Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Derek Thomas

This is the second in our series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...
GD: Hello Derek Thomas and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

DT: Thanks for inviting me to the Exiled Preacher, Guy. Your site is one of my favorites (I’ve succumbed to American spelling on all things containing the diphthong ou! Truth to tell, I can’t be bothered switching language preferences on Microsoft Word!) [That's OK, so long as you don't start speaking with an Americano-Welsh accent like Catherine Zeta-Jones. GD]

Well, like yourself, I’m an exiled Welshman. In fact, I have lived outside Wales more than I have lived in it. I grew up in a small village called Llanybydder on a dairy farm, was converted through reading John Stott’s Basic Christianity in 1971, graduated from Aberystwyth University in Applied Mathematics in 1974 and left my homeland in 1976. I still have family who live in or near Carmarthen, so I make my annual pilgrimage back and break into song crossing the (new) Severn Bridge!

I studied theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (1976-78) and did doctoral studies in the mid-90s. For almost seventeen years, I was minister of an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Belfast (where W. J. Grier had been their only minister for half a century). I now teach Systematic and Practical Theology at RTS (since 1996) and am on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi where my good friend Ligon Duncan is the senior minister. I am also the Editorial Director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ ezine, Reformation21.

O yes, I am also married to Rosemary (coming up to 32 years) and have two children and one granddaughter.

And a dog named Jake.

And a cat named Maxamillian Beauregard!

GD: That's a funny name for a cat. Now, where did you train for the Ministry and what did you find most helpful in your training?

DT: Ah, as I said, I studied at Reformed Theological Seminary (which then had only campus in Jackson, Mississippi). I still look back on it with a great deal of affection. I had the privilege of having John R. de Witt as my Systematics professor whose love of historical theology gave kindled in me a respect for the reformed tradition. He was at the time translating Ridderbos’s volume on Paul from the original Dutch (he was related to him) and so a nuanced respect for both biblical and Systematic Theology came through in that Vosian-Ridderbosian tradition with its high view of covenant theology. His own doctoral work had been in the Westminster Assembly and my respect for the Westminsterian tradition was cemented during those years, too.

My greatest privilege was sit under Simon Kistemaker’s lectures and act as his student assistant. His lectures were never terribly exciting—just very sound and very earnest. No one could make New Testament Introduction (authorship of 2 Peter, or the latest theological vagaries of Willi Marxsen on the resurrection) sound so earnest as Dr. Kistemaker.

What I got most of all from my seminary training was an unshakeable confidence that no matter what theological skepticism may arise, the inerrancy of the Bible will stand the test. Thirty years later, I have never questioned the Bible’s inerrancy. I’ve come across many a thorny problem, but I still believe the Bible’s foundational authority—in “jots and tittles.” I am grateful to the seminary for that fact more than any other.

GD: Who taught you most about preaching?

DT: Geoff Thomas! I’m a great fan of Animal Planet on TV and often hear about the importance of “imprinting”—when new born infants “imprint” on those they first come across and regard them as their parents. Within a month or so of my conversion, I heard “Geoff” preach (on Matthew’s Gospel). It was passion incarnated in a wiry Welsh persona and I was won over within seconds. His Westminster Seminary infused theology: lots of John Murray-esque carefully crafted theological divisions, E. J. Young’s careful exegesis of the text and a steam-roller Van Tillian apologetic. And, of course, a love and respect for Lloyd-Jones (though less so then than now, I think—the young man’s daring to be different).

Preaching is best caught than taught, I think (and these days I teach young, and not-so-young, men how to preach!), and for me, I have surely been influenced, subliminally if in no other tangible way, by the preaching of such living (!) examples as Sinclair Ferguson, Al Martin, John Stott, Donald Macleod, and in more recent years, Ligon Duncan. To this day, however, after preaching now for some 35 years, I still find myself gesticulating and “Geoff” comes to mind (as much in my wife’s as in mine!). It has been thirty years since I sat under his preaching, but I still find myself unconsciously mimicking him.

GD: You spent some years in pastoral ministry before becoming a theology professor. What was the wisest piece of advice that you were given as a pastor?

DT: I can’t answer this question without thinking of something John Piper said in a class I was teaching and to which I’d invited him to address. He was asked this very question by a very serious-minded young man and a Piper-groupie! Without a second’s hesitation, Piper answered, “Eight hours sleep a night!” To this day, I’m not sure whether he was trying to destroy an all too obvious idol or giving sane and very practical advice. If it was the latter, I have never kept it a single day!

However, it is a great, if difficult, question! Something I heard someone saying of a statement by Robert Murray McCheyne: “that a congregation will forgive you almost anything so long as they think that you love them.” I never rose to those heights and the dear folk in Belfast could raise a series of failings on my part, but I still think this is the best advice to give a young minister. In America especially, the ministry has become a professional activity: ministers have offices where people come for a consult if necessary but in Belfast it was a requirement to be in the homes of people and involved in the most intimate way in their lives.

