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An Augustinian Introduction

 

This post is a follow-up to some comments I made last week regarding the usage of Augustine in some sermons I recently sat under. Last week, I wrote this here:

“But, during a few talks, I fear there were some historical issues that were glossed over, conflated, and eventually, misapplied. The most significant of which was Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist controversy, his subsequent effect on the development of early medieval Catholicism, and ultimately him being blamed for the horrors of 15th-century Roman Catholicism.”

And, concluding that post, I wrote this:

“As a result, I fear many people sitting under those talks may now have a skewed understanding and view of Augustine. In the next few weeks, I plan to write on why everyone ought to read Augustine, and especially his Confessions. That way, at the very least, you can hear a positive account of Augustine’s influence, and be encouraged to read possibly the most important treatise in Christian history.”

If you already appreciate Augustine, feel free to close this tab and be on your merry way perusing cat videos and memes on Facebook, though I’d like you to stick around. If you vehemently dislike Augustine, still give it a read. We can always learn something new. And, if you have not had much contact with Augustine, let me give you an introduction.

Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most significant theological works in Christian history. It is written, structurally, as an autobiography, and in form, as a prayer to God of confession and closure. Some have argued that it is documenting his own personal story of salvation for his Christian mother, Monica, whom he was very fond of and, unlike his father, played a substantial role in his life. Moreover, Confessions is a delightful literary work as well. It is widely read and even published in the Penguin Classics series. Not only does it have incredible theological appeal, as we will see later in this essay, but it is able to fan the imaginations of those who disagree with him as they are drawn into his story and can sympathize with his quest for truth, love, satisfaction, beauty, and ultimately, rest.

Firstly, we will consider Confessions as a theological work, and zero in on its impact on virtually all of Western religion. Augustine was an extremely learned, brilliant orator, philosopher, and theologian. He won many prizes in oratory, and taught it at prominent places of education at the time. Moreover, Augustine was able to understand Aristotle’s 10 categories of substance at a very young age, with no help! He further comments that this was not the case for most of his contemporaries. Augustine recognized his incredible giftedness, and later, recognized that there was no good in them because those gifts were not offered to God. Cicero’s Hortensius was a pivotal read in Augustine’s life and while reading it, his “heart began to throb with the bewildering passion of eternal truth” (Book III).

He was a man of his times, born in AD 354, died in AD 430, and often in the middle of theological controversies (come now, which ancient writer was not?). The two main controversies were the Donatist controversy, and the Pelagian controversy. Without going into much detail of what both were about, it is safe to say that Augustine’s understanding of both controversies was at the forefront of the Reformation nearly 1200 years later. B.B. Warfield would later comment that the Reformation was a glorious victory of Augustine’s theology of grace over his theology of the church. Indeed, being pulled into the various controversies did cause him to be a bit imbalanced on some doctrines, but we ought not look back at Augustine with contempt, but rather, that he was a fallible human in search of properly articulating God’s truth.

As a result, Augustine wrote on nearly everything pertaining to the Christian faith, and the sheer volume of his works is vast. He is considered to be the greatest theologian, and because he wrote on nearly everything, every theologian writing after him has to grapple with his understandings to some extent. Much of his theology of the church laid the groundwork of appropriations found in medieval Catholicism. The Reformers pointed back to Augustine positively, with Calvin remarking something along the lines of “Augustine is wholly ours.” Karl Barth would come along and have to wrestle with Augustine regarding his doctrine of election. Barth eventually parted ways with Augustine, and would come to understand election in a novel way. These are but a few examples, but they are sufficient to show the impact he has had, and that whichever philosophical or doctrinally Christian topic is discussed, Augustine surely has something substantial to add.

What is perhaps most important about Confessions is Augustine’s development of a Christian anthropology with regards to sin and its psychological effects. For Augustine, man is entirely restless in his pursuit of love and rest and meaning—until he finds it in God. Augustine was “in love with love”, as it were, and saw love as the ultimate fulfillment. While man is seeking that fulfillment elsewhere, much like Augustine himself did (in philosophy, sex, theft, etc.), he will never find it—since it can only be found in God. He has a radical view of the sinfulness of man, and it is particularly developed in the internal struggle that every Christian faces.

