July 28, 2014 Broadcast

Reformation Bible College: Present Work, Future Hope

A Message by Various

Reformation Bible College is based on a classical model of education, where the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty is modeled. In this interview, Dr. R.C. Sproul is joined by the new president of RBC, Dr. Stephen Nichols, and other faculty as they discuss the present work and the future hopes of this college.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    Connecting with Christian Thinkers of the Past

  2. blog-post

    John Calvin on Wriggling in Worship

  3. blog-post

    Does God Own Everything That You Possess?

Connecting with Christian Thinkers of the Past

Aaron Denlinger

Whenever the professors of Reformation Bible College (RBC) have occasion to get together, I'm struck by what a fine group of biblical scholars and theologians I'm privileged to work with. Nevertheless I occasionally dream, as only a church historian would do, about the faculty I would construct if I were able to build a college from scratch and staff it with willing Christian thinkers from ages past. I imagine faculty lunches with Augustine, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin, or walking past classrooms and overhearing lectures on biblical theology, pneumatology, and soteriology from Irenaeus, John Owen, and Martin Luther respectively. Just a dream, I know. But in some sense I view my role as professor of church history and historical theology as one of bringing that dream to life for our students. My purpose, in other words, is not just to teach my students about those divines and the times in which they lived, but to facilitate a lively conversation between my students and those divines. If I do my job well, my students may very well forget most of what I've told them when they leave RBC, but they will, I hope, take with them theological conversation partners who will influence their efforts to read and interpret Scripture and think rightly about God and His ways for the rest of their lives.

Dialogue with individuals who have been dead for many years is admittedly a bit tricky. There is a sense, of course, in which the individuals in question are not dead; they have, rather, joined the living "cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us (Heb. 12:1), and as such we enjoy, in the words of the hymnist, "mystic sweet communion" with them. But mystic sweet communion doesn't negate the difficulty of carrying on a tangible conversation across a divide of several centuries. The ability to listen is a key ingredient in any conversation. Listening to divines from preceding ages of the church entails reading their writings with close and careful attention. Thus, historical theology courses at RBC include a substantial amount of required reading in primary sources. Students taking "Theology of the Early and Medieval Church" read more than 1000 pages from works by men such as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Bradwardine. Students taking "Theology of the Reformation" read even more from Luther and Calvin.

I encourage students, at the onset of these courses, to bring some of the same ethical guidelines which ought to govern conversations with living individuals to bear upon their dialogue with these persons from ages past. So, for example, I encourage them to be quicker to hear than to speak, to judge charitably any given writer's meaning, and—most importantly—not to bear false witness against whomever they're reading, even (or especially) when reading someone with whom they might ultimately disagree. There are different ways to bear false witness against a theologian from centuries past. It's possible, of course, to simply say that Calvin said X when you know that he in fact said Y. But typically we bear false witness against theologians from the past in more subtle ways; so, for example, we might, without fully realizing it, project our own views onto someone like Calvin (and so claim greater authority for our own views) when Calvin's words on a subject are ambiguous enough to let us get away with such a practice.

Historical context informs the meaning of historical words

Such misrepresentation (false-witness-bearing) of a historical person's views on a subject happens more readily when we're not familiar with the context and/or occasion of that individual's words. Context informs the meaning of words, something we realize quite poignantly when we hear our own words repeated by someone else without due attention to the occasion upon which they were spoken. Historical context informs the meaning of historical words. One cannot understand, say, Augustine's words on the church or sacraments without a good grasp of the Donatist controversy he was addressing in his writings on those subjects. Partly with a view towards this reality, students at RBC complete two semesters of church history before they begin courses in historical theology. Of course, the study of church history has value beyond its provision of context to the task of historical theology. The study of church history equips students with a thorough knowledge of the church's "story," and so informs—on the principle that memory is constitutive of identity—their sense of what it means to belong to Christ's ecclesia. Moreover, it affords ample opportunity to rejoice in God's sovereignty over human affairs and the fulfillment of Christ's particular promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). But the study of church history also provides an indispensable foundation for informed conversations with those saints who have gone before us.

In like manner, the ecclesiastical Latin classes required of students pursuing a degree in Theological Studies are geared towards facilitating very careful, ethically-informed conversations with Christian thinkers from the past. These classes find their principal raison d'être in the fact that so many of the great theologians in the Western tradition wrote in Latin. Of course, it's possible to read those authors—men, again, like Augustine, Calvin, and Turretin—in English translation. And to be sure, our students do read them in translation. But anyone who has carried on a conversation, perhaps by means of a translator, with someone living who speaks another language knows that very often some degree of meaning gets lost in translation. The same is true when listening to—that is, reading—Christian thinkers from the past. While realizing, then, that it may not be possible in the span of a four-year course of study to equip students to read lengthy Latin tomes of theology in their entirety, we strive to set our students on a path that might ultimately lead to such a practice. Students taking "Ecclesiastical Latin" in their second year of studies are expected, in their third-year studies of historical theology, to translate short sections of Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin from Latin into English—all towards the end of properly listening to those divines.

