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The Challenges of Pioneering

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   July 19, 2017   |  Type: Articles

By Dennis E. Johnson, Academic Dean, 1983—1987, 1991—1997, 2003—2009

What follows is the academic dean’s welcome address that Dr. Johnson delivered to incoming Westminster Seminary California students at the New Students’ Orientation.

O Pioneers!

You are pioneers about to plunge into new territory. However long you’ve been a Christian, you have an exhilarating, challenging, terrifying adventure before you. This adventure will bring discoveries not only about God’s Word but also about yourself. It will change you from the inside out.

I came to Westminster in Pennsylvania as a student in 1970, having been raised in a Christian home, having professed faith in Christ as a child, having memorized Spurgeon’s Catechism (a replica, I later learned, of the Westminster Shorter Catechism – except on baptism), having graduated from a Christian college with a minor in New Testament Greek. I came convinced of the sovereign grace of God, to learn from scholars who believed what I had come to see in Scripture. What I did not realize until I got to Westminster – the unexplored valley, the hidden treasure – was that it is possible to see how the Bible all fits together, to discern its purpose and center and to see how each passage relates to that central focus: the history of God’s redemptive plan, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. I didn’t even know that there was such beauty to be explored when I applied to Westminster; I didn’t know that there were paths that would lead me deeper and deeper into the richness of the Bible’s organic unity. But at Westminster there were guides to lead me into this awesome territory: Edmund Clowney, Robert Strimple, John Frame and others.

The Challenges of Pioneering

But there is another side to exploring new territory. The days ahead will not only be terrific but also, at times, terrifying, trying, discouraging, wearying, overwhelming. You may well feel something akin to intellectual culture shock.

Learning New Languages

You will be surrounded by terms, ideas and information that are foreign and strange: the noetic effects of sin, infralapsarianism, the hypostatic union, presuppositionalism, evidentialism, Tannaitic Judaism, Hittite suzerainty treaties, ordo salutis, aorist passive optative, chiasm, Heilsgeschichte, Nicaea, and so on. You will be learning a collection of new “languages,” not only Hebrew and Greek but also the language of Ancient Near Eastern studies, Hellenistic-Roman studies, church history, dogmatics, philosophical theology, literary analysis, and so on. Because God’s Word addresses every area of life, virtually every area of thought and study comes into play as we seek to understand Scripture and apply it in our generation. At some point you may wish that you had an undergraduate major in ancient history, or in philosophy, literature, foreign languages, psychology sociology or communication. Whatever your major was, the specialized discussions in each biblical and theological discipline will require you to get a handle on new terms and concepts.

Learning to Think Critically

As if it were not enough to have to store and retrieve all this new information, your professors will demand that you use all these new data to think discerningly and critically. Not “critically” in the popular sense, tearing down or belittling others; but in the older, academic sense of the term, in the light of its derivation from the Greek krino, “to render judgment.” You need to learn to exercise judgment, to evaluate arguments, to sift through evidence, to discern the presuppositions and hidden agendas that influence how scholars, preachers, and normal people view “the facts” before them. We are not simply interested in your arriving at the right answers. We are concerned with how you reach those answers. Have you learned to think biblically?

The church and its mission suffer when its leaders are spiritually and mentally “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). Paul prays for the church at Philippi “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-10). The world is always changing, and the pace of change is speeding up as the 21st century opens. In response to such change we may feel what Alvin Toffler called “future shock” – culture shock caused by the collision of values and generations within our own culture. We may be tempted to seek safety by reacting against all change, idealizing and idolizing the past. But the Protestant Reformation should remind us that time-honored traditions, no less than recent fads, can be “winds of teaching” devised by human cunning. The church’s safety is not to be found in thoughtlessly repeating the formulas of the past.

Nor are we to deify the present or the future, cutting ourselves loose from the heritage and wisdom of the past. We have much to learn not only from the sure foundation of the inerrant Scriptures, but also from the reflections of previous Christians, pastors and theologians. What is new and contemporary is no more intrinsically divine than is ancient tradition. Novel trends may be no more than new forms of old human depravity.

