11:56AM Jan 15, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today we're delighted to be speaking with Dr. Robert Plummer. Dr. Plummer is Colin and Evelyn Eichmann Professor of Biblical Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, author of many books and the editor of the text that we'll be discussing today: Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism. Dr. Plummber, thank you for joining us today.
Hi, glad to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Dr. Plummer in this text, we follow the conversion stories of four theologians Wilbur Ellsworth to Eastern Orthodoxy, Francis Beckwith to Roman Catholicism, Chris Castaldo to evangelical Protestantism. And Lyle Dorset to Anglicanism, each of these conversion stories is followed by a response from a Christian theologian from another part of the church from another tradition. If I may ask you, what did you learn about facilitating ecumenical dialogue through this project?
Yeah, thanks for that question. Um, this was this was an interesting project to be part of To be honest, because my normal area is New Testament hermeneutics, and specifically, I've been focusing a lot on Greek grammar the last decade. And so you know, the book came out in 2012, which means I really was working on it, probably about 2010. So it's about 10 years, 10 years old, and what what got me into it was seen a trickle of students at our southern baptist seminary, and a trickle of people who are part of my Southern Baptist Church, converting to Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. And it got me intrigued as to why that was. And I just wanted to give a space for people who had converted prominent people who converted, in their own words, to tell us tell us about your journey. And then to allow someone from the tradition that they left to respond is that respect you, but I disagree with you. And as the editor, I saw my task to make sure that I set those parameters. So it was I respect you. And this is what I I'm listening to you, but I still disagree with you. And that's why I'm a Baptist and not a Catholic. And for the most part, I have to say that that people really embraced that gracious, listening kind attitude. I did I do recall, I'm not gonna say who I do recall one time, I had to have a firmer editorial hand and say, Hey, don't say this. You can't talk like that. But for the most part, it was really good. And we even had at the Evangelical Theological Society, we had a session after the book came out where people spoke about their experience. And that was very moving. I mean, at one point, one of the contributors was in tears. And so I think people really appreciated especially those who have converted and maybe felt judged, they, they appreciated being able to share their own experience, in their own words to be listened to. And then, you know, let's be honest, we still disagree. We're not converting like you. But we can speak to you respectfully and appreciate your critique of our tradition. And why you left.
As you mentioned, this text was published about a decade ago, appeared originally in 2012. What has changed in the intervening span of nearly 10 years?
Well, I don't know if I should say this as the editor, but I really feel like we were ahead of the curve on on a lot of this discussion, because I'll see articles and Christian magazines, and they'll be you know, someone has converted to Catholicism, Eastern, and and they're talking about it as if no one has talked about it before. And so, and I realized we, we actually, I mean, maybe we were late, even because we you know, from the work you're doing through this podcast, and so on that. I mean, there was a huge conversion of Campus Crusade people, the Eastern Orthodoxy, I think it was in the 1970s. So I mean, there's a, but I really feel like I'm, I'm happy with the book, I feel like it, it is honoring to God, it's honoring to our brothers and letting them speak. What has changed, there's continued to be a trickle, like it's not a huge wave. But we continue to see people especially the book emphasizes leaving the evangelical Christian tradition to a more of a liturgical tradition is the word that I use as trying to encompass Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholic, and even a little bit of high Anglican. And so that that has continued I think there's a growing sort of disillusionment, in many parts of our culture with, with institutions that used to be trusted. So we see that with government, we see that with churches. And so people who grew up in a more evangelical church, they, perhaps the pastor, in that tradition, fell from ministry and other and there's this disillusionment. And for many people, this is not the only reason I think they're they're wanting to connect with something that seems to be older and lasting, and has 100 roots hundreds of years back and seems like it will be around, even when things have changed. So that's that's one of the one of the reasons I do think we see and the aesthetic element of more liturgical traditions is very attractive to to many modern young people as well.
Dr. Plummer, it seems to me that these conversions across what I will call denominational lines from one stream of Christianity to another, seems to me that that's becoming less controversial. I remember back in my seminary days when, when one of my seminary mates 20 years ago was considering converting from an evangelical faith to Eastern Orthodoxy, and it was near scandal on the dorm floor. And it seems to me that 20 years on those are still incredibly significant decisions. But they're not scandalous, like they perhaps were, am I reading things rightly, is, is are things becoming less controversial in that regard?
Well, you probably have your finger on the pulse of that better than I do. But But as I'm just speaking off the cuff, I mean, I think the world is growing increasingly dark morally. And so, you know, we have a lot more in common then, with all all Christian traditions, who hold to biblical authority in any legitimate way, end up having a lot more in common than they do with the outside culture, where you, you put a traditional Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant together, they're still gonna have significant differences. But at the same time, we can, we can all on our campuses, we have bathrooms that are for men and women, you know, and we don't see that as a really radical, crazy thing we see. We don't have bathrooms with five different images on them. And people know what that stands for. So it's we're increasingly different from the from the culture that's rejecting Judeo-Christian morality.