In sum, I like to think that as professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College I might, to some degree, be able to make my dream faculty of dead theologians—realizing of course that it is primarily my dream faculty—a reality for our students. Engaging in conversation with Christian thinkers from ages past is, at least in the ethically and intellectually informed manner I've briefly described here, no easy task, as I'm sure my students would testify. But it is both possible and profitable.

Full disclosure: I don't consider my role as professor of church history and historical theology to be nearly as important as the roles of my colleagues who teach biblical and systematic theology. The principal goal of an education at RBC, after all, is the knowledge of God—that is, the acquisition of skills necessary to read and understand God's word and to systematize truths about God gleaned from Scripture towards the ultimate end of communion with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. My role is to help students learn those skills by spending time in careful conversation with the best of biblical scholars and theologians who have gone before them, and to instill in them a desire and ability to continue, when they leave RBC, the conversations they've begun with those Christian thinkers for as many years of life and ministry as God gives them.

Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.

John Calvin on Wriggling in Worship

Aaron Denlinger

In the conservative Christian culture in which I grew up, wiggling during times of worship was severely frowned upon. Regular admonishments to "sit still" for the duration of Sunday sermons and mid-week prayer meetings were reinforced by various means, some more dubious than others. So, for instance, I recall regularly listening—outside of times of worship—to one particular song on cassette tape which urged youngsters such as myself to "squash the wiggle worm" whenever we might "feel the urge to squirm."

That song, perhaps because of its rather catchy tune by the musical standards of my childhood context, has become permanently etched upon my brain. It invariably pops into my head when I'm least in the mood for it (very often in church, in fact). In light of this, I was intrigued to discover recently in John Calvin an exhortation against "wriggling" in worship which superficially resembled the well-meant admonition of that song. Calvin's rebuke of those who would squirm during worship—or more specifically, during times of prayer, which Calvin calls "the chief part of [God's] worship"—occurs in the midst of his lengthy chapter on prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It follows immediately upon consideration of both God's commandment to us to pray and God's promise to hear us when we do. "When these two things have been established," Calvin writes, "it is certain that those who try to wriggle out of coming directly to God [in prayer] are not only rebellious and stubborn but are also convicted of unbelief because they distrust the promises."

Though these words from Calvin quickly had me humming the tune to the song noted above, it should be immediately clear that the kind of "wriggling" in (or, rather, "out of") prayer that Calvin has in mind is different in kind from the wiggling which children might be prone to during worship. For one thing, the squirming Calvin has in mind would seem to pertain as much, if not more, to private prayer than corporate prayer. For another, it would seem to flow more from an attitude of one's heart than from ants in one's pants. Thus Calvin names this wriggling a symptom of rebellion, obstinacy, and ultimately unbelief. This wriggling, then, is a serious matter, and worth exploring a bit more. What is Calvin urging us to avoid?

Calvin's condemnation of wriggling occurs in the midst of a lengthier exhortation to pray to God "with confident hope," that is, "with firm assurance of mind that God is favorable and benevolent to [us]." The confidence in prayer which Calvin urges can only be known and exercised by true believers, those "to whom, through the preaching of the gospel, [God's] kindness and gentle dealing have become known." It is a confidence which is explicitly enjoined upon us in Scripture: "Let us therefore go boldly unto the throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16). It is a confidence which should not be confused with casualness; it excludes "terror" but coexists with "reverential fear." It is a confidence reflected in the personal name by which we address God: "relying upon the word of Him whose majesty would otherwise terrify us, we dare call upon Him as Father," because "He deigns to suggest this sweetest of names to us." It is a confidence which extends not only to who God is, but to those things we seek from Him in prayer: "If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with His own voice." It is a confidence ultimately rooted in the reality of what Christ has accomplished for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and what He accomplishes for us even now in His ongoing work of intercession on our behalf: "our prayers depend upon no merit of ours;" "Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace." Thus "we are particularly bidden to call upon [God] in Christ's name."

The wriggling in prayer which Calvin denounces is a reluctance, or indeed an absolute failure, to approach God with this very confidence. It is, in other words, a betrayal of the boldness which believers should have on the basis of Christ's atoning and interceding work for them; a betrayal in practice of the gospel. Wriggling of this kind assumes an official character in the Roman Catholic church, which sanctions prayers to certain saints in glory—the Virgin Mary, Paul, Augustine, etc.—on the basis that, in Calvin's summary of Roman teaching, we ourselves "are unworthy to approach God intimately." Calvin readily admits our lack of worth to approach God so confidently through Christ. But it is Christ's worth, not ours, that matters, and Christ's worth, not ours, that informs our confidence. To place confidence in intermediaries other than Him is to challenge His surpassing worth, and ultimately to deprive Him of His proper office: "Those who account Christ's intercession worthless unless George and Hippolytus and such specters come forward leave nothing for Christ to do."

