantly being augmented.

My impression is that blog is a very plastic term and that covers a wide spectrum.  Perhaps the B.L.O.G. acronym actually does fit well.  They seem to go from Blowing Lots of Gas (as in hot air!) to Believers Living Out Godliness.  At one end I found those who sit in the dark and yell (a definition of critic that I heard years ago . . . ooops! let’s make that decades ago) and at the other end I found those who attempt graciously to answer honest questions about God’s Word and church.  But then again I looked at a statistically insignificant number of blogs, a limited number of times, on one day—perhaps not the best measure of any one blog or blogs collectively.

My take on blogs:

  1. They are personal.  These are the author’s thoughts, reactions, feelings, etc.  They are the author’s dairy of life.
  2. They are conversational and not academic.  No need for citations and footnotes.  Assertions, feelings, ideas, reactions . . . about anything goes.
  3. Their scope is seemingly unlimited.  Some boundaries are set by the design or intention of the author.  Others are set by the events of the day.  Others set by what the author can critique or criticize (yes, there is a difference between the two).  Some boundaries, as frightening as it actually is, are set by the spontaneous ramblings of the human mind.
  4. I’m sure there are more characteristics to mention, but I’m already way beyond the number of words I’m supposed to use, so I need to move along.

My conclusion:

What I’m being asked to do in contributing to this blog is to share some of my personal wanderings and wonderings on a somewhat regular basis.  My intention is to write in the Believers Living Out Godliness end of the B.L.O.G. spectrum.  However, if and when you should think that I’ve journeyed to the other end, please either forgive me or take a look in the mirror because you may just be taking this a whole lot more seriously than I am.

God bless.

Chuck McLain

Life Change and Our Sovereign God

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. . . . And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

Willa Cather’s epic novel, My Ántonia, describes the experience of several pioneering families, who settled the tall-grass prairie of south central Nebraska. She portrays the land as immense and energetic and in some sense, foreshadowing the kind of energy and labor required to change the wild landscape into cultivated fields.

Change is never easy, yet change is necessary, and good things happen that would otherwise not occur. Recently our family experienced a few changes. We have moved from the State of Washington to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; we left an historic house that was called Terre Firma and now live in a fairly new, well-kept townhouse in a development; I have changed from being employed in a seminary in the Northwest to being employed at Calvary Baptist Seminary; we have embraced and said our good-byes to friends in one ministry, and have embraced and exchanged warm greetings with friends in a new ministry; we have taken our last child to college and returned to an “emptier” house filled with unpacked boxes. The suddenness of it all still leaves one a bit dazed.

But change should be no stranger to the Christian. Our sovereign God, who does not change, frequently uses change in circumstances to be a catalyst for a greater work: His transformation of our character. Change then becomes the occasion for us to renew our resolve, put our hand to the plow, and undergo the Spirit’s “cultivation” of our lives as we follow Jesus.

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