Nathan W. Bingham
Connecting in a Hyper-Connected World

Interview with Ligon Duncan

Ligon Duncan came to Australia in April 2009 as the guest speaker for the 150th Anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. This provided an opportunity to request an interview with him. Graciously, he agreed, and below is the interview I conducted with him.

 

1. Interest in Reformed theology, or more specifically the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’, has experienced a lot of growth recently, especially amongst young people. What can these young people (or new converts to the ‘Five Points’) learn from the more established Reformed churches?

What is being called “the young, reformed, awakening” (not only by in-house evangelical organs like Christianity Today but also by the mainstream media, for instance Time magazine) is real. I meet it everywhere I go. But it is especially exploding in contexts were theology has been most anemic. Young people are encountering truth that the Reformed and confessional churches have long treasured (but have perhaps of late taken for granted and downplayed), but the old theology is being mediated to them by figures that do not represent the older reformed bodies of faith. Mark Driscoll, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, each in very different ways, have served as major transmitters of Reformed theology to a new generation. The only major figure from an old-line presbyterian and reformed denominational tradition who has their level of name-recognition and reach is R.C. Sproul. To R.C. must be added the name of J.I. Packer, a confessionally reformed Anglican.

What can young people attracted by this faithful presentation of a big God, with huge grace, deep truth and strong love learn from the older confessional communions? In a word, ecclesiology (how the Bible says that we are be and what we are to do together as the people of God, that is, how we are to live and minister in the Christian community and in the world). The doctrine of the church has long been a lacuna in evangelicalism, and it is no different now, even among those attracted afresh to the doctrines of grace. And without confessional commitments and a biblical theology of the church, the awakening won’t amount to much in the long run.

2. Following on from the previous question: there are those today that would say that it is too narrow to view Reformed theology as simply the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and that what is often promoted today under the name ‘New Calvinism’ has no place in associating itself with historic Calvinism or Reformed theology. Firstly, what are your thoughts on whether ‘New Calvinism’ is historically Reformed, and secondly, do you think its influence (if any) will be positive or negative for the next 150 years of Presbyterianism in Australia and the United States?

Well, yes, of course, being Reformed means much more than “the five points of Calvinism” and no, much of the “New Calvinism” is not historically Reformed in a confessional sense. But I’m thrilled that young folk are open and even attracted to the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God. And I think we who are part of historic confessional Reformed churches ought to thank God for what he is doing and indeed for the new opportunity that he has given us in this awakening. Because it does, I think, open the door for the confessional Reformed community to reach it out with a more comprehensive biblical theology of the life and ministry of the church.

I often tell my presbyterian friends that as I am out and among the “young, restless and reformed” types, I feel as if I’m meeting people who are rummaging through our bins and pulling out things we have thrown away and saying “Isn’t this glorious?” By that I mean that we are sometimes can be indifferent about truths that are an important part of our theological legacy, truths that this generation finds electrifying and attractive.

Walk among young Reformed, presbyterian ministers in the States and you’ll find many of them excited about “re-thinking how we do church” but a lot of them won’t be excited about Reformed soteriology. I think this is a mistake on our part when we fail to appreciate and celebrate biblical truth that is a significant part of our confessional heritage, especially when so many out there are showing an interest in these very truths.

As to what the influence of the new Calvinism will be in the next 150 years, I’d say (again) that unless the new Calvinists adopt a biblical ecclesiology, the influence of the movement will not continue long.

3. The training and discipline in God’s Word that a seminary offers is invaluable; however, what would you say is the greatest lesson you have learned in ministry that seminary did not teach you?

I am a strong supporter of traditional seminary theological education (having taught in seminary for about twenty years now), but when it comes to ministry there is no better school than experience. That takes nothing away from seminary. Experience can’t teach you Hebrew and Christology! We need good seminaries.

So, what have I learned in ministry that I didn’t learn in seminary? Well, for one thing, (by ministering and making mistakes myself, and by watching ministers and ministries for twenty-five years) I have learned that the way you give leadership in a local congregation is often the most important determining factor in your reception by and duration in the church. A man’s ministry of the word can be compromised and even ruined by the way he relates to his elders and other church leaders, by the way he articulates vision and by the manner in which he moves the church forward.