But Protestants are not immune from the kind of wriggling which Calvin denounces. Our own wriggling assumes less official forms; it manifests itself, perhaps, in the simple neglect of prayer, especially during times when we are peculiarly aware of our own failure to love God and love others as we should. We treat God like an offended spouse, who might benefit from some time to "cool off"—in light of some unkind word or deed on our part—before he or she should even be approached with an apology. We thus betray our own lack of faith in God's glorious gospel, which points us to Christ's work rather than our own, and our standing in Him through faith, as the basis of our admission into God's holy presence in prayer.

Or, perhaps, it manifests itself in a tendency to reorder the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, prioritizing "Forgive us our sins" over those petitions which actually occur earlier and express a concern for God's glory, the advancement of His kingdom, and the accomplishment of His purposes. We should, to be sure, approach God in a spirit of repentance, as Calvin directs us elsewhere in his chapter on prayer. But if, in prayer, the first words out of our mouths are words of confession, it may reflect a conviction on our part that God won't hear anything we say until we've first cleared the score with Him, which itself reflects our confidence not in what Christ has done and does for us, but in our own merit—even if that supposed merit consists only in our readiness to admit our guilt.

To "wriggle out of coming directly to God" in prayer, then, is a serious, gospel-denying matter. It is a squirming which we as adults are frankly more prone to than our children, having a more cultivated, even if proper, sense of all the reasons why God shouldn't receive us into His presence when we seek Him. Let us, then, follow Calvin's advice, even if it does not lend itself easily to a catchy tune. Let us squash the wriggle worm. Whether or not we ultimately succeed in fixing our children immovably to the church pews and training their eyes upon the pulpit, let us labor to fix the eyes of our hearts—and theirs—upon Jesus Christ and His atoning and interceding work on our behalf. And may a fixed and firm vision of Him, and all God's promises to us which rest upon Him, bolster within us a boldness to "draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.

Does God Own Everything That You Possess?

David Briones

"What do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). How would you answer that question? Think about your bank statement, the recent promotion, your marriage, children, grandchildren, your athletic abilities, your spiritual gifts, even your salvation? "What do you have that you did not receive?" I see only two possible answers:

You did not receive all that you possess — or — You did receive all that you possess.

The first response commits a heinous, theological crime: it confuses the Creator-creature distinction. God alone is the only being in the universe to possess without first receiving something. We, on the other hand, must receive something extra nos ("outside of ourselves") before possessing anything. After all, who can bestow on themselves the gift of life? The second response, then, is the most theologically accurate response a Christian could give: you did receive everything that you possess.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to affirm a theological truth in our heads and another to affirm it in our lives. In theory, we happily declare that God is the source (and therefore the rightful owner) of all that we possess. But, in practice, we slowly begin to take ownership of our most prized possessions and accomplishments. That is why Paul raises a second question in 1 Cor. 4:7: "If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" Of course, the Corinthians would declare that they have received all that they own (see 1 Cor. 1:4-9). It would be preposterous to say otherwise. And yet, you can't read through much of 1 Corinthians without being struck by the obvious fact that they didn't practice what they preached. As Christians, they inconsistently adopted a culturally-acceptable mode of gaining honor in the Greco-Roman world: they boasted. Just read 1 Cor. 11:20-22 & 12:18-26 to see how they held their gifts over people oppressively, as if to say: "Look at what I have and you don't. Do you see my glorious possessions and accomplishments? I'm far more privileged spiritually than you."

Although it manifests itself differently today, boasting still runs rampant in the church and discloses a major inconsistency in the lives of believers. To put it bluntly, we often think and act like the world. We think that our house is the result of our hard labor at work, that our job is a direct corollary of our educational achievements and intellectual aptitude, or that favor from the world is a natural consequence of our unique personalities. We then begin acting in a way that confirms those beliefs. Our speech reveals the fact that we neither believe that the Lord gives nor that He takes away. Our actions demonstrate that we believe we can determine our own destinies. And our lives are characterized more by self-sufficiency than dependence on God.

By focusing so intently on our gifts as being ours, we become short-sighted in two distinct ways. First, we lose sight of the reality that all of our possessions are gifts from God. Without Him, we would possess nothing. He provides the strength and health to work. He gives the ability to grasp intellectual concepts and earn degrees. And He grants us favor in the eyes of the world. Second, we lose sight of the reality that all of our possessions are owned by God. When you receive a gift from someone, you own that gift. The giver surrenders his/her rights of ownership. When you receive a gift from God, however, you are the second owner, if you will. God never surrenders His rights as the primary owner. "For from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). All that He gives and all that He receives is His.

Recognizing God as the ultimate giver and supreme owner of all your possessions will, by the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit, generate Christ-exalting traits within you:

  • Humility – as you consider your greatest achievements in life as undeserved gifts
  • Divine Dependency – as you entrust yourself to our Creator, from whom all things flow
  • Responsibility – as you use your possessions in a way that glorifies our Triune God
  • Generosity – as you give just as freely as you have been given
  • True Worship – as you combat idolatry by elevating the Giver above His gifts

May the only true and living God grant us the grace to hold our most cherished gifts in this life loosely, being willing to use them (and even lose them) to the glory of His name, so that we may live in accordance with Paul's command: "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:31).

David E. Briones is dean of students and professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.

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