WAS GNOSTICISM TOLERANT AND INCUSIVE? (Debunking Some Myths About ‘Alternative’ Christianities)

Was Gnosticism Tolerant and Inclusive? Debunking Some Myths about “Alternative” Christianities

 by Michael Kruger; CANON FODDER

In the world of biblical studies, at least among some critical scholars, Gnosticism has been the darling for sometime now.  Especially since the discovery of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars have sung the praises of this alternative version of Christianity.

Gnosticism  was a heretical version of Christianity that burst on the scene primarily in the second century and gave the orthodox Christians a run for their money.  And it seems that some scholars look back and wish that the Gnostics had prevailed.

After all, it is argued, traditional Christianity was narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, elitist, and mean-spirited, whereas Gnosticism was open-minded, all-welcoming, tolerant and loving.  Given this choice, which would you choose?

While this narrative about free-spirited Gnosticism being sorely oppressed by those mean and uptight orthodox Christians might sound rhetorically compelling, it simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  So, here are five claims often made about Gnosticism that prove to be more myth than reality:

Myth #1:  Gnosticism was more popular than traditional Christianity.

Time and again we are told that Gnostics were just as widespread as orthodox Christians, and that their books were just as popular too (if not more so).  The reason they did not prevail in the end is because they were oppressed and forcibly stamped out by the orthodox party who had gained power through Constantine.

But, this is simply not the case.  All the evidence suggests that it was “the Great Church” (in the language of the pagan critic Celsus) that dominated the earliest Christian centuries, long before Constantine.  Moreover, Gnostic writings were not nearly as popular as those which became canonical, as can be seen by the number of manuscripts they left behind.  For example, we have more copies of just the Gospel of John from the first few centuries than we have of all apocryphal works combined.

Myth #2: Gnosticism was more inclusive and open-minded than traditional Christianity.

A popular perception of Gnostics is that they lacked the elitist mentality of traditional Christianity. They were the accepting ones, we are told.

But, again, it seems that reality might have actually been the opposite. Most people don’t realize that Gnostics were not interested in salvation for everybody. On the contrary, they regarded salvation as something only for the “spiritually elite.”

As Hultgren affirms, “The attitude of these Gnostics was elitist to the extreme, since they held that only one in a thousand or two in ten thousand are capable of knowing the secrets [of salvation]” (Normative Christianity, 99).

Myth #3: Gnosticism more accurately reflects the teachings of the historical Jesus than traditional Christianity.

Some have argued that if you want to know the real Jesus, the historical Jesus, then Gnostic writings (like the Gospel of Thomas) give you a more reliable picture.

The problems with such a claim are manifold, but I will just mention one: Gnostics were not that interested in the historical Jesus.  For Gnostics, what mattered was not the apostolic tradition handed down but rather their current religious experience with the risen Jesus (Jonathan Cahana, “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Anti-Traditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” Journal of Religion, 94 [2014]: 49-73).

In other words, Gnostics were concerned much less about the past and much more about the present.

This sort of “existential” approach to religion may be popular in our modern culture where experience rules the day and religion is viewed as entirely private.  But it doesn’t help you recover what really happened in history. If you want to know what happened in history, the canonical Gospels have always been the best sources.

Myth #4:  Gnosticism was more favorable towards women than traditional Christianity.

This is a big one. Popular perceptions are that the orthodox Christians oppressed women, but the Gnostics liberated them.  But, again, the truth is not so simple.

On the contrary, the historical evidence suggests that women flocked to traditional Christianity in droves. Indeed, they may have outnumbered the men almost two to one. Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity argues that this is because Christianity proved to be a very welcoming, healthy, and positive environment for women.

I also cover this issue in my latest book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018).

It is also worth noting that some of the Gnostic leaders’ supposedly pro-woman stance is not all it is cracked up to be.  The Valentinian Gnostic Marcus was actually known for bringing women into the movement so that he could sexually seduce them (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.13.5).

Moreover, the Gnostic view of women seemed particularly negative if one considers the final verse in the Gospel of Thomas: “For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven” (logion 114).  It is hard to see this as an endorsement of women!

Myth #5: Gnosticism was more positive towards human sexuality than traditional Christianity.

A final myth about Gnosticism is that it was pro-sex and that traditional Christianity was anti-sex.  In other words, Gnostics celebrated sexuality and traditional Christians were puritanical prudes.

Again, the reality is very different. While some Gnostics were quite sexually licentious (as noted above with Marcus), a large strain of the movement was utterly against sex. Indeed, much of the movement advocated a harsh asceticism and celibacy.

For example, the Book of Thomas states, “Woe unto you who love the sexual intercourse that belongs to femininity and its foul cohabitation. And woe unto you who are gripped by the authorities of your bodies; for they will afflict you.”

While some orthodox Christians took a more ascetic route, most viewed celibacy as voluntary. Marriage, and sex within marriage, was celebrated and viewed as a gift from God.

In sum, popular perceptions about Gnosticism are just that, popular perceptions.  And thus they do not necessarily have a basis in history.  As we have seen here, the real Gnosticism was very different. And it reminds us that perhaps Gnosticism failed not because it was politically oppressed by those crafty orthodox folks, but because it simply proved to be less attractive to those in the earliest centuries who were seeking to follow Christ.