It is at this point where he distances himself from the ascetic, Antony, whom he was reading during the time of his conversion and who had a tremendous impact on him. Antony’s spiritual struggles were external bouts with demons. He would come back from those wrestling matches beaten, bruised, and bloodied. But for Augustine, the enemy and demons were internal, and one had to fight against them not physically, but spiritually. One had to love God, and have that love shape his hatred for sin—only then could they have any victory over it.

Augustine’s anthropology is important and has far-reaching implications and influence. John Owen and Blaise Pascal would latch onto this understanding of the psychology of sin and develop it further. Both Owen and Pascal are remarkable reads regarding the nature of indwelling sin, the desire for entertainment as a distraction from our realities, and the deceitful nature of the human heart. Reading any of the 3, one leaves better in tune with the workings of his own mind, will, and affections.

Moreover, after reading Augustine’s Confessions, one cannot help but be in better tune with his own place in the world, his standing before God (regardless of whether the reader agrees with him), and a better understanding of himself. Augustine is a master storyteller and writer. As one reads the Confessions, it is remarkable how many literary devices he uses to make his point. His use of imagery with the tree and the garden in his supposed “fall” and later conversion, is used to bring the reader in tune with the Biblical categories of creation, fall, and redemption. It is in the garden where Adam fell, and it was by taking the fruit from the pear tree where Augustine sees his most vile act of sin—the desire to be like God himself. Augustine allows the reader inside his mind, and lets him see the psychology of the sinful acts he commits—thereby allowing the reader to sympathize, relate, and finally, be convinced of the truth.

In conclusion, Augustine is an immense theologian, with a towering intellect that casts a long shadow over the Western church. Upon reading of the Confessions, the reader cannot help but be moved and influenced by Augustine’s storytelling and analysis of his own self. He calls us to consider the transcendence of God with his understanding of the Trinity; he calls us to consider our nature with his understanding of the psychology of sin; he calls us to reconsider our place in the world with his understanding of predestination, and finally, he calls to consider God as the ultimate being in the universe, and the only resting place our desperate hearts can find.

Rounding Out the Last Month

Introduction:

This was originally one long post (1700 words) designed to summarize interesting events over the last few months, and setting things in motion for the next few. I decided to split it up into 2. Some of it is updates for those that I don’t get to see or talk to much. Some of it is commentary on pop culture.

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He might be missing one…

And, some of it is raw reflection on life in the belly of the beast (this section will be in another post titled “Disillusionment Lane”).

As always, feel free to drop a note and get in touch whichever way you please. Feel free to tell me where you think I’m wrong, where you agree, where you think I’m clueless, or better yet–which bike you’re buying for the beautiful weather ahead of us! If you need help or encouragement in the matter, to quote Leonard Cohen, “I’m your man.”

Let’s get rolling, and go Pats!

 

Logan

Last weekend, I went to see Logan with a few friends from church. The reviews were amazing, but those of you who know me at any length know what I think of Rotten Tomatoes. Either way, Wolverine losing his healing powers, disillusioned with the world, and undergoing an identity crisis? Yes, please. My hopes were high. Too high, in fact. The movie delivers on the action, and maybe over-delivers. But, in letting the viewer inside the mind of Logan, in allowing him feel his pain, they botched it. There wasn’t enough time to sympathize, empathize, get angry, reflect–nothing. We were just treated to another head being chopped off. If that’s the effect the writers were going for, so be it, but it could have been better. Really, should have been better.

Take, for example, The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. That movie perfectly illustrated the lingering issues of a broken father-son relationship resurrected after a long absence. You felt as if you were the one arguing with your own parent, or, from the opposite perspective,  your own child. You cringed during their fights, and rejoiced in their reconciliation. You were rooting for the both of them. In Logan, however, you didn’t even have time to formulate what kind of ending you wanted. A movie without a telos is, well, just that.  Perhaps the most dramatic scene in the whole movie, X’s dream and the appearance of Logan’s younger clone, was just left by the wayside. A scene of that magnitude–and we’re left watching a brawl?

Instead of Logan’s reflection on life, the death of X, his purpose going forward, his crumbling identity–we get carnage. And then some more. What could have been powerful, moving, and meaningful was merely mediocre.