If we cannot rest our trust in the past, the present or the future, how can we find our way in the wilderness of constant change? We must learn not only to study the Scriptures but also to think biblically about the issues of our day, discerning the true from the false, bringing every idea, practice, trend, movement to the touchstone of the Word of God.

The church today needs Christians, both leaders and members, who can approach practical questions with biblical and theological discernment. The American church is characterized by a pragmatic “if it works, do it” approach to ministry, and we too often export this to other countries. In reaction, some adopt the opposite principle: “If it works too well, avoid it.” But both are looking in the wrong direction: we need leaders so centered on God’s glory that they will answer the questions “What shall we do? How shall we do it?” not from the standpoint of superficially observed results, but from the whole counsel of God revealed in the Word. We need Christian thinkers – not just in seminaries, but in pulpits, in counseling sessions, in classrooms, in living room Bible studies, in schools and work places and homes. Our aim is that you will not escape this campus without beginning to develop biblical discernment.

Learning the Strengths of the Enemy

To develop this discernment requires unpleasant pioneering ahead. You have to know the opposition, the enemy’s strategies, strengths, weaknesses. Paul was effective as an evangelist not only because of the Spirit’s power but also because he observed carefully the religious and philosophical competition of the Roman world. He didn’t present the Gospel in the manipulative form of Greek rhetoric, but Paul was not ignorant of Greek philosophy and religion. He could quote from Greek authors, even confirming the truth of their observations at points. (See Common Grace and Theological Stewardship in your packet.) You must have the same awareness of what’s going on around you.

We are going to make you read some material that you will absolutely hate! You will hate not only the authors’ attitudes, but also what they have to say. We don’t apologize for making such assignments. This is not Bible camp, it’s “boot camp.” There is no way for you to develop critical, biblical discernment if the faculty insulates you from the attacks of the Gospel’s intellectual opponents. We will make you wrestle with difficult issues, with arguments mounted by brilliant and persuasive thinkers against what we believe to be true. This will be uncomfortable for many of you. But we do this because we are convinced that God’s truth can with stand every assault that is brought against it, that God’s spirit never lets go of his own, and that you will be strengthened through such struggle.

You can even learn something from people whose viewpoint you strongly reject. This is another aspect of biblical discernment: the humility to listen to others, to weigh their arguments and evidence, openness of mind to be taught something new from the Word, even if it challenges cherished assumptions.

Learning to Test Your Own Assumptions

Developing maturity as a Christian thinker and leader involves learning to analyze critically your own ideas as well as those of others. Secular higher education often assumes that ultimate truth is unknowable or even non-existent; therefore the university sets out to relativize every student’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions, making the student more tolerant of the perspectives of others. As one graduate student speaker at a recent Harvard commencement said:

They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.1

At Westminster we believe that ultimate, culture-transcending truth is knowable.2 Our perception of the truth, however, is always limited, in need of growth; and it may sometimes be distorted, in need of correction. Our goal is not to disseminate doubt, but to establish, strengthen and communicate faith in God’s Word. And yet, to equip you for this task, we will challenge you to “question” your previous “answers” – not to abandon them (unless they are unbiblical) but to deepen your understanding of them, and of why you believe them.

This is one of the great challenges of theological study: not only to learn more about what you believe but also to learn why you believe what you do – or why you need to change your belief to bring it into conformity with God’s Word. This involves the willingness to do the hard work of research, so that your conclusions are based on complete and accurate information, taking account of other viewpoints and answering objections. It also involves the toil of thinking through arguments, testing their soundness, asking yourself whether other ways of looking at things make better sense of Scripture. The conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God is a crucial starting point in you pioneering trek. But that conviction does not answer every question about how to understand a particular text of Scripture, how to relate it to other passages, how to compare the Bible’s teaching with other world views, how to apply the Bible to new cultural and social settings.