Or, as F.F. Bruce famously quipped, “The Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose” (Canon of Scripture, 277).



Every good work

Heroic airline pilots and ordinary Chick-fil-A employees illustrate the glory of jobs well done

Every good work

A window shattered by debris from one of the engines on Southwest Flight 1380 (Marty Martinez via AP)

The big news story of the week is the remarkable heroism of Capt. Tammie Jo Shults—the Southwest Airlines pilot who calmly landed a heavily damaged jetliner with a single functional engine and a hole gaping in the side of the plane.

Sadly, one passenger died after an engine exploded in midair during the Southwest flight on Tuesday morning. Jennifer Riordan didn’t survive the blunt impact of debris that broke a window, despite the efforts of passengers who pulled her away from the hole and tried to revive her.

But by the time the plane made its emergency landing, Capt. Shults’ precise professionalism had saved 142 other passengers and the flight crew from what could have been a catastrophic crash.

Moments later, Shults walked through the aisle hugging stunned passengers.

“It was very touching,” passenger Benjamin Goldstein told The Dallas Morning News. “Here at the most crucial moment, she had the presence of mind and the courage to act with excellence as it was required. It’s a beautiful quality, and we have our lives to thank for it.”

A beautiful quality indeed.

Shults’ friends in her hometown of Boerne, Texas, said the quality was a hallmark of the Christian wife and mother of two, and that it extended beyond her successful career as a Navy and commercial pilot.

A fellow church member at First Baptist Church in Boerne told the paper that Shults had taught nearly every grade level of Sunday school in their congregation. Shults has helped at a school for at-risk kids, and she’s used a guesthouse on her family’s property as a home for victims of Hurricane Rita and for widows.

For Shults, a life of ordinary good works preceded an extraordinary day on the job last Tuesday. When a friend texted Shults to tell her she was praying for her, Shults replied: “Thanks. God is good.”

Simply doing a good job isn’t usually heroic, but if done well, the most ordinary work can bring glory to God as well. Still, not everyone sees the beautiful quality in every good work.

Last week, an over-the-top editorial in The New Yorker excoriated food chain Chick-fil-A for its newest restaurant in Manhattan. Writer Dan Piepenbring was clear about the roots of his disdain: “There’s something especially distasteful about Chick-fil-A. … Its politics, its décor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with this suburban piety.”

He balked at the owners’ Christian faith and how the company’s corporate mission statement “still begins with the words ‘to glorify God.’” The satirical news site the Babylon Bee reliably offered a tongue-in-cheek response: “Evil Christians Oppress Secular New Yorkers With Delicious Chicken Sandwiches.”

Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

A Chick-Fil-A in New York City (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

Despite the writer’s disdain for a company with owners who don’t hide their Christian faith, throngs of customers still think the restaurant offers good food and good service. They line up for it, whatever their religious beliefs.

CEO Dan Cathy isn’t embarrassed that he wants his company to glorify God, or that he wants his workers to care about their customers.

At a speech in Atlanta in 2015, Cathy told members of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association: “We want to be a brand where good meets gracious. A brand where great food intersects with incredibly gracious people.”

That’s the heart of good work: Make a good product or deliver a good service for the good of other people. That can be true whether you’re flying a plane or making a sandwich for a hungry customer. Men and women made in the image of their Creator are hard-wired for productivity.

It’s what King Solomon meant in the book of Ecclesiastes when he said each person should “find enjoyment” in all his toil. That phrase can also be translated “make his soul see good” in all his work.

And sometimes, our work does great good for other people. It certainly was good for passengers of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. One family friend said she wasn’t surprised when she heard Capt. Shults’ toil had saved the day: “She’s a strong Christian lady. … She was doing her job. … So proud she was able to do her job.”



I recently participated with several other authors who contributed a volume to the Crossway series entitled, Theologians on the Christian Life. My book was devoted to J. I. Packer. Here are ten things you should know about him.

(1) If you are wondering why Crossway would include J. I. Packer in the list of those who deserved to have a book written about their view of the Christian life, I would simply remind you that the readers of Christianity Today identified J. I. Packer as second only to C. S. Lewis when it came to the most influential theological writers of the 20th century.

(2) J. I. Packer’s early experience is a riveting testimony to the truth of Romans 8:28. Whereas some at the time of his accident at the age of seven may have thought that there was no possible “purpose” in his having been chased from a playground by a schoolyard bully into the path of an inattentive bread truck driver, I beg to differ. And I think Packer would too.

The injury was severe, and to this day Packer bears the mark of that incident in the form of a rather sizable dent or indentation in his forehead. Recovery was not without its inconveniences, as the young Packer was forced to withdraw from school for a period of six months. From that time until he went to university, Packer wore a protective aluminum plate over the injury. Needless to say, this was not the sort of thing that would contribute to a young man’s participation in athletics or widespread acceptance among his peers. This only reinforced his tendency to keep unto himself and thrust him into a more secluded life of reading and writing.