Before I begin ranting, let’s switch gears.

 

Pastor’s Conference in Washington

I attended a Russian Pastor’s conference in Washington at the end of February. It was celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and its effect on today’s spirituality. Much of it was very edifying, encouraging, educational, helpful, and convicting. The participants were kind, the attendees were gracious, the service of the volunteers was overwhelming, and the atmosphere—extremely pleasant. If you speak Russian, I would highly recommend you attend.

But, during a few talks, I fear there were some historical issues that were glossed over, conflated, and eventually, misapplied.  The most significant of which was Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist controversy, his subsequent effect on the development of early medieval Catholicism, and ultimately him being blamed for the horrors of 15th-century Roman Catholicism. All the while not mentioning actual medieval theologians, and better yet, not even mentioning Aquinas. It is simply bad historical theology to trace developments from Augustine to Luther without mentioning Boethius, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Aquinas. Really bad, actually.

Moreover, historical figures must be treated through the lens and worldview in which they live. You cannot import your own categories, customs, and developments onto historical figures without committing the worst type of anachronism. Blaming Augustine for transubstantiation is anachronism. Blaming him for the severe misbehavior of Popes in the 14th and 15th centuries is anachronism. Saying that he started Roman Catholicism is–you guessed it–anachronism.

As a result, I fear many people sitting under those talks may now have a skewed understanding and view of Augustine. In the next few weeks, I plan to write on why everyone ought to read Augustine, and especially his Confessions. That way, at the very least, you can hear a positive account of Augustine’s influence, and be encouraged to read possibly the most important treatise in Christian history.

 

P.S. Two wide topics I know, and I’m sure you can smell the clutch burning. But, I promise, I’ve been double-clutching the whole time.

 

Disillusionment Lane

Seasons of Life

Ecclesiastes is a sobering book. There really is a time for everything. One season of life lends itself to dancing and laughing, and the season directly following can be one of weeping and mourning. What changed between December and March? Looking back, we really can’t tell. Though hindsight is 20/20, circumstances still cloud our judgment and dirty our glasses. There were times when I was as motivated as Tony Robbins, and now, I feel as though my only motivation to get through the day is: “tonight, I will be in my own bed.” Stark contrast, I know. What was once an enchanted world, now looks more bleak. What was once something to be explored and leveraged, is left to rust. The Killers put this perfectly: “Back then this thing was running on momentum, love trust. That paradise is buried in the dust.”

What I’m going to write below isn’t primarily about me. Though, it is something I have experienced, thought much about, talked through with friends, prayed over, and sought counsel over. Writing this is merely an outlet for organized thoughts that may help those in the same boat. What I’m trying to do is process how to deal with disillusionment while in seminary, or any other type of higher theological education. It is as if the call to ministry has to be realized over and over again.

Perception and Phenomena

How do you take fairly sharp, competitive minds, move them away from their families, churches and close-knit communities, put them under an oppressive workload in an environment where their main source of affirmation is grades and feedback from professors–and then keep that boiling pot from festering a hyper-competitive, intellectual atmosphere that is decimating to the psyche? Moreover, how could that atmosphere then lend itself to training in godliness?

Note: this is not a criticism of WTS, nor any other seminary. Read: this is NOT a criticism of my school, your school, or any other school. It is merely a description of the phenomena. It is asking the questions I ask myself. It is, perhaps, a voice that gives encouragement to other voices. After all, we are in this together, whether you like it or not.

This ultimately leads to the question: Does seminary accomplish what it sets out to do? Some have argued, to some extent, that it does not. I do not know the answer to that question. It would be incredibly arrogant and pretentious to think I did. Nor will I offer any institutional advice or suggestions at this time. After all, how much does a 29-year-old, 1st year student at WTS really know? Perhaps, 1st-years, our reputation precedes us at this point. We ought to change that.

There’s a line in BBC’s rendition of War and Peace where Count Bezukhov makes a really profound statement. He says: “When our lives are knocked off course, we often imagine everything in them is lost.” Life is full of turns and seasons that do, in fact, cause us to question our identity, belonging, purpose, and whether any of this really matters. From our human human point of view, life sometimes seems like a path of endless confusion, despair, error, and discouragement. Some would call that life under the Sun.