Learning to Write Clearly

Closely tied in with this matter of learning to think discerningly is learning to communicate the truth, as you understand it, to others. Someone once wrote, “I never know that I think until I read what I have written.” Writing (and, by extension, speaking) well is not randomly assembling words into sentences on paper (or computer files). Writing is, first of all, a matter of figuring out what you think and why you think it, so that you can help the readers travel the same avenue of thought that you have traveled from the first premise to final conclusion, and convince them that they ought to see things as you do. If you have not learned to communicate clearly in writing, one of your goals must be to learn to write clearly and vividly. Writing is the medium in which we think, organize beliefs, test their foundations, interact with other viewpoints, and persuade others. Writing tasks may be bitter medicine for some of you. Take your medicine without complaint; it will do you good.

The faculty considers this matter of clear writing in English so important that we have instituted a program to help students who undergraduate education did not prepare them adequately in academic writing skills. Because students come to seminary with different levels of competence, we have constructed a proficiency examination in Academic Writing Skills, which you should have received in the mail this summer. Those who wished to request exemption from the Graduate Theological Writing course submitted a paper demonstrating competency in research and composition by August 15. If you did not do so, or it Mrs. Mary Ellen Godfrey, our lecturer in Graduate Theological Writing, concluded that you need the orientation to theological writing at the graduate level that our course provides, I am confident that your whole seminary program will benefit from the instruction, practice and evaluation that you will receive in this course. Mrs. Godfrey is an experienced teacher, writer and editor who is currently serving as academic dean of Providence Christian College.

Learning to Handle Differences of Opinion

There is, of course, more to Christian maturity and discernment than intellectual skills such as research and reasoning. Paul implied as much in his prayer in Philippians 1: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best.”

You cannot go on learning from the Bible unless you put into practice what it tells you. You cannot gain discernment without growing in the practice of Christ-like relationships with fellow-students. One unhealthy tendency that we see too often in seminary students is that syndrome that Paul summarized succinctly: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). This puffing up can display itself by injecting technical theological terms into a conversation with the uninitiated. Or it can show itself in an impatient, judgmental attitude toward those who don’t see the truth as you see it. We do not want our graduates to be the stereotypical seminary graduate: harsh, inflexible know-it-alls who enter churches with impatient expectations that the church needs to “shape up” to fit their own superior conception of Christianity.

Ask God to humble you, to give you a patient trust in the power of his Word and Spirit, and a gentle and compassionate spirit in dealing with those who differ.

Paul wrote to Timothy: “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 2:24 – 25). If this is your goal, you will have plenty of opportunity to cultivate this character in practice at seminary, in the midst of strenuous discussions (we won’t call them arguments) over the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 or the place of the law or the regulative principle of worship or infant baptism or election or cessation of certain spiritual gifts or other issues. These issues are important, and our views on them must be rooted in the Word of God. I certainly don’t want to imply that there is no right answer to such questions or that the answer is unknowable or doesn’t matter. But it is also important to God and central to his Spirit’s project of growing us into the image of Christ, how we debate such issues.

We long for you to be people of conviction, who are also teachable, people who hold fast to the truth but who respond gently to those who don’t see the truth. To that end we all need to work to make Westminster a community of committed openness. That may sound like a contradictory combination, but that is what we need to be: committed to the truth of God and the service of Christ, to understanding the whole counsel of God; but also open to others, willing to treat others with seriousness and respect rather than with ridicule or harsh condemnation. Luke commands the Jews in the synagogue of Berea: “they examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Let’s give one another the “space” and freedom to test, reflect, question, explore, to defend or modify conclusions.

Learning to Pursue Truth with Integrity

Your preparation for service in Christ’s kingdom has to involve more than training for your brain. Everyone in our community of faith and scholarship needs to be pursuing the personal goal of Christlikeness in purity, compassion for others and truth.

