Class texts and bibliographical providence

I was already kind of grumpy when I started my first seminary class. Not angry, certainly not disappointed, just a tad peeved. Days before, I was in the seminary bookstore, collecting all the texts I would need for the semester.

Some of them excited me (Michael Horton’s “Covenant and Eschatology,” Courtney Anderson’s “To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson,” J.I. Packer’s “A Quest for Godliness” to name a few), and most of the others promised at least something interesting.

Except one — a 200-page, primary-sourced historical survey of church discipline in Southern Baptist churches from 1785-1900. To me, it seemed random, esoteric, perhaps a little pretenious; certainly not something I would find theologically engaging or immediately practical. It also didn’t help that the book was the professor’s dissertation, which made it both more expensive than other books and outside the tax exemption the seminary had arranged with most publishing houses.

So I figured this book couldn’t possibly be spiritually enriching or informative except in the most detached, some-day-you-might-have-to-deal-with-this sense.

I was wrong, of course.

But I write for a broader reason than to explain how surprisingly relevant I found “Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South.” This has caused me to reflect a little more on how we should view mundane, unexciting things in our lives, and more precisely, how we should respond to getting assignments or required readings for class we couldn’t care less about (and it’s happened to all of us).

Not long ago I read a book called Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith that contained an interesting chapter titled “Bibliographical Providence.” I’ve posted about this concept before, and the here’s the gist: we’ve all come across a book that just so happens to be precisely about something we’ve been thinking about recently. Maybe it’s a book about the will of God when there’s a particularly big decision we have to make, or a long-lost comic book that you enjoyed when you were a kid and were just recently thinking about. This happens to me all the time, actually. It seems like random chance.

But some of us have found the exactly right book at the exactly right time in an extremely unlikely place, and you can’t help but have a “hmm” moment. Smith has a great example: discovering a pristine edition of W.G.T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology in a tiny used bookstore in Ontario in the midst of his very early fascination with Reformed theology.

Okay, here’s mine: I studied in Israel for a spring semester, and the previous fall I had developed a serious book-crush on everything Cormac McCarthy — style, tone, narration, setting, all that. During a week excursion to the Galilee, I found myself thinking a lot about No Country for Old Men, one of his more popular books I’d not yet read. I had considered ordering it from Amazon but wasn’t willing to pay the shipping costs, so I tried to forget about it.

Well, during the trip we stopped for lunch at this Israeli mall, a not very big one at that. We had fifteen minutes to walk around the mall before we had to board the bus, so as I’m wont to do I went straight to the bookstore. It wasn’t a very big bookstore, and there were only a couple shelves of English books. But I looked through the titles anyway. One of them was, you guessed it, No Country for Old Men.

So you get the idea. Those times when we “randomly” uncover a book that is exactly what we need or want at that moment can seem like unique interventions of God in our lives — special gifts perhaps. And perhaps they are.

But what if it works the other way too? What if God not only brings books into our lives that directly relate to issues or interests we’re currently thinking through, but he also brings books to us that relate to something we won’t deal with for months or even years? And what if our class texts are among those books?

One of the things Smith calls for in Letters is a robust view of God’s sovereignty that changes the way we think about God, the way we view school, the way we do church, etc. Calvin, after all, didn’t teach a detached doctrine of predestination that only affected his soteriology; instead he taught a robust doctrine of God’s absolute, cosmic sovereignty that trickles down to every element of human experience—including salvation.

But it’s not just Jamie Smith and John Calvin who say this. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined,” Paul writes in Romans 8, “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brethren.”

In other words, God had a plan before the beginning of time, not only that we might be “elect” or “saved” in some general sense, but that we might be molded into the likeness of Jesus. Moreover, this isn’t some broad decree either, as if God just declares it to be so and watches us figure out how to get there. This point is preceded by Paul’s claim that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

God is actively involved in everything in our lives (that’s what I would argue Paul means by “all things,” after all) that we might become more like Jesus. The implications of this are enormous. I don’t think that it’s too grand to say that this changes the way we look at anything we experience, ever.

Even the books we read. Though we might not see it now, it’s not an accident that we’re in some class and the professor is giving us some assignment. It’s not random; there are no mistakes. God is involved in our lives on the smallest of levels, inserting things here and there to sanctify us for the eternal glory of Jesus. In a sense, there is nothing mundane. God cares about the most meaningless things you do, because he owns it all, and he has a plan.

So you don’t know why you’re taking that math Gen Ed, or reading that media law textbook, or spending every evening coming up with silly, embarrassing mnemonic methods to remember Greek vocab (okay maybe that’s just me)? Just wait. Who knows what purpose it might serve in that plan?

And even if you don’t find out in this life, trust that we’ll one day praise the same God who protected one small, cosmically insignificant child from slaughter in order to preserve the Davidic line (cf. II Kings 11), and who also orchestrates the small events of our lives, “working all things according to the council of his will” (Eph. 1).

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2 thoughts on “Class texts and bibliographical providence

  1. The Gombis in me wants to refute this post and say, “There is no such thing as a God thing. When coincidences happen to people who don’t believe in God, they’re just that — coincidences. But when they happen to Christians, they’re all the sudden ‘God orchestrated.’ Thinking that coincidences are ‘God orchestrated’ gives us a wrongful sense of self-importance and encourages our inner narcissist” and yada yada.

    But I lean toward agreeing with you and Paul. If there was a purpose in the lessons put in front of Abraham, Moses and Elijah, why wouldn’t there be purpose for uncovering the books we come across? I think of Jesus’ lessons to the apostles — the feeding of 10,000, walking on water and the Transfigurion — and how He put those men through specific scenarios to build their faith when they would lead the church later.

    But I mean, you might need to draw the line somewhere with this coincidences business. Is spiritualizing “all things” a healthy mindset or behavior? What do you think?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Lyndsey and I understand where you’re coming from — both with the “Gombis view” and your misgivings regarding coincidences and superstition.

    One thing I would say is that I believe God sovereignly superintends everything that happens in his universe and, consequently, everything in our lives; I wouldn’t say that means we should look for some special spiritual significance behind everything that happens. Does this distinction make sense? A life lived with the latter view in mind has more in common with pagan superstitious mysticism instead of a true grasp of biblical sovereignty.

    It seems to me that (on the human level, now) we ought to be open the possibility that things we regard as insignificant could have massive, far-reaching implications for God’s glory and our sanctification. I wouldn’t however condone infusing every event in our lives with some self-aggrandizing, post hoc spiritual meaning, simply because we like to make ourselves parts of a mysterious plan (this is akin to a karmic view of the world, IMO). To do so exactly reverses the entire point of sovereignty, namely: It’s not about us. There already *is* a plan — the Father’s plan to unite all things in Christ, which involves making us more like him and bringing us together into fellowship with one another, thus forming his church — and we don’t know all its particulars (in the small picture). Does this make any sense? This isn’t an argument, per se. just a claim.

    I really do resonate with Gombis’ cautions, precisely for the reasons you gave. I don’t think “spiritualizing all things” is a healthy mindset insofar as we try to spiritualize them ourselves. I don’t think God intended that McCarthy book to be some sort of special revelation just for me. I’m using it more as a cute illustration. But it certainly does fit within his general providence over all things, I think.

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