Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

By Bruce R. Ashford and David P. Nelson

On January 8, 2009 Richard John Neuhaus passed from this life to the next. Neuhaus was pastor, author, commentator, and served as Editor in Chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Given his deep influence on our lives and work, we want to present this as something of an “in memoriam.”Perhaps it is surprising to some that Southern Baptists would appreciate someone who is a Roman Catholic. By appreciating Neuhaus we are not endorsing various theological positions he held about which it is obvious we would disagree. We are, rather, appreciating the man and reflecting on the enormous influence he had on our lives.

We were in the midst of teaching a PhD seminar together on the morning of January 8 when the news arrived that Richard John Neuhaus had not survived the infection that caused him to be hospitalized shortly after Christmas. In the days and weeks since we have experienced a truly deep sadness about this loss. We did not know Neuhaus well; we were only acquaintances. He has had, nevertheless, an enormous influence on both of us. It is not an overstatement to say that he is among the greatest influences on our lives and thought, particularly in issues at the intersection of ethics, culture, and public life.

We were introduced to the work of Neuhaus by our doctoral mentor, Paige Patterson. We were both told by Dr. Patterson of the significance of reading First Things, and the sheer enjoyment of reading “While We’re At It”, Neuhaus’s musings about all manner of things, in each edition of that journal. We have both read that journal and other works of Neuhaus ever since, in a way that could perhaps be called “ritually”

We first met Neuhaus in the winter of 2006. We had recently been awarded a grant by Yale University for the development of work on the intersection of faith and culture and were wrestling with the beginnings of an idea for a faith and culture center (that idea has developed with the support of our President, Danny Akin, into what is now the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS). As we considered this venture, we thought a conversation with Richard John Neuhaus about such a center would be not only helpful but would also be a delight. So, we penned a letter to him, imagining it unlikely that he would have time for us. In rather short order we received a reply from Neuhaus that he would be willing to meet with us if we could travel to his office in New York City for an afternoon meeting.

We arrived at his office in the aftermath of a substantial snowstorm in Manhattan for what was scheduled to be a two hour conversation. That meeting, which lasted about three hours, was something we will never forget. It wasn’t simply the stimulating exchange of ideas and the advice from Neuhaus (which still marks the shape and function of the Bush Center), but the demonstration of charity and friendship by Neuhaus toward us. As we left that day, we discussed many things, but one lasting impression upon us was that we wanted our lives to be marked by the same charity, kindness, and servanthood toward others that Neuhaus showed to us.

We met Neuhaus on only one other occasion, when he journeyed to Wake Forest to speak for us at a collegiate conference on the Southeastern campus. His depth of thought, his wit, and his (once again) charitable spirit, marked that occasion. David will never forget a conversation over dinner that ranged from presidential politics to Christian liturgy and quite a few things in between.

While our personal time with Neuhaus was minimal, over the years we have spent time with him on a monthly basis through his written work. Whether through a book he edited or authored or, more frequently, with First Things, we were thinking with Neuhaus about a variety of issues on a regular basis. We often tell our students that one of our favorite times each month is that occasion when we brew some coffee and sit down in a quiet place to digest “While We’re At It.” Frankly, our lives will be impoverished without that experience.

So, in what ways are two Southern Baptists so influenced by Richard John Neuhaus? There is so much we could say, but we have narrowed our thoughts to a few of the chief influences Neuhaus has had upon us. We hope this will serve to honor Neuhaus in a manner that is fitting, and we pray that others may find such an influence somewhere in their own lives.

One of the influences Neuhaus has had upon us is the model he provided as a man who had read widely about, thought theologically about, and could speak eloquently about a wide array of issues. Few things seemed beyond his grasp-he spoke with perception and wisdom about virtually everything. He spoke easily, and with substance, about philosophy, the arts, the sciences, politics, and nearly anything else that is an issue of public life.

