Seminary Professors as Christian Intellectuals

At first glance the term Christian scholar may sound like an oxymoron. Can these two words really be placed together? Some may say no and argue that academic study belongs to non-Christian minds only. Several years ago, while studying for my bachelor of arts in history at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, one of my history professors—who was an unbeliever—told me that an argument based on Scripture is not academic. In other words, he wanted me to engage in dialogue with him not as a Christian but as a secular thinker. My professor was implying that an intellectual cannot be Christian, for to argue from a Christian worldview is not scholarly or valid.

Others may reply no to my question but provide a different explanation for their opinion. They may say that Christians should not be scholars because scholarship and spirituality are incompatible. Some people associate intelligence with arrogance; thus, the more intelligent or educated you are, the more you will be perceived as proud. I have met people who espouse this kind of mentality. They hastily view those who appear to be very smart as certainly proud, implying that to be intellectual entails being arrogant. Of course, this claim is not necessarily true. Just because a person is intellectual does not mean one is haughty, just as not being intellectual does not mean one is humble. In fact, I know many Christian intellectuals whose lives are marked by humility. Nevertheless, a sad reality remains that some prematurely think of intellectuals as boastful and thus implicitly conclude that Christians should not aspire to be scholars.

In this brief essay, I will maintain that the words Christian and intellectual are compatible with each other. In the first place, all Christians without exception are divinely commanded to use their intellect as they love God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).[1] In this verse the Greek word dianoia, translated as “mind,” refers to the faculty of thinking and understanding. The point is this: loving God requires the exercise of our intellect; it involves mental effort. Yet our ability to think and to know God is a divine gift: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true” (1 John 5:20). Hence, if we are able to know God, who is the embodiment of truth, it is because he has graciously given us understanding or dianoia, translated “mind” in Matthew 22:37.

In light of the passages just quoted, we can then aver that all true Christians are intellectual. That is, they all have the gift of dianoia; they possess the God-given intellect for the purpose of understanding and knowing God’s truth. Yet not every Christian has been divinely called to an academic vocation. In this sense, not all Christians are intellectuals, if by that term we mean people whose work is academic in nature—fields such as teachers, researchers, or writers. For instance, not everyone is a teacher within the body of Christ. This one body has many members, but as Paul says, “the members do not all have the same function” (Rom. 12:4). Therefore, he adds, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:6–8).

The Genevan Reformer John Calvin, who believed in four offices of the church (doctors, elders, pastors, and deacons), referred to teachers as doctors. And for him, the “task of the doctors of the church is to instruct believers in true doctrine and to expel errors.”[2] Drawing from his interpretation of Ephesians 4:11, he differentiated between pastors and teachers:

Paul speaks indiscriminately of pastors and teachers as belonging to one and the same class, and that the name teacher does, to some extent, apply to all pastors. But this does not appear to me a sufficient reason why two offices, which I find to differ from each other, should be confounded. Teaching is, no doubt, the duty of all pastors; but to maintain sound doctrine requires a talent for interpreting Scripture, and a man may be a teacher who is not qualified to preach. Pastors, in my opinion, are those who have the charge of a particular flock; though I have no objection to their receiving the name of teachers, if it be understood that there is a distinct class of teachers, who preside both in the education of pastors and in the instruction of the whole church.[3]

What Calvin called doctors we would today call seminary professors or theological instructors. These people can rightly be described as Christian scholars. Of course, other groups of people can be considered as Christian intellectuals (or perhaps more accurately as intellectuals who are Christians), such as Christian scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and lawyers. But for brevity’s sake, in this article I will focus only on seminary teachers as Christian scholars and provide four assertions about their academic vocation.

Portrait of John Calvin

Portrait of John Calvin (1509–1564). Photo by Ruben de Heer.

