Holiness and the deepest levels of evangelical scholarship (Matthew Barrett)
It is the start of a new academic year. Dozens of blog posts have gone up on the web instructing students how to approach the semesters that are ahead of them. But I have not seen any blog posts directed to those about to enter into the lectern.
As a professor, what should be your priority going into another set of classes? What goals and aspirations should fill your agenda as you decide what will and will not take first place in your schedule? And if you are in leadership (perhaps especially if you are in leadership), what will be your first concern as you lead your school or institution?
Every now and then I come across a passage in a book I am reading or re-reading that strikes me. I stop because the passage is so convicting that it feels wrong to continue without reflection and then prayer.
That happened this morning. As I was preparing notes for one of my doctrine classes, I was hit over the head by J. I. Packer. In his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Packer reflects on the priorities of evangelicals and his conclusion is hard to hear: we are “insensitive to the holiness of God.” “Though we routinely affirm the reality of divine wrath against our sins, save as Christ’s shed blood covers them, we do not think much about God’s revealed hatred of sin in his own adopted family” (84, emphasis mine).
Packer then laments how often we tend to “dismiss as sub-Christian any idea that God’s first concern in his dealings with us might be to train us in righteousness as a step toward future joy, rather than to load us with present pleasures.”
Yet what really stopped me rather abruptly was how Packer then applied his lament.
This relative eclipse of holiness as a main evangelical concern is little short of tragic, and I hope it will not long continue, particularly in a day of such striking evangelical advance in numbers, in institutional resources, in mission strategy, in academic achievement, in public standing, and in many other respects. We need to be very clear in our minds that none of these advances are going to count for much in the long run unless renewal in holiness accompanies them (85).
Publishing books, doubling institutional resources, casting a new mission strategy, climbing the charts of institutional rankings—these are all good things and blessings that many schools experience in the 21st century. But with these blessings comes a temptation, namely, to forget that which is most important. Apart from a “renewal in holiness,” warns Packer, none of these achievements matter in God’s eyes.
As he reflects on the last two generations of evangelicals, Packer rejoices that he saw “evangelicals outthinking liberals” on “both sides of the Atlantic.” And Packer relishes the enormous fruitfulness that has resulted. “But,” he then adds, “it is high time that a comparable vision of evangelicals outliving nonevangelicals made a similar grab for our attention and began to motivate us to explore the realities of holiness afresh at the deepest level of scholarship, pastoral insight, and personal experience” (85).
The “deepest level of scholarship”—frankly, I didn’t expect to hear that phrase in his rebuke. Holiness is a matter of the Christian life and surely churches should be all about moving their members along in holiness. But scholarship? Yes, says the veteran Packer, scholarship too. And not just scholarship, but the “deepest level” of scholarship.
Whether you are a professor, a dean, or a president, what type of legacy do you want to leave behind? Perhaps a better question is this: What type of scholarship will God honor? It is a scholarship that’s first concern is holiness. Holy scholarship—that is what God cares about most. And that is what should be driving the evangelical vision for scholarship today.
Matthew Barrett is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more about Barrett at matthewmbarrett.com.