It is genuinely a great honor to be able to speak to you on this occasion, and in my capacity as one of the founders of this college. I am most grateful for the invitation from the College to do this, and wanted to make sure to express that gratitude fully.
When New St. Andrews started, the year was 1994, which means that I was at that time 40 years old. Scripture teaches us to number our days (Ps. 90:12), and this can be done through various edifying mathematical exercises. I am currently 65, and one such exercise is to note that my birth year (1953) was closer to the administration of Grover Cleveland than it was to the third year of the Trump administration—it was closer to the invention of talking motion pictures than to the invention of the Internet. Some things can change a lot. Other things are registered among the permanent things and shouldn’t ever change, which will be the burden of this and future lectures.
Another edifying mathematical exercise is to note that when you freshman are my current age, the year will be 2065. If the college is still here, as by God’s grace we trust it will be, one such freshman, by then a most distinguished alum, and by then a major donor, will be able to address the student body here at Disputatio, and regale those astonished personages, including quite a number of your grandchildren, with an account of how he heard me, the ancient one, going on and on about something. My central prayer is that this freshman, whoever it might be, might be one of those who were paying attention here today.
Our Anticipated Agenda
If all works out, I will be delivering four lectures to you this year, with the four talks structured around the general theme of our college’s purpose, vision, and mission, a vision that has been consistent from the college’s founding until now. This first talk is entitled An Inescapable Burden of Glory. The second lecture will be entitled The Protestant and Evangelical Future. The third, Lord willing and the crik don’t rise, will address Distance Learning across the Centuries. The fourth will be overtly political and will address the moral necessity of conservatism, and will be called Liberal Arts as Liberty Arts.
Never Name Your Kid Ichabod
So I wish to begin by talking about glory. I mentioned your grandkids a moment ago, and I want to exhort you to live in such a way that not one of them is ever named what Eli’s grandson was—Ichabod—meaning “the glory is departed.”
The stated mission of NSA begins this way:
“Our purpose at New Saint Andrews College is to graduate leaders who shape culture living faithfully under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Now as a matter of basic spiritual physics, either you will be such shapers, or you will be shaped—active or passive, agent or patient. You will either be the mold or you will be the rapidly-cooling plaster inside that mold. You will either act on the world or you will be acted upon by the world. The rendering of the first part of Romans 12 by J.B. Phillips is apropos and to the point.
“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Rom. 12:2, Phillips).
Paul presents a simple alternative. We will either be shaped by God or by the world. And if we are shaped by God, then what will happen is that in our refusal to be shaped by the world, we will find ourselves shaping the world. The refusal to be shaped by culture will turn out to be an insistence upon shaping culture. Off the table is an option sought out by those daydreamers who are in hot pursuit of a vain hope. This is the idea that it might be possible to gain some kind of an advantage or opportunity for shaping the world by allow the world to have a crack at us first. You resolve to keep your head down, to blend carefully in, and to engage winsomely with culture, until such time as you are finally in a position to “make a difference.” And perhaps it will come to you at that moment that you no longer want to make a difference, and even if you wanted to, you couldn’t anymore. You will have gained the world and lost your soul. You will not make a difference because you have been made a matter of no difference.
Friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4), and is considered as adulterous infidelity by Him. Friendship with God is therefore enmity with the world as it is currently configured, and it is also to be aligned with God’s intentions and purposes for that world. And that must include the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20)—which will not be accomplished apart from the culture-shaping, culture-transforming power of the gospel of Christ. The Great Commission is nothing other than the culture mandate energized with gospel goodness and power.
Perhaps a Sharp Right Turn . . .
And so now I come to the point which I trust I will surprise some of you. How is the fulfillment of the Great Commission described in Scripture? “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Fulfillment of the church’s task here on earth is measured in terms of the church’s knowledge of glory. There is no way to be biblically zealous for the salvation of individual souls, or the salvation of multiple nations, without being ambitious for glory.
True ambition does the same thing that true humility does—it strives after glory. The thing that distinguishes a proud man is what he finds glorious, and the same thing is true of a humble man. They are not distinguished by one pursuing glory and the other not pursuing it. The thing that makes the difference is what they consider glorious, what they are pursuing.