In your Student Handbook you will find several policies that express our commitments to one another as members of a Christian academic community. In addition to the general statement of Behavioral Standards, there are policies that address the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and the issue of plagiarism. Because our Lord Jesus has granted us freedom of conscience from merely human opinions, the faculty has been careful to limit these statements to matters that are addressed by the principles of God’s Word. The purpose of our statements is not to restrict Christian liberty but to express to one another how that liberty is worked out in growing freedom from sin’s control and growing conformity to Christ.

Because standards governing the use of the words and ideas of others in academic research and writing vary from culture to culture, I call your attention especially to the policy prohibiting plagiarism. Plagiarism is using another writer’s words or ideas without telling your reader that you have “borrowed” them. In different cultures and in different times such borrowing has not been considered wrong or inappropriate. But in Western scholarship and increasingly throughout the world, it is a very serious offense to put another author’s words into your paper without telling the reader that you are quoting or paraphrasing someone else. It is “literary burglary,” “a serious infraction of the law of God.” When we as your instructors read your papers and evaluate how well you are learning what we are trying to teach you, unless we see quotation marks (or an indented single-spaced paragraph) with a footnote citing your source, you are affirming to us that the words, sentences and ideas are your own. If they are not your own, you will have lied to us. Plagiarism can result in failure on the assignment or in the course as a whole, or even expulsion from the seminary. We have expelled students for plagiarism. It was painful for the students and for the faculty. We don’t want to have to do that again.

Please read carefully the Plagiarism policy as well as the policy on Behavioral Standards and the one on the abuse of drugs and alcohol. As part of registration we are asking you to sign a card indicating that you have read and understood these policies. You are responsible for adhering to them.

This is hardly a happy topic with which to welcome you to the Seminary, but we do want to be very clear with you from the start. You are Christian adults, and we as faculty do not see our role as that of parent or police officer. Rather, together faculty and students seek to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24) as we grow together toward “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)

Learning to Steward Time

While we’re dealing with uncomfortable policies, you need to understand Westminster’s policy about the completion of course work, and particularly about granting an incomplete grade for a course. Some of you may have attended a college or university that was “procrastinator-friendly” and casual in its approach to deadlines. Perhaps, if you hadn’t managed your time well and arrived at the final week of the term hopelessly behind, you could drop the course at the last minute or file for an Incomplete with some reason such as “I didn’t get my papers done” or “I haven’t read the five books to be covered on the final exam.”

If you are accustomed to that kind of flexibility, we have a rude awakening for you: Welcome to the real world, where sermons must be preached on Sundays “ready or not,” where bills are due on particular dates, and where commitments must be kept. Seminary papers are due when they are due; exams are given at the announced time, whether you have studied or not. Of course we recognize and adjust to the serious, unforeseeable interruptions that break in on students’ lives – major illnesses or accidents, tragedy in the family, etc. But you need to know that, whatever your previous experience elsewhere, permission to submit an assignment or take an exam late or to receive an incomplete in a course is granted only in “unusual extenuating circumstances” or a traumatic nature (Catalogue).

Your time is a treasure entrusted by your Master. If you throw it away, it’s not recyclable. Steward it wisely.

Learning from Our Diversity

Diversity of background and experience enriches our study of God’s Word together. Consider our ethnic and cultural diversity. The church of Jesus Christ is an international family, not limited to any one nation, culture or cultural tradition. John saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb,” shouting their praises (Rev 7:9). That multitude is being gathered through the proclamation of the message of Christ to the ends of the earth.

Westminster Seminary California reflects that beautiful ethnic and cultural diversity of the church. Large proportions of our student body are of Asian or of Caucasian descent. In our seminary community we have had blacks from Africa and the United States, Hispanics and students from the Middle East.

