Posted by: mattcolvin | December 20, 2013

Surprised by Paradigm Shifts

Above: a paradigm in need of a shift. (Epicycles from Ptolemy’s Almagest)

C. S. Lewis’ “spiritual autobiography” is Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life. It is an unusual autobiography because it is mostly about what Lewis was reading at the time, more than it is about any of the usual events that autobiographies cover.

I’m no C. S. Lewis, but I am like him in this one respect: I think about my life in terms of what books I was reading. This is true in two senses. Sometimes, it means that I remember certain experiences and associate them with a book, which usually bears no relationship to the events other than mere simultaneity. Thus, I can tell you what I was doing the first time I heard G. F. Händel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: I was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. Neither Dune nor that musical piece is really a favorite of mine, but they are indelibly and arbitrarily linked in my memory. A similar, if more precious memory is from the summer of 2000, when I was newly married to Sora and she introduced me to Tolkien, whom I had never read in my youth. Here, the connection is less arbitrary, since Tolkien is one of Sora’s favorite authors, and it is therefore appropriate that I number The Lord of the Rings along with Thai cuisine and hand knitted Aran sweaters as one of the many pleasures my wife introduced me to. There are many such “literary memories” in our life together. For instance, I remember painting the hallway in the first house we owned, while Sora read Jane Austen aloud. Likewise, the time when I was reading aloud the first chapter of Kristin Lavransdatter to Sora, and she asked in half-outrage, “You knew about this book for all these years, and didn’t tell me?”

But a more active and significant role belongs to philosophical and theological books. These have been closely connected with some of the most significant decisions and turning points in my life. There have been a few wrong turns, most of which have worked out for our good. But mostly, I can trace my life as a series of paradigm shifts.

The first book that had a major effect on me was the blue cloth-bound four-volume Oxford edition of Plato’s dialogues translated by Benjamin Jowett. It was a relic of my father’s PhD work in Classics, and it enchanted me. The noble style, the scintillating dialogue, and the well-made, beautiful books themselves worked on my imagination. I saw my dad working in an office in Washington, D.C., at a job that I perceived as boring, and I think I imagined, whether rightly or wrongly, that he was disappointed that he had not managed to become a college professor. (I haven’t either, and I only sometimes regret it.) I learned from that beautiful book and from the career my father trained for but never had, that there are people who get paid to read beautiful books written in, or translated from, Latin and Greek. I was good at Latin, so I decided to make a career of classical languages and ancient Greek philosophy.

Be careful. If you leave beautiful old books where your teenagers can get at them, they may influence your kids’ career choices.

I chased that star for the next 12 years until it faded in the glow of brighter lights – and these, too, are all associated with books. In the summer before my senior year of high school, my pastor gave me two books of Christian apologetics to read: one was by Edward J. Carnell, and the other was The Defense of the Faithby Cornelius Van Til. It is fashionable for Christians to repudiate Van Tilianism, but I want to acknowledge it as a formative influence on me. Van Til led to Bahnsen and thence to Rushdoony and Steve Schlissel, but these latter three only confirmed the tendencies I had first imbibed from Van Til. This phase lasted roughly from 1992 to 1998, that is, most of my college and the beginning of graduate school. I am not a Reconstructionist or a Theonomist anymore, but I am thankful that through Van Til and his followers I came to appreciate the Reformed faith and paedocommunion (especially through Ray Sutton and Gary North’s Geneva Papers on the topic). I am an Anglican now, and have been for nearly a decade, but I still consider paedocommunion near the core of my theology, and I still consider myself a Calvinist.

In March of 2000, I paid a visit to Steve Schlissel in Brooklyn, bringing my then-fiancée whom he had introduced to me. During that visit, the Rev. Schlissel gave me a book that was to prove the next “paradigm shaker” in my life: it was Klaas Schilder’s Extra-Scriptural Binding: a New Danger. Schilder wrote it to urge that the Liberated Reformed who had emigrated to Canada during WW II should not need to form a new church, but should be able to join with the Protestant Reformed Churches of Herman Hoeksema. In urging this, Schilder had to argue against the hypercalvinist declarations of that other body of churches. And so, Extra-Scriptural Binding introduced me, in a way that the Reconstructionists never had, to the concept of God’s covenant, as distinct from his decrees or from questions of inner heart regeneration. Schilder’s book prevented me from ever entertaining Puritanism or the views of Jonathan Edwards and his modern heirs (e.g. John Piper). I came to see the Covenant as the reality with which I had to do. This, unlike regeneration of hearts or eternal decrees of election, was a knowable way of relating to God. I had become a Federal Vision “heretic” in the year 2000, two years before the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference introduced the Reformed world to that so-called heresy.