Neuhaus also showed us how to reason from the Scriptures and to reason scripturally from God’s world. He “stood in the public square” and reasoned from the Scriptures. He quoted the Scriptures in support of, or against, some particular issue (i.e. homosexual marriage or abortion). But other times he reasoned scripturally from God’s world, not quoting Scripture passages per se, but rather speaking reasonably from the depths of a Christian theistic worldview.

We of course have to mention the wit of Neuhaus. He wielded his sharpest wit, it seems, either on those who openly mocked God or on theological liberals who sought to remake the faith in their own image. At the expense of the liberal theologians and churches, he had a heyday. The WCC, he thought “seems to have a bottomless source of last gasps.” Of the Anglican Communion, “the Anglican communion will at last achieve a one-to-one ratio between clergy and laity. And while that might provide opportunities for pastoral care of unprecedented intensity….” Of the ELCA, “The ELCA Lutherans met in August, if not august.” Of the United Church of Canada, “The UCC is prepared to die for the principle that nothing is worth fighting for. And it is.”

Of the NCC, he pointed out that Billy Graham had urged people to pray for the NCC, but that “for Catholics, who also pray for the dead, the urgency is not so great.” Of Bishop Spong, he remarked “He is a religious phenomenon of our time and his retirement should not go unremarked. In person and in his writings, he is a man of breathtaking intellectual and spiritual vulgarity. His towering self-approval, clearly intended to intimidate, only astonishes.” Of the Lilly Endowment, he commented that it was an organization committed to bringing together people from liberal churches “that have generally experienced in the intervening years whatever is the opposite of renewal.”

But on the whole, Neuhaus is not defined by his wit or by what or who he was against. He is better defined by his striving for what the apostle Paul referred to as “a more excellent way.” He believed deeply and fleshed out the implications of his belief in all dimensions of public life and culture. Although he did indeed give a good skewering to those whom he thought deserved it-usually God mockers, theological liberals, or mean-spirited Christians-for the most part his writing was marked by serious minded reflection on the important issues in life, by an attempt to state the implications of the Christian worldview, and in a way that was winsome and persuasive, in a manner consistent with “a more excellent way.”

Father Neuhaus was one of God’s gifts to the world. We are all richer because of his life and his work. We will miss our monthly coffee with Neuhaus over “While We’re At It.”” But fond memories we will keep, and his influence will remain with us. And we are better people, yes, better Christians for the life that was Richard John Neuhaus.

May the Lord hasten the day when the Southern Baptist Convention is capable of producing scores of young men and women who can speak publicly to the big issues of the day (whether they be in nature ethical, political, scientific, or artistic), even in some small measure like Neuhaus taught us, in a way that is well-reasoned, articulate, and persuasive, for the glory of online game car

Mark Driscoll Unplugged

This is an interview for those who like their coffee strong. In light of the little fracas this past week surrounding Baptist Press and Mark Driscoll, BtT provides you an interview with Mark Driscoll. David Nelson interviews Mark on a variety of topics. If you would like to listen to the interview, click here.

Mark Driscoll and Southeastern Seminary

Last weekend, Southeastern Seminary hosted our fifth annual 20/20 Collegiate Conference. The conference theme was “The Gospel Comes to Life.” The plenary speakers included Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church and the Acts 29 Network, C. J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries, Bill Brown of Cedarville University, and Southeastern President Danny Akin. Between the Times contributor Nathan Finn live-blogged the plenary sessions, which you can read here, here, here, here, and here. We had more attendees this year than at any of our previous 20/20 Conferences.

One of the speakers, Mark Driscoll, has received significant criticism from some Southern Baptists in recent days. At first the criticism was limited to ill-informed bloggers, but yesterday Baptist Press entered the fray with an article titled “Driscoll’s Vulgarity Draws Media Attention.” We were very disappointed in the BP piece, which we believe was inaccurate in content and harsh in tone.

We by no means agree with everything Mark Driscoll says or does. This is true of any speaker we would invite to our campus, including many Southern Baptists. But because we are not independent fundamentalists, we believe that it is profitable to invite speakers who do not agree with us on every jot and tittle. We are humble enough to admit that we do not have all the answers and we can learn much from brothers and sisters who are not part of the Southern Baptist family. We believe our students can learn from a variety of conservative evangelical pastors without slavishly copying the ministries or convictions of any one leader.