When he turned eleven, like most boys his age, Packer anticipated a bicycle for a birthday present. But given their lingering and well justified concerns about their son’s head injury, sending him into the streets once again did not strike his parents as the wisest course of action. Instead, he received an old Oliver typewriter. Once he had overcome his initial disappointment, Packer took to typing with a fervor. To this day, notwithstanding the many technological advances we all now enjoy, Packer still writes all his books on an old-fashioned typewriter! I doubt if any of us who have been so richly blessed by his ministry are inclined to protest.

(3) Packer’s interest in Christianity was largely stirred by his reading of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (1943) and Mere Christianity (1944). Upon his arrival at Oxford University in 1944, Packer paid a visit to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (the OICCU). On Sunday evening, October 22, 1944, following the singing of Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn, “Just as I Am,” Packer committed himself in faith to Jesus Christ. He was, at the time, standing about 100 feet from where the great evangelist George Whitefield committed himself to Christ in 1735.

(4) Though truly born again by the Spirit of God, Packer early on struggled greatly with the power of indwelling sin. He wasn’t in the least helped in this battle by Keswick theology, a view that one might experience a victorious Christian life only through an act of faith that led to total surrender. This decisive moment, in which one wholly yields and trusts the work of Christ within the heart rather than making any effort to overcome the power of sin, was the key to Christianity, or so they insisted. Any suggestion that a Christian should engage in active energetic obedience to the will of God was considered legalism.

Keswick theology proved unhelpful to Packer. He regarded it as deeply damaging to his spiritual growth. His increasing frustration over the inability to get past daily sins into that promised victory robbed him of the joy of his salvation. He was told that he simply needed to re-consecrate himself, over and over again, until such time that he could identify whatever obstacle stood in the way of the fullness of moral victory.

Packer’s rejection of Keswick theology came with his discovery of the Puritans in 1944. C. Owen Pickard-Cambridge, an Anglican clergyman, donated his considerable collection of books to the OICCU, over which Packer was given authority as the junior librarian. Packer began the arduous task of sorting through the dusty piles of books in the basement of a meeting hall on St. Michael’s Street in central Oxford. There he came upon an uncut set of the works of the great Puritan pastor and theologian, John Owen (1616-83). Two of the titles in volume 6 caught his attention: “On Indwelling Sin in Believers” and “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.” Suffice it to say that a major watershed in his spiritual development can be traced to this providential discovery. Owen’s realistic and thoroughly biblical grasp on the nature of indwelling sin and the believer’s Spirit-empowered battle throughout the course of one’s earthly existence set Packer free from the Keswick-induced discouragement of soul under which he had been laboring.

(5) Packer took a one-year teaching post at Oak Hill Theological College in London (1948-49) where he taught Greek, Latin, and philosophy. During this momentous year he would listen to John Stott at All Souls, Langham Place, on Sunday morning, and to Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel on Sunday nights. Together with Lloyd-Jones they launched an annual conference focused on the Puritans. The first conference convened in June of 1950 and met annually until they terminated in 1969. I’ll return to Packer’s relationship to Lloyd-Jones in a minute.

Packer then enrolled at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, with a view toward ordination in the Church of England. There he studied theology from 1949-52, eventually being awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. In December of 1952 Packer was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and a year later was ordained a priest at Birmingham Cathedral. He served as a curate at St. John’s, Harborne, a suburb of Birmingham, from 1952-54.

Following his marriage to his wife Kit in the summer of 1954, Packer served as lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, from 1955-1961 and as librarian and then principal at Latimer House, Oxford, from 1961-1970. In 1970 he was appointed as principal of Tyndale Hall and became associate principal of Trinity College, Bristol, from 1971-1979. It was then that he moved permanently to Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, where he remains to this day, just a few months short of his 92nd birthday.

(6) There is no escaping the fact that Packer’s life and influence was, at least until his move to Canada, inextricably intertwined with that of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The defining moment in Packer’s relationship with Lloyd-Jones occurred on October 18, 1966. The occasion was the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals, organized by the Evangelical Alliance. At its core the question was: “Should evangelicals concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy withdraw from denominations which publicly fail to maintain such orthodoxy, or should they try to reform them from within?” (McGrath, 119).

Lloyd-Jones had become increasingly concerned with the theological liberalism espoused by the World Council of Churches and its ever-increasing presence among certain denominations in the U.K., especially the Church of England. He let it be known that the time had come for the theologically orthodox to “come out” of such denominations. In the absence of agreement on the fundamental issues of the gospel there simply can be no meaningful spiritual fellowship. In his opening address at the Assembly Lloyd-Jones issued what many, if not most, understood as an appeal for evangelicals to withdraw from their mixed denominations to form a “pure church” that could unite around orthodox doctrine. Packer was not even present that night, but received the news of this event by telephone at his home in Oxford. John Stott, on the other hand, was obviously concerned that many impressionable younger evangelicals might heed the call and pull out. Immediate intervention was required, he believed, to defuse an otherwise volatile situation. The “rightful and proper place of evangelicals,” argued Stott, “was within those mainstream denominations, which they could renew from within. It is entirely possible that Stott’s intervention was improper; he himself apologized to Lloyd-Jones subsequently” (McGrath, 124-25). In any case, his action “prompted a crisis in itself, in that it exposed a major division within evangelicalism on the opening day of a conference which was intended to foster evangelical unity; nevertheless, Stott reckoned that it had to be done” (125).

