NSA Convocation 2009

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As it happens, this convocation is occurring in the year of our Lord 2009. This year marks the significant birth anniversaries for various notables—it is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the 200th of Lincoln, the 300th of Samuel Johnson, and of course, the one that really matters, the 500th of John Calvin, the great reformer of Geneva. All over the Reformed world, books are being published and conferences are being held throughout the course of this year, including a lecture series sponsored by this college. We offer a liberal arts college education that is squarely in the Reformed tradition, and so, along with many others, we are happy to mark our gratitude.

Of course this kind of thing can be misapplied by some in our camp, or misrepresented by some in others. We do not want to cultivate or promote an ungodly factional spirit—if we may not say, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos,” then we certainly may not say, “I am of Calvin, I am of Luther,” and so on. There is a fundamental carnality in the wrong kind of allegiance, in the wrong kind of loyalty. For those who talk in this way, what is Paul’s rebuke? He says that when we take this wrong kind of pride in men, we are functioning on a carnal level as mere men (1 Cor. 3:1-3). And of course, I cite the apostle in opposition to this great error because I guess “I am of Paul.”

This particular twist reveals the problem—there is no way to listen to the apostle Paul in the right way, learning from him as a faithful Christian should, without opening yourself up to the accusation that you are following him in the wrong way. There is such a thing as bibliolatry, of course, as John 5:39 reveals, but we also need to remember that it would be pretty easy to accuse some faithful soul of bibliolatry if he was doing anything so foolish as living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It looks bad, you know?

In this era of individualism, we are attuned to the error of following a man, any man. But we have not paid as much attention to the super-spiritual error that Paul tags in this same discussion. “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ(1 Cor. 1:12). The spirit of sectarian factionalism is not removed by simply attaching the name of Christ to it, as though that were the ultimate trump card. It should be so easy. You could then avoid sectarianism simply by saying that you had.

And on the flip side of this, neither is there a problem when we pay honor and respect to our teachers in the faith with a whole heart—whether they are alive or with the Lord. The Word says plainly that we are to honor them deeply. “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (Heb. 13:7).

Is it factionalism to esteem someone very highly for their work’s sake? Is it sectarian to remember those who have spoken and written the Word of God for us? Not at all—it is simple obedience. It is not bibliolatry to remember all passages of Scripture as we come to any one passage of Scripture. It is not bibliolatry to simply obey. And so it is that we honor John Calvin, a faithful son of the Church, and the great theological heritage of which he is the foremost representative.

As I never tire of saying, our task, as a generation teaching the next one, is not to get students to conform to the standard. The task before us is getting them to love the standard. And the kind of love we are after is impossible without loyalty. And this is why I want to set before you this evening the scriptural imperative of becoming and being a loyal people. For you incoming freshmen, this is what we want to pass on to you. For those of you already in the midst of your education, this is what we continue to want for you. This is what we are calling you to.

There is of course a great deal of bracing good sense in Chesterton, but none so bracing, and none so good, as his chapter in Orthodoxy called “The Flag of the World.” B.B. Warfield and Helmut Thielicke wrote short essays warning theological students of the grave spiritual perils that lay ahead of them in their study of theology, and someone really ought to warn liberal arts students at high level colleges, urging them to arm themselves against a similar foe. You know . . . I think I will do it, and I think I will do it now.

An outstanding way to guard yourself is to read Chesterton’s “The Flag of the World” at the beginning of every term, before you allow yourself to take any new classes. Every time you learn something new, make a point to embrace all your old affections.