GD: How does having been a pastor affect you approach to teaching theology?

DT: In every possible way, I hope. I have no interest in teaching anything I cannot use for preaching. There’s a branch of theology that is so utterly academic and theoretical that I cannot maintain any interest in it. Of course, I am still a pastor and preach every week, often more than once a week. I am constantly preparing sermons and finding myself asking how does this or that piece of theology apply to this or that situation that I am aware of in the congregation. I often think of those words of J. I. Packer in Knowing God: “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”

GD: Who was the most influential figure in your theological development?

DT: John Calvin and John Owen mostly. Iain Murray told me (back in 1977), “make one theologian your life’s interest and hobby.” It was good advice. He suggested I make Samuel Davies (1723-1761, Fourth President of Princeton) and, of course, of Welsh descent! I never did make Davies the focus of my study, but another of Welsh Descent: John Owen. But in the late eighties, I was gripped by a passion for Calvin that led to doctoral studies based on his sermons on Job. Today, my library contains over a thousand volumes on Calvin alone!

The opening sentence of The Institutes of the Christian Religion alone is worth a lifetime’s contemplation: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
Not everyone would agree, of course. My favorite criticism of Calvin (monstrously over-done and deliciously vitriolic) is by Will Durant, the famous author of the eleven-volume series, The History of Western Civilization. “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin,” Durant writes, “who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” Who would desire to read anything by Will Durant after that?

What is it about Calvin that so inspires me? [Hey, I ask the questions around here! GD] This: his disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God's words, his submission to Christ’s Lordship, his sense of the holy, his concern to be as practical as possible; the fact that godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it. In a forest of theologians, Calvin stands like a Californian Redwood, towering over everyone else.

GD: Some scholars have suggested that systematics should be abandoned in favour of biblical theology. How do you view the relationship between the two disciplines?

DT: People who say things like that need counseling! They definitely shouldn’t be let lose in seminaries or the pulpit. It is a bit like suggesting that all you need be a good doctor is study the intricate workings of the heart or brain without ever studying human anatomy! In order to appreciate the parts one needs to understand the whole. I drive these days using a GPS system. They are one of God’s great gifts to us who cannot read a map! But the art of trying to get from one point to another is to understand where these points are in relationship to each other. For that, I need the map to “pan-out” to see the big picture. I need from time to time very detailed maps of the center of this or that city, but I also need to know how to get there and how to back again.

GD: What do you make of Kevin Vanhoozer's theodramatic proposals?

DT: Tricky question! Does anyone really understand what Vanhoozer is saying? Or for that matter, Lindbeck and von Balthasar, both of whom have influenced Vanhoozer, I think, on the use of “theo-drama”. All three have hoisted their sails to the ship called “The Wreck of Hodge” blaming him for reducing theology to something essentially cognitive and propositional. Vanhoozer’s postconservative (rather than postliberal as Lindbeck) and postfoundationalist approach—“canonical-linguistic” as Vanhoozer prefers to call it (privileging neither propositional truth abstracted from the diverse literary genres of Scripture nor certain types of procedure for generating knowledge), is (in my opinion, open to interpretive diversity. If I’m not mistaken, this is where Vanhoozer wants us to get to: “The nonreductive evangelical catholic orthodoxy advocated in the present work is itself an attempt to preserve both the diversity and the integrity of a theological dialogue already canonized in Scripture.” The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005), 275–76.

But, I may be misreading him. That’s a very real possibility given the level of complexity at which he writes.

GD: What do you enjoy most about being a systematic theologian?

DT: Twenty weeks of vacation! I’m kidding. Seriously, I have to pinch myself every day to think that I get paid to do this! My calling and inclination coincide and this is a sweet providence indeed. I get to study a little bit of everything! Not just this or that part of Scripture but the whole of it – in relation to history and Christian thought and philosophy. In the words of the sixteenth century theologian, William Perkins: “I study the science of living blessedly forever.” [A Golden Chain, 1616 edition , 11]. I’ve always liked that definition basically because the systematic study of God fills me with a joy that is unspeakable and full of glory.

GD: Having twenty weeks holiday must be nice, though. You no doubt have lots of time for writing and stuff. You have already written several books including biblical commentaries and theological works. Are you working on anything at the moment?

DT: “Working” is a good verb for it. I recently co-authored a book with my wife called Love, Sex and Marriage published by Evangelical Press! I’m terrified now that I’ll be asked to speak on this theme at conferences everywhere! I am also co-editing (with John Tweeddale) a volume for 2009 celebrating the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. It will consists of around twenty chapters written by very well-known authors on aspects of Calvin. The Banner of Truth is set to publish that work. I’m also trying to put together a volume in the Reformed Expositional Commentary series (P & R) on Acts. And further on the horizon is a book on the theology on Bunyan.