These emotions are real. They are heavy. They are important. They ought not be overlooked, nor cast aside. They should be embraced.

If seminary has taught me anything thus far, it’s this. My faith will be tested. My resolve will be tested. My commitment and devotion to Christ will be tested. And, my commitment to the ministry as well.

Hope in the Strangest of Places

I mentioned earlier, though tongue in cheek, that we are in this together. My friends in seminary, my friends at church, my friends in PA, my friends in RI, the 4-5 year olds in my community group–we need each other. I know I missed some people in that rundown, you get a piece of the pie as well.

I’m the only single guy in my community group, surrounded by great families with young kids. It is now my job (whether real or perceived), at every community group, to round up the young boys and have a Royal-Rumble-esque cage match with them to tire them out before we begin our study. It’s the lot of them against me. Hardly a fair fight for the seminarian.

It is the precious interactions with the young kids at community group (who don’t have a care in the world whether Thomistic rationalism has a place in Reformed theology), the discussions with their mothers (who couldn’t care less whether the Mosaic Covenant is perhaps a republication of the covenant of works), the interactions with young people at our Monday night Bible study (where Van Til’s critique of Hegel’s idealism doesn’t keep them up at night)–they have helped put things in perspective.

Conclusion

We need sources of affirmation and community that go beyond what takes place in the seminary halls. A few concrete ones would be community group, church life, friends outside the intellectual and Christ in the bread and wine. In those contexts, I’m a beggar in need of grace. And if there’s anything Luther got right, it’s just that: “We are beggars, this is true.”

Please do not read this as if the sky is falling. Words written down often have a much more sobering effect than when spoken. If you were sitting in front of me, you would see that I am rather jovial. But that is because seasons do indeed come and go.

Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”: Reflection and Closure, Part I

I finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” back in March. It was lengthy, packed full of drama, gripping, provocative, and emotional. A few days after finishing, I wrote a small reflection on Facebook:

Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” is, as of right now, the most moving book I’ve ever read. Just finished it a couple days ago, and I’m still plagued by the gravity of its ending. The last 50 pages are gripping, and I can’t help replaying the last few dialogues over and over in my mind. Tragic isn’t even the word to describe it, and it makes Romeo and Juliet’s ending look sentimental.

It is the ultimate story in “what could have been?” What would have happened had Prince Myshkin ran after Aglaia Ivanovna, and what could have been had he decided to forego his morals and trust his emotions? All things to think about, and I can’t make heads or tails of how I feel about it all. Maybe that was Dostoyevsky’s point..

On to “Brothers Karamazov”. Namaste.

20160926_164039Firstly, I couldn’t recommend this book enough. Whatever you’re reading, you can fit Dostoyevsky in. The insights into life and psychology alone are worth the price of the book. Anyone mildly familiar with Shakespeare will detect shades of Hamlet in Dostoyevsky’s characters. He will lead you through the tumultuous waters of a conflicted conscience, through the valleys of a psyche consumed with doubt, and the deserts of self-reflection.

Dostoyevsky is a psychological master. When he was 18 years old he wrote in a letter to his brother: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” He had a rare ability to penetrate deep into the sub-consciousness of individual psychology. The pain, gravity, and weight you feel when reading his novels are a product of his insight into the very depth of a human soul.

This post not meant to be a biographical sketch of dear Fyodor; I merely used the last couple paragraphs to commend to him to those who haven’t yet given him a chance. Seriously, go buy The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Crime and Punishment. If you don’t know which to start with, I’d recommend The Idiot.

This post is, however, meant to be an extension and follow-up to the original FB post above. To those clamoring that this really should have been done 3 months ago, I hear you. But, in my defense, the summer has been a busy one. I moved to Philadelphia, started at Westminster Theological Seminary, and have been consumed with learning New Testament Greek since the end of July. I realize that my opinion on this matter is of very little consequence, but the feedback I’ve received when talking about this in person or on social media was very pleasant. So, this is me putting my thoughts in a coherent stream, all the while hoping that I could process the ending a little better.  It is me seeking closure.

