The Greatest Things Have Not Changed
Bethlehem College & Seminary Ten Years Later
The fall of 2009 was the inaugural year of Bethlehem College & Seminary. On November 5, 2008, I delivered an address with the long title “The Earth Is the Lord’s”: The Supremacy of Christ in Christian Learning — Biblical Foundations for Bethlehem College & Seminary. In the present article, I aim to reflect on the last ten years and on aspects of that foundational address that should be underlined, corrected, or expanded.
The mission statement of Bethlehem College & Seminary is the following:
Under the authority of God’s inerrant word, Bethlehem College & Seminary exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ by equipping men and women to treasure Christ above all things, to grow in wisdom and knowledge over a lifetime, and to glorify God in every sphere of life.
I love that mission. And I love to see it happening before my eyes.
The School Today
In the last ten years, the school has been fully accredited by the Association of Higher Biblical Education. The seminary has been at capacity from the beginning, with an annual enrollment target of 15–17 students who progress together through the four-year Master of Divinity in a cohort model. The target enrollment for the college is about 180, with a present enrollment of 105. There are two evening degree programs: (1) the degree-completion program, which enables folks in their careers to come back and finish a bachelor’s, and (2) the new two-year Master of Arts in Exegesis and Theology.
The school has thirteen full-time faculty, who are spiritually, theologically, academically, pedagogically, and personally the kind of teachers I would want my sons or daughters to study with. The church-based mentoring model is in place and vital. The tuition is a fraction of what a comparable education would cost at most other colleges and seminaries, because (1) we aim at no student debt, and (2) we raise funds from folks who believe in what we are doing, so that every student receives a $10,000 Serious Joy Scholarship.
What Has Changed?
In the last ten years, the greatest things have not changed at all. God is still holy, merciful, and sovereign. Man is still spiritually dead apart from Christ, cut off from God, and perishing. Christ is still a reigning, all-sufficient, and global Savior. The Holy Spirit is still active, omnipotent, and faith-creating. The Bible is still completely true and ever relevant. And the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. It is thrilling to be anchored in stupendous realities that never change.
But aspects of the world we live in have changed. Some of these changes call for comment as they relate to aspects of the message I gave ten years ago.
The ongoing prioritization of anecdotal preaching of experience rather than systematic preaching of Scripture has contributed to a pervasive ignorance of Bible facts and Bible doctrine. We in the American church have reaped what we have sown.
Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Three verses earlier he made clear that the “word” was the Scriptures, which are inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Paul’s conscience was clear as he left the Ephesian church, because he “did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). There are thousands of churches where that does not happen. The Bible is not explained so that the people understand the flow of its thought and taste the glorious realities behind it.
Worse, some popular pastors belittle this kind of preaching, discourage preachers from basing their points on what “the Bible says,” and tell their people that whole stretches of the Scriptures may be calmly ignored. Old-fashioned liberals (who have turned the mainline denominations into a declining spiritual wasteland) have been talking like this for a century. What’s new is that so-called evangelicals now do so openly.
With increasing clarity, I see students’ attitudes toward the Bible as the watershed issue of their life. Are they deeply persuaded that the Bible is completely true? Do they love the process of discovering the meaning of Scripture? Does it thrill them daily to mine the gold of God’s mind revealed there? Do they instinctively transpose what they see into a passion to obey and share? Do they have unbending courage to stand for biblical truth, though the entire culture stands against them?
This priority of Scripture led me in the last five years to write three books that I regard as legacy books. That is, they attempt to summarize a lifetime of thinking about why I trust the Bible as completely true (A Peculiar Glory), how it is to be read supernaturally (Reading the Bible Supernaturally), and how it is to be preached (Expository Exultation). If I were delivering a foundational message for Bethlehem College & Seminary today, the stress on our being Bible-based and Bible-saturated in all we teach would be even stronger.
Here again, I would say things with even greater emphasis and confidence than I did ten years ago. Here is what I said:
Essential to the foundation of Bethlehem College & Seminary is the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. God’s self-exaltation and our everlasting joy are not at odds. They happen together. His worth is magnified when we treasure him above all things.
In other words, since we aim in our education to glorify God in all we think and do, and since he is not glorified as he ought to be in hearts where he is not treasured above all things, therefore, it is essential that we instill in students the unabashed, unwavering habit of pursuing more satisfaction in God than in any other treasure in the world.
What I would clarify now is this: Christian Hedonism is not the addition of a new doctrine to the palace of Reformed truth seen in Scripture. Rather, Christian Hedonism is a relentless emphasis on the supreme preciousness of that Truth, and on the corresponding spiritual pleasure the heart must find in that preciousness if its truth and beauty and worth are to be magnified as they ought to be.
Knowing God and his ways, without cherishing God and his ways, dishonors God and his ways. Seeing without savoring demeans what is seen. I do not regard Christian Hedonism as marginal, or optional, or cute, or clever. I regard it as an essential emphasis that should pervade all our dealings with truth, and without which the human heart does not magnify the beauty and worth of God as it should.
I gladly note that since I gave the foundational lecture, faculty member Joe Rigney has published his book The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. This is explicitly intended to fill a deficiency in my emphases. It is a course correction for any who have taken my Christian Hedonism to mean that delighting in God supremely means not delighting in his creation. Joe labors effectively to honor the Scriptures that say, “God . . . richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17) and “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). I rejoice in this kind of correction, and hope for more of it as more and more people deal seriously with how massively important Christian Hedonism is in the palace of Reformed truth.
