An Interview with Owen Strachan
Last June Midwestern Seminary and Dr. Owen Strachan launched the Center for Public Theology, a new initiative aimed at helping the church answer one of the central questions of our time: how can we be faithful witnesses in this world at this particular time? We recently sat down with Dr. Strachan to get some further insights into the days ahead for this important work.
FTC: Why Midwestern Seminary?
Strachan: I love the energy and convictional vision I see in abundance on this campus. It is easy to be discouraged today. I wanted to be a small part of a team that is looking to take ground from Satan, not simply defend their position. The chance to come here and be encouraged to take the time to think, read, and write was richly compelling to me. If the church is going to thrive, it needs a full banquet of sound doctrine. I see here the instinct to nurture scholars who seek to add a dish or two to the meal. I’m thrilled about that.
In addition, I sense on campus a gospel-shaped humility. That’s appealing. We’re seeking to serve others so that they can serve Christ’s kingdom. The combination of passion and humility is rare and invigorating.
What have you enjoyed the most about teaching here?
Students at this school love the truth, are hungry to minister it, and want to be fed a full plate of biblical wisdom. Contra the stereotypes about millennials, I see in the fresh faces of MBTS students a serious interest in theology, Scripture, tradition, and holiness. These students are not asking me and my faculty colleagues to train them in the latest fads and attractional tips. They want to know the Word so that they can know the Lord and launch out into a fallen world to give him maximal glory. I see this spirit in one student after another, and this discovery is both stereotype-defying and encouraging.
Tell us about the Center for Public Theology:
The CPT is a new initiative of MBTS that aims at equipping the church, what Augustine beautifully called the “city of God,” to engage the world, the “city of man.” This is an exercise in public theology—we’re seeking to bring truth to bear on the public square. We don’t worship a privatized Jesus. He wasn’t a quiet, tame Savior. He marched out into the roaring thoroughfares of the Greco-Roman world and announced the advent of his kingdom. He died a public death, which was a display to the principalities and powers of the cosmos that he ruled all things and had purchased a people for himself, a nation of priests who very soon would live with him in a world of love. He trained apostles who did likewise—they didn’t head for the hills and write mopey letters to one another about how deleterious their societal conditions were. They went into the teeth of the lion—the lion that would destroy them—in order to publicly proclaim Christ.
Today, we at the Center for Public Theology want to publicly bear witness to the glories of God. Looking to the public example of Jesus and his chosen ones, we want to go and do likewise in the power of the Spirit.
What do you think is the most pressing challenge for the church today?
The church is tempted to hide out today. It is tempted to retreat to the wilderness—not the actual hinterlands, because we need our craft coffee, but the wilderness of disengagement. Many of us who grew up in the era of the Religious Right now pride ourselves on not being like them, and on being unstained from political engagement, or even really taking note of politics. We’re tempted toward a spiritual high-mindedness today that would award us points for our lack of meaningful involvement.
Many people are interested in the broad themes of Christian faith and practice. I am too—I love teaching systematic theology for this reason. But I am also interested in the gaps, the cracks, and am personally unable to avoid them. Both intellectually and spiritually, I enjoy trying to fashion an approach to this fallen order. Evangelicalism has not always been a robust enterprise in terms of the life of the mind, but I have been trained to try and think well about all of life—economics, politics, literature, drama, culture, and so on. I grew up in a sound Baptist church and was around many intelligent Christian people, but I didn’t exactly know that you could, for fun and doxology, try to take intellectual dominion of the cosmos in the name of Christ.
I was personally exposed to this perspective by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and through him dove into what could be called the Christian worldview tradition. I imagine this tradition as something like a great hall in which great ideas are debated and discussed, with maximum good cheer, laughter, sharpening of minds, and sobriety over the realities of a death-gripped world. Abraham Kuyper tells the group about his errand into the Dutch wilderness, claiming the Netherlands for Jesus (“every square inch,” he says); C. S. Lewis hushes his audience with an anecdote when the glory of God seemed to brush him by as he glimpsed true beauty, a moment of “pure Northernness,” as he called it; Francis Schaeffer weighs in on the latest cultural trends, recounting a gospel conversation with a mega-watt celebrity nearly convulsed with sadness over her lack of hope; Carl F. H. Henry brilliantly details his contentions with the latest modern theologian, a disquisition that even this august crowd struggles at times to understand; Chuck Colson gives his poleaxing testimony, and tells us how he has reentered the public square not for the sake of glory, but for the sake of grace; Jonathan Edwards shares how he is trying to singlehandedly derail the Enlightenment attempt to reenvision the world without God, or at least an impactful God, and then tells us of leading a Native American girl to Christ in a few simple sentences.
Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, and many others are there, and I can barely breathe, let alone talk, for this worldview tradition, this grand hall, is so full of truth, so heavy with the glory of God, that I am all but incapacitated. (Thank goodness I have my craft coffee, and so can stay awake when Henry and Aquinas debate natural theology!)
The challenge, then, is for the church to see that we should not play small-ball, that we should not head for the hills, but should instead—like the figures just mentioned—plunge into our darkened and darkening world with hearts full of love and minds full of truth. Then, we should shed our church-growth assumptions, our dreams of personal fiefdoms buoyed by a theology of glory, and embrace the theology of the cross. By this I mean: we should decrease, and Jesus should increase, and sinners should be saved, and the church should rise from the dust, a city on a hill once more.
What is your prayer for Midwestern graduates?
My prayer for our students, the students I train and love, is that they would not dream of worldly things, of a kingdom of their own, but would dream of something much, much bigger: a world and a cosmos renewed by God, filled with sinners now redeemed, and all by virtue of daily, hourly, anonymous labor to minister the truth in love.
As I have said, the world seems so big and scary and secular today. And so it may be. But I cannot shake what Gimli says in The Two Towers, when Helm’s Deep is a whisker from being totally overrun. “The sun is rising,” he says, almost to himself. So it is now. The darkness feels oppressive, and we worry that the walls of civilization will crumble.
But the sun is rising.
The CPT (Center for Public Theology), a project of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes a broad range of matters as its purview. The Center will delve into issues of theology, ethics, culture-making, politics, worldview, economics, and more. The CPT is led in this mission by Dr. Owen Strachan, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at MBTS. More information can be found by visiting the CPT online at cpt.mbts.edu