Packer sided with Stott, a decision that not only served to damage his friendship with Lloyd-Jones but also his reputation among many in Britain’s evangelical community. His interpretation of the event is best summarized in his own words. He explains:

“The Doctor [i.e., Lloyd-Jones] believed that his summons to separation was a call for evangelical unity as such, and that he was not a denominationalist in any sense. In continuing to combat error, commend truth, and strengthen evangelical ministry as best I could in the Church of England, he thought I was showing myself a denominationalist and obstructing evangelical unity, besides being caught in a hopelessly compromised position. By contrast, I believed that the claims of evangelical unity do not require ecclesiastical separation where the faith is not actually being denied and renewal remains possible; that the action for which the Doctor called would be, in effect, the founding of a new, loose-knit, professedly undenominational denomination; and that he, rather than I, was the denominationalist for insisting that evangelicals must all belong to this grouping an no other” (Honouring the People of God, 79).

Whatever else may be said of the matter, Packer did not hesitate to continue to speak highly and in virtually reverential terms of the Doctor. “He was the greatest man I have ever known,” said Packer, “and I am sure that there is more of him under my skin than there is of any other of my human teachers” (“David Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” 77).

(7) Most of you have never met Packer or had the joy of spending time in his presence. I think I can sum him up personally by citing the words of Carl Trueman and Timothy George. According to Trueman, Packer is “the classic example of a modest, Christian gentleman.” Sadly, that can’t be said of many today among the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd. Timothy George’s assessment of him is spot on:

“I have seen him buffeted by adversity and criticized unfairly, but I have never seen him sag. His smile is irrepressible and his laughter can bring light to the most somber of meetings. His love for all things human and humane shines through. His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless. Ever impatient with shams of all kinds, his saintly character and spirituality run deep.”

May I add one observation of my own. For Packer, the sovereignty of God’s grace was far more than a theological truth. It has made J. I. Packer into the man he is today. Simply put, he is, as best I can tell, entirely devoid of self-promotion. The only one whom he desires to promote is Jesus Christ.

(8) As for the greatest and most influential thinkers in the development of Packer’s theology, he cites Martin Luther, John Calvin, the English reformers, John Owen, Richard Baxter, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. From earlier centuries he points to Tertullian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and more recently the Oxford Inklings.

When asked if his theology underwent any substantive changes down through the years, he said:

“my theology has no doubt broadened its base since 1947 but apart from getting clear on particular redemption in 1953 or 1954 [due to his reading of Owen’s treatise, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ] I don’t think there has been any change in its structure, method or conclusions. Like Calvin, I was blessed in getting things basically right from the start” (cited in Payne, The Theology of the Christian Life in J. I. Packer’s Thought: Theological Anthropology, Theological Method, and the Doctrine of Sanctification(Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006), 73.

(9) One of the things, among many, for which I especially admire Packer is his insistence that all theological reflection, to be of value, must issue in holiness of life in which the love of God and his glory are preeminent. Put another way, theology and spirituality are inseparable. For Packer, theology “cannot, and should not, be detached or dissociated from the relational activity of trusting, loving, worshiping, obeying, serving, and glorifying God” (McGrath, 23). “One way of judging the quality of theologies,” he explains, “is to see what sort of devotion they produce.”

(10) Finally, although he didn’t often use the phrase, Packer is a thorough-going Christian Hedonist! We see this in his book, Hot Tub Religion. When searching for an image or metaphor or analogy to summarize the approach of many to Christian living today, Packer landed on the experience one has in a hot tub! Set aside for a moment your struggle with the image of J. I. Packer in a hot tub (!) and let him make his point. As he sat in a hot tub for the first time, it struck him that the experience

“is the perfect symbol of the modern route in religion. The hot tub experience is sensuous, relaxing, floppy, laid-back: not in any way demanding, whether intellectually or otherwise, but very, very nice, even to the point of being great fun . . . . Many today want Christianity to be like that, and labor to make it so. . . . [To this end many] are already offering occasions which we are meant to feel are the next best thing to a hot tub – namely, happy gatherings free from care, real fun times for all. . . . [Thus] when modern Western man turns to religion (if he does – most don’t), what he wants is total tickling relaxation, the sense of being at once soothed, supported and effortlessly invigorated: in short, hot tub religion” (68-69).

But Packer is no killjoy! He repeatedly insists that happiness plays an essential role in Christian experience; indeed, he asserts “that real enjoyment is integral to real godliness” (71). But it “comes from basking in the knowledge of the redeeming love of the Father and the Son, and showing actively loyal gratitude for it. You love God and find yourself happy [in him]. Your active attempts to please God funnel the pleasures of his peace into your heart” (70-71). Thus, what Packer advocates is genuine “joy” and not hot tub pleasures. We desperately need to hear his point that joy is always deeper than and never dependent on physical, financial, and emotional pleasure, and how damaging it is ever to equate the two.

