I’ve been privileged to teach at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN since early in 2005. In January 2006, a “presentation service” was held to welcome me as a faculty member. As is the custom, I gave a talk. Here it is:
Standing before you today, I feel 1,000 feet tall.
Is it because of the joy and honor it is to teach these wonderful students and work with these wonderful colleagues? Well, this has certainly had me walking a little taller ever since I got here a year ago. But that’s not it.
No, I’m standing so tall today because I know . . . that I am standing on the shoulders of countless others who have come before me in the church. And I am reminded of this every day as I prepare to think, teach, write, counsel, and learn in this Bethel community.
I didn’t always know this. In fact, I’d guess that the majority of American Christians don’t really know it. Finding out about those whose shoulders I am standing on has been a long journey of discovery for me.
I remember the first glimmer I got of this thousand-foot-high stack of people holding up the church.
One day, as a young church-going but unconverted teenager, I was browsing a book that was the transcript of an informal televised dialogue between two close friends, both poets and cultural critics. These were Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren, two of the brilliant literary minds of mid-twentieth-century . Between them, they had won four Pulitzer prizes. And so as a young man with pretensions to be a writer, I wanted very much to follow their conversation. Unfortunately most of what they were saying was, I have to confess, over my head.
However, one particular off-hand comment stopped me in my tracks. I don’t remember which of those two it was, MacLeish or Van Doren, but one of them remarked that when he was growing up, the characters in the Old Testament were made as real to him as any member of his family. Around the dinner table, he said, his parents and aunts and uncles and friends would talk about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the rest as vividly as if they were still with them at that day. And I thought, when I read that, “What a wonderful way to grow up! And what a source of strength and inspiration! To have the biblical characters as real to you as your own family!”
Later, at the age of 22, after having been pursued for years by the “hound of heaven,” I turned my life over the One who is always Lord, whether we like it or not. And I began going to one of those modern charismatic churches with a sanctuary like a giant auditorium that someone had decorated to look like a suburban living room, complete with sea-foam green carpeting and rubber plants.
I loved that church. It was so spiritually alive. On Sunday mornings, I would walk in and feel the palpable presence of the all-powerful and all-loving Lord. On Saturday nights, at cell-group prayer meetings, I was mentored by wise “fathers and mothers in the Lord.” On Monday nights, I participated in the music ministry of a dynamic youth ministry.
Yet through the years, though this wonderful church formed me in the “joy of the Lord” that was my strength, giving me an expectation that the Holy Spirit still works in lives today—I still felt like . . . we were missing something.
Our faith, as a stalwart outpost of the kingdom in a threatening world, seemed somehow precarious. We stood, as we faced that world, on a foundation made up of the words of our favorite Bible passages—our “canon within the canon”—and the sermons of our pastors and a roster of approved visiting evangelists. There was no sense at all of the whole mystical, historical massiveness of a church that had been around for 2,000 years; no sense that our foundation actually stretched down and back through time, to rest on such giants in the faith as John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Antioch.
Now, I didn’t have a clue yet who any of those people were. I just knew that I felt like I was part of a church that was in some ways powerful, but in others shallow and insecure in a huge, threatening world that did not share our faith.
In other words, I began to feel then, as I do now, that we need to know whose shoulders we are standing on.
If this seems a distant idea: the “cloud of witnesses”—the “saints gone on before,” then consider this:
I am willing to bet that we can all think of particular people whose testimony has impacted our lives. Take a most basic example: Surveys show that by far the most usual influence that brought people to the point of conversion to Christianity is not evangelistic crusades, preachers, or books, but the extended witness of Christian friends or family.
But is there any reason we should believe that this sort of spiritual influence from other people should end the moment we are converted?
That doesn’t seem to be the burden of the verses that Alli read for us a few minutes ago. Those verses seem to tell us that we must go on being imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised—our leaders; our fathers and mothers in the faith. [Here are the verses: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:7–8); “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12).]
And this being said, a further question arises: Should those models include people from past generations? As we walk forward in our faith, do we stand on the shoulders of others? And if so, then whose shoulders are we standing on?
I’d like to tell you, briefly, the story of how one famous Christian was deeply and personally influenced by a faithful Christian model and leader who had come before him. Most of you have heard the name of Augustine of Hippo—the late 4th to early 5th-century theologian and Bishop who fundamentally shaped Western Christian theology and spirituality. Some of you have probably read his famous autobiography, the Confessions.
In that book Augustine, a born rhetorician who rose quickly in his field, tells how he had led an unruly and intellectually prideful youth (unlike any teenagers we may know . . . or have been ourselves). The only thing that kept him from complete self-destruction, he said in hindsight, was the prayers of his faithful Christian mother, Monica.
For several years Augustine followed the heretical teachings of the Manichaeans, but then he came under the influence of a bishop named Ambrose, who made the faith seem intellectually respectable to him. Ambrose and a number of other Christian friends also pressed him directly on his own sinful lifestyle—especially his problem with lust (before he was out of his teens he had had a child out of wedlock with a concubine).
But as important as Monica, Ambrose, and other contemporaries were to Augustine, the critical influence that brought this young man to the point of conversion was not someone who lived in his own time, but a great and prominent Christian who had died two years after Augustine was born—the original Desert Father, a sort of “Christian wild man” named St. Antony of Egypt.
As Augustine tells the story, the day of his conversion began ordinarily enough. He was staying in a villa with his dear friend Alypius and his mother Monica. A visitor dropped by—an officer of the imperial household called Pontitian, an African Christian.
They sat down to talk, and suddenly Pontitian saw a book lying on the table. Pontitian opened the book idly and was surprised to discover that it contained the epistles of Paul. Delighted, he spoke of his own conversion, the monastic life, and the father of monasticism, the hermit Antony of Egypt.
Pontitian told the story of two of his friends who, upon reading The Life of St. Antony, determined to join a monastery. Some days later, the women to whom they were betrothed had also become Christians and were dedicated to virginity.
Augustine, who had been listening carefully as Pontitian spoke, was more moved than he had ever been in his life—especially by the thought of young brides committing to chastity. It seemed to him at last that he was being compelled to confront himself, seeing himself foul, crooked, and defiled with the habit of lechery, and now there must be an end to his long struggle with God.
When Pontitian was gone, Augustine turned to his friend Alypius. “What is the matter with us?” he exclaimed. “Yes, what is it? Didn’t you hear? Simple men take heaven by violence, but we, heartless and learned—see how we wallow in flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow because others have gone before?”
His mind was on fire. Alypius could hardly recognize him, so changed was his expression, and when Augustine threw himself out of the house, Alypius followed him closely, perhaps afraid his friend would harm himself.
Now comes the famous “garden experience.” Augustine hears a child’s voice chanting “Take up and read.” Puzzled, thinking “That’s not the sort of thing one usually hears children chanting at their games!,” he opens the letters of Paul to a passage in Romans that challenges him to put aside his lustful habits and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Stricken, his last resistance to the gospel at last stripped away, Augustine gives in and gives his life over to Christ.
Now, I have noticed that Protestants tend to remember, if anything, the part of the story where Augustine picks up the Bible and reads that passage from Romans. But what really set Augustine’s heart on fire, what drove him out to that garden in the first place, frantic with shame and grief, desperate to find peace in God, was—see if you can follow this:
. . . hearing from another man how two of that man’s friends had been turned to Christ by themselves hearing about yet another man, (that is, Antony), who had given up all his worldly goods to pursue Christ in the trackless waste of the desert, and who had grown so much in holiness and spiritual power that people traveled from hundreds of miles away just to exchange a few words with him.
Just hearing about such a man as Antony, and about Antony’s influence on other people, pierced Augustine to the heart.
And then, of course, after his conversion, Augustine himself went on to influence thousands of others.
One person Augustine influenced was a monk—an Augustinian monk—who lived over a thousand years later. This was the young Martin Luther, who recognized that when he formulated the classic Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone, he was standing squarely on the shoulders of the 5th-century bishop from Africa. And therefore, as Protestants, so do we.
Are you keeping score? We stand on Luther’s shoulders, who stands on Augustine’s shoulders, who stands on Antony’s shoulders.
Now, let me ask you: Do you believe in the need for a born-again experience? In revival? In the infallible authority of the Bible? In a warm-hearted faith that touches all areas of personal and social life? These are a few of the key beliefs of the branch of the Protestant family tree usually called “evangelical.”
If you had to put someone at the very beginning of this branch—the “root of the branch,” so to speak, who would that be?
I would suggest this position of honor belongs to two men: the Anglican reformer and founder of Methodism John Wesley, and the New England Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Let’s consider, for a moment, Mr. Edwards.
Born in 1703 in New England, Jonathan Edwards was a boy genius. At an early age, he wrote scientific treatises and pondered great philosophical problems. By the end of his life, he was famed for his brilliant and subtle thinking in theology. Even many secular scholars today call Edwards the greatest American philosopher, for writing such masterpieces as his Freedom of the Will.
Edwards entered the ministry as a young Yale graduate, which as you know is almost as good as being a Duke graduate. And soon the preaching of this young Puritan intellectual helped spark the first flames of the Great Awakening, the “mother” of all revivals on this side of the Atlantic.
It happened like this:
In November of 1734, Edwards, concerned by what he saw as a spreading tendency among Connecticut River Valley Christians to rely on their own abilities in seeking salvation, preached a two-sermon series on “Justification by Faith Alone.” Yes, that same Augustinian doctrine revived and reframed by Martin Luther. Are you keeping track of the stack?
In response to his preaching, the people in Northampton and the surrounding area were, as Edwards wrote, “seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation; all the talk in all companies, and upon all occasions was upon the things of religion, and no other talk was anywhere relished; and scarcely a single person in the whole town was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.” Edwards called this a “surprising work of God.”
The young Northampton pastor organized small groups to encourage those experiencing such concern, and soon hundreds were, as he put it, “brought to a lively sense of the excellency of Jesus Christ and his sufficiency and willingness to save sinners, and to be much weaned in their affections from the world.” The revival spilled over into 1735, touching some 25 Massachusetts and Connecticut communities before its intensity began to wane that spring.
At the same time, across the Atlantic, even as the Northampton revival was abating, a member of John and Charles Wesley’s Oxford “Holy Club,” the evangelist George Whitefield, was experiencing his own deep conviction and conversion. And soon the Wesley brothers and Whitefield were witnessing in similar scenes of heightened religious concern and widespread conversion—events culminating in that country’s “evangelical revival.”
Crucial for the revival on both sides of the ocean was a small book that Edwards wrote reporting on the New England revival. Its title was A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
Within months of its publication, this book was capturing the imaginations of thousands (including John Wesley and the Welsh evangelist Howell Harris). And from that day to this, it has never gone out of print.
What Edwards’s book provided to the dynamic but scattered transatlantic revival of the mid-1700s was a pattern. As Christian leaders on both sides of the ocean celebrated, fostered, and organized the revival, they found in Edwards’s Faithful Narrative not merely an inspirational account, but a complete map, guidebook, and how-to manual. Between its covers was everything they needed to know about the preparation, onset, maintenance, regulation, dangers, and effects of revival—all, of course, with the understanding that the work of conversion was finally God’s alone.
In the words of historian Mark Noll, Edwards provided, at the crucial moment of evangelicalism’s birth, “a template for how conversions would proceed and for how they could effect social renewal.” Everywhere in Europe and , evangelical preaching was inspiring the formation of local, predominately lay-led small groups, to provide spiritual nurture and community to the seekers and the newly converted. The leaders of these societies held in one hand, as often as not, a copy of Edwards’s little book.
So, if today you are a member of a church influenced by those great 18th-century revivals: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or by extension many others, or if you identify with the label “evangelical,” then you are standing squarely on the shoulders of Jonathan Edwards.
I could go on about Edwards, but I’d like to mention one more person.
This is for those of you who are engaged in youth ministry, as I was, in that sea-foam-green Pentecostal church back in Nova Scotia.
If you are involved in youth ministry in this country, or if you have been touched by American youth ministry in any way, you are standing on the shoulders of someone you may not suspect: the elder statesman of world evangelism, Billy Graham.
Set aside for a moment the vision of Graham as the wise grandfather figure who commands the respect of the world.
In the mid-1940s, you could see a young Billy on any given Saturday night, with pastel suit and pomaded hair, delivering the gospel in between swing-band instrumentals and girl-trio numbers to crowds of bobby-soxed and zoot-suited teens. Through the 40s and 50s, he worked as one of the central personalities and energetic promoters of the influential Youth for Christ organization. With Youth for Christ, Graham literally helped to create a Christian youth culture, drawing thousands of young people to Christ.
By the late 1960s, Graham’s dedication to youth had, if anything, grown in intensity. Imagine Graham, disguised in dark glasses, old clothes, ball cap, and a false beard, joining with demonstrating youth at City University in New York. Imagine him sitting with his wife, Ruth, at their family home in Montreat, North Carolina, listening intently to a collection of rock albums. Or picture him as (again disguised) he mingles and raps with the audience at a 1969 Miami rock concert, to the strains of the Grateful Dead and Santana. Imagine him mounting that stage, by invitation of the concert promoters, to tell the partying masses how to “get high without hang-ups and hangovers”—on Jesus.
During those years marked by youthful unrest, we can also peer into Graham’s home life, where, much to the distress of his famous father, the teenaged Franklin Graham smoked, drank, and flouted Billy’s authority.
Sure, Graham had his “human” moments as he confronted this sort of youthful rebellion. He once candidly admitted that his reaction on first seeing a group of demonstrating hippies was a strong desire to “shave them, cut their hair, bathe them, and then preach to them.” Yet the evangelist still responded to his wayward son with a compassionate patience that also marked his public interaction with his son’s generation.
For example, in 1971, Graham rode in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade on New Years, where he picked up the raised-index-finger gesture and “One Way” chant of the Jesus People and echoed them back to appreciative crowds all along the parade route. And in his 1971 book, The Jesus Generation, Graham told his readers that the Jesus People movement heralded a new spiritual awakening for .
(Still tracking the stack? Graham and a new spiritual awakening, on the shoulders of Edwards and the Great Awakening, on the shoulders of Luther, on the shoulders of Augustine, on the shoulders of Antony . . . )
Throughout this period, Billy Graham passed lightly over the eccentricities and excesses of the Jesus People and exulted over their on-fire faith—a reaction relatively rare among Christian conservatives. In fact, he even grew his hair down over his collar, eliciting a flood of negative letters. Some people even enclosed money to pay for a haircut.
In response, Graham’s early 70s crusades drew audiences made up of 60 to 70 percent young people. At a Chicago Graham crusade in the summer of 1971, the message was passed up to the stage: “Tell Billy Graham: ‘The Jesus People love him.’”
In short, Graham became for the youth of the Age of Aquarius what he had been for the zoot-suiters and bobby-soxers of the 1940s: not only a culturally savvy evangelist but an influential friend and advocate. Scholar Larry Eskridge, who has chronicled Graham’s youth activities, speculates that, had Graham led a fight against the Jesus People, this would surely have slowed the development of the evangelical youth culture that evolved in the 1970s and 1980s. Graham, says Eskridge, became for thousands of refugees from the counterculture a bridge back to restored relationship with their parents’ generation and God.
Augustine of Hippo. Jonathan Edwards. Billy Graham. These are just a few of the hundreds and thousands of people whose shoulders we are standing on.
What is both exciting and scary is this: we don’t know most of these folks. We have no idea most of them even lived.
Well, here’s my pledge: God willing and enabling, as long as I’m at Bethel, I’ll be making it my business to bring alive as many of that unknown “cloud of witnesses” as I can—until they seem to many of us just as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph seemed to the American poet: Just as real as our own families.