When I first went to Regent in 1981 to begin my theological studies, James Houston was no longer the principal. He was the founding principal but, by then, had taken on the role of Professor of Spiritual Theology. I took only two classes with him, Christian Spirit, which was a core course, and a guided study on spirituality. We caught up yesterday (15th November) when Bernice and I had the privilege of taking him to lunch.
As we chatted I realised that he had impacted me much more than I had realised; much more than one would expect from two courses. Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me since his influence would have been integrated into the DNA of the school as a whole. He mentioned that three convictions undergirded his life and his approach to ministry at Regent.
First was the concept of the “mere Christian”, a conviction he shared with his friend C. S. Lewis.
“Mere Christianity” was the term C. S. Lewis employed to describe essential Christianity—those core Christian beliefs held through the ages by Catholics and Protestants alike. What most people don’t realize is that Lewis adapted this term from an author who wrote more than three hundred years ago. The author’s name was Richard Baxter, and his writings on the “essentials” of Christianity provide a useful background to the views articulated by Lewis. (John G. West, “Richard Baxter and the Origin of ‘Mere Christianity,'” Discovery Institute, January 1, 1996.)
Regent thus became transdenominational. She respected the place of different church traditions but avoided unnecessary denominationalism. I learnt from teachers and fellow students that included Pentecostals, Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Brethren, and Presbyterians among others. They were loyal to their traditions but I saw in them a prior commitment to Christ and His Word.
Next was the conviction that mind and heart should be applied to every discipline in life. One did not confine “heart” to theology and “mind” to heart surgery, for example. Followers of Christ should bring faith and intelligence to whatever God has called them to do. Houston writes in his book Joyful Exiles:
We have taken on the norms of the secular professional life, forgetting that the early fathers never separated sanctity from scholarship or Christian character from religious action. Christian scholarship cannot be egoistic. It must remain critical, but its purpose is also to be compassionate. (Joyful Exiles, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006], 134.)
This focus on integration, the rejection of any sacred-secular divide, is a key feature of the Regent vision. She wasn’t a school that just prepared clergy for the church. Regent wanted to help all Christians live out their faith in all of life.
Third, Houston was passionate about reminding believers that their primary identity was in Christ, not in the roles they had to play in life. He writes in Joyful Exiles:
I gave my heart to the Lord as a small child and was baptized by my own choice at twelve years old, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I deliberately chose to find my identity completely in Christ. It was then that 2 Timothy 1:12 became so meaningful for me: “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him” (NRSV). Previously, I assumed that verse meant I had entrusted my soul to Christ in the event of my death. Now I reinterpreted it to mean that I committed my day-to-day identity to him. I could then experience the profound joy and peace that comes with being found in Christ as Paul states (Phil 3:8-9). (Joyful Exiles, 108.)
One of the key elements of my teaching is the challenge to Christians to remember that our primary identity is “child of God” and how so many things flow out of that realisation. Again I see the influence of Dr Houston.
As Dr Houston reminded us of the three cardinal convictions for his life and ministry, it struck me how I had assimilated those same convictions and how they had become a part of me. I may not use the exact same words and I would have drawn out different implications but I could see them clearly in who I am and in what I do. Friends who have been exposed to my ministry through the years would have seen my focusing on the core of the faith and my willingness to share and to learn from those of other church traditions; my passion to break down the sacred-secular divide, to see the faith lived out in all of life; and my constant harping that Christians are first and foremost children of the living God and all the implications of that core identity.
Is this hero worship? I like to think not. Dr Houston is also committed to the Word of God properly interpreted as the final test of truth. I have tested and continue to test these three convictions with the yardstick of Scripture and they pass. And perhaps another test of truth is what happens to those who live by those truths, and here is Dr Houston at 93 still passionate about God and His mission, still committed to blessing lives through his teaching and mentoring, and still trusting in Him through the joys and pains of life.
There is a further conviction of Houston’s that animates Bernice and myself — the belief that, finally, ministry must be personal. Houston writes:
I believe that, rather than professional pursuits or even writing meaningful books, the prime action of our lives is the face-to-face encounter with others, bringing God’s presence into their lives by being “living epistles,” as the apostle puts it. Daily interruptions while working provide a continual reminder that thinking is meaningless without action, indeed that action is meaningless without the cultivation of friendships. (Joyful Exiles, 177.)
This conviction underlies the ministry of Graceworks. We want to promote spiritual friendship in church and society because we believe that lives are changed through walking with friends. It was good to be reminded of this as we had lunch with our friend.