October 22, 2017

Alastair “Adversaria” Roberts: The IM Interview

ar.jpg1. Let’s start with the essential bio: Who are you, where are you, how’d you get there and what are you doing with yourself?

Most people who know me will know me from my blog, Alastair.Adversaria, which I created shortly after I started studying in the University of St. Andrews, in October 2005. Before I moved to my present blog, I posted at 40Bicycles and the relatively short-lived Sacramental Blog. 40Bicycles was my first blog and was started in September 2003. I am a 26 year old student, in the third year of a four year M.Theol. course in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Outside of term time I spend much of my time in the city of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England.

My name is Alastair Roberts. One of the amusing things over the past few years has been observing the various spellings of my name that have been used in the blogosphere. There are over thirty different variant spellings of Alastair and there are a number of well-known Alastairs in Christian circles — Alister McGrath, Alasdair MacIntyre, Alistair Begg, etc. The fact that just about every Alastair spells his name differently is somewhat annoying and so I am not at all offended when people spell my name wrongly.

I was born in Worcester, England, but was raised in the town of Clonmel in the Republic of Ireland, where my father was involved in planting a (Reformed Baptist) church. I was blessed with a Christian upbringing in a context in which I was exposed to people from a wide range of church backgrounds. From my earliest childhood my parents devoted much time to teaching me the Scriptures. I continue to benefit from the fruits of their efforts in this area to the present day.

In my teen years I began to turn my back on the faith and later suffered from chronic fatigue, which interrupted my education for a few years (one of the reasons why I am still an undergraduate). I had a number of very dark years, at the end of which time I turned back to God. However, I suffered an immense struggle in coming to assurance of salvation, something which shaped much of my early studies in theology. The relationship between theology and Christian experience has always been an important issue for me.

Towards the end of 2000 I was invited by a friend to meet with him and a couple of cult members who were coming into his halls and trying to get people to join their group. It was this that really forced me to start studying theology for the first time. I first began to study theology for myself at the start of 2001 and it wasn’t long before I became a convinced (and occasionally rather obnoxious) TULIPist. I devoured Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, a book from which my first theological opinions were forged. Shortly after, I started to get into Cornelius Van Til and then moved from Van Til into the Reconstructionist writers. After I had read almost everything that Gary North et al had ever written there came a point when I stepped back and realized that my diet of theological reading had been doing me no spiritual good and I needed to balance things out a bit more. Without rejecting their positions, I put the Reconstructionists back on the shelf and started to read Calvin, who did me a lot of good. When I returned to the Reconstructionists a few years later I no longer found many of their positions convincing.

In 2001 I had started a degree in Maths and Philosophy. However, by the end of the year I realized that Philosophy was not my subject. I loved the Maths and considered changing from Philosophy to Politics or English, but in the end my increased interest in Theology made me decide to go to Bible college instead. In 2002 I started studying at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales and did a couple of years there. During this time I began to read far more widely. Through reading articles on Mark Horne’s Theologia website, and listening to the AAPC 2002 lectures, my theological understanding went through a massive transformation. I was blessed with two or three friends at the college who were undergoing a similar theological journey to my own. A friend of mine who was studying for a Ph.D. at the college introduced me to the work of N.T. Wright and challenged me to read James Jordan (the one Reconstructionist I had never really understood or appreciated).

I rapidly found my theology diverging in various ways from that of the Reformed evangelical context in which I found myself. After two years in ETCW I had undergone a huge theological paradigm shift, which closed most of the options for serving in the evangelical context in which I had been raised and in which I still felt that I belonged. I lacked direction and was depressed and disillusioned. I decided to put my studies on hold for a year and get a regular job. Full time work was a relief after a few years of study and during this time I became convinced that I should study theology at a more academic level. At the end of that year I decided to take up my studies again. I was not accepted at my first choice university and decided to go to the University of St. Andrews instead. I haven’t regretted that decision since.

I have three younger brothers — Jonathan (24), Mark (22) and Peter (16) — who are often mentioned on my blog and occasionally leave sarcastic comments under my posts. They are probably my best friends. I enjoy reading, travelling, walking, playing board games, watching films, cooking, football and cricket. I have also been known to knit jumpers from time to time. I am also an incredibly gifted timewaster.

2. If you didn’t say so in the previous question, what are preparing to do vocationally?

At the moment I am intending to go into academia. This will necessitate a number of more years in university, which depresses me somewhat. However, convinced of the value of committed Christian academics to bring the Church and the academy into dialogue, I am sure that this will prove to be time well spent.

In the past I have planned to teach theology in a British context. However, over the last couple of years I have been wondering whether it might be better to work towards teaching theology on the mission field. I have always had a concern for missions (most of my brothers are also considering vocations in a mission field context; my parents, maternal grandparents and a number of other relatives were missionaries) and the need for theological training for pastors in a more pioneer context is great. I would appreciate prayer that, wherever I end up, God will provide me with the strength to work to the best of my ability and glorify Him in my efforts.

