Wit and Wisdom from John Hannah Revisited (4)

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Here’s the fourth installment of my ongoing series of quotes from Dr. John Hannah of Dallas Seminary. The context of each quote is in bold, and it’s helpful to keep in mind that each statement was made in a specific educational context with its free-flowing atmosphere. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that Dr. Hannah is known for his wit and sarcasm, which bleeds through many of these statements. Once again, these quotes are from my detailed notes from a 2007 class on Jonathan Edwards.

Quotes from Thursday’s Class

When to leave a compromising seminary? Don’t be the first rat off the ship, and don’t be the last.

Student question: You’ve said that Christians in Edwards day weren’t given to personal sharing. But did they examine themselves? Did Edwards look back on his life? Answer: Edwards did look back, but he did not look back at the minutiae of his life. He looked back to note God’s good pleasure on his life and his progress in that pleasure. It was a spiritual exercise, not a functional exercise. My conclusion is that evangelicalism is a 19th century revivalistic expression of excessive self-possession and individualism. We say it’s not about us, but we think a lot about us, our happiness, and the will of God. The Bible never tells us to seek the will of God. It tells us to do it. The will of God is not a focus for me. Character is a focus for me. If you have character, you’ll know what to do. Use your head and make decisions based on your head. The will of God is the commands and imperatives of Scripture.

Value of history: As a historian, you get to look at now in light of what was before, and it tends to trivialize what is now. Preachers love to say, “This is the key…” But if it wasn’t the key for the early church which brought an empire to its knees, why is it a key now that we’re losing?

Need and ministry: Need does not drive me, because the need is too big.

Ministry, missions, and decisions: There are missionaries who have returned to the States and said, “I never wanted to be a missionary. But my pastor told me that I would please God more if I went to the mission field.” I don’t believe in doing something heroic for God. I believe in obedience. I think that mid-life crisis is the realization that we have followed the voices of other people rather than the voice that was really within us, and God was with us the entire time. He was speaking all the time, but we didn’t really believe that He was good. We believed that He was 98% good, which meant that if we were 100% happy, it must be sinful. I once asked a 98-year-old man, “What’s the best thing about being 98?” He said, “No peer group pressure.” Don’t live your life in someone else’s expectations.

Jonathan Edwards’ writing: His arguments are few, bluntly put, and endlessly repeated.

Lesson in faith from a camping trip with his daughter and her friends: One day they decided to go rappelling. That’s where you jump off a cliff backwards. And they actually convinced me to do it. So as I’m standing there on the edge of the cliff looking into the pimple-covered face of the 16-year-old who’s holding my rope, I ask him, “Will the rope hold?” I’ll never forget his response: “Sir, you’ll never know until you step off the cliff.”

Seminary selfishness: The reason why most seminary students say that seminary caused a decline in their spiritual lives is that it’s so selfish. It’s your paper, your classes, your grades, your degree. It’s how it’s designed.

Student question: Did Edwards de-personalize the Spirit?  Answer: I think that’s a fair objection. But we’re at a disadvantage because we’re not living in his world. You’re criticizing absence, not presence — what he didn’t say, not what he did say. When you’re answering a question, whatever answer you give may be incorrect if applied to a different circumstance. I’m not a relativist when it comes to absolute truth, but I am a situationalist in terms of answering questions.

Dichotomy or trichotomy? Edwards was a typical Puritan — he was a dichotomist. We like to run to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 to defend the trichotomy view, but there’s a problem there. With the terms “spirit,” “soul,” and “body,” there are two immaterial terms and one material. But what is the most common word used in the Bible to talk about the immaterial aspect of man? The heart. So you would have to be a quadchotomist if you want to appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 for your view.

Soul: You don’t have a soul. You are a soul.

Bible, interpretation, and application: The Bible is absolutely true, interpretation is hopefully true, and application is rarely true. Don’t confuse application with biblical truth.

Reading: Reading books is not the goal. Learning from books is the goal. I don’t move on from a book until I write down a list of questions that the book has created for me.

Nature of faith: The difference is not between natural faith and saving faith. Because faith doesn’t save. Christ saves. Unbelievers have faith just like believers, but believers have faith in an object that saves.

Perseverance of the saints: I don’t believe in the perseverance of the saints.  I believe in the persevering love of a Savior who carries his redeemed to glory.

What to preach: Do not give people something to do. Give them someone to believe in. All of our ministry is conducted in the arms of the Savior. Don’t preach faith. Preach Christ, and call people to faith.

Ministry: If there’s anything I’ve learned from Edwards about ministry, it’s to minister with your whole self. You are not just a mouth. You’re feet and hands, too. Don’t become a preacher. Become a pastor who preaches. You are not fulfilling your calling by being an answer-box. You fulfill your calling by being a servant. People are desperately longing to follow somebody. You can point them to the Savior. This is not rocket science. I think that our refusal to follow the simple commands of trust and obey causes us to write fat books to avoid it. God is simple. The greatest ideas are simple.

Heaven: When I get to heaven, three things will surprise me: who is there, who is not there, and that I am there (paraphrase of a longer quote by John Newton).

Why? The “why” question is the one that I can’t answer. Why did God allow the serpent into the garden? Why does God discriminate? Why did God choose me?

Growing popularity of Edwards: Why are so many people coming back to Jonathan Edwards? We’re tired of the trivial explanations of the world around us. We live in an age of five holocausts and two world wars. How do we account for those things? Not by endless optimism about the human race. The validity of a system is its ability to explain the world as it is and to offer hope. Unlike the 20th century, Edwards took sin seriously. He’s a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the gobbledygook of our five-steps-to-an-easy-life teaching. Edwards makes God transcendent whereas we have pushed Him into immanence. I don’t want God as my friend. He’s my God.

Bible study: Try to master two or three books of the Bible in your lifetime. It’s so big that you can’t master it all. Know it all, but master a few. I don’t know if that’s valid or not, but I heard it from someone and it seems to make sense to me.

Student question: Who are the top five theologians in church history to study? Answer: Calvin, Owen, and Edwards. Beyond those three I haven’t progressed. You can only know a few people, so pick one or two and spend your life with them.

Evaluating Edwards: Would you like to be judged by how far you end up from the ideal or how much progress you made towards it? These men that we’re talking about were giants if you’re talking about how much progress they made.

Hard issues: When issues make people uneasy, they find superficial issues to justify them.

Love: Love does not exist in ignorance. It stands unwilling to be moved by the evidence.


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