However, the main reason it has taken this long to write something up is simply this: the conundrum is a wild one. It has taken 6 months of considerable reflection and internal dialogue to put myself in Myshkin’s shoes. I’ve had to embrace all his strengths, faults, shortcomings, sins, and virtues and then analogically compare them to my own . I reread critical dialogues for clues; I scoured the last few chapters for relevant detail that I had missed before. And, finally, when I came to facing the ending again, I was instantly transported back to March, on my couch in my old room, flooded with the same emotions. I was angry.  I was exhausted. I was at a loss for words, and plagued with confusion. I didn’t know how to feel. Just like in March, I finished the last few pages while shaking my head. At first you don’t realize what happened. Then, as it slowly dawns on you, you inevitably put the book down in disbelief. Did that really just happen?

The story revolves around a rather confusing love triangle. The reason it’s confusing is because it sometimes involves only 3 people (hence, triangle), and sometimes 5. It is an incredibly complex and intricate web of affection where the reader really doesn’t know what they want to happen. At least I didn’t. The main character is Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s archetype. Prince Myshkin is a genuine, good-natured, benevolent, trusting, forgiving, generous, and unassuming figure. It was critically said of him that he would forgive anyone 1,000 times if they came to him the next day and asked for it. He was called foolish for being generous with his inheritance, and gave away a substantial amount to people who were trying to defraud him.

He represents Dostoyevsky’s vision for the ideal man, the truly Christ-like figure. The Idiot explores how Russian, aristocratic society relates to such a man. Dostoyevsky labors to show the stark contrast between Prince Myshkin and rich, powerful, aristocratic Russian families. The love triangle consists mainly of Myshkin, the virtuous Aglaia Ivanovna, and the beautiful Nastasya Fillipovna. The other two members, Rogozhin and Ganya, play pivotal roles but the central struggle doesn’t involve them.

The really interesting role is played by the different kinds of love Myshkin has for both Nastasya and Aglaia. He loves both of them, and wants to marry both of them, though in different ways and for separate reasons. They feel the same way about him, though each in her own individual way. That’s about a 30,000 foot view of what’s happening. Remember, the web is far more complex than that. Also, these relations are merely a means that Dostoyevsky uses to make his fundamental point– that is, the stark contrast of Dostoyevsky’s archetype and Russian aristocracy.

It is at this point, however, that I must show my hand. We’re about 1,000 words in and I haven’t yet begun to describe the internal tensions in those relationships. It requires careful reasoning, writing, and reflection to bring the reader up to speed, and provide him with a foundation to understand the answer to that elusive question mentioned above: “What would have happened had Prince Myshkin ran after Aglaia Ivanovna, and what could have been had he decided to forego his morals and trust his emotions?”

There’s tremendous depth and complexity to it, and a short post would not do it justice. Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew?

I mentioned earlier that it has taken 6 months of considerable reflection and internal dialogue to put myself in Myshkin’s shoes. I’ve had to embrace all his strengths, faults, shortcomings, sins, and virtues and then analogically compare them to my own.

Did I get closure? Somewhat. If it were me, and I met the girl of my dreams and she happened to love me back, of course I wouldn’t let her slip! But, that logic falls on deaf ears when there’s two of them in the picture. Does it not? If it were me, I would have let Nastasya fall and ran after Aglaia. I would have secured Aglaia’s love. This is troublesome, however, since securing Aglaia’s love effectively kills Nastasya, whom he loves just as much. Myshkin’s hesitation in running to Aglaia, however, led to her end as well. And, consequently, the ending is tragic, devastating, and truly incredible.

The worst part is, though, I fear I’ve missed the point. It dawned on me that perhaps I ought not be wondering which of the girls he should have chosen, nor focus on how tragic the ending was. This feeling, I still cannot shake. And so, I bought the original copy of the book in Russian. Perhaps a read-through in the original will grant some closure. Or not.

Maybe Dostoyevsky just wants me to wrestle with the possibilities as he searches my soul through his characters? One might ask what good that is, but that would be a dead giveaway that he hasn’t yet read Dostoyevsky.

 

 

 

Calvin on the Image of God in All Men

I don’t listen to many podcasts. Only a few, really, and, even then,  only one regularly. The only podcast that I listen to regularly is Dr. James White’s The Dividing Line. A few weeks ago, Dr. White read this quote from Calvin in the context of being fair to others, and doing whatever possible not to misrepresent their views. I found it extremely challenging, and convicting. You’ll find the text below, with some comments of mine following.