3. By reading your blog, I have astutely concluded that you are a cricket fan. How does cricket fit into your overall worldview?

A French philosopher once remarked that the English, being an essentially non-religious people, invented cricket to give themselves a sense of eternity. There is probably more truth in this than we would like to admit. It is only the English that could invent a game that could last for five days and end in a draw.

Cricket is a game that forces the spectator to think in long time spans. It is not without good reason that N.T. Wright has used a cricket match as an illustration of what it means to live in a big story. England’s present Ashes tour (the ‘Ashes’ are competed for by England and Australia), for example, started in early November; the team will not return from Australia until the middle of February. The Test matches themselves (five five-day matches that determine who leaves with the ‘Ashes’) took place over a period of about a month and a half. The drama of cricket is far more subtle than the drama of most other sports, which consist largely of spectacle. The difference between watching cricket and watching most other sports is like the difference between listening to a full symphony and listening to a bouncy but brief pop song. Those who are patient enough to understand the complexity of the sport and follow the progress of a match will be rewarded with levels of drama and tension that cannot be found within most other sports (entertaining as they may be on other levels).

Patience and delayed gratification are hard virtues to come by in a world where everything is expected to be instantaneous. The value of a sport that encourages such virtues should be obvious. A sport that attunes us to levels of deeper levels of drama will also help us in our understanding of the biblical narrative, as the drama of Scripture is not generally that of the brief spectacle. A Test match is not won in one day, although a strong performance can turn a match decisively. Matches are seldom won by the impatient.

I have learnt from cricket that we should not expect to solve the problems in the Church in ninety minutes. We live within a long story and we must play our role within it. It is doubtful that we will live to see the results of our efforts (I suspect that we still live in the early stages of the history of the Christian Church). We must be closely attuned to the times in which we live. Patience and timing will prove to be better than hurried and unconsidered action in the long run, and we should be all about the long run. We cannot afford to do things too quickly or to push towards results prematurely. We may be called to play the role of a ‘nightwatchman’ in the context of a church that is rejecting the truth. We may not be the people who will turn things around, but we may be called to hold the ground while we wait for them to be ready (I think of people such as Simeon and Anna just prior to the coming of Christ). On the other hand, we might be in a situation where we have a singular opportunity to turn things around, before things are too far gone. In such a case we must courageously and selflessly seize the day.

Cricket is not just a game; it is a way of looking at the world. That’s my claim, and I’m sticking by it. 😉

4. You’re an exceptional writer. Do you have any writers that particularly inspire you as an author?

Thank you for the compliment; I hope that someday I will be more deserving of it.

Peter Leithart is most probably the writer who has inspired and affected me the most. Against Christianity was a book that caught me at exactly the right time and sparked my thinking in a way that no other book has done since. It was after reading Against Christianity that I decided to start a blog. I learn by writing and Against Christianity left me with many things that I wanted to explore and find out more about. Leithart’s own blog went public at about the same time. Having long been frustrated with sound-proofed disciplinary boundaries, I find the manner in which Leithart’s work brings so many distinct disciplines together in a lively dialogue incredibly refreshing. The brilliance of the insights that often result from Leithart’s approach has inspired me in my own writing and convinced me of the value of the new eyes that wise scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds can give us on old problems.

As most of my writing takes place on my blog, I think that it is only right that I mention some of the bloggers that particularly inspire me. I have a great respect and appreciation for the work of Joel Garver. In the context of the blogosphere there are few things harder than keeping a level head and writing with balance and charity. As I struggle (and frequently fail) to keep my rather volatile nature under control, I admire Joel’s restraint, his ability to acknowledge both sides of an issue, his avoidance of inflammatory rhetoric, and his gift of writing insightful critiques tempered with charity. I wish that there were more like him.

Another blogger that particularly inspires me is Dennis Hou. Dennis is a few years younger than me, but has read quite a bit more widely. Dennis’ blog generally consists of occasional comments and thoughts, rather than extended treatments of particular subjects. The blog itself is an ugly Xanga blog, but the quality of the content more than makes up for the failings in presentation. Dennis’ comments scintillate with fresh insight. Reading other blogs one soon finds that posts quickly fail into well-worn grooves, as the same tired arguments are wheeled out again and again. I have been guilty of posting stale material myself on many occasions. Dennis, however, consistently writes with flair and originality and for this I greatly admire him.