Per our mission statement, Southeastern Seminary remains committed to inviting speakers who we believe will assist in “equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission.” Mark is a leader who has much to teach us about how pastors can think like missionaries, interpret their culture through gospel-colored lens, and plant healthy churches that plant other churches. We suggest that those who have concerns about Mark’s ministry actually listen to his sermons and read his books. You may listen to Mark’s recent chapel sermon and two 20/20 addresses-and all of the other excellent 20/20 sessions-at Southeastern’s multimedia page.

If you are interested in reading more about Mark’s sessions in particular and the 20/20 Conference in general, we would recommend you read Southeastern’s press release, which we have reproduced below. We would also encourage you to read Melissa Lilley’s fine article written for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.


Conference brings gospel to life, young people to seminary campus


By Lauren Crane

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s campus came to life over the weekend as 1,400 college students and young adults flooded the grounds to hear from well-known speakers about how to see the gospel come to life.

The February 6-7 conference, which sold out days in advance, was held on Southeastern’s campus in Wake Forest, N.C. Students came from around the country to listen to pastors Mark Driscoll and C.J. Mahaney, Southeastern president Daniel Akin and Bill Brown, president of Cedarville University, as part of Southeastern’s annual 20/20 Collegiate Conference. This year’s theme, The Gospel Comes to Life, allowed the men to speak to the students about how to radically transform their own lives by meditating on the gospel message, and allowing that transformation to affect the culture in which they live.

Friday evening, Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash., opened the conference by speaking about the differing views of culture, including how it is viewed within the Scriptures, how it has been historically viewed, the church’s response to culture, and the necessary missiological response to culture. The topic is one he said he has studied over much of his life as a believer. His church, which has a regular attendance of thousands, is considered by many to be on the leading edge of connecting the gospel with every facet of culture.

“This has been my whole life since I met Jesus: Applying the gospel with work, life, and various arenas of culture. Younger evangelicals have been having an enormous conversation about how the gospel and culture interface and how to live for Christ and live in the culture,” Driscoll said. Beginning with the first signs of “culture” in Genesis 3, Driscoll said that culture “reflects both the dignity of creation and the depravity of rebellion” after the fall.

Looking initially at the examples of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Driscoll said the Pharisees “loved the letter of the law but didn’t love the spirit of the law” so they went so far as to withdraw themselves from the culture, while still being in it. “We want to commend people like them for their zeal and their willingness to fight (the culture),” Driscoll said. “However, theirs were sins of omission. Pharisees don’t do what they ought to do. You’re supposed to make disciples of all nations.”

The Sadducees, on the other hand, became compromised cultural liberals. “They became cultural accommodators. They were very unfaithful, and are still very popular,” Driscoll said. Instead of following either of these examples, or the examples of the zealots or Essenes, Driscoll said modern believers should follow the disciples’ examples in our response to culture. “They followed Jesus.”

When the church follows the example of the disciples, it will not view the church as a bomb shelter or a place to hide from the world’s culture, nor will it view the church as a cultural mirror, reflecting the culture around it.

When church acts as a mirror of the culture, Driscoll said, “This is liberalism. Instead of reflecting God to the culture, they’re reflecting the culture back to the culture. The church should be a city within a city, a city on a hill.

“We do everything differently. We don’t do it in a way that is hidden, but in a way that is public, showing how life can be with Jesus. That is how it’s done: The church is a city within a city where there’s a counter-cultural kingdom community.”

The first night of the conference concluded with Mahaney, former pastor of Covenant Life Church and president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, giving a message on the motivation behind why believers must infuse the culture with the gospel. Teaching out of Mark 14:1-9, Mahaney said it was his goal to make the students and young adults think on a truly profound moment.