Looking around today’s landscape, we see the buildup of racial tensions, of tensions between social classes, tensions between civil authorities, and calls for people’s lives mattering. Of course they matter. And, of course, we should offer our assistance to them. But, we should ask ourselves: Why do they matter? Calvin is brilliant in his answer to that exact question.

Moreover, that we may not weary in well-doing (as would otherwise forthwith and infallibly be the case), we must add the other quality in the Apostle’s enumeration, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind, is not easily provoked,” (1 Cor. 13:4). The Lord enjoins us to do good to all without exception, though the greater part, if estimated by their own merit, are most unworthy of it. But Scripture subjoins a most excellent reason, when it tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honour and love. But in those who are of the household of faith, the same rule is to be more carefully observed, inasmuch as that image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whoever be the man that is presented to you as needing your assistance, you have no ground for declining to give it to him. Say he is a stranger. The Lord has given him a mark which ought to be familiar to you: for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh (Gal. 6:10). Say he is mean and of no consideration. The Lord points him out as one whom he has distinguished by the lustre of his own image (Isaiah 58:7). Say that you are bound to him by no ties of duty. The Lord has substituted him as it were into his own place, that in him you may recognize the many great obligations under which the Lord has laid you to himself. Say that he is unworthy of your least exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, is worthy of yourself and all your exertions. But if he not only merits no good, but has provoked you by injury and mischief, still this is no good reason why you should not embrace him in love, and visit him with offices of love. He has deserved very differently from me, you will say. But what has the Lord deserved? Whatever injury he has done you, when he enjoins you to forgive him, he certainly means that it should be imputed to himself. In this way only we attain to what is not to say difficult but altogether against nature, to love those that hate us, render good for evil, and blessing for cursing, remembering that we are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.6).

For Calvin, rendering good for evil, and blessing for cursing is extremely difficult, and bordering on the impossible. Moreover, he claims it’s against nature. And how can it not be, in a world that has traded the Lord of Glory for a particularly deceptive form of secular humanism?

Ponder those situations where we need to demonstrate love for God by loving our neighbor. Think on those in your circles that need help, and proceed to offer it to them regardless of their disposition towards you. If you are united to Christ, then, as Calvin says, you have no good reason to pass them by.

Canadian Simplicity, Part I

Recently, I went camping in Canada with a few friends. 10 days is the longest I’ve ever camped and, let me tell you, camping for more than 5 days is completely different from the usual 3-day weekend, camping trips people usually take. We were in a small, tourist, fishing town about 2 hours from Toronto, and all the time spent there provided the perfect storm for reflection, meditation, solitude, and ample time for introspection. My accounting of the trip was meant to only be one post; but after writing down my first stream of thoughts, it seems it may carry on to a few.

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It just invites you in, doesn’t it?

There’s nothing quite like an extended time away from the technological grid to expose the unnecessary affections and attachments our hearts have for things that no previous generation had or experienced. What we discover about ourselves when we’ve had uninterrupted time to think and reflect, either ought to be reckoned and dealt with or simply cast aside as “something everyone else is guilty of as well.” The former is helpful, the latter is one reason why we have this problem in the first place.

John Calvin made a point that man’s nature is akin to an idol factory. Constantly churning out more and more objects that vie for our affections, and often, finding ample use for them in our distracted, discontented, restless, and attached state. Remove 4G LTE from our current generation and what do we have? Think about what would happen to you if you had no signal or WiFi for a day. In my case, you had a spoiled brat desperately dependent on a service signal to keep in touch with a reality that camping was to clear his head from. How backwards is that? It’s as if I was afraid that life would pass me by while I was camping; that real life was happening on the social media sphere, while my friends and I were wasting time fishing, camping, playing cards, and shooting the raccoons that were trying to get into our food.