There are certainly cultural changes, and you're putting your finger on some of those that are that are making these changes between streams of Christianity, perhaps less controversial. What is technology doing to these cross denominational conversions? The fact that we now have global telecommunication everywhere? Is that part of what's changing anything in these days?
Maybe, yeah, maybe. So I was, I was thinking about that earlier today. In fact, as as we mentioned, before we started the formal interview, I have this ministry called the Daily Dose of Greek and it sends out a little daily reminder to people to read a verse from the Greek New Testament. And as I've been doing this now for I guess, over six years, we have a lot of people who are viewing that who are who are from very different Christian tradition than I am. In fact, and we've had stuff on campus, we had a Benedictine monk, come and take my intensive one week course I hear from Catholic viewers have it Greek Orthodox, and Anglican, so on. So I do think technology, that's my small experience of it, I'm sharing that because that's my experience. I get regular emails from people from all different Christian traditions. And one thing that's really beautiful, is that we find a lot of unity in the biblical text. So if you're a Christian, no matter what Christian tradition you are part of, if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, then we can find a lot of unity there we can, if, as I'm reading the text in Greek, translated, I usually don't provide much biblical commentary. Occasionally, I'll say something. And when I do, it's orthodox, Trinitarian biblical Christianity. And occasionally I'll hear from some viewer who is outside of that stream, but most of the viewers are and I think there's a real joy and unity in in reading the biblical text together at the same time, when we have that unity in in our common authority of the biblical text. There's, I think there's a growing unity and what's most important, right in as Paul says in First Corinthians 15, what I delivered to you most was the most important that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture. If the Bible is our authority, then we're, we're moving in that direction together is my prayer and hope.
To put this in context, you are the first generation of theologians doing theology online, with 2.3 million views annually of your materials. And you you couldn't police that denominationally even if you tried, if you tried to make these resources, it would be impossible and it's not your purpose. But how do you do theology in a context where you have a chunk, not denominationally defined of the church listening into this?
Yeah, well, I have to, for what I'm doing, it's a it's a pretty narrow focus. I my goal, and the goal of the other people who who work with me in this different platforms, is to keep pastors and other Christians reading the Bible in Greek, Hebrew and Latin for the long haul. Because we believe if we draw people close to the Word of God, it's going to bring revival in their own lives, spiritual revival, love fruit, and we believe that's going to overflow to their congregations and to their communities. And so we don't, you know, the, the videos are very short, they're two to three minutes, most of them just a verse a day, roughly on the weekends, we may do longer sections are whatever, but and the goal is just to, to provide that service. So now I don't if I have a verse on baptism, I'm a Baptist, but I don't talk about the mode of baptism or anything, I'm not gonna, that's not my thing. However, if I'm not making that that's not my issue for this ministry, I'll appeal for believers baptism by immersion, you know, not in my church and my minutes in seminary, but not not in this particular platform, because of a very broad, broad audience. And if I did that kind of stuff all the time, I would really alienate them. And that's, that's my, I'm not serving them in that way. But I do when it deals with issues of inerrancy. Like the the reliability of the text, I always I'll take a stand on that and make comments on that, or issues of Orthodoxy on, you know, on the Trinity and issues that I'll occasionally make applications and comments, but I have to keep them in balance with grammar. If I do, too. I hear from people who say, do more theology ever people who say do more grammar. So I feel like I'm in the right place, because I'm getting criticism from both sides. So.
Thank you so much for sharing that we often hear church leaders who work in these cross denominational spaces speak about first order issues of doctrines, secondary issues, and I'm sure dividing those things becomes really important for people who do work comparable to your own. Thank you for sharing that reflection. Dr. Plummer, theological education is changing a lot these days, not just because of the Coronavirus crisis, but there are broader changes that have been going on during the course of your career and ministry. And theological education has traditionally been a space where ministers and training learn about their own denominational life and character, Vis-a-vis, other denominational traditions. What are some of these changes in theological education? What do they mean for denominational differences?
Yeah, I mean, one of the changes that I see is that more of the students who come to us reach a deep Christian commitment later in life. So they really get serious about their faith in college, or maybe they're they only become Christians when they're in college. And as a result of that, there are a lot less denominational trappings that come with them now not they may end up actually having very firm theological commitments to certain doctrines, Reformed theology, or whatever it is, but what what kind of unified the tribe 50 years ago, you know, all go into, you know, this camp doing this being in these experiences as youth, those things are lacking. And there is because of that students, you know, I guess there's some pluses and minuses to that, because a long time ago, people could sort of view we're the tribe and really, not rightly emphasized doctrine, just because hey, we have these common experiences, we assume we all believe the same thing. But that wasn't always true. So they're hopefully the one of the benefits is we're finding unity and what's most essential finding unity and true Christian orthodox doctrine, what's, what's real and essential, and not just just cultural trappings? It is interesting. Yeah, more because of technology. People are less willing to relocate, aren't they? And so the majority of theological students now, at our school, we have a lot of students on campus, but the majority are taking classes online, or I should say more hours are online and modular than they are on campus. And so that's a new experience and that does allow people from all different traditions to you know, someone who's a Presbyterian, they don't have to be like, wow, I'm not gonna move and live at a Baptist seminary. And, but but they could take a class, you know that and they don't have to. And so yeah, there's a lot more cross fertilization that way, I think because of the ease of not relocating and and not publicly, you know that off the drive and get out not publicly having to identify with the tradition that perhaps some people might question if, if they saw them doing that.
