Probably the two most important cumulative effects of my education at Westminster Seminary California (WSC), which have played out over the course of my subsequent education and afterward, are a deep grasp of the significance of theology and of the reality of the Gospel.
The significance of theology really began to hit home for me while learning from Dr. Clark and Dr. Horton the classical Reformed tradition and its development within the grand scope of catholic orthodoxy. It’s common in our day to at least assume that theology is a kind of structural grid that we erect from raw scriptural material in order to make sure that all the pieces we regard as important are kept securely in the right place—“we” being whichever individual or group happens to be trying to justify their existing theological views! If your bent is rationalistic, therefore, you think theology gives you a pretty good handle on God (and everything else); if your bent is skeptical, you think theology is an artificial approach to God and irrelevant to real life.
But I’ve learned that the goal of good theology is not to conceptualize God according to ideas we regard as most important; the goal of good theology is to understand and articulate how God has taken hold of us through the flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus Christ, so that we may in faith think and speak back to him according to how he has given himself to be known, responding in ways that are consistent with who he really is—whether you wear a blue collar or a black graduation gown. In other words, good theology is primarily about God’s real life and our life with God. God’s self-disclosure always stands over against our confession of him, in judgment but also in grace, calling us to a faithfulness that’s more than internally referential because it’s measured by his consistency rather than ours, and because it leads not to our own personal or communal agendas but to personal and communal fellowship with the Triune God.
Not only the significance of theology, but the reality of the Gospel also began to sink in much more deeply during my time at WSC. There’s often a sense in broader American Christian circles that a strong Reformed emphasis on the Gospel regularly comes through the lips of those who (ironically) are most self-righteous, divisive, and critical. Sadly, this is true enough, often enough, that the reputation seems to stick. But I haven’t found that to be the case for me or for so many of my friends.
It’s not that I don’t struggle with such things, but the more I understand that my life is hidden with Christ in God, the less I’m willing to throw under the bus any brother or sister who likewise is clothed in a holiness not of their own making. The more I realize that only receiving the Gospel can truly change me, the more I see that laying down the law won’t truly motivate me (or anybody else). Sometimes those with the poorest English Bible exam scores end up bearing the most fruit. Sometimes those who struggle the most with what’s taught in class have the strongest faith. This was true in seminary, and has been true in myriad ways since: that God “has consigned all to disobedience”—the weak and the strong—“that he may have mercy on all (Romans 11:32).”
It’s only the righteousness of Christ that can overcome self-righteousness—among the Reformed and everyone else. Only the one Spirit who has brought us through one baptism into one body can heal our divisiveness. And only a loving Father who will never hang anything over the heads of his beloved children can heal our critical spirits toward our siblings.
As an Associate Editor at InterVarsity Press, my main role is project editor for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, but I also have about a dozen additional projects in the works across the spectrum from introductory undergraduate church history to cutting edge trinitarian theology. My authors, like my colleagues, are a diverse bunch whose unity is nonetheless evident in one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). This gives me ample opportunity to practice the sort of Gospel love and deep-rooted theology I’ve learned to embrace—with just as much opportunity to fall short! It’s a great place to be, partly because it’s not too easy.
While at WSC, I saw all sorts of ways that people were expressing Christianity well and expressing it badly; in Scotland and Georgia, and now in Chicago, I’ve seen no more or less. Yet good or bad, our performance is not our hope. I first learned what that really means among the sinners saved by grace at WSC.