Christ Is Sovereign Over All

The title for this post is drawn from a famous statement by the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). The full statement reads: “There is not a square inch in a whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Where did Kuyper get this idea? I suspect, at least in part, from the Great Commission text of Matthew 28:18-20 where Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” What Jesus has authority over belongs to Him. What belongs to Him He rightly claims as “Mine!” All of creation is Christ’s. As we advance the gospel across North America and to the nations we reclaim souls and territory that belong to King Jesus. This world belongs to the Son of God, not Satan.

C.S. Lewis certainly understood this to be the nature of our assignment. He said, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” Lewis was right. We are indeed locked in a cosmic conflict for the souls of human persons. Eternal destinies hang in the balance. We are also locked in a cultural conflict that will determine in many ways how we think and work, how we live and die.

I am in complete agreement with Francis Schaeffer, whose letters and papers are archived in our library at SEBTS. This wonderful Christian thinker, whose writings have had a profound influence on my life, put it like this: “Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life.” Did you catch the key word? The “whole” of life. In other words, our Christian faith is to translate into a Christian life, a way of thinking, acting, playing and living. No area is off limits. No discipline is out of bounds. Our surrender to Christ’s Lordship will impact the totality of our lives. It will shape and determine what we call our “worldview.”

Southeastern Seminary houses “The Center for Faith and Culture.” It is named after my former teacher and colleague L. Rush Bush, who served as the Dean of SEBTS for right at 20 years. The Center reflects well the heart and perspective of its founding director who believed all of life should be permeated by a Christian worldview. Bush said, “A worldview is that basic set of assumptions that gives meaning to ones thoughts. A worldview is that set of assumptions that someone has about the way things are, about what things are, about why things are.” Complementing this excellent statement, I often say a worldview is a comprehensive and all-encompassing view of life by which we think, understand, judge and act. It guides and determines our approach to life and how we will live.

Because the seminary I serve is committed to cultivating a comprehensive Christian worldview, we allow these ideas– axioms if you like–to inform how we teach in the classroom. It is also why we hold conferences that address issues like creation, abortion, sexual identity, adoption, marriage and family, government, economics, politics, law, philosophy, ethics, the environment, poverty and more. Faith and culture meet at the intersection of real life, and SEBTS is committed to being in the center of all of it!

Schaeffer says, “Christianity is the greatest intellectual system the mind of man has ever touched.” I believe that. And Kuyper adds, “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at any price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.” We at Southeastern believe this too, and we indeed accept the call to battle, laying our convictions bare for friend and foe alike!

This post originally appeared on Sep. 22, 2014. online gameonline game mobile

Theology & Culture (8): Why The Arts Matter to God

As a young believer and a cultural separatist in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty sure that “the arts” were very bad in some foreboding but non-specific manner. I wasn’t sure why they were so bad, but it seemed self-evident that I was supposed to be “agin’ it, not fer it.” During my childhood years, I had a rather limited television intake (The Andy Griffith Show was an exception, although the presence of Otis made even this show “iffy”), an almost non-existent movie intake (except for Billy Graham movies), and a zero-calorie music diet (classical music and hymns only; rock music was Satan’s music, and I knew this because Bill Gothard told me so).

Now, don’t get me wrong-I’m happy about the alternatives my parents presented. I read books (lots of them, including biography, history, theology, fiction, etc.), I played sports, and I spent time with my family. But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t sure “what to do with” the arts, including popular art forms like cinema, television, and Top-40 music. I knew that I disagreed with a lot of the messages that were being put forth through those media, but I also knew that some of it was beautiful and that all of it was powerfully influential.

Because of this recognition that I didn’t know what to do with the arts, in my college and early seminary years, I fluctuated between cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony, sometimes within the space of one week. It wasn’t until I discovered L. Russ Bush and Francis Schaeffer that I began to learn “what to do with” the arts. L. Russ Bush was the Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at SEBTS. In his introductory philosophy course, he covered the history of philosophy and while doing so illustrated by pointing to movies, music, and television shows which espoused particular philosophical viewpoints. In his Ph.D. Seminar on Christian Faith & the Modern Mind, he surveyed late 20th century art, architecture, cinema, and music, showing the philosophical and religious underpinnings of various artists and works of art.