Personally, I don’t think leadership can be taught (I think you either have it or you don’t), but I also think that treating people with courtesy, honesty, deference, and humility; that leading by persuasion and not force of will; that being willing to lose a session vote graciously and to not always get one’s way; that cultivating strong, healthy, Gospel relationships with church leaders and fellow workers; and that establishing a work ethic that garners the respect of one’s peers, are all part of a kind of leadership that bodes well for healthy congregational life and ministry.

4. Some ministry leaders share a common frustration; their congregation and/or those in their Bible study express a desire verbally to read God’s Word and pray; yet, they confess that they just never get around to it complaining they are too busy. What advice would you give someone who is desperately trying to convince those Christians under their guidance as to the importance of studying God’s Word and of prayer?

First, be patient. Second, preach the word from the pulpit with fervency, clarity and power, and let the prime means of grace do its work. Third, emphasize the importance of a weekly prayer meeting. Fourth, invite a core group of potential leaders in the congregation to study the Bible and pray with you, weekly and personally. Meet as a small group and do a Bible survey, and lead them in prayer. Model for them how to do it. Make them take part and be active participants. Watch the contagion spread among them for the study of God’s word and prayer in the church, homes and their personal lives. Let them become recruiters and encouragers of others to study the word and pray for themselves. Fifth, in the course of your teaching/preaching the Bible in the local church, spend time explicitly and specifically on explaining why it is important for Christians to study the word and to pray, and how one ought to do it. Sixth, get your people to read good books about Bible study and prayer (John Blanchard, “How to Enjoy Your Bible,” Don Carson, “A Call to Spiritual Reformation,” Matthew Henry, “Method For Prayer,” “Ryken’s Bible Handbook,” etc).

5. This year, like every year, there are many young men completing their studies and preparing to enter the ministry. If you knew your answer to this question would be your final parting words to them, what book, other than the Bible or anything you may have published, would you recommend they read as it has personally had such a profound effect on you and your ministry?

J.I. Packer’s “A Quest for Godliness” is a goldmine that I’ve read repeatedly. It’s subtitled something like “The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.” It has had a profound effect on my philosophy of ministry. Thomas Brooks’ “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices” taught me more about applying the word than any homiletics text I’d ever read. It also fed my soul and helped me to feed others’. David Wells’ “No Place for Truth” (and its four sequels) are the best theological sociological analysis of the evangelical church in our time. Mark Dever’s “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” is an excellent guide to young pastors on how to go about revitalizing a local congregation or planting a healthy new one. Of the books I’ve written or edited, I would suggest “Give Praise to God” (in part because many others participated in writing it, who have a lot more to say than I do!), but I think it’s content and topic are important for ministry today.

6. 150-years of Presbyterianism in Victoria is something to be extremely thankful to God for. If you knew your answer to this question would be your final parting words to those presently in the pulpit, and to the future ministers in the Presbyterian church; what one thing would you strongly encourage these men to affirm from the pulpit and/or in their ministry in general, and what one thing would you strongly encourage them to deny from the pulpit and/or in their ministry in general, to help ensure the next 150-years of Presbyterianism?

Affirm the authority of the Word, the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of humans, the complete sufficiency of Christ’s substituionary atonement, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, complementarianism and a biblical doctrine of the church.

Deny both legalism and antinomianism, deny all low views of Scripture, anti-confessionalism, political correctness, egalitarianism, cynicism, pragmatism, individualism and syncretism.

Meanwhile – Preach the Word. Love your flock. Pray with passion. Disciple your elders. Promote family religion. Live a godly life. Do not waver in your confessional doctrinal commitments.

7. It is no secret that you’re on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, it was because of ’social media’ that we were able to make contact and conduct this interview. What benefit do you see ’social media’ bringing to Reformed / Presbyterian ministry, and what dangers do you think need to be guarded against?

Social media can be a huge waste of time, and broadcast triviality and narcissism. I ruthlessly monitor my time (and thus have to ignore a lot of requests and messages). On the other hand, social media provide a great way to connect with, keep up on and follow old and new friends (especially when they live at a distance). They can also strategically serve as strategic teaching opportunities and instruments of influence.

8. Following on from the last question: are you a fan of the TeamPyro blog, and could you provide your top-5 TeamPyro posts? Furthermore, if you were going to give advice to a busy Minister who wanted to start reading blogs, please list your top-5 must reads.