There followed some of the happiest years of my life, in which Sora and I had a bunch of kids and lived in cheerful penury on my grad student stipend and some extra pay I earned as a writing tutor. Paedocommunion and the covenant led us to leave the PCA and find other like-minded Reformed folks to worship with in the FORC. In hindsight, we were far too ideologically driven and had imbibed some ideas that I now think were wrong (e.g. the “Quiverfull” position against contraception), but we had a sense of purpose and pride (not always godly) in what we were doing. And the future seemed rosy, because, after all, I was going to graduate with an Ivy league PhD in Classics, and surely I would succeed where my father, with his lowly IU (Bloomington) degree in the same subject, had failed. This was a piece of foolish snobbery that led to some further bad decisions, and resulted, ultimately, in more comeuppance and the deferral of the coveted professorship to some future generation of Colvins to chase if they choose. (I was half horrified to hear one of Ezekiel’s teachers tell me today that he thinks he might become a professor.)

I suspect that the real problem was a failure to chase the goal with singlemindedness. And the cause was, again, books. This time, they were by two authors. The first was N. T. Wright. Mark Horne had recommended him to me in 2002, and I immediately checked out all the books I could find by him from the Cornell University library: Jesus and the Victory of God, The New Testament and the People of God, and The Climax of the Covenant. I neglected my dissertation shamefully, caught up in the heady rush of paradigm shifts as Wright changed how I read one passage of Scripture after another. Yet despite the changes in my exegesis, or in the way I thought about Jesus, I found Wright all the more delightful because, as Mark Horne put it, “You won’t have to abandon anything you believe right now.” He was right. None of my most tightly held beliefs – in the sovereignty of God, in the covenant, in paedocommunion – were at all threatened by Wright’s works. Rather, their effect was simultaneously to confirm me in those views (which may or may not have been a good thing) and to enchant me with a more vivid, more plausible, more real Jesus (and this was definitely a good thing). His then-two (now three) big books on Jesus might be summarized as “a reading of the New Testament in light of preterism and politics.” It was utterly convincing, and I would never again be satisfied with using the Bible the way I had used it before. I had been in the habit of studying Scripture in order to prove theological or ideological points, but I was ignorant of the bigger picture. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school, after reading all manner of Greek literature from Homer to Marcus Aurelius for 5 years, that I finally got around to reading the Greek New Testament cover to cover. (I say this to my shame.) I had bought it in Rome at Herder’s bookstore in 1996, and it was now 2002. God’s timing is perfect: if I had discovered Wright in 1998 or 1999, I would have quit grad school in Classics and chased New Testament studies instead. He evidently wanted me to finish that PhD in Classics, and then debouch into other things. But if God didn’t want me to have the career in Classics that I envisioned, He has also used those years of study for purposes I could not have imagined at the time. I have never regretted it.

I discovered another author at the same time, when researching the Passover seder to which my Jewish wife had introduced me. David Daube did not have an overarching thesis like Wright did. Instead, his effect was a cumulative one: without arguing for it as a conclusion, his hundreds of articles on “New Testament Judaism” left me with the firm conviction that the most persuasive and powerful arguments are not those that provide logical proof of abstract theological propositions, but those that draw on history and law to clear up puzzles and cruces in the text. Daube also changed my sacramentology permanently, persuading me that the meaning and function of the Lord’s Supper must be sought in Jewish sources, and not in the speculations and arguments of theologians whose views were concocted in comparative ignorance of the cultural and religious milieu of 2nd Temple Judaism. Because of Daube, my way of reading and studying the Bible changed. If Wright showed me the ecosystem of the forest that is Second Temple Judaism, Daube fascinated me even more with a close look at the individual trees, leaves, and chloroplasts. Henceforward, the Presocratic philosophers, Plato, and even Homer would have comparatively little fascination to me, and a career of studying them and writing about them certainly had no attraction any longer. The Bible beckoned, along with the vast unexplored country of Jewish sources. On the brink of leaving Cornell with a PhD in classics, my greatest regret was that I had not learned Hebrew and Aramaic.

Yet I did finish that Classics PhD and was hired mostly on the strength of it to teach at a Classical Christian school in Cincinnati, Mars Hill Academy. I spent 8 years there, with a year off for our adventure on Texada Island. (But that is another story, with a great deal of unedifying sin in it; and it does not really connect with the history of my paradigm shifts.) MHA was good to our family in many ways, even if we were an awkward fit for its largely Presbyterian and Baptist theological climate. I was well compensated and our kids had some wonderful teachers. Most importantly, however, in the course of moving to Cincinnati to work at MHA, I ended up at a parish of the Reformed Episcopal Church. At the time, I was not an episcopalian. Sora had joined the REC as her first church after her conversion in 1998, and she was baptized in it as an adult convert. She knew the Scripture-saturated liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, and was glad to have it again. But I came to the REC as a sort of pis aller: no matter how much I disliked bishops or the Book of Common Prayer at the time, the REC was the only church I could find in Cincinnati that would give my 3 kids the Lord’s Supper. It was a Providential choice: the REC has certainly smoothed some of my rougher edges and made a churchman out of this former ideologue. It has also claimed my life and work in the service of its liturgical, historic Anglican faith.