First, to be a seminary professor is a divine calling. In his wisdom, God has been pleased to call some members of the body of Christ to become teachers (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28). Since this calling comes from God himself, it is sacred and should thus be received with solemnity. Also, considering that this calling comes with great responsibilities, teachers should be willing to endure hard work. Yet seeing that the God who has called them will also sustain them, they should be encouraged to persevere amid difficulty. Moreover, the fact that God has given them the gift of teaching based on his grace should humble them and cause them to thank and praise God for this gift (Rom. 12:6). They should remember that the very intellect they have is a gracious gift from above. If they are able to teach others, it is because of God’s grace bestowed on them. Therefore, they should never think highly of themselves, as though they are more important than their students or other members of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:21–26). What distinguishes Christian intellectuals from other believers is nothing but one product of God’s grace. Consequently, true Christian scholars should be marked by humility rather than haughtiness and by piety rather than pride.

Second, God has called seminary teachers, who themselves are members of the body of Christ, for the purpose of serving this body. Accordingly, they exist for the strengthening of the church (Eph. 4:12). They teach and lead others as servants who “care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). They equip other members of the body, who in turn will also teach others. For this reason, seminaries should be for the service of the church. I therefore strongly believe that seminary professors should be involved in the life of a local church in some way, especially so that they may become more effective in their work. Sadly, in many seminaries today we have theological instructors who train students for the ministry but are themselves ignorant of the nature of that ministry. What they teach their students about the ministry is more theoretical rather than practical, because they do not actively participate in the life of a local church. To avoid this problem, other seminaries now require professorial candidates to have a minimum of five years of ministerial experience before they can be hired. There is wisdom in this decision. Now, I understand that not all seminary professors have the calling to become pastors and that, conversely, not all ministers have the calling to become seminary teachers. Yet I maintain that professors of theology should view their work as an extension of the ministry of the church and for her common good (1 Cor. 12:7). Whatever they teach—whether a course on history, philosophy, or theology—should be for the growth of this church, “both in bringing in new members to it, and strengthening those that are brought in already.”[4]

Third, seminary teachers are Christ’s gifts to his church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12). Here the word gave carries the idea of bestowing as a gift. So the Lord bestows all these offices as gifts on his people. In response, the church should thank God for these blessings and take good care of them. I sometimes wonder whether we truly view our professors as blessings from God. When was the last time we thanked God for them? When was the last time we appreciated them? Remember, they are precious and undeserved gifts given for our well-being.

Finally, seminary teachers serve under Jesus, the head of the church. Ultimately, their boss is not the seminary president but Christ. They obey the board of trustees insofar as these trustees follow the Lord. They are therefore first and foremost servants of Christ, who has called them to be faithful scholars. In all they do, their grand goal as intellectuals is to glorify their master and advance his kingdom. As James W. Sire says, “Christian intellectuals are those whose intellectual lives are lived to the glory of God.”[5] I pray that our seminary professors will indeed be known as Christ-exalting people who seek to help their students become more like Jesus. If our theological teachers (or seminaries in general) do not lead us closer to Christ, something is seriously wrong, for in the final analysis they exist for the good of the church and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

____________________

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 109.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 21:279–80.

[4] Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1985), 3:672.

[5] James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

John Calvin Seminary Spirituality

A Proud Calvinist

In May of 2009 Dr. Joel Beeke and I were in the Philippines to attend a conference on reformed theology in which Dr. Beeke was the speaker. During the Q&A session one of the delegates asked, “Can you be a Calvinist and at the same time proud?” To this question Dr. Beeke initially replied, “To be a Calvinist and proud at the same time is an oxymoron.”proud calvinist

Indeed, a proud Calvinist is a combination of two terms that have opposite meanings. A true Calvinist is one who humbly submits to God’s sovereignty. A proud person is one who places himself above God. A Calvinist prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” A proud person prays with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13).

I think the aforementioned question arose out of a concern that some of those who have discovered Calvinistic theology have become proud of themselves. What does a proud Calvinist look like?

  1. A proud Calvinist looks down on those who are not Calvinists. He thinks that he is superior to them. And when he refutes their unscriptural doctrines, he does so very sarcastically. He acts like the unbelieving criminal, who railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! (Luke 23:39). Likewise, when he defends his faith, he does so with harshness and disrespect. This proud Calvinist should learn from Peter: “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
  1. A proud Calvinist brags about his collection of reformed books. He gathers books for his self-glorification, rather than for his sanctification and God’s splendor. John Bunyan calls this kind of sin “the pride of the library.”[1] According to Bunyan, this particular sin is committed:

When men secretly please themselves to think it is known what a stock of books they have; or when they take more pleasure in the number of, than the matter contained in their books.