There’s something about being away from the grid that exposes those idols. It did for me. Extended getaways that require us to live simply provide the necessary conditions for our introspection to be beneficial. Perhaps Thoreau was right– we need the tonic of wilderness, we can never have enough of nature. Why? Because the solitude and perspective nature provides serves as a norm and hard reset for what our affections and attention ought to align with. Though Thoreau’s overarching transcendentalism is, at times, troubling, his insights into the simplicity of life are second to none.

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Not exactly Walden’s Pond, but still..

Nobody in history had as much access to information, news, data, and content as we do today. They did just fine. John Owen, my favorite theologian, didn’t have a phone with a signal or a tablet with access to any historical work I desire, and yet I look at his volumes sitting on my bookshelf in humility, admiration, and a dash of envy. I wonder how he could possibly have written and thought through so much. It doesn’t last long, however, and I can see that we, me first and foremost, are a distracted people. We are an attached people. We are attached to our distractions. Our ability to access whatever distraction we desire is the main culprit. Take away that ability, and our minds are left to reflect why we feel so empty when our distractions are not center stage.

Numbered Among God’s People

This last Lord’s Day at our church was a typical, ordinary worship service. We had the preaching of God’s Word, and we took communion. As I waited for the elements of communion to come to where I was sitting, I pondered briefly how depressing and distressing it would be to have them pass me by and not be able to partake of them. What would be the tax to my soul? What spiritual benefits would be withheld from me? Is it of any consequence?

This brought to mind a recent essay I had to write on the importance of the local church in a student’s life. Though, of course, it can be applied to anyone, anywhere, and not just to a student of theology.

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A student of theology that is involved in the local church can avail himself of many spiritual benefits he couldn’t attain anywhere else. While training to be a minister, a neglect his own religious duties and spiritual fitness will lead to his moral disqualification from that ministry. A minister must be educated, yes, else he would be unfit for his duties. However, the Apostle Paul’s requirements for a minister in 2 Timothy 2 demonstrate that education is not the only requirement. In fact, it is one in a long list of requirements for those aspiring the office of a minister of the gospel. Above all, the minister must be a godly man.

It is precisely that requirement that then necessitates students being involved in a local church during their tenure at seminary. His most important concern is the cultivation of his spiritual life, and it is impossible to do so outside of the community of a local church. Whether serving in a particular office or attending the formal gatherings as a lay-person, no one can withdraw himself from the community of a local church and expect mature growth in godliness.

The local church provides many things that are necessary for godliness. Firstly, it is God’s design for worship. God is more pleased with our public displays of worship, when all his people gather together in His name. A student involved in a local church identifies himself with the church of God. Psalm 87:2 reads “the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (ESV). Charles Spurgeon, commenting on the verse, says it best: “God delights in the prayers and praises of Christian families and individuals, but he has a special eye to the assemblies of the faithful, and he has a special delight in their devotions in their church capacity.” God delights in public expressions of worship more so than he does in private ones. Furthermore, Christ and Paul, as documented by Luke, were regularly numbered among God’s people on the Sabbath. Luke 4:16 tells of Jesus going to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, “as was his custom” (ESV). The same was said of Paul in Acts 17:2- “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (ESV). If it was the custom of Jesus and Paul to attend the regular, formal gatherings of the people of God, how much more important is it for our spiritual growth?

Secondly, the local church is where the student can avail himself of God’s ordained, ordinary means of grace. These “means” are ways by which God strengthens our faith. They include: prayer, the preaching of God’s Holy Word, and the sacraments. These three, working in tandem, work to seal Christ’s benefits on our hearts. Public prayers of confession and pardon are prayed aloud and the Spirit of God testifies in one’s heart either of pardon or judgment. The preaching of God’s Word is the primary means God uses to call his people to himself, and confirm his promises to them. The preacher, using God’s Word, is then able to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak…” (1 Thess. 5:14, ESV), all the while exalting the glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper, are ordinances where we spiritually participate in Christ. It is a spiritual connection, whereby Christ seals his benefits on our hearts.

Finally, the public gathering of God’s people is where God has promised to be, and the place where we will find His Son, if we but come on His terms. The student of theology, who makes it his daily devotion to study God, and isn’t involved in the local community of believers, will not grow in the mandatory godliness that a minister of God must have. For the sake of others, he needs to give of himself to the community, and draw out of the community the support and inspiration he so desperately needs for his own spiritual health.