I actually began the message ten years ago with a warning about pride. This may seem gloomy. But I spent so many years in the academic world, and even more years looking at my own bent toward self-glory, that it seemed fitting to make our first act a penitent renunciation of pride.
I also wanted to make clear that academic pride comes in more than one form. Craving praise for one’s scholarly achievements is one form. But just as potent is cowardice. This is the spineless flip side of boasting. The pride of boasting seeks praise — especially from powerful people. The pride of cowardice seeks to avoid criticism — especially from powerful people. I listed ten positions we take as a school that elicit criticism. This means we cannot be what we are if the pride of cowardice holds sway.
What I did not foresee ten years ago was the normalizing of proud behaviors that would once have been considered disqualifying for ministry, or at least for maturity. This process of normalizing self-exaltation has been energized by social media. Virtue signaling on Twitter, for example, is pervasive: “I am among the few people right now who are praying about this tragedy rather than commenting on it.” “Take note, everyone, that my heart is broken over this injustice.” Even more blatant is retweeting other people’s praise of your book or article. When Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth,” it does not mean, “Make other people the mouthpiece of your own self-praise.”
Two other symptoms of the normalization of strutting one’s self have emerged. One is the childish antics of grown-up NFL players after they do something outstanding. The gesticulating self-congratulation would have been regarded as disgustingly immature just a few decades ago. Finally, and perhaps most damaging of all since I spoke ten years ago, we now have a president of the United States who seems incapable of giving any evidence of humility or fallibility or interdependence.
Therefore, if I were giving that lecture today, my concerns about the insidious nature of pride in public life (including the pastorate) would be even greater, and the subtleties of its influence would need more analysis and resistance.
In positioning Bethlehem College & Seminary in our cultural controversies over sexuality, my statement ten years ago focused narrowly on so-called homosexual marriage.
Marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. No kind of relationship between two men or two women is marriage. Whatever two men do or say to each other, or whatever two women do or say to each other, it is not now, never has been, and never will be marriage in God’s eyes.
The cultural cancer of sexual disintegration and perversion has metastasized more quickly than most of us foresaw. The new forms of cancerous growth are both tragic and ludicrous. Perhaps most prominent at the moment is the transgender phenomenon — men and women wanting to be a different sex than they are. This impulse is part of the wider and deeper sense in the modern soul that our identity is not given by God or nature or grace, but rather is decreed by our own sovereign selves.
As a tragic result, more adults are having surgery and hormone treatment in a futile effort to re-create themselves. Even more tragic is the increasing number of children who want to be a different sex than they are. Already in Australia, some states are allowing parents to surgically alter their children’s anatomy without legal permission. And in America, it is possible for parents to lose custody of a minor child for refusing to let the child undergo sex-change surgery.
Less tragic, but more ludicrous, is the fact that now a biological male can win a women’s cycling championship, while the insanity of it is muted by the cultural pressures to look with favor on that man’s freedom to defeat women. If I were giving the ten-year-old lecture today, I would have driven a stake in the ground along the lines of the Nashville Statement on sexuality.
Racism and Ethnic Diversity
Among the ten values that I highlighted ten years ago was this:
Delighting in and desiring racial and ethnic diversity is crucial. Indifference to active love across ethnic lines is an assault on the purpose of the cross of Christ, who ransomed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Happy, unified ethnic diversity in Christ is our destiny in the age to come and should be loved, longed for, and sought after here and now.
The last four years have seen a fiery sea change in race relations in America. The tinder for this new conflagration has, of course, been piling up with countless smaller and larger acts of racial disrespect and discrimination over the decades. Three torches have been put to that tinder in the last four years. (1) The recurrent, high-profile conflicts between minorities and police where a minority person has been killed, with the consequent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. (2) The election of Donald Trump as president, in spite of his being morally unqualified for such leadership, including his divisive way of talking about racial issues. (3) The rise of public advocates of white supremacy in the wake of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.
This conflagration has jumped the banks of the world and spread into the church, with many blacks feeling perplexed and dismayed at the number of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. Some black brothers and sisters have felt the need to step away from some kinds of togetherness with evangelicals that seemed to compromise their commitment to truth and justice.
If I were giving the foundational lecture today, I would mention one thing that makes me sad, and one that makes me glad. The sad one would be the fresh acknowledgment that some advances we hoped we had made in racial harmony were not as deep as we thought, calling for a fresh commitment to go deeper and do better, with fresh focuses not only on diversity and harmony, but also on justice.
The glad one would be to draw attention to two concrete steps that Bethlehem College & Seminary has taken to put our money where our mouth is. Our mouth said ten years ago, “Happy, unified ethnic diversity in Christ is our destiny in the age to come and should be loved, longed for, and sought after here and now.”
In the meantime, the words, longed for and sought after have taken on dollars and flesh. To commemorate the heartbreaking death of one of our incoming students, the Alex Steddom International Student Fund was created to provide scholarships for international students holding appropriate visas.
More recently, we have launched a new scholarship initiative specifically for African-American students and other American students of color. We are calling it the All Peoples Scholarship. We will be offering three full-tuition scholarships to qualified minority applicants in each of our programs. We would appreciate any help you can give in spreading the word about these scholarships in appropriate ways.
I end by circling back to the part of our history that is most important but gets no press — namely, that the greatest things have not changed at all.
God is still holy and merciful. Man is still fallen and perishing. Christ is still reigning and saving. The Holy Spirit is still omnipotent and faith-creating. The Bible is still true and relevant. And the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. And yes, I say it again, it is thrilling to be anchored in stupendous realities that never change.