How does the apostle Paul describe the one who is justified by faith alone? What does it mean to trust Christ for salvation? It means the pursuit of glory.
“God . . . will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life . . . glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Romans 2:5–10).
Who is the one who receives eternal life? Those who seek for glory, honor, and immortality. Those who want a glory harvest are those who understand the importance of glory seed.
And what is man?
“For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man” (1 Cor. 11:7).
And how is sin described? It is to fall short of the glory of God:
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Putting these last two together we see that sin is that which caused us to fall short of what we were intended to become. Man falling short of the glory of God is man falling short of man as the glory of God. That falling short was something that God determined to address through the gospel of Christ—in that Christ is the perfect man, He is fully man as the glory of God.
So God addressed the problem through the incarnation and passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).
He did this in order to accomplish something in us.
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
So man is, in himself, in his own name, a busted and broken glory. He has a desire for glory embedded in him, down in the very marrow of his bones. That is what he is. That is what we all are. He either tries to make this glory-hunger work apart from Christ, or he comes to Christ as the one who restores and satisfies our desire for glory. So it is not whether we seek glory, but rather which glory we seek.
Three Kinds of Glory
So then God has created us as glory-seekers. This is what we are, of necessity. There is no switch that can be turned to the off position. As plants turn naturally toward the sunlight, so men and women turn naturally toward glory.
Now the fact that sin has corrupted our race means that it has in fact corrupted this impulse also, but it has not eradicated this impulse. It has twisted the direction we face. It has not erased our appetite for glory, but instead has offered diseased meats to it. Our mirrors were designed to face the sun, and now they are pointed at black holes. Sin offers to help us redefine what we think of as glorious, and so I want to suggest there are three kinds of glory.
- First there is true glory—this is weight of true holiness, measured in celestial Troy ounces, weighed out in the scales of the Temple. This Temple measure prevents the mistake we can too often make, that of excluding every form of cruciform glory (John 12:28);
- In the second place there is vain glory—this comes from an attempt at the knock-off, the counterfeit. Man attempts to produce, on his own, the kind of glory he imagines we have somehow lost. The result is baubles, tinsel, trinkets, and other ten cent items;
- And third we have dark glory—this is the path of overt rebellion. It is the opium dream of the sophisticate, the artistes, the sexually depraved, the intelligentsia, and all the bastard children of Rousseau. Too often the advocates of dark glory use the chintzy Christianized forms of vain glory as their excuse for rebelling against the real glory. Anything but that, they say;
We live in an era which presents us with the false dichotomy of choosing between the second and third options. If you want to be a real artist, a regular Lord Byron, you go with the third. “He drunk, he fought, he whored/He did despite unto the Lord.” But if you want to sell out and go commercial, then mainstream accolades are coming your way. You take off in your career, selling the ignorant public your little tiny bits of sunshine. The real artists are left muttering cynically into their neckbeards, trying to fob off their darksome moonshine.
But there is a third option, a third way. It is the unabashed pursuit of glory—as though God were in His Heaven, as though Christ really died and rose, as though His Spirit was actually poured out on Pentecost, and as if we were actually Christians.
Our Familiar Triad
You are by now well acquainted with the familiar triad of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are certainly attributes of God, and like any such categorization of His divine attributes, they all must ultimately refer to the same absolute reality. As a good Thomist would put it, “all that is in God is God.” This is quite true, and yet God reveals Himself to us in this broken-out and categorized way in order to accommodate us in our finitude and weakness. He gives us handles to think about Him with, and so we refer to His kindness, and His justice, and His goodness and so on, as though they were distinct attributes. Scripture does this, and so may we. But ultimately, just as every color of light put all together manifests white light, so also all the attributes of God together can be described as His holiness. The seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy,” as though that says it all. And it does.
So ultimately truth is goodness, and goodness is beauty. But if you were to make an attempt—being aware of our creaturely limitations mentioned just a moment ago—to map glory onto this triad, the place where I would start would be with beauty. Putting a number of things together here, God’s beauty is the beauty of holiness (Ps. 29:2; 96:9; 1 Chron. 16:29; 2 Chron. 20:21). And that is glorious.
“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: And establish thou the work of our hands upon us; Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Ps. 90:17).
