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Entries in Seminary Notes (114)


Because he doesn't want me to grow

On my first day of seminary, I woke up and did not want to go. Despite wanting this for a long time, and despite the fact that I had support from my husband and closest friends, I cried, because I did not want to go. Even as I drove that morning, my stomach was in knots. My first seminary class occurred right in the middle of the worst part of my first really bad bout with anxiety.

I've always tended toward being anxious, but this was much worse than what I'd known before. There were many physical symptoms, and it was simply beyond me. I made it through that class and only through God was I able to get the work done. The class was on writing Bible study curriculum, and one of the studies I wrote had to do with what Scripture said about being anxious, so it was therapeutic. 

I don't know if I'm much wiser than I was two years ago, but I am on the other side of that time. I am not a fool, and I know that I cannot be complacent. I must recognize what triggers my anxiety and deal accordingly with it. Interestingly enough, in the past couple of weeks, I have felt the weight of burdens encroaching on my heart; the kinds of things that can trigger anxiety. And it's the beginning of another semester of school.

Two years ago, a very good friend who understands anxiety well, shared with me that she really believed that Satan does not want me in seminary. He does not want me to have a theological education or growing in the things of God. I thought about that recently when I was studying my Greek vocabulary and my mind began to wander to things I cannot change. I have to learn is how to shut the door on things that are simply going to drag me down.

I've always wanted to fix everything. It bothers me to leave things unresolved. I don't like arguments festering. I want resolution now! That isn't always possible. Sitting and waiting is difficult. We feel powerless; or, rather, we confront our powerlessness. Shutting the door on things goes against what I really want to do. That is probably a good thing. As I sat at my desk, allowing myself to be distracted, I had to mentally picture myself shutting a door to the burdens that I can't resolve. I don't pretend they're not there, and I do have to acknowledge them, but not every day, and definitely not when I have other things to do.

I think Satan wants me to open the door to that closet more often, because then I can start to feel hopeless and discouraged. Then I can start to blame others for things that have happened, or I can blame myself, and make it seem as if I'm the centre of everything. Yes, he wants me to do that because that distracts me from simply trusting God. Fortunately, learning Greek is very methodical and demands memorization. Translating sentences, even the small ones we're beginning with this week, is like solving a puzzle, and that re-focuses me. I will stay in seminary if only to keep my mind from wandering to places where it ought not go. If I'm still having trouble concentrating after Greek is done, I'll just take Hebrew.

God's ultimate goal for me is to be conformed to the image of his son. Burdens have a way of making that happen or they can be a way of ensuring that it doesn't. We don't often talk about Satan in the church these days. But he's real, and he likes it when we're weak. I feel like it's no co-incidence that these burdens are plaguing me now. I must remember the truth: greater is he who is in me than he who is in the world.


Stuck in our own minds

I really enjoyed my class in Church History yesterday. It was a long day, but very invigorating. Supper was provided for us, and it was nice to sit and chat with others. The prof must have been even more tired, seeing as he had to do a lot of talking. I've not had this prof before, so I was looking forward to getting to know him. He is an enthusiastic lover of Church History, so I can see I'm going to enjoy this class.

One of the really great things we were told is that our term papers are not the kind of papers whereby we have to prove something. Rather, he wants us to choose a topic, probe as deeply as possible, and reveal what we have discovered. I'm going to be researching the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Middle Ages, so I'm excited to look for some good resources that include some primary source documents from the men who were instrumental in developing that doctrine.

At the end of the class, we examined the writings of Ignatius, who was one of the very influential men from the early church. He was the one who really promoted a hierarchy in the church, investing a lot of authority in the bishops. Of course, as we sit here in 2017, we can see how that contributed to the eventual concentration of power among the bishops in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

As we read through Ignatius, we were reminded that after Jesus and the apostles died, there was a vacuum left in the Church. How did they determine the right way to "do Church" without the presence of the apostles? People turned to men like Ignatius, who was a disciple of John. The Church in its infancy was suscptible to falling into quick error as sects and factions developed, not to mention the objection of the Jews. Where was the ultimate voice of authority? Of course, it was in the Scriptures, but they were not even completely compiled in Ignatius's day, and the process of developing doctrine from Scripture was a long process. There must have been a lot of fear in the Church at the time. At one point, in one of the documents from Ignatius, it was clear that he equated loyalty to the bishop with loyalty to God. That stirred a lot of discussion among the class.