Like the good Christian Hedonist that he is, Packer understands the foundational biblical truth that our joy in God is suspended on God’s joy in God. For God to seek his own glory is the only way he can truly love us. Listen:

“If it is right for man to have the glory of God as his goal, can it be wrong for God to have the same goal? If man can have no higher purpose than God’s glory, how can God? If it is wrong for man to seek a lesser end than this, it would be wrong for God, too. The reason it cannot be right for man to live for himself, as if he were God, is because he is not God. However, it cannot be wrong for God to seek his own glory, simply because he is God. Those who insist that God should not seek his glory in all things are really asking that he cease to be God. And there is no greater blasphemy than to will God out of existence” (38).


WHY STUDY THEOLOGY ? by Keith Mathison

Why Study Theology?
by Keith A. Mathison

Why in the world should I care about theology?

All I need is the Bible.

I can follow Jesus without having to learn all kinds of obscure words.

Have you ever heard another Christian say something like these statements? Have you ever said something like them yourself? Ever thought such things? If so, you’re not alone. The vast majority of professing Christians have little to no interest in theology. In the minds of many Christians, there is no necessary connection between theology and their everyday Christian life. Theology, they believe, is irrelevant.

The disconnect between theology and the church and between theology and the Christian has had disastrous results. One need only look at recent polls examining the level of theological knowledge among professing Christians to know that something has gone awry. When large numbers of professing Christians start telling their friends and family, “You just have to read The Shack! I learned so much about God from that book,” well then, Houston, we have a problem. When large numbers of professing evangelical Christians are not sure whether the deity of Christ is an article of the Christian faith, then we have more than a problem. We are the proverbial lemmings, rushing headlong toward the precipice.


In order for Christians to begin to understand why theology is necessary and relevant, we must understand what we mean by theology. Reformed theologians of the past defined theology as a “word about God” based on the “word of God.” In short, theology at its most basic is knowledge of God.

Knowledge of God is a dividing line between believers and unbelievers. Scripture characterizes unbelievers as those who do not “know God,” those who lack “knowledge of God” (Hos. 4:1; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:5; 2 Thess. 1:8; Titus 1:16). In contrast are Christians, those who know God and who are to be growing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10). To be growing in the knowledge of God is to be growing in our theology.

All Christians are called to theology in this most basic sense. If Scripture calls us to grow in the knowledge of God/theology, then the pursuit of this knowledge, of theology, is an act of Christian obedience. It becomes an aspect of Christian discipleship, a non-negotiable for the believer.

When we begin to think about theology first and foremost as knowledge of God, we can begin to glimpse the truth about the relevance of theology. We can begin to see that it makes all the difference in the world to our lives. We can begin to see how it is relevant to everything we think, say, and do as followers of Jesus Christ.

Love of God and knowledge of God go hand in hand.


For those who remain skeptical, let us approach the same question from a different angle. When our Lord Jesus Christ was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” what was His answer?

He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37; cf. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).

Do you love God?

If so, that is good, but do we have to choose between love of God and theology, between love of God and knowledge of God? I would suggest that the Beatles were wrong when they sang, “All you need is love.” That sentiment couldn’t even keep four guys together for more than a decade. It certainly won’t maintain a healthy church.

Love of God and knowledge of God go hand in hand. If you truly love God, you already have at least a minimal knowledge of God, a minimal “theology.” If you knew absolutely nothing of God, had no concept even of His existence, loving Him would be impossible. But if you do love Him because you do know at least something of Him, there should be a desire to grow in your knowledge of Him—to grow in your theology.

Isn’t this what happens when we first fall in love with another person? We meet a person and perhaps speak to them. Based on the little knowledge we have of this person, we are attracted to him or her. And if we are attracted to this person, if we like him or her, what do we want? We want to know more. We talk to them and say, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your childhood. Tell me about your likes, your dislikes. Tell me about your hopes, your dreams.” Then, we listen. And the more our knowledge of this person grows, the more our love grows.

In a sense, this is similar to what we are doing in formal theology. We are asking questions of God in order that we might grow in our knowledge of Him and thus our love of Him. His answers to our questions are found in Scripture. When we start to arrange the answers in an orderly way, we have a rudimentary form of what is called systematic theology.

We say, “Tell me about yourself, Lord.” If we arrange our answers in an orderly way, we have what theologians call “theology proper.” Or we say, “What can you tell me about myself and others like me?” When we arrange those answers, we have the biblical doctrine of man, or in more technical terms “theological anthropology.” We may ask God, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?” An orderly arrangement of the answers is the doctrine of sin. When we arrange the answers to the question, “Why did you choose me and how is it that I am now reconciled with you?” we have the doctrine of salvation, or soteriology. We may ask God, “What are your ultimate goals?” An arrangement of the answers found in Scripture is the doctrine of the last things, or eschatology.

Of course, this comparison is oversimplified, but the basic point should be clear. Theology is personal knowledge. Strictly speaking, it is tri–personal knowledge because it is knowledge of the Trinity. It is also knowledge we can have only because God has chosen to reveal Himself. Jesus told us that “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27, emphasis added).