The Weak Point in our Shield Wall:
With the vision statement I read earlier, this means that we want God to establish the work of our hands. And by this I mean the work of our hands in establishing and maintaining this College.
What are the dangers?
For the most part, held up against the standard of objective truth, objective goodness, and objective beauty, the evangelical and Reformed portion of the church has done a passable job with the first two. I say this acknowledging that— in a sinful world—we do fall short of the standards we profess in various ways. We do not hold biblical teaching perfectly, and we sin in ways that contradict the goodness of God. But we continue, for the most part, to hold onto the truth that truth is objective and that goodness is objective, meaning that they are not dependent upon our feelings for their validity.
If it is true to affirm today that Jesus rose from the dead, it will be equally true next week, and in the next century. The objective truth does not change. And if it will violate the standard set by the goodness of God to be malicious and cruel to someone this week, then it will fail in the same way next week, and in the next century. While our grasp of all the details might be tenuous, we do know that the truth itself is not tenuous, and that goodness itself is not tenuous.
The place where we have struggled is when it comes to the question of objective beauty. Beauty is no more subjective than are truth and goodness. Beauty is as much grounded in the infinite and eternal character of God as anything else we value.
But it is also the place where numerous evangelicals have abandoned the field, and have become untethered relativists, real subjectivists. And relativism is like cancer—tolerated anywhere, it will soon demand entry everywhere. Nonsense is gangrenous, and aesthetic nonsense is no exception. Aesthetic nonsense is especially no exception. Subjectivism tolerated becomes as ravenous as Sheol and Abaddon. “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man” (Prov. 27:20, ESV). Without a foundation of Christ and His Words, the self is nothing more than a grumbling sinkhole. The self-absorbed statement that runs something like but I like it will spread out from that egoistic abscess and ruin everything.
Starting from its current beachhead in your Spotify playlists, the rot will start the process of turning Bunyan’s Land of Beulah into Mordor. If you doubt what I say, put your earbuds in. If you still doubt it, turn it up loud enough for your mother to hear. And if you continue to doubt after all that, then let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.
And despite the fact that I mentioned your Spotify playlist just now, the playlist itself is not the central problem, although it remains a (representative) problem. The problem is the nature of that defensiveness you feel welling up inside you. The basic problem is the who’s-to-say-relativism. All such relativism renders true glory impossible, and is therefore the enemy of thoroughgoing evangelism within the context of the cultural mandate.
Learning and retaining a biblically-grounded aesthetic is a challenging enterprise, but difficulty should never be confounded with impossibility. I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment about Christianity—it has not be tried and found wanting, but rather it has been found difficult and not tried.
Five Bullet Points on Beauty and Glory
So that this not be mistaken for a rant, I would leave you with a few basic principles.
- If objective glory exists in the very nature of the Godhead, then man as image bearer has the responsibility to pursue and honor and reflect that glory in his aesthetic pursuits;
- The first aesthetic duty is that of dying to self, and most emphatically not that of trying to express the self. This is the duty of repentance toward God. The next aesthetic duty is that of loving God—the first and greatest commandment in life is also the first and greatest commandment in the aesthetic life. The second is like unto it, which is the duty of loving your neighbor. The arts enable you to edify your neighbor, which is quite a different thing than trying to demonstrate your superiority to him;
- This pursuit of art includes the sublime, and seeks to reach as high as it can, but not all the time. It also includes the pedestrian forms. The cathedral of Christian artistry has both spires and gargoyles. Godly low art aspires and godly high art stoops. This will help keep us far away from that odious high brow/low brow distinction;
- These principles apply, mutatis mutandis, in every form of artistry, artisanship, the arts, and the fine arts. Lump them all together, and evaluate each according the nature of the genre, the rules of the genre, the position of the genre, and the intention of the craftsman. A good blues song is better than a bad symphony, and lots of other things could be better than both of them.
- The fifth principle is that we are to remember (again) that within the Godhead not one of these issues is to be found as an isolated attribute. Remember God’s simplicity. Just as Quintilian defined a rhetor as a good man speaking well, so also we should define a good Christian artist as in the first place a good Christian, one who then pursues his gifts and calling before God in a way that integrates well with the rest of his grateful and balanced life.