GD: All sounds very interesting. Right, you recently wrote that, "It is to be feared that the democratisation of the theological process (every blogger now demands the right to have centre stage and equal validity) destabilises serious theological engagement. The church's affirmation of its 'tradition' becomes engagement with last week's posting." Ouch! Have you anything good to say about theology blogging?

DT: Did I really write that? [Yes, you did! - here] Well, it’s true that the blogosphere has given every Joe Wannabee the sense of entitlement to be heard on every possible topic under the sun without any kind of peer review. I famously had a student try and tell me his opinion of something John Calvin had written (which I’d just informed the class about) that he’d never read. I said, “Your opinion is invalid. If you have not read it in context, frankly I’m not interested in your opinion. Nor should anyone else.” He was offended and told me so. I told him that he needed to see how postmodern he was!

There are good blogs and bad blogs. But blogs are here to stay. They give us an insight to what people, who otherwise might have been talking privately in a coffee shop, are saying and thinking. Frankly, if that’s all it is meant to be, I have no problem with it. But blogs need to be modest about their own self-importance in the theological world. Except for yours, Guy, which is great!

GD: You have been known to blog over at Reformation 21. I suppose that's all right then?

DT: Well, yes! I am the grand Poobah of that blog!

GD: Apparently you are a big fan of the gargantuan works of Wager, Bruckner and Mahler. That's like heavy, man. Care to name your top three pop or rock songs?

DT: Rock passed me by, I’m afraid. I seem to recall the Beatles et al of the sixties, but even then I was more into Beethoven than the Beatles. I do like some current popular music, for about three minutes! Even as I write, Donner (The Niebelungen god of thunder) is singing, “He da! He da! He do!” Is that not deep or what?

GD: I didn't know that Wager went in for "He da! Ho da!" type lyrics. That sounds kind of cool. I'll have to order a box set of the Ring Cycle straight away. Now we're on the subject of music, I must put this question to you: Are you, like me, worried that listening to heavy rock music like Led Zeppelin and all the head-banging that goes with it might have a damaging effect on the mind of a theologian?

DT: My good friend Carl Trueman is a case in point, don’t you think? His head needs examining, if you ask me and I blame Zeppelin. You’re right on the money, Guy!

GD: What made you think that I meant Carlos the Mosher? Now to Welsh issues. Do you still get the hireath, if so what do you miss most about Wales? The weather perhaps?

DT: My favorite movie is, How Green Was My Valley (1941)! Brilliant! When they gather outside the coal mine and start singing, well… I’m a puddle. I’ve not read Richard Llewellyn’s book written in 1939 (I believe), but I must get round to it one day.

It’s all very eschatological, don’t you think? What I miss isn’t there anymore. I went to visit the farm I grew up on a few years ago and was summarily told I was on private property. Actually, I was on a main road merely looking at the house. Home, I have decided along with the puritans, must be viewed sub specie aeternitatis. The home I long for is the Wales of the new creation. Yes, Wales in a new earth. What a prospect!
GD: I know what you mean I don't feel totally at home in England. But when I visit Wales, I don't really belong there either. My home village of Bassaleg has changed considerably and old friends have moved on. An eschatological Wales is a very inviting prospect indeed. But back to the present, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism today?
DT: Evangelicalism faces many challenges but I am fearful that given the way the New perspective on Paul has taken root so easily within evangelicalism, our sense of how firmly rooted we are in foundational truths has been severely shaken. I’m not sure the new perspective is itself the biggest challenge, but it is a crucial one – one in which the very gospel itself is at risk.
GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months. It is a must read because?
DT: John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007). No one can avoid the new perspective’s intrusion into the interpretation of the most important doctrine of all—justification by faith. Everyone who has an interest in a clear understanding of the doctrine which Luther described as the ‘standing or falling of the church” should read it carefully. We owe Piper an immense vote of thanks for writing this book and helping the church in its hour of need.
GD: Lastly, which (if any!) theology blogs do you enjoy reading most and why?

DT: Apart from ref21, yours, of course! And Mohler’s. And my wife and daughter are chipping in, “Girl Talk”.

GD: We'll it's been tidy talking to you, Derek. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation.

Stay tuned for more Blogging in the name of the Lord interviews.....

7 comments:

Andrew and Carolyn said...

That Calvin books sounds exciting. Roll on 2009 - I just hope it will ship to Peru!!

Another good one, Guy.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks Andrew. The Calvin book does sound like one to look out for come '09.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Did you see that David Sky has a post modern relative on the Pyromaniac's blog?

http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2008/01/no-statement-of-belief.html

Exiled Preacher said...

Jonathan,

I made the mistake of following your pyro link while DS was watching. That Emergent monkey is a girl. The poor little fella has fallen head over heels in love with her. What am I to do?

Jonathan Hunt said...

Give him a dowry and a plane ticket to California.

rjs1 said...

Good advice...Calvin is an exceptional commentator IMO.

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