My heroes will not always be around. John Frame, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary - Orlando taught his last class this spring. John Webster, Professor of Theology at Aberdeen, recently passed away. Several other seminal influences in my theological development aren’t getting any younger, and I often wonder who’s going to take their spots as defenders of the faith in the coming decades. Soberingly, the answer seems to be my classmates and I (mostly my classmates).
No matter the profession or field of study, I suppose you’re one of two people (with some variation): You’re either getting ready to pass the torch, or about to have the torch passed to you. My classmates and I just started our second year of seminary, which seemingly plants us firmly in the second group. This should be exciting! Study and preparation should be a passion-filled pursuit! But, to be completely honest, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s stressful, burdensome, and at times even discouraging.
Often, when I find myself stressed, or burdened, or discouraged, the issue can be found in my heart. I need not look far to find the seat of my discontent; there’s a double agent within me, fighting against my own interests, and it’s my fickle flesh. It tells me to mail it in, to quit and find something else to do, or to simply trudge on, dispassionate and dreading every academic engagement. Perhaps its most clever achievement, though, is convincing me that I’m the first one to feel this way. But of course this is not the case. Decades before September 22, 2017, John Murray, the Westminster don, said these words to his seminary students:
"The discipline of the theological curriculum is arduous and oftentimes painful. Sometimes you may be tempted to think that the routine of class-work and the time-consuming energy expended on details are not relevant to or promotive of the great vocation to which you are called. Sometimes a feeling of bewilderment and confusion may overtake you…Sometimes the gigantic nature of the field of study and of the task that lies ahead of you will give you an overwhelming sense of your inadequacy and it may appear hopeless for you to continue on that long journey of sweat and travail and perhaps tears that leads to the goal of intelligent and effective ministry.”
What Murray does is something I often have to be reminded to do: he refuses to abstract the education and preparation from the “goal of intelligent and effective ministry” (or, perhaps, “intelligent and effective [insert vocation here]”). You see, when we torch-receivers find ourselves most discouraged is when we have forgotten to hold our hand out. We find ourselves burdened when we take our eyes off of the light streaming in through the end of the tunnel and look, instead, down at our feet. We forget the light is out there because we’ve gotten caught up in the darkness of the coal on which we step, all the while getting closer and closer to the open end of the tunnel.
Murray goes on:
"If you are ever caught in the grip of these temptations I would urge you to patience and perseverance. Do the little bit of work that falls to your hand day by day. Do it faithfully and diligently. In this sphere of human endeavour and divine vocation we are pedestrians. We cannot fly to the mountain tops. We must climb by the steep and thorny path.”
Don’t get caught staring at your feet, says Murray. Be patient, look to the light, and trust the Lord to direct your steps. This is helpful advice for the torch-receiver in a millennial age. But why must the path be so steep and thorny? Again, Murray has the answer:
"We may try to fly. But our attempt will end in disaster. There are no runways or landing strips on these majestic peaks. Even if we do survive a crash landing, we shall soon have to come down and we shall come down with the ignominy of folly on our brow."
The job for which we’re training is challenging, and because it’s challenging, the preparation process is challenging. This is the case whether you’re in seminary or law school or an apprenticeship program. Torch-passing is not a quick, simple, and painless procedure. Dues must be paid and ropes must be learned as we’re taught to fly by guides who received torches from the torch-passers before them and navigate well only after much experience.
Murray teaches the torch-receiver to do two things, as far as I can tell. He makes clear to us that (1), the faithful torch-receiver approaches his (or her) training with “patience and perseverance,” that they might be "imbued with the broken spirit and the contrite heart, and before the vision of God’s majesty,” and (2), never lose sight of the end goal. That said, not only does Murray teach us how to be faithful torch-receivers, but he also shows us a beautiful example of faithful torch-passing. Here is John Murray, renowned theologian at the height of his career, faithfully preparing his students to receive the torch he himself will pass down even as he holds it high.
So, if you’re getting ready to pass the torch, be thankful for the legacy you’ve been able to build in the Lord’s providence. If you’re about to receive the torch, praise God for the opportunity and work heartily as unto the Lord.