Dr. Plummer, the four theologians who make the main entries to this text Journeys of Faith, narrate their conversion stories, and include a number of personal references there, there are a lot of personal reasons as well as theological reasons for these conversion stories, as witnessed by these four theologians, what causes us to take hold of the particular stream of Christianity that we do?
Yes, that is a good question. Because sometimes people can think that the reason that they belong to a certain Christian tradition, as you know, reason they've thought about this is the best. But as you note, I mean, one of the stories, I don't want to ruin the someone reading it, but so he tells of a supernatural healing, that was very influential in his movement to a new tradition that he experienced this supernatural healing. So when I think about that, though, it's hard not to think about the words of the Apostle Paul, in the book of Acts when he's in Athens and and Acts chapter 17. Paul says, beginning of verse 26, from one man, God made all the nations that they should inhabit the whole earth. And he marked out their appointed times in history in the boundaries of their lands, and God did this. So they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us, and just the that those verses remind me of the providence of God, in placing people where they are, and the experiences that they have. And so in the end, why, why am I sitting here at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Why did I have parents who were Southern Baptists, who taught me the gospel, and who took me to a church where I heard the gospel, it's, it's the grace of God, and the providence of God. And I, you know, I'm that doesn't deny my responsibility. The Bible teaches I'm fully responsible for my wrong beliefs and for my wrong behaviors. But in the end, insofar as I know God and walk with Him, it's it's his grace. And so I think there is a great emphasis in Scripture on on God's providence and his kindness, in drawing us to himself and and opening our blind eyes and dead hearts.
Dr. Plummer, if you were to do a sequel to this book, Journeys of Faith, another volume with new theologians over new issues, how might that book look different than your current volume?
That's, that's a good question. I, I'll be honest, I've kind of wandered from that topic over the last, you know, because I've been focusing so much on Greek grammar, that I don't know that I'm certainly not the one to do that. There's some, you, you are the one to do that volume, because this is a, because this is an area that you're engaged in regularly. So I don't know. I don't know that. I mean, obviously, if a new volume came out, it would need to have newer stories. These stories are a little bit dated, and perhaps engaging with a younger crowd. Because in this book, I chose the stories of prominent people, someone who had been the president of ETS, who became Catholic in the midst of his presidency, I mean, people that ever everyone at the time knew about them. But I think the stories of lesser known people are really engaging and welcoming and interesting, too, and there are a lot of those. And so it'd be it might be a little bit more of a journalistic enterprise. I think we're you those people are not writers or scholars, many of them but helping them tell their story and interviewing them. I think I think that would be interesting. I think there continues to be a need as an evangelical, committed evangelical Protestant, there continues to be a need to accurately inform people within evangelical Protestantism of the differences between their churches and Catholic and Greek Orthodox, formal doctrines. I really, really appreciate the work of my colleague Greg Allison, who contributed to this book and continues to write books about Catholicism. For evangelicals. helping us understand their theology and differences, and does so in a very winsome way. So here's an example of someone who's winsome, who gets on panels with Catholics and talks with them, who's not angry, and, you know, attacking, but who can disagree and say, Hey, we believe this and you believe this. And that's different. And this is why I think it's important to say it that way. So
Dr. Plummer, thank you so much for your reflections. And if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? Can you envision what that would be for us? How would we recognize the unity of the church if it were to come about? And what can we do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yes, I think when we are unified, well, as Jesus prayed, it will be visible through our love, love and truth, both of those together. And I mean, 1 John is a great example of this. What is a what is a true mature Christian look like? It keeps circling around to those themes. Again, they love one another. They believe the truth about who Jesus is and what he's done, and rightly emphasized that, and then they live lives of moral transformation. they obey God's commands because they belong to Him. So I think, I think, as I mentioned earlier, as we draw, I see people from just different Christian traditions, drawing to the authority of Scripture together. And when you're when you're in the scripture together, then you emphasize what the scripture emphasizes, which in the end is God's grace to us through Christ. Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture. So my hope, like the Reformation hope is ad fontas back to the sources back to the fount. And that would as we go back to that together, and you see that in among there are some wonderful Catholic scholars like Patrick Hart, and New Testament scholar, who's really in the text and he was just reflecting what it says. And we can be hopeful for more unity around the scriptures and around Christ and His saving work for us.
It's been a delight today to be speaking with Dr. Robert Plummer, Colin and Evelyn aikman, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and also editor of the text that we've been discussing today, Journeys of Faith: Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican ism. Dr. Plummer, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jonathan, thank you for your invitation.