Recently, I was invited to give a “last sermon,” as is a popular trend these days. At first I pondered various topics that are dear to me. Then I considered how I would want to be sure my words lived on after me. I realized there was no better way to ensure this than by echoing the words of those whose profound teachings have already proven the test of time and/or rigorous scrutiny.
Also, in the rabbinic tradition, I thought it appropriate to use a method that would be given to easy memorization. So I decided to exploit that most revered method of the top ten list. In addition to being an outline of my hypothetical “last sermon,” I intend this to be a handy reference for those of you who are now putting together your summer reading list.
So here we go—profound lessons from ten great Christian minds. All of these lessons are practical, but some are more personal than others. I will begin with the more public and civic themes and drive to those which are moral and personal. Also, I tried to order these chronologically, but couldn’t quite pull that off. Still, with a few exceptions, they do go in chronological order.
Lesson #1—Augustine (5th century): Remember that you are a citizen of another kingdom. Augustine is the greatest theologian of the first millennium of the Christian era, and his ideas have shaped the thoughts of every Christian since, to one degree or another. In his magnum opus, The City of God, Augustine notes that there are two great cities: the earthly city—a perishing, imperfect order, with human rulers, typified by the Roman Empire—and the heavenly city, an imperishable, perfect order where God rules. These cities are distinguished by their loves, respectively of self and of God. When the two come into conflict, remember where your ultimate citizenship lies.
Lesson #2—Martin Luther (16th century): Expect politicians to be corrupt. Have you ever wondered why politicians tend to be so corrupt? Have you ever considered why God allows this to happen—why he permits such smarmy people as the former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, to get into power? Luther gives a simple and strangely encouraging answer: It is because our leaders reflect us. As a people, frankly, we don’t deserve any better. In fact, having corrupt leaders keeps us humble and reminds us of the heavenly city of which we are citizens first. As Luther puts it in his powerful little essay “On Secular Authority,” “Frogs must have their storks.” Keep this in mind, and you’ll be wiser without becoming cynical. You’ll be wiser because you won’t be gullible, and you won’t be cynical because you’ll know that God does occasionally bless us with some morally decent public leaders, though they may be rare.
Lesson #3—Thomas Aquinas (13th century): God has made himself known in nature. Aquinas was a Dominican priest who has been more influential than perhaps any other Christian theologian. In his massive Summa Theologica he emphasized the fact that while scripture gives us a wealth of theological knowledge, nature and experience also provide knowledge of God, which Aquinas calls “natural theology.” This is crucial because: 1) it reminds us that no one has an excuse not to believe in God (as Paul explains the first chapter of Romans) and 2) it inspires us to learn about God in all that we study, not just scripture. Science, history, psychology, math, and every other subject teach us about God. In fact, this idea is the inspiration of the concept of a liberal arts college, like the one where I teach.
Lesson #4—John Calvin (16th century): God is sovereign over all, including our suffering. Calvin was not only a great Church Reformer, but he wrote the only systematic theology to come out of the Protestant Reformation: The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The lesson of God’s sovereignty is far from being uniquely Calvinist, since it was emphasized by Augustine and Luther and many other great Christian theologians. But for various reasons it is most commonly associated with Calvin, perhaps partly because he articulated this point as clearly and eloquently as anyone. In any case, it is a teaching plainly taught in Scripture, most clearly in such passages as Psalm 139, James 1:2-4, and Romans 8:28.
Lesson #5—Jonathan Edwards (18th century): God is beautiful, and all beauty is divine. The fine historian Mark Noll—who spoke here at Taylor last week—has called Jonathan Edwards the “greatest evangelical mind.” If that isn’t an incentive to study this man’s brilliant work, then nothing is. Like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, Edwards emphasized the sovereignty of God. Everything God does, he does for his own glory. This is, in fact, the point of history and the point of your life and mine: the glory of God. But Edwards recognized that the concept of glory is essentially an aesthetic concept. It falls within the category of beauty. So what this world is all about is showing the beauty of God. And all of our longing for beauty—whether in the form of art, good music, good films, poetry, or the beauty of other people—is really an aspect of our longing for the One who is beauty itself. And all of the finitely beautiful things we experience are so many expressions of God’s beauty.
Lesson #6—Thomas a’Kempis (15th century): Practice self-denial with a passion. Born in Prussia in 1380 to a peasant family, Thomas entered a monastery in the Netherlands at age 20. As a monk he penned the great classic Of the Imitation of Christ, which has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible. The theme of the book regards how to faithfully follow Christ, but more specifically it is focused on humility and self-denial, the defining characteristics of Christ, as we learn in Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul tells us to imitate Christ in being a radical servant. If even the God-man refused to lay claim to his rights, then what does this say about the approach we should take? a’Kempis unpacks this theme in profound ways that will transform your life if you put them into practice.
Lesson #7—John Wesley (18th century): Be disciplined and make the best use of your time. Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church and very much a social activist, known as much for his organizational and motivational skills as for his Christian preaching. Wesley worked especially hard on two major social justice issues of his day: prison reform and the abolition of slavery. He also devoted himself diligently to the spiritual disciplines and the pursuit of holiness and personal sanctification. Wesley was never idle but worked constantly. Early on in his life he resolved to live on a certain modest amount of money, and despite the huge increases in his personal income, he died with few possessions, having given away his wealth to people in need.
Lesson #8—Fyodor Dostoevsky (19th century): God’s grace can reach anyone. Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist who is sometimes regarded as the greatest writer next to Shakespeare. His insight into human nature is profound, and this, combined with his Christian sensibility, make reading him immensely profitable. Dostoevsky nearly didn’t survive to have a long writing career. When he was in his twenties he was arrested for being part of an insurrection and sentenced to death, but the death sentence was revoked and he was sent to a prison camp instead—an experience which had a lasting impact on his life and thought. In his classic novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky paints the portrait of a young man, Raskolnikov, who dares to challenge the concept of moral law through murder. As Raskolnikov is consumed by guilt, so is the reader. But the reader also vicariously participates in the severe divine grace that finds this seemingly hopeless man. Nowhere else in the history of literature is there a more compelling picture of Christian redemption.
Lesson #9—Dietrich Bonhoeffer (20th century): Beware of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was another Christian thinker who took part in an insurrection (a plot to kill Adolf Hitler). Bonhoeffer, too, was sentenced to death. In this case, however, the death sentence was not revoked and he was hung with his conspirators just prior to the end of World War II. Fortunately, however, Bonhoeffer had already completed many great works of theology, including his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. This work contains profound insights into the importance of self-denial and suffering for the Christian, thus echoing the same emphasis in Augustine, a’Kempis, Calvin, and Edwards. Bonhoeffer distinguishes between cheap grace (preaching forgiveness without repentance) and costly grace (which is premised upon repentance). There is no such thing as cheap grace, Bonhoeffer reminds us. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and turn from sin. If we don’t do so, then we are not truly under grace.
Lesson #10—Alvin Plantinga (21st century): Moral virtue is crucial for intellectual health. Plantinga is one of the premier Christian thinkers of the last generation. At a time when theists were retreating in the philosophical community, he had the temerity to suggest that belief in God is not only reasonable but is in fact a proper starting placefor knowledge. This was, of course, axiomatic for the Reformers, but Plantinga made a persuasive philosophical case for the idea. In light of this insight, he has developed a rich Christian psychology (especially in his Warranted Christian Belief), complete with an arresting account of how sin corrupts cognition and how, correlatively, right living is crucial for the proper function of our cognitive faculties. Virtue, as it turns out, is as important for the mind as the mind is for the life of virtue.