When we have a better grasp of the nature of theology, we can better understand why it is necessary and relevant. In the first place, theology is necessary and relevant for the church. The church is called to proclaim the gospel and disciple the nations. In short, the church is to proclaim the truth. The church is to instruct Christians and combat false doctrine (2 Tim. 4:1–5; Titus 1:9). Both tasks require serious reflection on the teaching of Scripture. Theology is, therefore, indispensable to the church.

Theology is also necessary and relevant for every individual Christian. I have already mentioned the connection between the love of God and knowledge of God. A disciple of Christ is to be growing in both. The necessity and relevance of theology can also be shown by noting the importance of understanding Scripture. If understanding Scripture is important and relevant, theology is important and relevant. Allow me to elaborate a bit. Slowly read each of the following passages of Scripture:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (1:14)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Col. 2:9)

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. (Eph. 1:4)

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important would you say each of these texts is? Would you say they have a high level of importance? If you believe any or all of these texts have a high level of importance, how important is it that you and I understand what they mean? If you said, “Very,” you are correct. Now consider the fact that the list above contains a mere six verses out of the entire Word of God. It is just as important to understand the rest of Scripture as it is to understand these six verses. It is, after all, the very Word of God. This is another reason why the study of theology is relevant. It helps us understand Scripture and to think and speak truly about what God has revealed in His Word.

Finally, it is important to remember that even those Christians who believe that theology is irrelevant are “doing theology.” They are simply doing it without being aware of doing it, and that is usually an indication that they are doing it poorly. Every time we think or speak about God, His will, or His works, we are doing theology. If we do it without awareness or reflection, the potential for error increases dramatically. We need to consider this because errors regarding God, His will, and His works are far more serious than errors in other areas of life. Errors here result in false doctrine, heresy, and idolatry.

The study of theology is necessary and relevant because it helps us to be more deliberate and careful in our thought and speech about God. It helps us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.


Dr. Keith A. Mathison is professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla. He is author of several books, including From Age to Age. This article appeared in TABLETALK.


In the final letter that we have from the apostle Paul, written in a lonely prison cell in Rome while he was expecting death for the sake of the gospel, he reminded his closest friend Timothy of the utter necessity of passing on the faith to “faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2). It bears noting that what Paul envisaged in these words was not simply doctrinal instruction in the essentials of Christianity. Of course, Paul expected the training of future leaders to involve the handing on of doctrine. But, as is clear from a later statement by Paul in this letter, such transmission of the faith also involved the development of lifelong convictions and goals and the nurture of character — making the leader a person of love, patience, and steadfastness (3:10). Timothy knew exactly what Paul was talking about, for this was the very way the apostle had mentored Timothy.

Timothy had joined Paul’s apostolic band early on in what is termed Paul’s second missionary journey, that is, around 48 or 49 AD (Acts 16:1–3). As he traveled with Paul he saw firsthand what Paul later called his doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions (2 Tim. 3:10–11). Timothy grew to know and embrace Paul’s theology and doctrinal convictions. He learned that at the heart of all genuinely Christian theology is God: the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. He came to be grounded in the fact that the gospel is centered on the death and resurrection of Christ, the only way that men and women can come into a true and eternally beneficent relationship with this God, the creator of all that exists.

But Timothy also came to follow the way Paul lived, how he made decisions and determined the best use of his time. He learned Paul’s purpose for living, namely, the glorification of God and of His Son, Christ Jesus. Timothy absorbed Paul’s love for the church and compassion for those who were held in the darkness of sin. And he saw the way that Paul responded with patience and perseverance to difficulties and the fact that the apostle did not waver in his commitment to Christ despite persecution and affliction. In short, as Paul and Timothy spent this large amount of time together, Timothy’s soul began to mirror that of Paul, and his mind became increasingly attuned to the wavelengths of the apostle’s thinking (Phil. 2:19–22). This is mentoring.

Here is a pattern of pastoral training that must again shape the way that teaching takes place in our seminaries. The necessity of training the mind naturally requires academic excellence. But as seminary professors, our task is not finished when we walk out of the classroom. We need to get to know our students — their joys and heartaches, their hopes, aspirations, and concerns. They need to get to know us — our goals in life, our passions, and even our weaknesses. And this can only be done, if we, like Paul with Timothy, walk with them and they with us. This sort of theological education demands a transparency of soul and a knitting together of hearts, as well as the kindling of flame in the mind. In a very real sense, this sort of theological education and mentoring is patterned on the incarnation.

The great challenge, of course, in this way of incarnational mentoring is that it takes time. For many professors, time seems to be such a scarce commodity. I vividly recall some thirty years ago when I was doing doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, being told by Dr. Richard Longenecker, then my New Testament professor and in some ways a mentor to me, that if I thought I was busy in the doctoral program, just wait until I was teaching. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Most seminary professors are busy men: teaching in seminary and in the church, as well as seeking to maintain an academic career and be fathers and husbands, sons, and friends. Where will we ever find the time to mentor as Paul did?