There are too many great TeamPyro posts to begin to list, so I check on the “Fab 3½” (Phil, Dan and Frank, plus the elusive, random and very occasional Peccadillo) every day!

Busy ministers should check Between Two Worlds (Justin Taylor), Al Mohler, ref21, Arts and Letters Daily, and 9Marks.

9. You will be speaking at this year’s Gospel Coalition National Conference. Joining together to proclaim the essentials of the gospel is an important endeavor; however, given the recent surge in more cross-denominational gospel events, do you think there is a chance the denominational distinctives, which each denomination believes to be Biblically based, are at risk of fading into the background and/or being replaced by the doctrinal distinctives of the loudest or most ‘popular’ speaker/s at such events? If you agree; what suggestions do you have to ensure this doesn’t occur?

Yes, I think that there is a very real risk right now of denominational distinctives being downplayed, or fading, or being replaced. Partly, this is because evangelicalism is increasingly “post-denominational” especially at the level of the local church. One thing this means is that members do not feel especially tied to denominations or denominational distinctives, and this in turn tempts ministers and church leaders to be indifferent to those distinctives in the name of church growth.

I think this indifference is a huge mistake. One of the things we have tried to say loudly through the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Together for the Gospel is that our unity is in the truth, even on points where we differ. What we mean by that its that we all care deeply about the truth, we are united about the central truths of the Gospel, and we think our distinctives are important, even and especially where we differ from one another in our views.

In other words, we are united around, not “mission plus a doctrinal minimalism” but rather around doctrinal maximalism (within which we will rigorously and respectfully both agree and disagree, all the while promoting a robust confessionalism) and the Gospel message and biblical means.

10. Following on from the previous question: when you’re at such events as the Gospel Coalition National Conference and you consider such things as Presbyterianism’s historic longevity, is there anything you consider unique to Presbyterianism that can to some degree account for its longevity, and/or makes you thankful that you are Presbyterian?

Presbyterianism is now half a millennium old and there are more non-English speaking presbyterians than there are English-speaking presbyterians. Conservative, Bible-believing presbyterian churches are growing, even in parts of the world and culture where other churches are declining and dying. The leadership of world presbyterianism is more conservative theologically and more evangelical than it was fifty years a ago. All of the credit for this goes to God. He alone is responsible for the continuing existence of evangelical presbyterianism.

What factors have contributed to the longevity of presbyterianism? One, it’s commitment to both biblical theology and biblical polity. Presbyterianism began as a renewal movement focused on seeing the church rooted in biblical doctrine, worship, discipline and government. Two, presbyterianism has simultaneously fostered a deep biblical piety and a love for learning, so that education and devotion go hand in hand. Third, presbyterianism, through its adherents, has always been deeply and extensively engaged in the communities in which it existed, and thus provided cultural leadership.

I am thankful for all these things, and trust the Lord will be pleased to use them for his own glory.

11. A common and insightful question that is often asked of Ministers is how they prepare for their Lord’s Day sermon each week. Here is a slight twist on that question. Given the historic nature of your time in Australia, and given that the messages you deliver will be remembered and documented for many years to come, how did you go about preparing for what you would share at the Thanksgiving Service and the Ministry Conference?

Dr. Allan Harman (a long-time friend and colleague) and I began talking many months ago about what topics I should address and what themes I ought to emphasize. I relied on Dr. Harman’s knowledge of the Australian scene to inform me of the context into which I would be preaching and then simply asked the question: “How can I best serve these brethren?” What could I bring to them that would be most helpful and encouraging, given their context and challenges and opportunities? Allan and I looked over some topics that I’ve covered at ministerial conferences over the last several years and we landed on several specific ideas that we thought would be timely and edifying for those gathered at these special meetings. I then began reading Australian history and Australian Presbyterian history to give me even more perspective on the situation here.

So, I ended up addressing ministers about prayer, the atonement and Old Testament narrative. I addressed the 150th service on “The Goal of Our Ministry: Big Grace and Deep Truth for Strong Love,” from 1 Timothy 1:1-5. Then I preached on “repentance” and the significance of Jesus’ baptism for us (from Luke 3) on Sunday in the churches, morning and evening.

Dr. Ligon Duncan, thank you for edifying the Body of Christ in Australia, and thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Nathan W. Bingham.

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