It was pointed out that our reaction to the kind of loyalty to authority displayed by Ignatius was not unfamiliar to people during his day. We balk at such a concentration of authority because of our own experience and because we can look back and see how concentration of power was detrimental to the Church. One student was not so quick to let Ignatius off the hook. He felt that Ignatius, having the copies of the Scripture he would have had, ought to have avoided that error.

I think he had a point, but I'm not so sure it's as cut and dried as that. I don't think we can truly understand how people thought in the first century. We can read about what they did or what they said, but if we have not been immersed in a culture which did not automatically suspect authority as we do today, I don't think we can fully appreciate what it was like.

As students of history, we do evaluate it, but at the same time, we do have to be careful not to expect people in the first century, in a very different world than ours, to do what we would do or react how we do. I was thankful that the prof emphasized that. 

Despite Ignatius's shortcomings in the matter of Church leadership, his efforts toward promoting a solid Christology made up for it. It was probably a much different world to go to a Church without a formally established set of beliefs. Biblical texts were still being evaluated and not everyone had them. That God preserved a faithful Church through all that is truly something only God could do.


A cold dose of reality

Today, I'm attending a day long class in Church History. It runs from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. I know a few of my fellow students, but a I look at the roster, I see that there are many I don't know. It's always interesting to meet other students, because inevitably, we meet those who have read things we haven't or who have interests we don't, and we learn from them.

One of the most enjoyable parts of seminary for me has been coming face to face with how much I don't know. It's enjoyable in that it is a hopeful thing: there is no end to what one can learn. It can also be sobering, too, when we realize how little we know. Yesterday, in Greek, our prof had us each take turns writing on the whiteboard answers from an exercise we did individually. It was transcribing Greek words written in all uppercase to lower case. Of course, the fact that we would have to demonstrate our knowledge or lack thereof in front our classmates, was intimidating. I felt bad for the first few students, because it's always awkward to be the first ones. I got lucky with my word. It was an easy one: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, or χριστος, Christ. I confess to not knowing my upper case letters as well as I should, but when I saw the first two letters, the chi and the rho, I knew what it was. I breathed a sigh of relief when I sat down.

Being in a learning environment is a good way to nurture humility, and if you spend any amount of time online, reading blogs in Christian circles, a good dose of intellectual humility could benefit us all. It's so easy to think we know everything if we publish a blog full of our own ponderings and no one comes along to refute us. Or worse, we gather around us like-minded people who are as unread as we are, and who support or insufficiently researched writings.

Being evaluted and being among people who know so much more than I has been good for me. I tend to think I know more than I do, and I need humbling. 

A while back, I had a conversation with someone who said that one of the frustrating things about online discussion was the fact that so many others were not very well-read as he. I was taken aback at this person's lack of humility. We can all be arrogant and superior, but to demonstrate it so unabashedly was something else. I like to steer clear of that kind of thinking. The minute I start using myself as the standard for comparison, I'm in trouble.

In Christian scholarship, especially, we ought to hold our learning with much humility and with gratitude. I am thankful daily for this opportunity I have to learn; and for the resources available to me. This isn't every Christian's experience. There are Christian lay people and pastors all over the world who have limited resources and opportunity despite having a hunger to know more. Gratitude makes humility a lot more likely than holding our knowledge with an attitiude of entitlement.

I have read a lot of Church History over the years. I expect that today, I will meet others who have done the same thing and others who have read much more. In the course of our discussion, I will learn from my fellow students as well as my prof. It's okay if I don't know everything. Learning implies that we don't know things. And when I do learn, I'll be thankful.


The reality of the sanctified mind

I'm re-reading Confessions for my Church History class. I have an assignment to write a book review on a primary source document, and my choices were Confessions or City of God. I wonder how many in my class will read City of God, considering the review is due on October 13th.