Three years before Basil Manly Jr., one of the four founding faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, committed himself to the task of being a seminary professor in 1859, he stated that the “cause of theological education is one dearer to me than almost any other and I esteem no sacrifice too great for its promotion.” The sacrifices that especially he, James Petigru Boyce, and John Broadus were called upon to make for this seminary are well-known. Most seminary professors today are not called to walk such a road of sacrifice as those men were, but I am convinced that something of the spirit that animated Manly’s words must grip us.

Today, more than in the past, we are aware of the very real danger of our ministries crowding out other areas of vital importance — our devotion to wife and children, for example. Thus, while we cannot echo Manly’s sentiments without some qualification, we can nevertheless affirm the key point he was seeking to make. Leadership in the church is so important that we should be prepared to go to great lengths to see future leaders of the church trained. And that training, if it is to be biblical, must involve mentoring à la Paul! This will, of necessity, take time. But, from the point of view of eternity, it will be time well spent.



David Brainerd’s 300th Birthday

April 20 marks the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, the celebrated missionary to Native Americans and protege of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s publication of Brainerd’s journal made Brainerd an enduring inspiration to many Christians, including missionaries, for a century and more after Brainerd’s untimely death at 29 years old.

In 2010, I published a review of John Grigg’s excellent book The Lives of David Brainerd (2009), which should give you a taste of the significance of Brainerd’s career and legacy.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair. Grigg posits that Brainerd’s experiences at Yale challenged him to break out of his staid, prosperous background in Haddam, Connecticut, yet his upbringing reined in Brainerd’s radicalism, leading him to seek readmission to Yale and to repudiate separatism. . . .

In 1742, when Ebenezer Pemberton of New York arranged a meeting for him with agents of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, who recruited him to work as a missionary to Native Americans. By that point, Brainerd was more than ready to take up a mission to Native Americans as a way to resolve the agonizing tension between the glory and fractiousness he experienced in the radical revivals.

From 1742 to 1745, Brainerd wandered from one mission to another. The close attention Grigg gives to Brainerd’s rambling provides an excellent picture of both Brainerd’s own vocational struggles, and the cross-section of evangelical churches of New England, Long Island, and the Middle Colonies. Grigg thinks that Brainerd gravitated toward an Indian mission because it might have allowed him to avoid the divisions rending the colonists’ churches. But he also wished to find a group of Indians who would respond to his preaching, and he went a long time without seeing any Native Americans convert, except for his translator, Tatamy. Brainerd received offers in 1744 for pastorates in Connecticut and Long Island, but he resisted, even as he continued regularly to visit Presbyterian congregations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and presided over a number of conversions there that reminded him of the fervent days at Yale.

His preaching among Native Americans took a positive turn in 1745, however, when he went to the Indians of Crossweeksung, New Jersey. There he led a considerable revival among the Delawares that garnered notice across America and Britain. Grigg believes that the Crossweeksung Delawares, as a settlement of displaced refugees, were particularly open to Brainerd and Tatamy’s preaching because the Indians’ religious traditions and sacred sites were disrupted or lost.

Moreover, Brainerd at least tolerated the Native Americans’ longstanding emphasis on dreams and visions of the divine, maintaining a strain of radicalism that Brainerd’s patron and biographer Jonathan Edwards tried to downplay. Although Grigg’s focus on this sustained, pragmatic radicalism represents a new interpretation of Brainerd—others, including myself, have emphasized his post-Yale transition to moderate evangelicalism—it seems plausible that Brainerd may have indulged the mystical experiences of some Indian converts, especially when he did not fully understand their testimonies because of language barriers.

As the Crossweeksung community faced pressure from colonial authorities to relocate, Brainerd’s health also entered massive decline, and he left New Jersey to convalesce in Massachusetts in 1747. Grigg has no patience for the romantic tale of Brainerd’s deathbed relationship with Jerusha Edwards, and he abruptly dismisses the story as an irrelevant invention of the nineteenth century. . . .

Brainerd’s posthumous celebrity would be minimal without Jonathan Edwards’s publication of The Life of David Brainerd, which became one of Edwards’s most influential writings. Grigg shows that Brainerd became Edwards’s representative Christian, a person who experienced a powerful conversion but who remained fervently devoted to God to the end, in stark contrast to the formerly zealous Northamptonites who turned against Edwards in the late 1740s.

Grigg helpfully places Edwards’s editing of Brainerd’s diary in the context of his feud with the Northampton Church. Edwards also removed indiscreet references to visions and provocative theological notions from Brainerd’s account, leaving a solidly moderate yet thoroughly serious Christian for generations of evangelicals to admire. But his devotees put Brainerd to a variety of uses and presented updated versions of Brainerd appropriate to current culture. John Wesley, for example, published an edition of Edwards’s Life of Brainerd that painted Brainerd as a sober, self-sacrificial Arminian. Admirers from William Carey to Jim Elliott reflected on Brainerd as the ideal missionary, willing to sacrifice health and court death in the name of Christ.


This review appeared as “The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon. By: Kidd, Thomas S., Church History, Sept. 2010, Vol. 79, Issue 3.”


Your God Is Too Small is the title of the book written by J.B. Phillips, and in some ways, the expression reflects the problems that lay behind the plaintive cry of abandonment felt by Judah’s exiles during the sixth century BC.