5. Why and how is N.T. Wright affecting younger theologians today? Include yourself in that answer.

I suspect that one of the chief reasons for N.T. Wright’s affect on younger theologians today has to do with the fresh encounters that he gives us with the Scriptures. No other theologian in my reading — excepting only James Jordan — has excited me as much about the Gospels and epistles as Wright has. Wright’s work has encouraged me to read, reread and re-reread the New Testament. Wright’s work is full of insight and he considerably broadens the horizons of the New Testament theology that many of us were previously operating within. Wright presents his readers with a big story in which dimensions of Jesus and Paul that many earlier theologies had not taken full cognizance of are more clearly illuminated.

Where many older NT theologies sought to create and defend a timeless and austere theological edifice, Wright’s theology operates in terms of a big and dramatic narrative. Wright’s focus on the big story of redemptive history is something that is often lacking in traditional Protestant readings of Paul. Wright’s big story also allows him to, among other things, bring the Gospels and Epistles into a closer relationship. Once one begins to see the NT in the light of a large redemptive historical narrative, just about everything looks different and many things that once appeared confusing begin to make sense.

When it comes to Pauline theology, many Reformed treatments read like full-dress re-enactments of the theological battles of yore. They go to great lengths to attempt to score rhetorical points against theological enemies that, in many cases, no longer face us. Wright makes a welcome change from this. Wright has observed that, as readers of Paul, we are all affected by the cultural background from which we approach the text. What we see in the text will always be affected to some extent by the world from which we come. The text will resonate in different ways in different cultures and times in history. Wright has claimed that the Reformers all too often read their debates with the Roman Catholic Church into the text and failed to hear Paul’s fundamental message, concentrating too much on the particular resonances that his message had for their day and age. Reformed readings of Paul are all too often sixteenth and seventeenth century readings of Paul. They treat the particular sixteenth and seventeenth century resonances of the book of Romans as if they were its essential message.

Wright’s work challenges this tendency and, by exploring the original context and message of books such as Romans, enables the text to resonate in fresh and surprising ways within our contemporary context. Reading many traditional Reformed readings of Romans after having read Wright, one is struck by how tired and stale they appear. They contain much truth, but it does not have the relevance or electricity that Wright’s work has. In encouraging us to re-read Paul for ourselves as twenty-first century theologians, I believe that Wright is having a considerable affect on younger theologians.

6. I’m always impressed that you see beyond what some of us call “the Calvinist-Arminian” pi…..uh…spitting contests. Since there is certainly a resurgence of reformed theology these days, what is the danger of getting “stuck” in those debates?

The fact that many ‘Calvinists’ define themselves primarily in terms of TULIP is deeply regrettable for many different reasons. Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this tendency is that it generally involves defining the Reformed faith over against some putative theology called ‘Arminianism’. Defending the Reformed faith comes to be seen in terms of defending the absolute distinction that exists between ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ as antithetical theologies. The stronger one’s commitment to Reformed orthodoxy, the stronger must be one’s opposition to ‘Arminianism’. Quite apart from the extreme caricaturing of the beliefs of Arminians that this encourages, such an approach militates against any attempt on the part of Reformed Christians to recognize important common ground between themselves and Arminians. It also militates against any attempt on our part to work towards new and biblical ways of framing our theological convictions that may even allow for the defusing and transcending of historical disagreements.

I have a deep respect and appreciation for the Reformed tradition and I believe that it is important that we keep faith with those who have gone before us. I do not believe, however, that keeping faith with those who came before us involves a commitment to the permanent continuation of the ecclesiastical and theological wars that they started. Whilst we ought not to abandon the biblical truths that they stood for, we should recognize that it is often possible either fully or partially to resolve such conflicts, without making such a sacrifice. It has long been my conviction that many of the problems in debates between Arminians and Calvinists boil down to the fact that we have been asking the wrong questions and that there may be new and biblical ways of framing our debates which would allow for a far less antithetical relationship between the positions. I am convinced that the true heirs of the Reformers are more likely to be found among those who seek for biblical ways beyond theological disputes, rather than among hotheads who find their theological purpose in holding onto the bitterness of old conflicts.

The danger of getting ‘stuck’ in such debates is that we may fail to explore the potential of the Reformed faith. I believe that many Arminians have valid and biblical concerns about the Reformed faith. That they seek to defend their biblical convictions in terms of a suspect theological system is regrettable. Rather than condemning them and alienating such people, I would counsel young Reformed theologians to listen carefully to such people’s concerns and to attempt to take them on board, where those concerns are biblical. Often Arminians are giving a voice to dimensions of the Scripture’s teaching that have been silenced by many Reformed theologies. For this reason alone, it is very important that we pay attention to what they are saying. I would like to see us working towards theological formulations that have been tempered by the criticisms of such people, but which continually seek to remain faithful to the Scriptures and the insights of the Reformed tradition. Working from what I see to be essentially Reformed theological convictions I would like to work towards the construction of a theology that takes the biblical concerns of such people on board to the extent that they no longer regard Reformed theology as a threat and our differences are minimized as much as is possible without the sacrifice of biblical convictions.
I believe that such a process of engagement with Arminians (and other theological traditions for that matter), far from compromising the Reformed faith, will end up greatly enriching it.