I love Confessions. I loved it the first time I read it, and again last fall when I read it for a class on Augustine. This time, I have to be a more critical reader if I'm going to review it. 

The role of memory is obviously crucial in Confessions, and Augustine comments frequently that he sees it as God's sovereignty that he does remember things so that he can record them. I'm about to start Book X, where he really gets into the role of memory, but it is important even in Book VIII, where his dramatic conversion is found.

In Book VIII.5, he continues on a theme of recounting the conversion of a man named Victorianus. He is moved by the account and wants to do the same, but still struggles:

I longed to do the same, but I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains.

So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart.

The whole of Book VIII leading to Augustine's point of crisis is filled with similar emotionally charged language. It is obvious that Augustine was torn. The first time I read Confessions, many years ago, I recognized similar experiences; knowing that something was wrong, but not being able to understand exactly what. That was the reality of a mind which had not yet been converted, which had not been changed by the Spirit.

Works of memoir such as Confessions are not written as if the author is right in the moment. Their very nature is that they are reflective. Any memories he has of the events will naturally be processed through his own current state of thinking. Augustine wrote Confessions at least ten years after his conversion, and he didn't write it all at once, but over a period of three years from 397-400. There was no journalist following alongside Augustine, recording his thoughts. Augustine wrote Confessions through a sanctified mind. So, while his descriptions of his reactions are vivid, there is a very good chance that at the time, he didn't fully understand what he was going through. Anyone who has been a Christian long enough recognizes in the second quoted passage above echoes of Romans 7. We don't call into question the veracity of the narrator's account, but we do understand that his words cannot help but be influenced by the present.

This does not mean that we can't rely on the words of Augustine. But as a work of memoir, we have to recognize that it cannot be a complete reproduction of the past. Augustine, at the time of writing, had become a mature Christian and a bishop. He was changed. Augustine cannot help but see his past through his present. The transformative power of the gospel is such that we begin to see everything as the new creatures we have become. Before conversion, it was the same: we saw the world through our current condition. After conversion, we are changed. That is one of the best things about Confessions is that we see the power of conversion.

I share Augustine's wonder at how I can remember certain events which were ultimately crucial to my own conversion. And like Augustine, I marvel at God's sovereignty in putting each piece into place. God has given me the ability to name the condition I faced prior to my conversion. But at the time, I suspect I really did not know what my ailment was. Praise God for his timing in revealing everything, leading to my conversion.


Old Lady Greek - Week 2

Well, technically, I'm not really an old lady, although the young guy who sits behind me in Greek probably thinks so. My Greek class is a mix of older and younger. I sit beside one of the other two women. She's a pastor's wife and has middle school kids. There are also a couple of gentlemen who are older.

I have taken Koine Greek before. It was over 25 years ago, and I suppose, if I had tried, I could have asked to take some sort of proficiency exam to test what I remember, but I know I would have easily failed. I just don't remember a lot. Besides, the point isn't to simply get the credit; the point is to become proficient in reading Greek. I have not really used Greek since finishing my previous studies, and you can't retain what you don't use. My prof shared a story yesterday about how he had Scot McKnight as a prof once and McKnight said even seven minutes a day would keep it fresh. I guess I'll find out if that's true next summer when there is four months between Greek II and Greek Exegesis.

I wasn't sure how much my previous learning would help, but as we went through some exercises yesterday and then broke into pairs to do some others, I realized how much I remembered. Something as simple as automatic recognition of the letters and their sounds has been cemented into my head. Of course, being able to say Koine isn't really the point, but when learning language, it really is better to associate what we see with what we hear; get all the senses going, so to speak.

In this class, we will not be going from English to Greek, but simply Greek to English. I think that is a shame. When I took Koine before, we had to do both. I believe it helps to do both. I'm not a linguist or language theorist, but it seems to me that translating in both directions helps our brains. Constructing our own sentences in another language means we must be more intimate with the way the language works.

I'm really grateful for Dr Koöistra, my first Greek professor. He clearly did a good job if I can remember as much as I have even after all this time.