Perhaps they thought that their circumstances were too complicated for God to unravel and fix. What they needed, therefore, was a reminder of God’s sovereignty and power.

Perhaps a subtler thought occurred to them: the suspicion that they were unworthy of God’s attention. How can the infinite God of heaven and earth be concerned with “little ol’ me”? My issues seem so trivial by comparison:

“And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God? (Isa. 40:27NASB)

God seems to be dismissing me. My prayers are not answered but ignored and disregarded. It feels unjust, unfair, and unwarranted.

And it is this that the sixteenth-century Reformer Martin Luther was getting at when he made the accusation of Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are too human.”

Unbelief is a withering sickness that ultimately destroys faith. And what is the remedy? Waiting on the Lord:

“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. (Isa. 40:31, emphasis added)

There are many kinds of waiting.

There is the “I am waiting for my spouse, sitting in the car, the engine running, and he/she is nowhere in sight” kind of waiting. It is impatient, petulant, rude. Then there is the “dog lying by the front door, eyes drooping, body language indicating little or no hope that the master is returning anytime soon” kind of waiting. It is pitiful and sad.

There is also the “lover, listening to the words of a beloved partner, eyes wide open, gesturing surprise, amusement, love, and thankfulness, waiting for the next word to come forth.” It is anticipatory and congratulatory.

What kind of waiting is in view here? The word for “wait” in the passage cited above is sometimes translated in the ESV text as “hope” (Ps. 62:5Prov. 11:7) and sometimes “expectation” (Prov. 10:2811:23). In this passage, waiting involves looking away from ourselves and our troubles and looking to the Lord in faith and with expectation. And not just looking, but expecting… trusting… believing. Taking a long, hard look at who God is: His character, His being, His Word, His promise, His commitment, His covenant, His unchanging determination to do what He said He would do.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isa. 40:28)

Isaiah’s prescription for this withering sickness of unbelief is a dose of God’s magnificent majesty, power, and glory. The promises of God are guaranteed by who and what He is. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the world and His people.

A single verse encapsulates what Isaiah elaborates on throughout the chapter. Exploring the character of God, Isaiah seems to be saying, “Look at Him! Take a long, hard look at Him!” And what will we see if we do so?

  • The Lord is everlasting—in the sense that He is eternal, outside the fluctuating contours of time and space. The same yesterday, today, and forever, because these expressions of time are perspectives that are all too human and creaturely. God is “outside” and “above” all these limiting dimensions. He alone has being in Himself (what theologians call “aseity”). The problem with man-made gods—“idols,” to give them their proper name (Isa. 40:19)—is just that: they are man-made. These artifacts may require the skill of craftsmen, but it is a craft of men nevertheless. The problem with human gods is that they do not actually exist. They have “being” only in the fertile imagination of sinful minds and hearts.
  • The Lord is omnipresent in the sense that He created “the ends of the earth” and no part of it is a mystery to Him. There are no boundaries beyond which He cannot pass. No dropped calls or dead zones where our voices cannot be heard or His voice cannot get through.
  • The Lord is omnipotent. He is the Creator who spoke and the universe came into being (Gen. 1:1). He calls out the stars each night and introduces them by name (Isa. 40:26). He does not tire or grow weary. His strength is infinite. He does not need to rest or sleep. He preserves in the face of all opposition. Strong young men grow weary, but the Lord does not (Isa. 40:30).8 And the Lord knows and understands this and compensates by supplying His people with His strength.
  • The Lord is great. So vast is the Lord that the universe and all it contains appears as “nothing… less than nothing and emptiness” (Isa. 40:17).9 All earthly pretenders (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman) are but as “grasshoppers” (Isa. 40:22) in comparison to the Almighty.
  • The Lord is wise in the sense that He is omniscient and knows what to do with this knowledge to accomplish His good purposes. His knowledge and understanding are so vast that they are unsearchable to us. He is incomprehensible, and as Job did when he discovered this truth, we should put our hands to our mouths and be silent.

In one verse, Isaiah provides us with a magnificent portrait of God. As Motyer summarizes, “In one way or another the fourfold Old Testament doctrine of God the Creator is represented here: he originates everything, maintains everything in existence, controls everything in operation, and directs everything to the end that he appoints.”

Open your eyes and take a good, long, hard look at God:

Lift up your eyes and see. (Isa. 40:26)

There is no one like our God.

To whom will you compare me? (Isa. 40:25)

God is in a category all His own. And knowing this brings strength and vitality. It is not strength in ourselves that is encouraged here but strength in Him—in the sovereign, all-powerful, all-wise, all-sustaining, never-tiring God.

Are you weary? Losing faith in God’s promises? Tired in the heat of the battle? Overwhelmed by the opposition? Then what you need is a fresh glimpse of the majesty of God. Sometimes, we cannot see what is right before us and above us.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, there is a wonderful description of how we can be in two different worlds at the same time. In one world, there is Tirian and Peter and Lucy and Jill, friends of Aslan. And there is summer and blue skies. In another world, there is a company of dwarves, and all they see is a dark and dirty stable:

“Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.”… “You see,” said Aslan, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Which world are you in right now?


© 2018 Ligonier Ministries