During Dr. Bush’s courses, he introduced us to Christian art critics such as Hans Rookmaaker (professional art historian and critic) and Francis Schaeffer (Christian theologian and apologist). Schaeffer’s work (which depended in part upon Rookmaaker’s) has been enduringly influential among evangelicals and is crafted for non-specialists, so his work shaped my view of art early on.

In fact, in my recent seminar on Theology & Culture (cross-listed for undergrad and grad students), we read Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible.* This slim little volume provides a handy starting point for a discussion of theology and the arts, so I will mediate a bit of Schaeffer’s thought, in the hopes that this brief blogpost will stimulate further interest in theology and the arts.

At the beginning of the book, Schaeffer makes a biblical-theological argument for the goodness of the arts. He began by arguing for the Lordship of Christ over every realm of culture and specifically over the arts. He continued by giving multiple specific examples of Scripture promoting the arts. He honed in on the art in the tabernacle and Temple, on “secular” art in the Bible, on Jesus’ use of art, on poetry in music in the Bible, on drama and dance in the Bible, and finally on the pervasively “artful” portrayal of heaven’s beauty.

After having built his theological case for the arts, he begins to theologize about the arts. One of the more noteworthy sections is his provision of four standards by which one can judge a work of art. The first standard is technical excellence: a painting, for example, should be judged on its use of color, form, balance, the unity of the canvas, its handling of lines, etc. The second standard is validity: is the artist honest to himself and his worldview (or does he, for example, sell out for money)? The third standard is content: is the artist’s worldview resonant with a Christian worldview? An artist’s body of work reveals his worldview, even though he may not be aware of this. The fourth standard is integration of content and vehicle: does this work of art correlate its content with its style?

Another noteworthy section is Schaeffer’s articulation of four types of artists. The first is the Christian artist who works from within a Christian worldview. The second is the non-Christian who works within a non-Christian worldview. The third is the non-Christian who works with the remnants and residue of a Christian worldview. The fourth is the Christian who does not fully grasp the Christian worldview and therefore works with elements of a non-Christian worldview. The first type of artist is the one Schaeffer considers exemplary.

Schaeffer was not a professional art critic and his work has some flaws. However, he is profoundly right about several things: (1) Christians ought to produce good art, art which arises from within a comprehensive Christian worldview; (2) this art does not have to be explicitly religious (e.g. having manger scene as its subject matter) and in fact is often more powerful when it is not; and (3) Christians ought to be aware of the art arising from their culture because such art makes us aware of the worldviews underlying it, worldviews which are deficient and can be remedied by the gospel and a Christian worldview.

My conviction is that one of the various reasons Christians have an increasingly ineffective witness in the United States is because we have abdicated our responsibility to glorify God within the arts. To the extent that we have involved ourselves in the arts, we have done so by creating music labels and music production companies that produce art that is explicitly about religious characters and often is preachy and not very compelling. In the most influential sectors of American society (Hollywood, New York, etc.) we have fled the premises.

May God grant us young men and women who will view their lives missiologically, and immerse themselves in arts communities in Hollywood, New York, and Nashville, proclaiming and embodying the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical for those particular communities.

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*Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 8): The Danger of Missing Out

This series arose out of extended reflection on the Scriptures, out of which the Lord has made clear to me some of the perils of seminary, many of which I have succumbed to or been tempted by over the past decade and a half. I have attempted to communicate these perils to those of you who would read this post and might benefit from it. Although I have interjected humor at several points, I could not be more serious about the dangers I mentioned. After having written on those dangers, however, I would be remiss not to include one final danger: the danger of missing out on all that a good seminary has to offer.

I will never forget the first day of Systematic Theology with Paige Patterson. I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constrictivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel. From Dr. Patterson, I learned not only theology and research, but also how it is that a teacher really challenges those whom he is teaching.

My biblical languages and biblical studies courses were of inestimable value. One of those courses was book of Isaiah with Gary Galeotti. It was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, as we studied Isaiah, line by line, for an entire semester. I realized that Isaiah understood Christ 800 years before the Lord’s coming better than I did 2000 years after. In addition to learning the book of Isaiah, I learned what it meant to be a godly preacher and teacher of the Word. Day after day, he opened the text of Scripture, expounded it, applied it to our lives, and challenged us to embrace and obey the words of God. He aimed not only for the mind, but for the heart.