In sum, stated very briefly, these principles are: one, imitate God, as dearly loved children. Two, embrace the gospel, all of it. Three, do not cede one square inch of aesthetic territory to the devil. Four, do not throw any envious elbows within the kingdom. And five, ask God to blend all of it together in a tighter harmony than any of us have yet heard.
Return to Glory:
I trust that it is evident what relationship all this has to the question of glory. You were put into this life in order to glorify what you touch. You are not to corrupt it, insult it, degrade it, or try to bend it into a shape that will serve your ego. Pursuing glory is an act of love. Whatever you do, whatever you eat or drink, whatever you sculpt, paint, compose, or write, do it all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Whatever you study, listen to, admire, imitate, or praise to others, do it all to the glory of God.
So if we are to achieve anything close to our vision for this College as we educate and graduate students, then we are going to have to instill in you a deep hunger for glory. We earnestly desire you to become ambitious for glory; we want you to become ravenous for it. And now, even as I deliver these words, I hear my inner pastor, my inner cynic, my inner sheepdog saying something like, “Careful, now. Slow down. Don’t lay this on too thick. An awful lot could go wrong here . . .”
Yes. Quite. But the main thing that goes wrong is that we settle for some sort of vain glory. And it is settling, not aspiring. And periodically some anguished poetic soul will have gotten his fill of that, and head out for the dark realms in order to learn the deep things of Satan from Jezebel. The deep things of Satan are problematic, but they are probably deeper than the wet spot on the pavement they are leaving behind—which is what vain glory wants to traffic in.
I would repeat the words of Lewis in his magnificent sermon The Weight of Glory.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In the course of that sermon, which I commend to you, Lewis asks a rhetorical question, “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell?” He acknowledges that perhaps he is, but goes on to remind his listeners that spells are used to break enchantments as well as to impose them.
What spell would I seek to break here? It is the lie that real believers are second and third-rate hacks, of necessity. It is the idea that any kind of beauty is seductive, and too dangerous to mess with. It is the notion that since egoism is necessary for any artistic pursuit, and that since egoism is sinful, the arts must be out. It is the lie that you can safely pursue an aesthetic vocation without dying to self, without dying to self every morning—before you approach the easel, the piano, the dance floor, the computer, or any other place you might want to make some glory. It is the suggestion that the arts were given to us by God so that you might be able to get your name up in lights.
The methods God uses to deal with all such lies are methods that are frankly hardline, and insufficiently sensitive. He specializes in crucifying our lusts, including all our aesthetic lusts and the lust for self which resides at the center all of them. But as one who specializes in using the tomb as the ultimate detox center, God also rejoices to glorify His name through resurrection.
And in all such resurrections, I see a multitude of coming glories, as terrible as an army with banners, as terrifying as the glance of a beautiful woman. These glories are to be brought by you and your children into the presence of God, and tied onto His holy altar. I see some of you excelling in your artistry, and standing before kings (Prov. 22:29). I see you enabling those kings to bring glory and honor into the radiant city of God (Rev. 21: 24, 26). I see you gifted by the Spirit of God, the one who fills your hands and hearts with cunning (Ex. 35:35). I see the Lord above fitting your hands to the strings, and growing calluses on them for you, and giving them the grace of swiftness and skill (Ps. 33:3). I see you steeped in the Scriptures, and marinating in the way scriptural narratives run, such that you know at a glance the difference between a Laban and Jacob, a Judas and a Peter, a David and a Manasseh, between Jesus and the devil.
And I am not vaporing on about this—I have every expectation that this will happen, to you and your children’s children, and will happen despite many dangers, toils and snares. Why do I think so?
Paul says this:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
You are appointed to this. It is in the Word of God, you are His saints, and I have the authority as a minister of the Word to speak this to you authoritatively, applying it right now to you. Receive these words by faith because God uses words to speak worlds into existence. God uses the sanctified imagination to shape and rule the world.
The word for workmanship here is poiema, meaning work, creation, craft, or project. You are laid out on God’s work bench, and He has something very specific in mind for you to do. He is currently fitting you out to fulfill that very function, which is to bring Him glory.
“And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Col. 3:23).
We are Christians. We want to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, which means that our task is to love the Lord our God with our entire education. And so here it is, set before you with three words—Christian, all in.