During my third to last semester at MHA, in spring of 2011, I read another book that changed my thinking and helped set us off on another course: James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom was recommended to me by my diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Morse. It is a popular-level philosophy book, sketching an anthropology in which desires and loves are more important to human life and action than ideas and arguments. Smith’s book is an attack on cognitivism and Cartesianism, a broadside against the sorts of Christianity that focus on thinking as though it were the most powerful and central mode of formation — both formation of world views and formation of disciples. (To borrow a phrase from Richard Weaver, this “Ideas have consequences” pattern has characterized American evangelicalism from Francis Schaeffer to Focus on the Family’s Del Tackett.)

Smith also urges us to consider the Christian faith as far more a matter of formation than of information, and points out that formation (of character, of identity, of relationships, of societies) happens mostly by rituals, habits, and our senses. I excitedly shared some of these insights with my students in Senior Thesis class, urging upon them that such a perspective would be helpful in answering some of their own questions: how do video games affect us? Should Christians read horror stories? Should we make pictures and movies about Jesus? If so, how? Are fictional stories true in some sense that transcends factual veracity? Senior thesis topics tended to be rich in questions about how worldviews are formed and acted on; in short, the sorts of questions that are more productively and persuasively answered by Smith’s approach. I also submitted Smith’s book to the academic dean in hopes that it would be approved for use in the Senior Worldview class. (It was not. It hit a little too close to home.) Smith’s arguments were persuasive to me, not least because they fit perfectly with paedocommunion and with the sort of liturgically rich, symbol-laden Christianity that I was practicing in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

More recently, I have been reading scholarship on the Jewish background of the NT: men like Gustaf Dalman, Paul Billerbeck, and David Instone-Brewer. I’ve also benefited from Richard Bauckham’s work on New Testament Christology, about which I have been blogging lately.

There are some conspicuous names missing from this spiritual autobiography: having been Reformed, and a Federal Visionist, how is it that I do not count James B. Jordan, Peter Leithart, and Doug Wilson among my paradigm-shifting authors? Partly this is historical accident: I just happen not to have come to my views by reading them. I have found Leithart very helpful, and I recommend his books to others, especially Against Christianity and The Priesthood of the Plebs. Jordan, by contrast, is an acquired taste that I still have not acquired — though ironically, I am most appreciative of his most controversial work: his “Tentative Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration” was quite persuasive to me, and deserves a brief mention as filling in some of the gaps in my soteriology and exorcizing some unbiblical assumptions that I had imbibed from other writers. But it wasn’t a full-fledged paradigm shift. As for Wilson, some of my friends are indebted to him for converting them from baptist thinking. But I have never been a baptist, while Wilson was, and in many ways still is one. He has always seemed to me to be, not an exegete of the Scriptures, but a popularizer of deeper thinkers’ ideas. He has also resisted what are to my mind the most beneficial conclusions of Leithart, Jordan, and N.T. Wright.

I should add that there have also been a few paradigm shifts that were not brought about by books, but by the steady, patient friendship of a few men. Chief among these is Bishop Peter Manto, who made an Anglican of me by the oblique, non-confrontational method of praying with me and shepherding me for ten years. He has, with his refrain that Jesus is “the new way of being human”, also showed me a new way of being Christian. And that was a paradigm shift that I could only have learned from a living example, because it is not a set of propositions or a method of reading, but a way of life.


  1. Thanks, this was helpful. (And yes, I read the whole thing!)

  2. Interesting to find out more about your background and journey. Thanks!

    • It occurs to me that the timing of some of these books may have been important. They mostly hit me at points of major transition: just before graduating from high school, just after marriage, just before leaving grad school, just before quitting my old job to become a missionary.

  3. Added a few books to my wishlist. Thanks, Matt!

  4. […] 12. Surprised By Paradigm Shifts […]

  5. I certainly resonate deeply with various parts of your story. Mark Horne was my friend and roommate in college, and we went through Van Til and the reconstructionists together. While they certainly have some problems, I really haven’t come across other Christian authors who take the OT as seriously as, say, Gary North has.

    just in general, I also think about what I was reading when. Like your Dune/Handel confluence, I remember reading Stephen Donaldson’s The Wounded Land and having a Philip Glass piece stuck in my read the whole time I was reading it. This piece here:

    N T Wright played a very similar role to me as he did to you. Suddenly Jesus became a lot more vivid and specific and I found myself asking questions about his life that had never occurred to me before.

  6. Matt, you once posted an account of your interactions with Jon Barlow that lead to changing your mind w/r/t/ the quiverful movement. I couldn’t find it in your archives. Is it gone? If so, could you post it again? If not, would you be willing to send it to me privately via my email address associated with this comment?

  7. I did mention some of the influences that changed my mind here:

  8. So, am I remembering wrong? I could have sworn you had a post that went into detail about your interaction w/ Jon Barlow. Iirc, you cited some of his pragmatic arguments, e.g. that having more children inherently means you have less individual time you can spend with any one child.

    • Yes, I remember that too! but I’m not finding it. I will check again when I get home tonight since I have most of my old Upsaid blog downloaded onto my Mac.

      • Hi Matt,

        I’m rather late posting on this, but I’d be interested in seeing that interaction too, if you ever found it. The issue is a rather live one for me at the moment, so I’d be interested to see what changed your mind, if possible.

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