Each culture presents its own challenges to the presentation of the Gospel. Each distinct church setting has something to teach about the way Christ’s people are attempting to live as faithful disciples of the Master. The more we learn from one another, the more we will appreciate how other Christians in other cultures are seeking to speak and live God’s Word in a way relevant to the people among whom they live. The more we wrestle with the cultural diversity in which the church witnesses throughout the world, the more we will see our own blind spots and cultural captivity, which have hindered our application of the whole counsel of God to ourselves. What can we learn about prayer and family solidarity from the Asian churches? About joyful worship and genuine community from the African churches? About compassion and evangelism from Hispanic churches? About leadership and redemptive-historical preaching from Caucasian churches

A professor at UC Berkeley was asked by the university to study students’ experience of cultural and ethnic diversity on the Cal campus. He found that, although the student body is very diverse ethnically, most students were disappointed that in actual experience they had not been able to build many cross-cultural friendships. Even in a wide-open place like Berkeley most students found it most comfortable to stay with people like themselves, who shared their assumptions about relationships, diet, music and other things. But to fail to learn from people from other cultures while studying in a school that combines many cultures and peoples – whether a 25,000-student university or a 150-student seminary – is to miss a tremendous opportunity.

This is all the more true here since, whatever our cultural differences, we are one family, the one body of Christ. Since Christ has broken down the wall so that Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus (Eph. 3:6), we must think creatively together as a seminary community about how the “circulatory system” of gifts and ministries within Christ’s body can be modeled among us.

I also want to talk briefly about gender diversity. If you have read our catalogue, you know that the board and faculty of Westminster Seminary California believe that God’s Word does not permit women to serve the church as ordained pastors and elders. But we are convinced that every believer, male and female, has received a gift from the Holy Spirit; and that this gift is to be used in service to the church and the world. The New Testament speaks of all members exhorting and even teaching one another in certain contexts (Col. 3:16). It does not limit the instructional role to those who have been ordained as shepherds. More than that, Paul commands Titus to train and equip mature Christian women to disciple and train less mature Christian women in godliness (Titus 2:3-5).

Therefore we welcome women as well as men into our M.A. programs, which provide an opportunity to receive biblical and theological instruction for unordained ministries. Some of you are in denominations that are in danger of letting cultural trends overshadow biblical teaching, and you may be tempted to overreact, fearing that any departure from the traditional role of women will inevitably lead to a violation of biblical principle. Without denying the dangers of cultural accommodation that stalk the church today, I would remind you that our safety lies neither in human tradition nor in human innovation, but in the balanced teaching of the Word of God. In Paul’s day the remedy to pagan antinomianism was not to be found in Judaizing legalism but in the gospel of God’s grace. So also in ours we must seek to be faithful to all that the Bible has to say.

All of God’s children have a legitimate interest in learning all that they can of the truth of his Word; and the women and men in our M.A. programs have an important place in our seminary community as well as in Christ’s church, both now and in the future ministries into which Christ will lead them. Let us treat one another with loving respect and warm encouragement.


Consider again the image of pioneers plunging into the wilderness. I have used that picture to portray your seminary experience, but the years ahead of you now are simply one phase in a much longer pilgrimage. This phase will be one of exhilarating and sometimes painful growth. Some of the growth will result from what happens in the classroom and the library, and at your computer late at night. But growth will also result from aspects of God’s “curriculum” from your life, events that neither you nor we can anticipate at present – marriage, the birth of a child, financial need, grief, job pressure, the encouragement of faithful friends, and so on.

Although we are set on a bit of a hill, Westminster is no ivory tower. This is not a “mountain top experience,” not merely preparation for ministry. It is ministry to Christ and his church, an important series of steps in your walk of discipleship. Your focus now is on learning the Word and responding to it daily with faith and obedience – a unique and brief opportunity. Let your days, every day, be controlled by your awareness that you are following in the footsteps of a guide and trailblazer far wiser than Van Til or Machen or Calvin: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

1 Quoted in Robert H. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton, The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 44.

2 In practice the secular university constantly operates on the assumption that truth is knowable in a variety of fields – whether its faculty acknowledges this or not. In academe the façade of agnosticism quickly disappears when someone suggests that racism might be right, or that ignorant fundamentalism may be preferable to educated, liberal open-mindedness! 

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