July 5, 2021

National Treasures

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

Read from the steps of the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Timothy Matlack, Clerk of the Second Continental Congress, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence still rings beautifully in our ears. Those words reflected Matlack’s own beliefs that God created every human being equal, giving each person rights which cannot be taken away, and that governments derive their powers from the governed, not vice versa. When Romans 13 says we must obey “the powers instituted of God,” Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Matlack understood constitutional government.

Matlack was a microcosm of America. Nearly 20 years before the Bill of Rights, he led Pennsylvania to declare our rights include religious liberty, freedom of speech, trial by jury, and “a right to bear Arms.” On July 19, 1776, he engrossed the official copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives. He wrote the congressional instrument appointing George Washington Commander-in-Chief. Colonel Matlack led the Philadelphia militia as the Army of the Potomac fought for survival. He warned Washington about Benedict Arnold long before that traitor was caught selling the fortification plans for West Point. An enlightened thinker, he was appointed to the American Philosophical Society by Benjamin Franklin. In 1780, Matlack prompted Pennsylvania to adopt a bill abolishing slavery gradually, the first such act. He served in Congress and supported his old radical friend, Thomas Jefferson, in his hotly contested election as President. Jefferson and Matlack maintained a friendly correspondence late into their long lives. Matlack is a national treasure.

Personally, however, Matlack was an intemperate and hypocritical man. He loved his wife, Ellen Yarnall, and they had two sons and three girls together. But after her death, this radical advocate of human equality violated both his own ideals and a fellow human being. He bought an African American girl, Hester, ostensibly to keep his house. He sold Hester to another white man upon his second marriage. He had once felt a call to ministry, but he later caned two Quaker ministers in the street. Ejected from his church, he subsequently found peace and planted a church. (You can visit the meeting house which Matlack designed and built as you walk from Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell to the National Constitution Center. The Free Quaker house is across the street from Benjamin Franklin’s grave.)

Matlack’s brother-in-law was just as bad. Son of a famous preacher named Mordecai Yarnall, Peter had a reputation for memory and mimicry. Known in both the Army and the Navy as “a singular character and degenerate son,” Peter would walk into Quaker churches and preach just for the fun of it. One fooled congregation even extended him a call to ministry. After hearing a prophetic sermon at his mother’s funeral, Peter made his way to a pub, where he regaled his army buddies. He repeated the sermon point by point, applying each to his drinking friends. “Now Tim,” he told Matlack, “this is for you.” They laughed heartily! 

But at the end of his mimicked message, Peter said, “Now this is for none of you, it is for myself.” The young surgeon’s demeanor changed immediately, and he left quietly. After traumatic dreams, he recalled the faith preached by his father, a faith which compelled his great grandfather to flee from England’s religious persecution in 1683. In this way, Peter converted to Christ, proclaiming to everyone who would listen that he had once “missed his way.” Dr. Yarnall ended his days as a widely regarded and true gospel preacher. The Word of God is so powerful that it can change even those who use it in mockery.

Our nation began with great ideals, but we have not always lived up to them. Our nation is full of hypocrites like Matlack and godless mockers like Yarnall. But God’s grace can extend even to hypocrites and mockers. The question is whether we will repent of our own hypocrisy and our own mockery. By all accounts, both Matlack and Yarnall ended their days in peace with God and reconciliation with their fellow human beings. Hester was also granted her freedom through Quaker intervention. These men repented of their hypocrisy and mockery, and they were made right through faith in Jesus Christ the God-Man. The question is whether we who dwell in a land which has religious freedom will be changed by the gospel we can so freely hear. You can be made right through the same faith these national treasures subsequently embraced.

June 10, 2021

By All Means Discuss the Southern Baptist Convention, But in the Right Spirit

But the question arises: Is the co-operative work of the churches a proper subject for discussion? Certainly it is a proper subject for discussion, of broad and unceasing discussion, if it be done in the right spirit. By all means, let all our co-operative work—missionary, educational, and benevolent—be fully and faithfully discussed by all the people. But let such discussion be candid and truthful and constructive and Christian. The more of such discussion, the better will it be for every good cause. But when such discussion is uncandid and untruthful and un-Christian, when it leads to sourness and bitterness and alienations and non-co-operation, then such discussion is to be reprobated by all who care for the honor of Christ’s name and the advancement of His cause. Paul points the way for Christ’s people in his ringing words to the Galatians: “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty: only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love, serve one another.” Love is the supreme inspiration and dynamic for all Christly service. “Love never faileth.” God give our Baptist people to remember, now and always, that the last word in our Baptist vocabulary is not liberty but love!

Christian Education: An Address by George W. Truett, of Dallas, Texas, at the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas, Thursday morning, May 13, 1926 (Birmingham, AL: Education Board, Southern Baptist Convention, 1926), 11

June 9, 2021

Basic Theological Texts for Growing Systematic Theologians

Scripture is normative for our theology and must remain our everyday text, as one of my PhD students, the leading Dalit theologian, Binu C. Paul, recently noted here. As embodied persons living in history, moreover, we would be wise to read the Bible with other saints from throughout the history of Christianity. Paul noted the Holy Spirit does not restrict himself to certain believers (1 Cor 7:40). Moreover, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical text (2 Tim 3:16) illumines the perfect Word of God to believers in every age. The Apostle thus considered "private interpretations" theologically dubious (2 Pet 1:19-21).

Often, I am asked by young theologians who attend my lectures and wish to move further in their theological studies, "What should I read next?" In response, I refer them to texts which have shaped classical Christianity and the various Reformation traditions as well as the Baptist tradition. (On the treasures which Baptists have accessed in classical Christianity, see this helpful text edited by Matthew Emerson, Chris Morgan, and Luke Stamps.)

Recently asked by a student for such a list, I offered the following 15 writers with their basic texts. These are the leading writings from the history of the Church which I recommend every rising theologian read. It is becoming increasingly obvious with novel systematic theologians today that they could have avoided theological error, such as denying the eternal generation of the Son of God, if they had first immersed themselves in the basic theological treasures of the past.

None of the following basic theological texts are sufficient; none are perfect, not even together; for only Scripture is sufficient and perfect. But in the midst of reading the tested exegesis of Scripture offered by those Christians who have preceded us, we learn a thing or two which keep us from the errors and heresies which may crop up among those who neglect to listen to the Spirit's witness through the ages. Enjoy!

  1. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  2. Gregory of Nazianzus, Five Theological Orations
  3. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions and On Christian Teaching
  4. Gregory, On Pastoral Rule
  5. Anselm, Monologion and Cur Deus Homo
  6. Martin Luther, On Christian Freedom
  7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1
  8. The Heidelberg Catechism
  9. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor
  10. Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria
  11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  12. J.I. Packer, Knowing God
  13. John Stott, The Cross of Christ
  14. Paul Fiddes, Tracks & Traces
  15. Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction