From time to time I get the question, “Why do you blog?” This is my attempt at an answer.
The first time I remember seeing the word “weblog” was in 1995 or 1996. At the time it was widely regarded as form of emotional exhibitionism. When a student suggested blogging around 2001 I did not consider it seriously but in 2006 the pastor with whom I was then serving asked me to contribute to his blog. We were in the midst of a church plant and blogging seemed like a good way to communicate to the church and to others what we were trying to do. Early in 2007 the Heidelblog was born. Little did anyone know 20 years ago that today virtually every newspaper and every other media outlet would have a blog. Virtually every institution has a blog. Even my school has a blog to which my colleagues and I contribute. As the line between traditional radio and podcasting has disappeared (which station does not also make their shows available as podcasts?), so the line between a newspaper or magazine column has disappeared. Since traditional media outlets have slashed editorial positions, the difference between a local (or national) columnist and your friendly neighborhood blogger has been muddied.
I grew up reading local and national newspaper columnists (e.g., Jimmy Breslin and George Will, and Mike Royko). The columnist was a part of life. Love him or hate him he offered perspective on the vicissitudes of life. The really good columnists (e.g., William F. Buckley or William Safire) were teachers at heart. Where Royko would be outraged Safire taught us about language. It was a continuing education course in the newspaper. In 2017, however, newspapers are just another online source. It is quaint to see them in paper from time to time in the same way it is charming to see the old cars gather in downtown Escondido on Fridays in the summer. Their inky pages are like the exhaust fumes of a 1969 Pontiac GTO, a reminder of what was but after the show, people get in their electric cars to go home while their passengers catch up on the news on their phones.
Thus, though the question, “why blog?” might have made sense 20 years ago or even 10 years ago, but today it almost seems out of touch with late-modern life. Why does anyone have a flat screen television? Why does anyone have a mobile phone or an iPad? Social media is how people communicate. Virtually every company has a “social media” department these days and every school has a social media director. As full as my email inbox has become (700+/- at the moment) one is just as likely to get a DM via Twitter.
Are there drawbacks to the medium? As noted above, there are fewer editors and gatekeepers but that is as true for traditional outlets as for one-man operations. Is there much than can be done about it? Probably not. Early on the newspapers and other media outlets decided to make their product available for free. Today, consumers remain reluctant to pay for what they can get for free. When the Omaha World Herald or the New York Times tells me that I have used up my free articles for the month, I move on to other outlets. Eventually they will learn, as I think the my hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal-Star, discovered: readers move on. After all, papers now longer really need a printing plant or newspaper carriers. The internet has reduced their overhead dramatically.
So the question is not properly “why blog?” but rather “why write a daily column?” The answer is threefold: pulpit, pews, and profs. Seminary teachers have always had this threefold audience. John Calvin wrote for each of them as did his orthodox successors. Unlike university professors, where the Weberian vision for the academy lingers, my predecessors in the theology faculties in Leiden, Heidelberg, or Franecker did not typically see their vocation as limited to the academy.
Most often they were ministers who were called to the academy in addition to their ministerial vocation. E.g., we think of Francis Turretin (1623–87) principally as an academic theologian, the author of the Institutes of Elenctic Theology but he was much more. He was an active preacher. Later, the professors at Princeton and Old Westminster were also typically churchman. They ministered. They wrote for multiple audiences. My school was founded specifically to prepare men for pastoral ministry.
So, the HB is directed partly a future seminarians in North America and across the globe. Teachers assign HB posts to their students to discuss in class and online. Students read and make use of HB resources to further their education. They write with questions, which in turns fuels my research and writing on the HB and in other venues.
Ministerial education only begins in seminary. Over the years I have become convinced that it is far better for me to teach students how to fish, as it were, than to do their fishing for them. They must be life-long learners. They need to develop research skills and continue to grow in their ability to read well and critically and to write and speak effectively. So, the HB serves as a resource for continuing education for my own students and for ministers, which has put me in contact with pastors and congregations whom I would never have otherwise met. Only recently have I learned that there are “pastoral consultants” who charge an hourly fee. Silly me. I have been doing that gratis for years and all the more because of the HB. I am especially concerned to help those pastors and congregations moving toward the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. That is a hard and often lonely road but I think those pastors and congregations with whom I have counseled have benefited. They keep coming back.
Reformed seminary professors naturally have three audiences. We do have a vocation to engage the academy and I have and continue to engage the academy both in print and online. Scholars from across the globe read the HB and write to express their appreciation and to discuss issues raised here. Some of the academic work I might once have done in a journal I sometimes do here. I have a journal article forthcoming on Luther and Calvin. I just completed work with a group of scholars on a project and we are in the process of getting it published. Work done on the HB is being edited now for print publication later. In some ways, some of what appears here is a rough draft of my engagement with the academy. On the HB I share with you some of the source material I engage through the day as do my work.
My former Wheaton colleague Tim Phillips translated some of Turretin’s (French) sermons and shared a few of them with me. Turretin was a pastor. He knew the needs of the laity, of the little old lady just a few feet from the pulpit and in his sermons he sought to minister to those needs by preaching the law and the gospel. He pointed Christ’s people to their chief shepherd. Turretin’s ministry was typical.
I began in pastoral ministry thirty years ago, as an Assistant Pastor in what was then Hope Reformed Church in Kansas City, Missouri. In those years our main claim to fame was that Robert Schuller (1926–2015) once stayed in the hotel across the street from our building and when the previous pastor (the Rev. Norman Hoeflinger) came to church one day he found Schuller’s business card in the door. Though we were RCUS (German Reformed) “Hope Reformed” is a fairly common RCA church name and Schuller was a long-time RCA minister. Our other claim to fame was that we had the best bathrooms in the RCUS. We met in a renovated service station and the bathrooms were roomy and well-appointed.
I was ordained as Associate Pastor of Hope Reformed in 1988 and I have served two other congregations as associate pastor or associate minister since. Indeed, it was in my pastoral internship at Grace RCUS in Bakersfield, in the summer of 1986, when I was deeply touched by the needs of Christ’s lambs. I was happy to be called to Hope Reformed and would have continued their contentedly except the Lord opened a door through which I believed I had walk. One thing led to another and here I am, a seminary professor but I have never forgotten the day that Rev. Hoeflinger and the Rev. Dr. Warren Embree, who, with Bill Stephens, first taught me the Reformed faith, laid hands on me. I remember well, upon being received as a minister in Classis Southwest of the United Reformed Churches, standing before God and the church to subscribe my name under the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.
In 1988, when I was ordained, I was asked three questions. This was the second and has much influenced the way I think about what I am called to do:
Do you honestly and in good conscience before the Lord declare that you believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine in the confessions of this Church, the Heidelberg Catechism are in complete and accurate agreement with the Word of God; and do you promise to teach and defend the same in good faith and reject all doctrines conflicting therewith?1
With all my heart I believe that is still my calling. So, it has called me into conflict with the self-described federal visionists and others. I have engaged these issues on behalf of God’s people, as a shepherd. You have not seen the correspondence I receive from laity asking for help because they have no one else to help them. I accepted the responsibility to love those people when I was ordained.
It is not my place to say exactly how other ministers should conduct their office. Not all are called to write publicly. Most probably should not write publicly. It is quite enough for most ministers to tend to their own congregation, to preach, to teach, to catechize, to visit, to administer the sacraments, to hatch, match, and dispatch as my dear friend Don Treick says. Some of us, however, are called or pressed by circumstances to write to multiple audiences and for most of the last decade the HB has been an important part of my attempt to fulfill my calling as a minister and a seminary teacher.
One final thought: Petrus Plancius (1522–1622) is a largely forgotten figure in the history of Reformed theology but he should not be. The world remembers him for his scientific interests (perhaps people asked him why a minister studied science?) and the Dutch Reformed remember him as the father of Reformed missions. He was Arminius’ colleague and he was among the first to complain about the way Jacob Arminius (1560–1609) was interpreting the book of Romans. He complained to Arminius’ consistory (elder) and to his classic (the regional gathering of ministers and elders). Plancius sounded the alarm. He fulfilled his ordination vow to protect God’s people from serious error even though there were powerful people (whom Carl Trueman calls “the top men”) in his day who sought to silence him. Though Arminius is typically presented (e.g., as in Carl Bangs’ biography) as a victim of undeserved persecution, he married well and was well-connected and protected in classis and in the University of Leiden. His critics did not slow his ascent to influence receiving the office of Rector Magnificus in the university, whereas Franciscus Gomarus (1563–41) was forced into obscurity in Saumur. It would take the Great Synod of Dort finally to begin to resolve the crisis but none of it would have happened without Plancius.
Were Plancius alive today he would writing something like the Heidelblog.
1. At the time of my ordination the RCUS confessed only the Heidelberg Catechism. They have since adopted (or re-adopted the Belgic and the Canons).