I took Christian Philosophy, Apologetics, Christian Faith and the Modern Mind, and several other courses with L. Russ Bush. In these courses, I learned to give a defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Dr. Bush was a man who had thought deeply and broadly and was able to speak cogently on any issue across the range of the disciplines. At his fingertips were theology, philosophy, history, world religions, and current affairs. It was in this class more than any other that the Lord distilled in me a love for reading widely across the disciplines.

Alvin Reid was my professor for Introduction to Evangelism. I had never been around a man with such a contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. His courses were an extended argument for evangelism, missions, and revival. He argued from the text of Scripture, illustrated from the annals of church history, and applied it to our contemporary milieu. Between his evangelism course and Keith Eitel’s missions courses, I found myself under conviction every week. They continually impressed upon me the fact that a love for God and His Word necessarily issues forth in a desire to commend Him to a lost world.

John Hammett was my professor for courses such as Ecclesiology and Baptist History. Not only was I forced to study the doctrine of the church in depth, but I encountered a man who was the consummate scholar. In presenting his own views, we recognized that he was rigorous in his research and unflinching in his argumentation. In presenting views that differed from his own, he was unfailingly even-handed. He did not need to misrepresent his opponents in order to refute their views. One of the things that most impressed me about Dr. Hammett was that one could be a tough-minded theologian and at the same time have a gracious demeanor.

From Andreas Kostenberger, I encountered not only the New Testament but also a man who embodies the severe discipline necessary to “leave no stone unturned” in the study of the Scriptures. From Steve McKinion, I imbibed not only the writings of the church fathers but also learned that one could be a missionary to the academy; he could research and write and speak in such a manner that he reaches an audience extending far beyond the bounds of the evangelical world. From Dan Heimbach, not only did I learn Christian Ethics, but also observed the life of a man who had advised the President of the United States and gave lectures at the Naval Postgrad School and the Marine Corps University Staff and Command College and who was willing to leave all of that in order to teach ministers of the gospel. And this is just the short list of men from whom I have learned.

Last, but not least, I want to encourage seminary students to learn from those who God has put in leadership at their seminaries. It is God who has placed these men in such positions and we would be remiss not to learn from them. The lessons learned from each president will vary according to their personality, context, and relative strengths and weaknesses. Since I live and write from within a Southeastern context, I will mention our own President, Danny Akin. If I had to limit my thoughts to only one thing that I have learned from watching him, it would be that he has modeled for us what it means to hide behind the cross. I think it was James Denney who said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Our president models this in his preaching, as he keeps the text of Scripture front and center, and puts himself in the background. The lesson here is that we should not allow our personalities or agendas or sense of humor to overtake the text itself. He also models it in his leadership. It is not often that one has opportunity to sit under a leader who is genuinely self-effacing, consistently willing to admit his faults and ask forgiveness when wrong, committed to visit and serve his missions students on the field (in less than ideal conditions), and willing to spend time with students in spite of his multiple responsibilities.

I was very, very close to eliminating this installment because I was afraid that it would seem like an extended piece of flattery. After all, in trying to give a brief exposition of God’s grace to me in a seminary context, I have focused on the faculty as much as (or more than) I have the curriculum. There are two reasons why, in the end, I decided to post this installment, First, at a good seminary, the faculty and curriculum are in a sense inseparable. That is the whole point of having a seminary community. We are drinking deeply from the well of the Christian Scriptures at the feet of men who have walked with the Lord and who have studied their chosen disciplines with more depth than we likely ever will. Theology, pastoral ministry, and leadership are caught just as much as they are taught. Second, with all of the emphasis on young leaders in our convention, I thought it fitting to focus on the benefits of listening to, and learning from, the older leaders whom God has set before us. Young men are most likely to become leaders by sitting at the feet of their elders.

In conclusion, let me affirm what I wrote in the first post, “I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many years more than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.” Let us live and study and teach and worship in a manner worthy of our calling.