Since arriving in Durham just over eight weeks ago, Meghan and I have been arrested again and again by a spiritual impression that the LORD is giving us this time in this place as a gift. When we arrived on the train from London we were lightly jet-lagged and probably more stressed than I let myself realize, but culture shock has been gentle. We had to wrestle through the usual rounds of getting life set up: cell phones, internet, car insurance, health care numbers. Much of this came with a learning curve, but we can’t shake the sense that God is being kind to care for us in tangible ways.
Our house, which we rented sight unseen, is furnished, walkable to everything, comfortable, and bigger than we even need—we’re already entertaining guests (my brother, Aaron, arrived from Kuala Lumpor last Friday). Getting set up with the National Health Service to see a midwife and deliver here was easier than getting our internet hooked up. We’ve found a welcoming church home at Christchurch Durham, there are several other international PhD families, tons of children and students, and Meghan has been attending a ladies’ bible study. I’ve fallen in with a group of “lads” to play football on Mondays. I burn a lot of calories and manage to get in the way at the right time a couple of times a night. They are gracious cause I am American—we’re not expected to be any good. The grad-student community in the theology department embraced us instantaneously. Over cups of coffee I discovered that I am surrounded by like-minded students who have lived stories similar to mine. Meghan is on a group text with a couple dozen expat wives. There is always someone to chime in with helpful info or meet up at a park or coffee shop with the kids. We’ve hit it off with two couples in particular who have boys the same age as Rue—it is a joy to watch her make her first little friends.
Perhaps the most pleasant grace has been the simple beauty of our surroundings. Durham is a small town at heart and just a half mile out our back door you cross into bucolic fields and footpaths. We’ve been wound up running and in transition since this time last year and simply walking outside in all this quite green has been the most restorative thing. We’re in the right place for right now.
Thank you all for being part of our transition and this new chapter in our life and work. We’ve been overwhelmed by your enthusiasm and dedication to our teaching and training. The gift is from the LORD but you all are the givers.
This sublime field is about 10 minutes’ walk from our house.
We’ve spent many evenings here soaking in green and gold.
Like grass that is renewed in the morning … satisfy us with your steadfast love.
Having such beauty close at hand has been a tangible grace.
So why on earth did we move all the way to England to study at not Oxford, nor yet at Cambridge, but at a school you’ve probably never heard of?
Durham Castle/University College
Even though you haven’t heard of it, Durham is one of the best schools in the UK. Founded in 1832, Durham is the third oldest university in England (which is insane when you realize that Oxford was founded c. 1096 and Cambridge in 1209) and it consistently ranks in the top ten universities nationally. But where Durham really shines is in theology. In 2017 and 2018, Durham ranked third in the world for theology and religion behind only Harvard and Oxford. This year we’ve dropped back to 5th (still respectable). Faculty members like John Barclay, Francis Watson, Lewis Ayers, and my own supervisor, Walter Moberly, are universally recognized as premiere scholars in their fields.
Personally, though, I didn’t pick Durham because of statistics. It was divine providence through a series of unforeseen life circumstances that brought us here. I didn’t want to do a PhD in England—my first two rounds of ten PhD applications were exclusively to North American programs. But I didn’t get in. When I started teaching full-time with Training Leaders International, the only way to move forward on my PhD was to find a program that allowed me to study part-time while I was living in Minneapolis. I had been working for years on a thesis proposal about theological interpretation of Proverbs 30, so I needed a good, part-time, non-residential program with faculty members who had expertise in wisdom literature and theological interpretation. Durham was the best school I knew of like that and Professors Walter Moberly and Stuart Weeks looked like strong fits for my project. I met with both of them face-to-face at a conference in Atlanta and they encouraged me to apply. In my third round of PhD applications I only submitted one.
Abby House, Palace Green, home of the Theology & Religion Department
Since arriving here in the flesh, as it were, I’ve come to appreciate the intangible quality that truly sets Durham apart. Without the prestigious baggage of schools like Oxford or Harvard, you don’t deal with the level of ladder-climbing competitiveness that plagues many academic institutions. Despite their eminence, the faculty at Durham embody this. They are down-to-earth, congenial, and many of them care about the church as much as the academy. This atmosphere overflows to attract the kind of of students who flock here. I haven’t met a PhD student yet—whether they hail from the US, Canada, Australia, Korea, India, or England—who doesn’t come from a strong background of faith, nearly all of us evangelicals of one stripe or another. The department is huge and vibrant with something like 150 graduate students. The different theological disciplines cross-pollinate one another. Academic rigor is pursued at the highest level, with true curiosity and openness, but with a commitment to serve communities of faith.
At this moment in time, I believe Durham might be the best place in the world for people who are serious about faith and the church to study theology.
The rose window at Durham Cathedral
> Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
> He is a brittle crazy glass;
> Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
> This glorious and transcendent place,
> To be a window, through thy grace.
> > But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
> Making thy life to shine within
> The holy preachers, then the light and glory
> More reverend grows, and more doth win;
> Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
> > Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
> When they combine and mingle, bring
> A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
> Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
> And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
A kind friend recited this poem for me as a sort of blessing on our last night at small group in Minneapolis—It’s worth a lifetime of reflection.