One common slander brought against biblical loyalty is that such loyalty is simply blind loyalty—my-country-right-or-wrong stuff. But of course it is nothing of the kind. Chesterton said it this way:

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

Oscar Wilde famously described the cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But he left out of this bon mot the one part of the universe that the cynic always tends to go easy on. But Chesterton did not miss that target when he came to the conclusion that “the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself” I would add we adorn what we love, and what we love grows greater and lovelier the more we love it. Love and loyalty bestow loveliness and respectability. Chesterton says this:

“A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that it is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities grow great . . . Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

Stark honesty is supposed to be the possession of angst-ridden graduates of creative writing workshops, theology seminars, and philosophy discussion groups, with all such graduates in black turtle necks and metrosexual glasses, complaining that Bunyan couldn’t write, that Calvin was a biblicist, and earnestly maintaining that Heidegger was da bomb, this last expression being my loose paraphrase. Afflicted with that peculiar species of insight that always strikes one blind, they do not love what they inherit. And so they throw it away thoughtlessly—like someone who sells his great great grandfather’s medals from World War I in a yard sale for twenty-five cents each.

Again, Chesterton nails it:

“And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike the rock of real life and immutable human nature. I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back—his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things . . . he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, ‘I am sorry to say we are ruined,’ and is not sorry at all.”

The great apostle says that love builds up, while knowledge (apart from that love) puffs up. The perennial temptation for those sitting in classes, dissecting the work of their betters, is that the classroom becomes kind of a perch, upon which omnivorous magpies can sit, looking for something new (or old) to pick apart. But when we look to our fathers in history, we are looking up not down. We are the children; they are the fathers.

Does this mean that children cannot grow beyond where their fathers were? Do we arbitrarily pick some moment in the past as the high water mark of all human achievement? Of course not—every parent dreams of his children surpassing him, and prays and labors for it. It would be an ungrateful child indeed who refused to receive it. But, as Chesterton would be quick to point out, such progress only seems to happen to those children who really do honor their parents. The command with a promise is for those who love and honor their parents, their grandparents, their heritage, their history, their people, faults and all. The promise attached to this command is not for those who in their ingratitude give way to simpering criticisms, the kind that come so easily to the partially educated. Following Alexander Pope, we acknowledge that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—drink deep, therefore, or not at all. And I am adding the additional qualification that drinking deeply is not possible without gratitude and loyalty.

Charles Spurgeon once said that faults are thick where love is thin, and nowhere is this more apparent when it comes to the kind of honor we are trying to inculcate here. There is a cluster of virtues that is necessary for every student to grasp in the first place, and no wisdom is possible without this cluster of virtues. What do I mean? I am referring to love, gratitude, honor, humility, respect, and thanksgiving, and all of these directed toward your people. Unless you are loyal to your people, you cannot be part of a loyal people. With these virtues, you have inherited cuttings from the family vineyard, and we look forward with great anticipation to the wines you will produce. Without them, you are merely in the avant garde of that great duncical parade of ungrateful sons.

So cultivate loyalty. Don’t apologize for affection. Bestow honor every opportunity you can, and look for additional opportunities to bestow honor in unexpected places—I do not say in ungodly places, but rather unexpected places. Bestow honor on angular books. Look for men and groups that the modern world finds it easy to deride and mock—whether it be the Puritans, the medievals, Calvin, or the founding fathers of our nation–and make a point of standing right next to those people. Do this with the mature understanding that doing this will make it pretty easy for the ungrateful to portray you as some kind of a goober. But that’s all right. Worse things have happened.

C.S. Lewis once said that whatever is not eternal is eternally out of date. We should add to this an understanding that gratitude, loyalty, love are all the bonds that shape and form a community, and in the love that is our triune God, community is eternal. Love is eternal. And the boundaries of this community are not limited to those who merely happen to be alive at the time. The Christian authors you will be reading are all part of this community. They are part of it now. They are your people. They showed their loyalty to you by handing down precious things. Show your loyalty to them by receiving those things.

It is our appropriate custom to say grace before meals—”for what we are about to receive, we give thanks.” You are about to get a boatload of assignments. For what you are about to receive, give thanks. As Moses said, “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, My speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (Dt 32:2). These words are a soft rain, and they will help you to grow.

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