“How can I teach you what is truly profound in an age of profound baloney?” Mahaney said. “How can I teach you about a truly historic moment from sacred Scripture when we’ve been conditioned to think of the Super Bowl as a truly historic moment each year?” The profound moment, Mahaney said, was the extravagant devotion shown by a woman named Mary to Christ as she poured the contents of the glass alabaster over his head as he reclined.

“There was no ignoring her. It was impossible to ignore this public demonstration of affection, this public and passionate display of affection for the Savior,” Mahaney said. “It is as fervent as any display of devotion as found in sacred Scripture.”

He said that Mary uniquely embodies the transforming effect of the Gospel, which is extravagant affection for and extravagant devotion to the Savior. “This is the transformation of the Gospel. Suddenly we hear a profound promise made to no other: She would be an example to the church universally.”

Mary’s extravagant devotion should also be evident in the lives of people who have been truly transformed by the Gospel, Mahaney said, as well as in the lives of those who are continually meditating on the transforming power of the Gospel. For modern believers to emulate Mary’s example of extravagant devotion and for it to be restored, Mahaney said we must meditate on the Gospel and listen to the cries of Calvary.

“Those cries were necessary because of our sin, and those cries are sufficient for our salvation,” Mahaney said.

Driscoll, in speaking to the conference-goers again Saturday morning, said it is this centrality of the Gospel in a believer’s life that should cause them to worship God alone. Speaking on the doxological view of culture, Driscoll said that after the fall in Genesis 3, humanity did not cease to be worshipers – as we were created to be – but instead began to worship the wrong things.

“Everyone worships,” Driscoll said. “The question is who or what. All unholy living is the result of believing the lie that it’s OK to worship something else in addition to, or in lieu of, the God of the Bible. The truth is you should worship the creator. The lie is that you can worship the creation.”

Driscoll challenged the conference-goers to look at what things they worship by determining what people or things are held in a position of glory in their lives.

“What is your real Gospel? Who do you look at as your savior? We make functional saviors to move us from our idea of hell to our idea of heaven,” Driscoll said.

He said many people in today’s culture worship comfort, possessions, status, sex and appearance, among other things. Driscoll said, “Christ has come to set us free. Idolatry both dishonors God and destroys us. Worship glorifies God and gives us joy.”

As Brown addressed the 1,200 conference-goers, he spoke on the topic of engaging the culture for Christ through the mission fields of the mind. Exploring some of the differing worldviews students and young people encounter today, Brown urged those in attendance to take advantage of a unique opportunity.

“I am so convinced that too often we don’t think like Christians. I believe God is giving you a great opportunity and an incredible responsibility to create a new generation of Christian thinkers,” Brown said. In addition to changing the scope of our thinking as believers, Brown said the church must carefully examine the attitudes of the heart.

“The most biblical approach is to be distressed by culture so that we get engaged,” Brown said. “It starts with a broken heart. I believe we should be passionate, don’t you? My goal here is that we must have a passion for Jesus Christ that leads us to a life of humility and a broken heart.”

“The time has come for us as believers to live out the gospel,” Brown said. “What a great privilege it is. Can we do it? Yes. Love the Lord with your heart and your mind for his glory.”

Akin closed the conference noting an important quote by Jonathan Edwards, “What is it that makes the church like heaven?” The answer is love, Akin said, and it is love that brings the gospel to life. Exegeting 1 Corinthians 13, Akin said, “If Jesus is right in saying ‘by this all men shall know that you are my disciples,’ then there is nothing more beneficial to having the Gospel come to life as love.

“Love is essential if we’re going to truly bring the gospel to life in the world in which we live,” he said. “Paul says without love it doesn’t matter what we say. Without love, it doesn’t matter what we know. Without love, it doesn’t matter what we do. If love is not a characteristic and component of your life, you’re lost.”

One day, Akin said, faith will give way to sight. Hope one day will give way to reality. “Love, because it is the very nature and character of God, is enduring. How does the gospel come to life? Jesus in me, loving others in a Christ-like, supernatural way.”