In each of these newsletters I hope to share a little bit of what I am studying and teaching with you all. This Fall I have the opportunity to teach a lesson on Proverbs for Anglican seminary students at Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College. I am really excited about this, so I thought I’d start thinking through some key ideas from Proverbs.
>1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
> 2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
>7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
I’ve had a lot of first encounters with people and, obviously, made a lot of my own first impressions recently. I’ve been feeling a bit more self-conscious than usual. What kind of people do you enjoy being around? What kind of people are you eager to interact with? Am I the kind of person who adds value to my relationships, the kind of person that other people will think it is worthwhile investing the significant time and emotional energy that it takes to get to know?
The prologue the book of Proverbs, Proverbs 1:1–7, weaves a tapestry of ethical categories, types of literature, and several kinds of people. One of the things that this intricately woven little introduction does is ask us to situate ourselves among all these categories. Do you understand words of insight? Are you righteous, just, fair, prudent? Can you untie the words of the wise and their riddles, or trace the threads of a proverb? These seven verses are doing many things, but one of the most crucial to the application of the book is forcing us to wrestle with what kind of person we are by showing us who the book of Proverbs is for?
Glance back at these verses—what kinds of people do you see? There’s Solomon, the quintessential sage-king of ancient Israel, but starting in v. 4 we see three types: the simple/young (v. 4), the wise/understanding (v. 5), and the fool (v. 7). The book of Proverbs develops these three broad categories throughout.
The fundamental characteristic of the simple person is that they are too easily led astray and influenced—they are gullible. The simple person is on the “foolishness spectrum,” because they lack sense (7:7, 9:4, 16) and are not shrewd (14:5, 18), insightful (19:25), or wise (21:11). But, because the simple person is young (1:4; 7:7), uncommitted, and easily swayed (7:7, 21–22; 14:15), there is still hope that they will choose wisdom and find life (1:22; 9:4). The reader of the book of Proverbs is called to abandon simplicity and become wise (1:32).
The wise person is characterized by a mastery of experience and by righteousness. They have wisdom and, based on the Matthew effect, because they have they get more (Matt 13:12; 25:29). The wise person is not wise in their own eyes (26:5, 11, 12, 16), therefore, they are teachable and seek out the knowledge that the simple person needs (9:8; 10:8, 14; 12:5; 13:1; 18:15). Because they are humble and seek out wisdom the righteous person never stops growing in wisdom (1:5; 4:18; 13:20; 15:31–32). The wise person passes on the wisdom he has found and becomes a fountain of life for the whole community (12:18; 13:14; 15:7).
In Proverbs the fool is not just stupid but wicked, because their defining character trait is overconfidence that comes from pride and leads, ironically, to stupidity (1:32; 15:5; 15:20; 28:26). The fool will not listen to advice, will not learn or grow, and as a result of this they behave in a way that damages their communities (10:14; 12:16; 17:12, 25; 26:4). The fool is a lost cause (14:24; 17:10, 16; 23:9; 26:11; 27:22). Wisdom is wasted on them.
Now, look at the way the poet weaves with grammar in this passage. Do you see how from vv. 2–6 every couplet begins with “to” except for v. 5? Grammatically speaking, the infinitives of vv. 2–6 (to, to, to, to) are dependent on the main verb “let” in verse 5. Another way to say this is that “the wise” in v. 5 is the subject of vv. 4–6. Verses 2–4 and 6 name goals for the book that will only be accomplished if verse 5 is fulfilled. This structure highlights the wise in v. 5 as the true audience of Proverbs. Learning and guidance are the content of wisdom, the ability to decipher sayings and proverbs is its skill, and these are acquired so that simple people might be turned toward wisdom. In other words, the book of Proverbs is for the wise person and the wise person is challenged to use their wisdom to teach the young.
The prologue to the book of Proverbs forces you to identify with one of these kinds of people. If you automatically assume that you are wise—perhaps you feel some pride tightening across your chest—remember that the wise do not consider themselves wise, but they seek out instruction and correction so that they might grow while the fool is fundamentally overconfident.
So what kind of people do you enjoy being around? When you meet new people, do you tend to posture yourself as the one with the answers and the information—the most interesting stories or experiences—or do you assume that you have something to learn from everyone? Do you think of yourself as someone who needs to grow or do you think of yourself as someone who knows a lot and needs to teach others? He who has wisdom, let him hear.
If these questions lead you to a certain amount of discomfort, remember James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (NIV, cf. Col 2:3). No foolish person thinks like that, and if you are thinking like that you won’t stay simple long. Only the wise are willing to pray the prayer that puts you on the path to wisdom. If you are asking the LORD for wisdom then Proverbs is for you.
LORD, we confess that we often think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Deliver us from the foolishness of thinking we are wise. Show us our simple ways. Pour out your wisdom upon us, LORD, pour out your wisdom upon us.
Much of the material on Proverbs draws on two sources: Arthur Keefer, “A Shift in Perspective: The Intended Audience and a Coherent Reading of Proverbs 1:1–7” (Journal of Biblical Literature 136, 2017); and Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs. 2 vols. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004–05).