When they buy books rather to make up a number, than to learn to be good and godly men thereby.

When, though they own their books to be good and godly, yet they will not conform thereto.[2]

 

  1. A proud Calvinist is only concerned with theology (the study of God); he does not care about piety (the practice of godliness). For instance, with great diligence he reads a lot of books on reformed theology but only to increase his knowledge, so that he can show to others how theologically intellectual he is. This proud Calvinist should realize that the Reformers as well as the Puritans did not only write to inform the head (know God) but to touch the heart (love God) and move the hands (serve God). In fact, the very purpose of John Calvin in writing the Institutes, his great theological work, was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[3] In short, Calvin wrote to promote what John Murray called “intelligent piety,” spirituality that is rooted in Scripture. In Calvinism, theology and piety are inseparable. The study of God prompts the practice of godliness.

Are you a proud Calvinist? Does your study of reformed theology produce piety in your Christian life? Does your study make you love Christ more and hate sin more? Pray with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” Remember, a true Calvinist is marked by piety not pride, humility not haughtiness.

 

 

                 [1] John Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” in The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, vol. 9, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 324.

                 [2] Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” 324.

                 [3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

Holiness Hymns John Bunyan John Calvin Piety Puritan piety Robert Murray M’Cheyne Sanctification

John Calvin’s Pastoral Approach to the Practice of Prayer

John Calvin recognized that the central theme of the Bible is the glory of God and this understanding impacted every aspect of Calvin’s understanding of the Christian faith.  For Calvin, God’s glory is displayed in sovereignly governing all things.  The objection inevitably arises that if God is sovereign, then prayer is superfluous or unnecessary. One might expect that in light of Calvin’s understanding of God’s sovereignty, the topic of prayer would receive little attention in the Reformed theologian’s work of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin, however, devoted over a hundred pages in the Institutes to this single topic, making it the single largest subject dealt without throughout the eighty chapters of the Institutes.[1]  For Calvin, prayer was anything but unnecessary.  Calvin’s treatment of prayer was a consistent outworking of the theological convictions that he embraced with regards to the sovereign rule of God and the depravity of man, but it was with a pastoral concern that caused Calvin to write about the exercise of prayer in the Christian’s life.  In other words, Calvin addresses the question of why to pray by showing practically it’s necessity as well as the benefits that result from it.  Calvin’s treatment of prayer looks at the need for prayer, the basis for prayer and practical guidelines that should govern prayer life.

 

The essay is by Peter Aiken, an M.Div. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. To keep reading his paper, click here.

[1] David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin : A Celebration of His Quincentenary (Phillipsburg  N.J.: P & R Pub., 2010), 344.

John Calvin Prayer

Calvin on Piety

John Calvin’s Institutes have earned him the title of “the preeminent systematician of the Protestant Reformation.” His reputation as an intellectual, however, is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology. For Calvin, theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable. Theology first of all deals with knowledge—knowledge of God and of ourselves—but  there is no true knowledge where there is no true piety.

Calvin’s concept of piety (pietas) is rooted in the knowledge of God and includes attitudes and actions that are directed to the adoration and service of God. In addition, his pietas includes a host of related themes, such as filial piety in human relationships, and respect and love for the image of God in human beings. Calvin’s piety is evident in people who recognize through experiential faith that they have been accepted in Christ and engrafted into His body by the grace of God. In this “mystical union,” the Lord claims them as His own in life and in death. They become God’s people and members of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This relationship restores their joy of fellowship with God; it recreates their lives.

The purpose of this chapter is to show that Calvin’s piety is fundamentally biblical, with an emphasis on the heart more than the mind. Head and heart must work together, but the heart is more important.[1] After an introductory look at the definition and goal of piety in Calvin’s thinking, I will show how his pietas affects the theological, ecclesiological, and practical dimensions of his thought.

 

The article is by Joel R. Beeke, president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Click here to read the entire paper.


[1] Serene Jones, Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Unfortunately, Jones exaggerates Calvin’s use of rhetoric in the service of piety.

John Calvin Piety Prayer Reformer Spirituality