7. Imagine that you are able to direct the reading of a young student just starting out in serious theological study. What writers or books would you assign to orient him or her to fruitful and productive understanding of the Bible?

There is no substitute for detailed knowledge of the text of Scripture itself. I would advise such a young student to read the Bible a number of times through and to learn certain passages by heart, before starting to really engage with the theologians. Listening to the Bible on CD or cassette is one of the things that have greatly helped me to come to a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures.

When it comes to orienting a young student to ‘fruitful and productive understanding of the Bible’ I cannot recommend the work of James Jordan and Peter Leithart highly enough. I read Jordan a number of times before I really began to appreciate him. However, it was worth waiting for. Jordan’s book Through New Eyes and his many audio lectures, newsletters and online articles encouraged me to read the Bible in a totally new way. It was Jordan who taught me to engage my imagination in my reading of Scripture. It was Jordan who first alerted me to the fact that reading Scripture well is more of an art than a science. Jordan’s approach to interpreting the Scripture has opened up numerous aspects of the Scriptures that I had never appreciated before.

8. One of my premises about understanding the various reformed “teams” in America is to note their attitude toward Roman Catholicism in particular and the concept of catholicity in general. How do you see reformed Christianity relating to the wider larger Christian family, and Roman Catholicism in particular?

I am strongly in favour of principled ecumenism in our relationships with Roman Catholicism and other Christian traditions. Principled ecumenism is not interested in sacrificing biblical concerns in order to create a false unity. It is not interested in lowest common denominator compromises or in sweeping our distinctives under the carpet. In my experience, it is often in the articulation of my deepest concerns that I am brought closest together with Christians in other traditions. Principled ecumenism seeks to work towards a biblical unity with people from other theological and ecclesiastical backgrounds and to sustain a dialogue in which our concerns and differences can be expressed and talked through. Such approaches can be incredibly fruitful and often lead to an appreciation of how close we are to each other. We will also often find that such engagement brings to the surface certain dimensions of the biblical message that have been neglected to some degree or other within our own traditions.

However, substantial differences often remain on issues of biblical importance. In such situations a principled ecumenism should not refrain from addressing the issues head on. I believe that such issues exist between Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians. Not all of our differences can be resolved by merely coming to a better understanding of each other, important as such a process is. Whilst I find the demonization of Roman Catholicism deeply troubling, I am equally troubled by those who would overlook or minimize dangerous errors and imbalances within Roman Catholicism. Principled ecumenism must be driven by Christian charity, not by the suspect contemporary virtue of tolerance. Christian charity does not hesitate to speak unpalatable truths for the good of the neighbour who may be led astray by error.

In most respects I do not rejoice in the Reformation. It is tragic that a division within the Church had to take place. I would love to see Protestantism become obsolete. I long for the day when there is no need to stand against errors within the Roman Catholic Church any longer, when the issues that prompted the Reformation have been properly addressed (and we should remember that there also are errors within Protestantism that must be addressed if unity is to exist). Whilst considerable progress has been made since the sixteenth century, I do not see such a day coming soon. However, I pray and work towards it.

9. Being the Chair of Theology at the Boar’s Head Tavern is quite an accomplishment for a young theologian. What’s next?

I really don’t know. I am hoping to learn the unicycle over the next few months; I am sure that few theologians have done that!

Comments

  1. What is not to like about this guy! If I didn’t already have a son (a wonderful one at that) I would adopt him. I was a Reconstructionist for years. In fact our first vacation was to Tyler Texas to hear Jordan, North, et. al. speak; a fact for which my wife have never forgiven me!

  2. What is not to like about this guy! If I didn’t already have a son (a wonderful one at that) I would adopt him. I was a Reconstructionist for years. In fact our first vacation was to Tyler Texas to hear Jordan, North, et. al. speak; a fact for which my wife have never forgiven me!

    I have also dropped my affiliation with Reconstructionism, but still wear out my copy of Through New Eyes (Jordan’s book). I also admire N. T. and have had the same reaction in terms of reading the New Testament with excitement again.

    I was writing a series of articles on the 70 weeks of Daniel leading up to the stoning of Stephan (as the abomination of desolation) and found Leithart had beat me to the punch in one of his books.

    I look forward to Alastairs contributions to BHT. I must also check out his blog. Congrats Alastair. With that reading list, you are not “behind” your contemporaries by any stretch, no matter what “delays” you encountered in your education. You are light years ahead of most of us.

    God bless.